Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Shomronim Pesach - Samaritan Passover

Long Post Ahead...by Jameel and Lurker.

Last week I left work early, drove some friends home, picked up one of my kids, some neighbors, grabbed my camera and M16, and we drove to Har Greizim -- Mount Greizim, to see the Shomronim (Samaritans) celebrate their Passover.

A quick background note; Samaritans are not Jews, but their are similarities between the religions. I've blogged about them many times before (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and have visited them on Sukkot as well. Their entire community, worldwide, is about 750 people, split between living in a neighborhood on Har (Mount) Greizim, and a neighborhood in Holon.

Har Greizim is just a few minutes away from the "Har Bracha" Jewish settlement and overlooks the Arab neighborhoods of Shechem, while Holon a city in the Southern part of Greater Tel-Aviv. (Thanks Mark! :)

What makes their Pesach ceremony so interesting is that they continue the Passover tradition of sacrificing a lamb and roasting it. When the family sits down to eat it afterward, they also hold a "seder" of sorts, although not using the formal text used by Jews. One of the Samaritans preparing the lambs for roasting told us that during the meal, they actively encourage their children to ask questions about why the sacrifice is performed, and why various aspects of it are done in the specific ways that they're done. They encourage these questions, he said, in order to enable the fulfillment of the commandment in the Torah to tell one's children about the exodus from Egypt: "And you shall tell your son on that day" ("והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא"). I could not help but be struck by the fact that this is the very same thing that we do, in Jewish tradition, with our children on the night of the seder -- and for the exact same reason.

Since security has been better in the Shomron area of the West Bank, this year over 6000 visitors came to observe. Only Shomronim and VIPs are allowed in the enclosed, fenced in section, where the actual sacrifices and take place.

The VIPs included the media, IDF soldiers and officers, Israeli politicians, Palestinian Authority politicians, medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent, paramedics from Magen David Adom, Israeli police officers, and those with "proteczia" (friends in the right places). Next time I go, I plan on getting VIP access as well.

Its taken forever to upload these photos to blogger due to Google-related problems, but here they are. Video coming soon as well.


From my vantage point, atop a concrete pillar, I had a decent view. Not perfect, but good enough for these pictures.

The Samaritans dressed in white; caps, overalls, and even white rubber boots. Some had red Fez hats instead.
Samaritan kids were running around everywhere; throwing wood into the fire pits (as some older Samaritans grumbled at them for "wasting" wood -- reminded me of Lag Baomer pyromania). The kids here were raking around dirt...which would be used later. Unfortunately, I noticed quite a few Samaritan kids with birth defects -- most probably a result of a narrow gene pool, since the Samaritan community is so closed.

One of the Samaritan cohen/priests talking to the media that was allowed in.

This Samaritan, named "Nur" ("light") was rather animated talking the the crowd outside the fence. He showed us his knife (kept in his boot) which he was going to use to sacrifice his lamb. In his enthusiam, Nur told the curious crowd all sorts of things, although some of them conflicted with things that Yefet HaKohen (a Samaritan priest and curator of the Samaritan museum) had told us. For example; he said that infants aged 1 day have to fast on Yom Kippur, according to Samaritan law. However, Yefet told us that children fast only when they no longer nurse. Nur told us that the Samaritian commandments from their Torah are all kept devoutly by all. When I curiously asked him about "Tefillin" -- he got rather annoyed at me and walked off. Yet Yefet told us that the Samaritans had lost the mesora (heritage) of Tefillin. While they also lost the heritage of a "Tallit", they borrowed it from the Jews...and their High Priest, Cohen Gadol even wore one at their ceremony.

Some of the women wore red robes over their white clothes. I wonder if this had any specific significance (were they "impure" and that's why they wore them?)

See the kids starting to heard the animals from the left hand side. The fire pits were 3 on each side.

Shlepping an unwilling animal.

You can see the crowds standing on rooftops...more red-robed Samaritan women below.

To the right, was the actual area where the Samaritan High Priest would lead his congregation's ceremony. The internal, covered, gated area here was for VIPs and others from the Samaritan community.

