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The Samaritans


The oldest sect sprung from the Jewish people is the smallest - some four houndred souls.

The Samaritans have shown a remarkable ability to hang on to life even though their numbers have been those of merely a tribe.Their history began with a few thousand and over the centuries they dwindled away to some hundreds.For the past few centuries,since contact was established with European observers, they have grown from a handful back to their present number.Shall we say that here we have another instance of the life-living power of the Torah which has kept alive three groups - the Jews, the Karaites and the Samaritans ?

Let us now examine the history of this sect which will still performs the Passover sacifice and which still uses the original Hebrew script for its holy texts - and with whom Jews may not intermarry.

After the death of King Solomon, ten of the twelve tribes composing his kingdom seceded under the leadership of Jereboam in 931 B.C.E. and set up the separate kingdom of Israel.This kingdom existed until the year 722 B.C.E. when it was destroyed by Shalmaneser, king of Assyria.Now it is important for us to remember that the new capital of the kingdom of Israel was establlished by King Omri, who bought the site from one Shemer.Omri called his capital Shomron, which is linguistically connected with the name Shemer, but can also be taken to mean "a watchplace", since the site is located on a very high hill.Since the founding of the city of Shomron the name Samaria has been associated with that part of Palastine.

Now, after the Assyrian destruction of the kingdom of Israel a certain step was taken by the Assyrian authorities which was characteristic of their policy in conquered lands.They would transfer populations; they would take many people from the conquered land, settle them in a certain part of the Assyrian Empire, and replace them by people brought from other parts of the empire.This was done in order to minimize the possibility of revolts.Being strangers in their new surroundings, the transferred peoples would not know whre to hide, wher to set up ambushes, etc.Therefore, after having killed tens of thousands of Israelites in his attack upon their land, the Assyrian king deported about thirty thousand more.He then brought to Samaria people from five other regions, among them one known as Kutah.This name will be very important in the unfolding of this chronicle.Thus, the people brought to the ruined stretches of the kingdom of Israel bacame known as the Samaritans.

They were settled in a devastated land, where civilization and its amenities had been obliterated.It was not long before the inevitable consequence of war and devastation became apparent; the area began to revert to its original, wild state and wild animals began to appear.The Bible tells us that lions once again roamed the area, attacking and killing the new settlers.The Samaritans took this terrifying manifestation as a sign of God's displeasure with them for being idolworshippers.They asked the Assyrian king to send them one of the exiled Hebrew priests who instruct them in the ways of the Jewish people,so that they could live as Jews.This request was granted and the Samaritans ostensibly became Jews.Nevertheless,we are told in the Bible that they were not completly commited to their new faith."They feared the Lord yet served their own gods,after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away"(2 Kings 17:33).

In the year 586 B.C.E. the destruction of the kingdom of Judah took place.The Temple erected by Solomon was razed and thousands of Judeans were exiled to Babylonia.Fifty years later, after Cyrus the Persian had destroyed the Babylonian empire, he issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to the Holy Land and rebuild their sanctuary.When the building of the Second Temple began, the Samaritans, who considered themselves Jews, stepped forward to offer their assistance in this holiest of enterprises.But they were repulsed by the leadership of the Jewish people with the words: "You have nothing to do with us to build a house unto our God."It was because they were known to be unreliable in their devotion to God that the Samaritans were repulsed.Incensed at this rebuff, the Samaritans spread the slander that the Jews were rebuilding the Temple in order to create a center from which they could rebel against the Persian emperor.So effective was this slander that construction of the Temple was suspended for twenty years.

But this was not yet the end.

When the great leaders Ezra and Nehemia were laboring to renew Jewish life in the Homeland they demanded of their followers unimpeachable loyalty to the principles of Judaism.This meant first and foremost the obliteration of idolatry.They know that a Jew who would come under the influence of a pagan spouse would eventually succumb to the pressures which sought to bring him into the fold of idoltry.Nehemia recalled the sorry fate of the great Solomon to show what spiritual havoc could be wreaked by pagan women:"Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Among many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved of his God and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless even himdid the foreign women cause to sin."(Nehemia 13:26)

Nehemia might also have recalled the malevolent influence of the infamous Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab of Israel.The Jewish leaders were only too keenly aware of what pagan living implied: child-sacrifice, sexual immoralities that destroyed every trace and conscience, exposure of unwanted babies, etc.Such practicies, plus many other horrifying ones, destroyed the fiber of a people; Judaism could not brook such practices in its midst.It was a matter of spiritual life or death to exclude the pagan women from the body of Judaism.

Ezra and Nehemiah therefore demanded of all men who wished to remain part of the community that they divorce their wives if they were not of Jewish stock.Now the leader of the Samaritan community Sanballat had a daughter who was married to the grandson of the then Jewish High Priest.Nehemia insisted that this couple be expelled from the Jewish community.It was thus made brutally clear to the Samaritans that they were not being considered Jews.Retaliation was not long in coming.