The crowd then recited about 15 minutes worth of prayers, which included the Shma, and probably Halell as well. As soon as the sun set, the High Priest gave the signal, and everyone slaughtered their animal at the same time. One movement of the knife, and the animal was killed. Immediately afterward, the Samaritans rejoiced in the ceremony, clapping, singing and dancing -- while dabbing a bit of lood from the sacrifice on their family's foreheads. Afterward, they put blood on the doorposts and lintels of their home, as is described in the Torah.

Here's a video (not taken by me) of the chanting just prior to the actual animal slaughter.

And here's a video (from 3 years ago) which is basically identical to this past years -- the celebration after the ritual slaughter.

Here, the green-robed Cohen Gadol is relaxing after the ritual slaughter, greeting people, hugging children, and having pictures taken with children on his lap.

Children wait by the fire pit, while the animals are being skinned.

Throwing olive wood in the fire pit.
The skewers are being prepared for the animals. My son noted that for the korban pesach in Judaism, the skewers came from pomegranate trees.

And then, this Samaritan proudly came to our side, saying, "I'm the first, I'm the first" as he brought his skewered animal. They Samaritans told me there were 38 (or 41) sacrificed animals altogether this past year.

Lining up for the photo ops.

The cohanim lined up their animals along the fence where I was standing...in preparation for hosing them down with water.

I had a birds eye view of the media...

Removing entrails from the animals.
Washing them off...
Zooming in...
Close up.

The animals prior to being roasted over the fire pits.

The heart of one of the animals.
Some final thoughts from Jameel:

What struck me most most about the Samaritan passover ceremony, was one of jealousy. The Passover sacrifice, one of the most important mitzvot of the Jewish people is simply not done today, despite the Jewish people's reign over Yerushalayim and the Temple Mount. Not having a Beit HaMikdash was never a prerequisite for bringing the Passover sacrifice, and there have been different periods in our history, even as recent as the 7th century, when the Jewish people observed this mitzva, on Har HaBayit.

Today, due to our weak politicians we do not control the Temple Mount, and only a relatively small group of rabbis even advocate bringing the korban Pesach today.

It's so close to within our grasp...just waiting for us to reach out, and we could return to this mitzva.

And when I see the Samaritans joyfully bringing their Passover sacrifice, I'm simply jealous that they have managed to retain their tradition, while Judaism shies away. Of course, we have retained so many others, we've managed to grow, and we've managed sovereignty in parts of the Land of Israel...yet this important mitzva is so close, so painfully and tantalizingly near, yet the majority of Jews today have no interest in actively pursuing it.

Some final thoughts from Lurker:

I couldn't help but notice the wide variety of visitors present, both among the VIP's milling around inside the plaza, and among the crowd watching from the sidelines: There were all kinds of Jews, both secular and religious -- including a noticable number of haredim (among the VIP's as well). There were Israeli soldiers, including some high-ranking officers. There were paramedics -- both from Magen David Adom and from the Palestinian Red Crescent. There were non-Jews of all different sorts, including representatives of the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. Ambassador was there, too. I saw someone who, by his tunic and collar, appeared to be a Roman Catholic priest. It was a remarkable mix of so many different kinds of people, all present as visitors to the Samaritan Pesach sacrifice. And it was all the more remarkable because many of those people have contempt and hatred for one another, and one would not expect to see them together in such close quarters. And yet there they all were, with no noticeable anxiety or animosity in the air. The atmosphere among them seemed to be a relaxed mix of respect, festivity, and curiosity.

I found it fascinating to be witnessing such a rare, brief island of relaxed coexistence in our volatile, tension-ridden part of the world. I'm not trying to over-dramatize the significance of this -- I certainly have no naive illusions that this will somehow lead to "peace in the Middle East". But I do think that the tiny Samaritan community can feel a bit of pride in their ability to be the catalyst for such a rare, peaceful moment -- even if it comes only once a year, and lasts only for an evening.

Another thought that I experienced as I watched the Samaritan Pesach ceremony: Over the centuries and millenia, the Samaritans have been subjected to murderous attacks and endless persecution by countless enemies (including the Romans, the Byzantine Christians, the Turks, the Palestinians, and many others.) From a large nation with an estimated population of more than 1,500,000 at the time of the Second Temple (according to a Roman census), they dwindled down to little more than 100 souls in the 1930's. Today, there are about 750 of them.

As Jews, we know a lot about suffering and being a persecuted minority among the nations. We number around 14,000,000 people in a world of billions, and consider our numbers (quite correctly) to be few. But it's hard to conceive being reduced by persecution down to 3-digit numbers, on the verge of near-extinction. Imagine what the Jewish people would be like today if we were reduced down to just a few hundred people. Would we find the strength and fortitude to carry on, to still see ourselves as a nation -- the nation chosen by God?

This is what the Samaritan reality is like. And in spite of their tiny numbers, they continue undeterred, maintaining their traditions, faithfully keeping the commandments of the Torah according to their own millenia-old understanding of them. For this reason, I feel inspired by them: Firstly, I am filled with a deep sense of admiration for their fortitude and perseverance. And secondly, I feel inspired as a Jew: If they can maintain their people-hood, their traditions, and their faith after having been reduced to such incredibly small numbers, then certainly we, the Jewish people, can do the same.

All Photos here are property of the Muqata Blog (c) 2010 and were taken by Jameel
Reproduction permitted with credit to the Muqata Blog, http://muqata.blogspot.com

Visiting Israel?Learn to Shoot at Caliber-3 with top Israeli Anti-Terror Experts!Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד


Anonymous said...

Jameel, Lurker - while Holon a city in the Northern part of Greater Tel-Aviv.

Isn't Holon in the southern part of greater TA?


JtownPaul said...

A most inspiring post. Thank you, gentlemen!

jonathan becker said...

nice work fellas, thanks.

NormanF said...

They are tiny because like the Zoroastrians, they do not accept converts. Judaism does and that's why the Jewish people have not shrunken into a tiny sect ignored by the rest of the world. The Shomromim are the descendants of Assyrian settlers who learned a corrupted form of Judaism alongside their old beliefs. So they are not Jews because they do not follow the Torah in the Written and the Oral Law and they do not accept that G-d chose to establish His place of worship in Jerusalem.

Anonymous said...

While converts have resulted in some of the most remarkable members of the Jewish tribe, I wouldn't subscribe to the theory that Jews survived because of converts.

Some converts and descendants of famous converts include:

King David (from Ruth)
Rabbi Akiva
Connie Chung (?)
King Nero (descendants learned in Bnei Brak)
Sammy Davis Jr.

NormanF said...

Judaism was meant ultimately to be a faith with a universal message - that the G-d Of Israel is the G-d of the entire world and one day all the nations will go up to the Temple to worship Him. It implies that by the Time Of the Messiah, the only true religion will be Judaism. It is not necessary today to become a Jew to worship Hashem but it necessary to forswear idols and to walk righteously before G-d. That is true of the non-Jewish Jews - yes, let's call them Jews in a manner of speaking - the B'nai Noach because they walk as Noah did and as did the first monotheist, Abraham, who walked in the path of the Most High.

JtownPaul said...

Do the Shomronim celebrate their Pesach for seven days? Do they eat matzah? Usually their Pesach coincides with the Jewish Pesach, but this year it occurred exactly one month later. What's the deal next year?

Lurker said...

NormanF: They are tiny because like the Zoroastrians, they do not accept converts.

That is not entirely correct:

(1) Even without converts, they would have continued growing if they hadn't been repeatedly massacred, expelled, and forced against their will to convert to other religions, over the course of centuries. Remember, 2000 years ago, they numbered about 1.5 million.

(2) They are not a proseletyzing people, but they do allow female converts. In practice, this was not done for many years, but this has begun to change. According to Yefet HaKohen, converts are required to undergo a formal period of study of Samaritan beliefs and halakha, but much of this is waived for Jews and Muslims, since they are already believers in a single God.

NormanF: The Shomromim are the descendants of Assyrian settlers who learned a corrupted form of Judaism alongside their old beliefs.

You are referring to the account in sefer Melakhim. To be precise, that account refers not to Assyrian settlers, but to people of other lands (Cuthim and others) conquered by the Assyrians and forcibly resettled in the area of former Northern Kingdom of Israel. These people intermarried with the local Israelites who had not been exiled, so the Shomronim would still be descendants of Israelites.

The Shomronim, for their part, deny that they are descended from those people mentioned in Melakhim. They claim to be direct descendants of the Israelites who entered Eretz Yisrael at the time of Yehoshua. Many of the Shomronim, in particular the Kohanim, possess sifei yuhsin (recorded lineages), passed down for generations, that explicitly trace their ancestry, generation by generation in an unbroken patrileal line, back to the time of Moshe and Aharon.