When the Samaritans saw themselves equated with the other idol-worshippers at the time that the Temple was being rebuilt they took the schismatic step of setting up their own sanctuary with its own priesthood.Outside the city of Shechem there are two mounts, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.Sanballat led the activity to set up a temple on Mount Gerizim, whose sanctity from that time ti this very day is one of the basic tenets of the Samaritan creed.There also began the process of legitimization of the origins of the Samaritan sect, similar to that which we met in the case of the Karaites.First of all, the Samaritans began to claim that they were descended from the tribe of Manasseh.Secondly, they altered the wording of the Torah in order to make it appear that the commandments were intended for them and not for the others who called themseves Jews.Thus in the Book of Deuteronomy 27:4 we have the verse: "And it shall be when you have passed over the Jordan, that you shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in Mount Ebal."The Samaritan version of the Torah, which together with the book of Joshua, comprises their Bible, has changed the name Ebal to Gerizim.Furthermore, the Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah; once in Exodus, chapter 20 and again in Deuteronomy, chapter 5.In both places the Samaritans have added a verse at the end of the commandments in which they are commanded to build an altar and make sacrifices on Mount Gerizim.The Samaritans also rejected the name of Shomronim, as they are known in Hebrew, and changed the name to Shomrim, which means watchers or guards - testifying to their close observance of the Jewish heritage.Another name they use for themselves is Bnei Israel.The Jews, in retaliation, have insisted, especially in Talmudic literature, upon reminding the Samaritans of their non-Jewish origin by calling them Kutim, from the name of the region from which the largest number were brought by the Assyrian emperor.This name is considered an insult by the Samaritans.

At this point it would be adviseble to examine the nature of the Jewishness of the Samaritan sect.Like the Karaites, they observe the laws of the Torah literally.The meticulousness of their observance won them the praise of the rabbis who said of them: "Whatever precept the Kutim have adopted, they are very strict in the observance thereof, more so than Israelites."(Hullin,4a)However, Purim and Tisha B'Av, being post-Pentateuch, are not observed by them.Hanukah, which is post-Biblical, does not exist for them.Their version of the Torah has about 6000 variations from the Jewish version, with most of these changes being of not great significance.Their Torahs and holy books are written in the ancient Hebrew script which was discarded some 2500 years ago.The Samaritan language was a dialect of Aramaic, which by the middle of the seventh century of the present era had ceased to exist.Since that time the Samaritans speak Arabic.The most interesting aspect of the Samaritan ritual is their Passover sacrifice.Since, however, one of their basic points of difference with the Jewish people is their rejection of the Jewish calendar, their observance of the Passover comes about one month later than the traditional holiday.

To come back to the historical aspect.The Samaritans now had their own sanctuary, priesthood and holy writ.Living as they did in a concentrated area, they were easily identifiable.Sanballat was eager to gain adherents for his new faith; he therefore offered such inducements as housing and grants of land to all who come to Samaria and accept the new faith.Samaria did get an increase of population in a very interesting manner: fugitives from justice in the province of Judea would flee to Samaria.We should keep in mind that at this time all of the Near East was part of the Persian Empire and was ruled by provincial governors whose efficiency was not very high.By fleeing from one province to another people who had commited offenses which were not of a capital nature could escape punishment.Hence Samaria became something of a refuge for violators of the law among the Jews.

Far more serious, however, was the active enmity which had developed between the Jews and the Samaritans.While still under Persian domination Palastine had a breathing under the generous king Darius, who had been very friendly to the Jews.After his death the Samaritans saw their opportunity to settle accounts with the Jews.By keeping up a steady campaign of anti-Jewish slander the Samaritans succeeded in having very harsh decrees imposed upon the Jews, which made their political and economic situation unbearable.

The coming of Alexander the Great brought tremendous changes to the Middle East.His empire was divided among his successors, with Palestine passing from the Syrian kingdom to the Egyiptian and back again.It was when Palastine was under the domination of the Syrian Hellenistic kings that the Maccabean revolt took place thus restoring the Jewish kingdom.The Hasmonean family produced a number of strong leaders who seized the opportunity to strengthen the Jewish kingdom as much as possible.One sush personality was Johanan Hyrcanus, who was an outstanding military commander.He saw his people surrounded by three enemies who had to be liquidated: the Edomites, the Transjordanian Hellenes - and the Samaritans.He carried out his design to completion, including the utter destruction of the sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim on the 21 Kislev, 120 B.C.E.So joyous an occasion was this Samaritan defeat in the eyes of the Jewish people that the sages proclaimed the date as one to be marked as a holiday and forbade fasting and eulogies on it.Yet as time went on there developed a very interesting ambivalence in the attitude of the Jews towards the Samaritans.We have quoted above the rabbinic statement praising their devotion to their precepts.One school of Talmudic sages held that they should have the legal status of Jews.But another school held that they were to be considered as non-Jews.The great sage and teacher, Maimonides, sums up for us the legal position of the Kuti (Samaritan).Here is his formulation as it is found in his commentary on the Misnah, Tractate Berachot, end of chapter 8.