Of course, since there was intermarriage, it is entirely possible that both accounts of their ancestry are correct.

NormanF: So they are not Jews because they do not follow the Torah in the Written and the Oral Law...

Certainly they are not Jews. The very term "Jew" ("Yehudi") means someone from the Southern Kingdom of Yehuda -- which they never were, and don't claim to have been.

They do follow the written Torah, though, and they are extremely serious and meticulous about it. As for our Oral Law -- correct, they do not have that. But it isn't their lack of possession of the Oral Law that makes them not Jews. After all, the Sadducees did not follow the Oral Law either, but they were still regarded halakhicly as Jews, albeit heretical. And the same is true for the Karaites: They are regarded as Jews, and that's why major poskim -- including R. Ovadia Yosef -- permit them to marry Jews with no conversion procedure.

NormanF: ...and they do not accept that G-d chose to establish His place of worship in Jerusalem.

This is most certainly correct. Of course, from their own perspective, they would say that we (the Jews) do not accept that God chose to establish His place of worship on Har Gerizim.

Lurker said...

JtownPaul: Do the Shomronim celebrate their Pesach for seven days?

To use their terminology: The holiday of Pesah (i.e., the day of the Passover sacrifice) is the 14th day of the fist month (which Jews call Nisan). This is followed by Hag HaMatzot (the Feat of Matzot), which lasts seven days, from the 15th of the month until the 21st. They refer to this as "Hag HaMatzot" -- not as "Pesah", which is onm the 14th.

If you read the terms used in the Torah (Vayikra 23:5-6) in parshat Emor, which we read last week), you will see that in fact, the Samaritan's terminology is exactly correct, and our own use of the term "Pesah" to refer to "Hag HaMatzot" is not really accurate:

בחדש הראשון, בארבעה עשר לחדש בין הערבים, פסח לה'.
ובחמשה עשר יום לחדש הזה, חג המצות לה'; שבעת ימים מצות תאכלו.
In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at dusk, is the Pesah of God.
And on the fifteenth day of this month is the Feast of Matzot of God; for seven days you shall eat matzot.

JtownPaul: Do they eat matzah?

Yes, they certainly do eat matza. They make it thin and flat, very similar to our own.

JtownPaul: Usually their Pesach coincides with the Jewish Pesach, but this year it occurred exactly one month later. What's the deal next year?

Next year, it will fall out on Sunday, April 17, 2011. (On the Jewish calendar, this will be the 13th of Nisan, 5771.)

Jenny said...

How is the description of complete devotion possible? Do they not have similar problems to ours of people "leaving the fold"?

Are there no non-frum Samaritans?

Lurker said...

Jenny: Are there no non-frum Samaritans?

I'd imagine that once in a while, there may be a Samaritan here or there who goes "off the derech". But overall, they are a community that is very serious about maintaining their beliefs, traditions, and practices.

NormanF said...

The Cuthim and others who intermarried with the remaining Israelites undoubtedly learned Judaism but they also assimilated the remaining Israelites' disdain of the southern kingdom and Jerusalem. There is a reason after all, the capital of the northern kingdom was in Shomron and echoes of that time can be seen in the Shomronim decision to locate the place of worship on Mt. Gerizim. So its entirely possible, too there is an ancestral Israelite rejection of Judean habits and ways which of course is why they are not Jews. One could make a case that if the Northern Tribes had survived, they would be much closer in their beliefs to the Shomronim than to the Jews. Estrangement within a family can lead to a new identity for one of the siblings and that's what happened with the Israelites and then with the Shomronim. Not every one in the North after the Assyrian Conquest was ready to reunite with the southern brethren on the latter's terms and this explains the history between the two Abrahamic faiths.

alex said...

Fascinating post. How does one go about attending such a ceremony (as an observer, not as a VIP)?

Lurker said...

alex: How does one go about attending such a ceremony (as an observer, not as a VIP)?

You can just drive there, or take an Egged bus to Har Bracha, which is about a 5-minute walk from the Samaritan community. There were also various tour groups and educational institutions that organized bus tours to go see the ceremony.

Gee a Moron said...

Is there any written reference to ho the Samaritans compute their calendar?

Lurker said...

Gee a Moron: Is there any written reference to ho the Samaritans compute their calendar?

The Samaritan calendar is extremely similar to the Jewish one: Both are lunasolar calendars, with a regular year consisting of 12 months. Each month starts with new moon, and lasts 29 or 30 days. In every cycle of 19 years, there are 7 leap years in which an extra month is added, in order to keep the calendar in synch with the solar cycle, and ensure that Pesah always occurs in the spring.

The only significant differences between the Jewish and Samaritan calendars are:
(1) Some months have 29 days on one calendar, and 30 on the other.
(2) The 7 leap years in the 19-year cycles are not always the same 7 years.
Therefore, a holiday on the Samaritan calendar will either fall out on the same day as its counterpart on the Jewish one, or it will be one day off, or it will be one month off, or it will be one month +/- one day off.

An exception to the above is Shavuot: On the Jewish calendar, Shavuot always occurs on 6 Sivan, whioh is 50 days after the first day of Pesah (aka Hag HaMatzot). On the Samaritan calendar, the date of Shavuot varies, because they count the 50 days starting from the first Sunday in Pesah, based on a different interpretation of the term "ממחרת השבת" in Vayikra 23:15 -- similar to the interpretation of the Sadducees and the Karaites.

I have never seen a written reference to the Samaritan calendar. If anyone knows of one, I'd be interested.

Anonymous said...

NormanF, I just want to correct you about something :

NormanF : "It implies that by the Time Of the Messiah, the only true religion will be Judaism."
It's true, but at the same time, it's not. Yes, at this time, "judaism" will be the only religion. But not everyone will be jewish, far from it. In fact, the nations of the world won't never respect all the mitsvot or even need to do it. Only part of it they are going to learn from jews. So jews will remain jews and a kind of exception, a whole people of "priest".

Nosson Gestetner said...

Absolutely fascinating... Not sure I agree with the yearning for the Mitzva of Korban Pesach though Jameel.

See http://gtorah.com/2010/03/25/faith-when-its-tough/

Particularly story of R' Kisma. And if you comment that would be awesome :)

An authentic Jew said...

"I'm simply jealous that they have managed to retain their tradition, while Judaism shies away."

Oh really now - As far as I know our tradition says we can't do it at present.

I wonder how they know how to slaughter (as I have commanded you(Deut. 12:21) - where?)

Did they take out the gid hanoshe?

How did they get out all the blood first (the Torah doesn't spell out that roasting alone is sufficient)?

I don't think giving these guys attention is a good idea. They've caused us alot of trouble in the past with their prominence.

Shiloh said...

Reading the posts only shows that truly everyone has errors in their 'religion'. G-d forbid we need to turn back to ritual slaughter (physically it is impossible for all Jews to accend to a temple, and perform the ritual, that is if we had one). HaShem provides Kippur, and sacrifice is only symbolic. Turn back to haShem, not mitzvoth of men! Yes, that too is in the Tanach, but we just like to ignore it, don't we.

Michael Bindner said...

There are quite a few more Samaritans who should be celebrating this feast, as newer research on our rituals demonstrated that we are derived from the Northern Kingdom, as they are. Like my cousins in Israel, I will be celebrating by roasting lamb over fire and eating it with Matza and bitter herb and questioning my daughter about the Exodus.

Adam Palmer said...

I did some research on the Samaritans for my thriller (The Moses Legacy) in which they play an important part. Whether they are descended from the Cuthim (as the prophet Ezra believed) or are descendents of the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe (as they claim) is something that we will probably never know - although DNA might help.

Zvi said...

NormanF: "So they are not Jews because they do not follow the Torah in the Written and the Oral Law"

Notwithstanding the opinion of Norman and his counterparts, the Qaraites and their fellow travelers among Jews who defected from Rabbinic Judaism and do not follow the "oral" Torah, like myself, are Jews. We don't need Rabbinic conformation for this fact; nonetheless, some of the greatest Gedolim like Rambam acknowledged that the Qaraites are Jews. And guess what? Historically there have always been Jews who did not accept the "oral" Law, e.g. Ethiopian, Chinese, Indian, and of course the Qaraite whose roots may trace to the 3rd century. I guess reality hurts many Jews who rather not be told all of this.

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