At this point we shall explain what is meant by Kutim.They are the people brought by Sennacherib from Kutah who were settled in the cities of Samaria.Scripture tells us concerning them "that they feared the Lord yet served their own gods".It took them a long time to learn the contents of the Torah, which they interpreted literally.Any commandment which they observed, they observed very rigorously.They were considered adherents of the faith, monotheistic, and not given to any form of idol worship, until the sages investigated their practices and found that they consider Mt. Gerizim a holy site. Upon closer study the sages found that the reason for the holy status of Mt. Gerizim was the presence of the image of a dove, and then it became known that they were idol-worshippers.From that time on they were considered as complete gentiles in every respect.Any reference to Kutim that you may find in the Misnah which speaks of them as being superior to the gentiles but on a lower status than the Jews was stated before the above-mentioned investigation.But in the light of the above, as we have stated, they are considered as being on a much lower level than the gentiles.Remember this so that it will not be necessary for us to repeat this principle wherever Kuti is mentioned.

The revelation that the Samaritans were still guilty of idolatry sealed their fate in the eyes of the rabbis.So loathsome were the Samaritans henceforth that all contact was forbidden with them.The rabbis went so far as to decree that their bread and wine were as taboo as the flesh of swine.Another compelling reason for hatred of the Samaritans was their sabotaging of the system of fire signals which announced the beginning of the New Month.Witnesses would come to the rabbinic court in Jerusalem and testify that they had seen the new moon.At that moment a huge bonfire was lit whose flames could be seen from various high points miles away.These lookout points thereupon lit their bonfires and so it went for hundreds of miles,so that within a few hours allthe communities in Palestine and in the countries around it had been informed of the commencement of the New Month.This information was vitally important for the calculation of the holidays occuring within the various months.By setting off misleading beacon fires on various mountain-tops the Samaritans thus threw the observance of the holidays into great confusion.Thus it became necessary for the rabbis to eliminate this method of informing the faraway communities of the beginning of the new month and to substitue couriers instead.Over the centuries the Samaritans usually aided and abetted the enemies of the Jews only when they felt that they were secure.Thus, about the year 165 B.C.E., at the time of the struggle of the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) against the Syrian oppressor Antiochus Epiphanes who sought to foist pagan worship upon the Jews, the Samaritans collaborated with the Syrian king and dedicated their sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim to the god Zeus.In the last two or three dacades before the Jewish rebellion against Rome there were many incidents between the two groups which reflected the great bitter ness existing between them.One of these incidents was extremely grave, as we can judge from the facts: The pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem who came from the Galilee would go by way of Samaria.About twenty years before the destruction of the Temple (which took place in 70 C.E.) a group of pilgrims were set upon by the Samaritans and massacred.The Jews appealedto the Roman governor to do justice;he shrugged off the entire matter.The Jews thereupon decided to take matters into their own hands.Their retaliation against the Samaritans was merciless.When the Samaritans appealed to the same governorfor assistance he allowed the Samaritans to arm and sent Roman soldiers to aid them in punishing the Jews.The situation now became so explosive that it was only with the greatest difficulty that some of the Jewish leaders were able to pacify their people on the grounds that an all-out war against the Romans would mean the utter destruction of the land.By succeeding in their efforts at pacification, the Jewish leadership staved off disaster for twenty years.When the revolt against the Romans did break out in 66 C.E. the Samaritans seemed to sympathize with the Jews.Seventy years later, in the revolt against Hadrian the Samaritans were clearly on the side of the Romans.As a reward, Hadrian rebuilt the Samaritan sanctuary which had lain waste for so many years.It was a piece of poetic irony, however, that in its dying days the Roman Empire destroyed that sanctuary in 484.

At this point we should ask ourselves a question which brings us down to the present time.If the Samaritan sanctuary was subject to so many fluctuations of fate, being built,destroyed, rebuilt and again destroyed - what did the people do when they had no cultic centre?The answer is that they imitated the Jews; they developed the institution of the synagogue.Concurrent with the existence of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (516 B.C.E.-70 C.E.) there developed synagogues throughout the land of Palestine and, of course, in all countries wherever Jews lived.The synagogue was the institution which kept the Jewish people alive.The same has been true for the Samaritans.The only Samaritan synagogues which can be observed today are to be found in Shechem and Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv.For the Passover sacrifice all the Samaritans foregather in Shechem where their High Priest lives and where the sacrifice must take place because of the associations of Mt. Gerizim with the history of the sect.The dogma of the Samaritan sect is summed up in the following paragraph whose style is similar to that of Moslem credo:

My faith is in Thee, Yahve, and in Moses the son of Amram,

Thy servant; and in the Holy Law; and in Mount Gerizim-

Beth-El (The House of God); and in the Day of Vengeance and


We should like to point out that on the whole the history of the Samaritans has not been a happy one.They have been subjected to a great deal of persecution by an assortment of kings and invaders.Their economic status has been a depressed one for most of their history because the land in which they were mainly concentrated was an extremely poor one.In Israel the Samaritans have found new opportunities which should do much to ease their lot.Let us hope that the new spirit of tolerance in which they live will heal the wounds of history.

the slant of the Samaritans (link)