Jewish or Not, the Samaritans Celebrate Passover—But a Month Later
Samaritans, one of the many ethno-religious groups in the so-called Heterodox Zone, claim descent from the Israelites who remained in the Land of Israel at the time of the Babylonian Exile (597-582 BCE). According to their narrative, Samaritanism is the true religion of the ancient Israelites, preserved by a small group who remained in the Land of Israel, as opposed to Judaism, which is an altered and amended religion brought back by those returning from exile. In fact, the name Samaritan (in Hebrew shomronim) derives from the Semitic root that means ‘to keep, to preserve’. Unlike Jews, Samaritans accept only the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua, considering the history of Israel after Joshua to be that of a renegade sectarian community. Thus, just as Jewish rabbinical authorities do not recognize the Samaritans as Jewish, the Samaritans do not recognize Jews as truly “Jewish”. Those tensions between the two ancient ethno-religious groups go back to antiquity. According to Ezra 4, when the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile in 582 BCE, the local inhabitants offered to assist with the building of the new temple during the time of Zerubbabel, but their offer was rejected. The text is not clear on this matter, but one possibility is that these “people of the land” were the Samaritans. We do know, however, that Samaritan and Jewish alienation increased, and that the Samaritans eventually built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which they believe to be where the binding of Isaac took place and which they consider the spiritual center of Israel in place of Jerusalem. The legitimacy of the Samaritan temple was attacked by Jewish scholars including Andronicus ben Meshullam. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans forms the background to the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Christian gospels, which tells Jews a story of a Samaritan who helped a wounded Jew even though the two peoples tended to despise each other.
Historically, Samaritans were a large community, counting more than a million in the late Roman period. Gradually, their population declined to the mere 700 or so in modern times. This extraordinary demographic shrinkage has been a result of various historical events, including the bloody repression of the Third Samaritan Revolt in 529 CE against the Byzantine Christian rulers and the mass conversion to Islam in the Early Muslim period, mainly due to difficult economic conditions (Levy-Rubin 2000). Today, Samaritans live almost exclusively in two localities: the Kiryat Luza village on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank and in the Israeli city of Holon. Issues of identity and relations with Jewish Israelis, and Muslim and Christian Palestinians remain very complicated. The Samaritans living in Holon, as well as many of those who reside in the West Bank, enjoy Israeli citizenship, though Samaritans from Mount Gerizim also hold passports from the Palestinian Authority. They had a reserved seat in the Palestinian Legislative Council in the election of 1996, but it was subsequently withdrawn. Being a small community in a divided region, the Samaritans tend not to overtly take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fearing negative repercussions. Nonetheless, Samaritan communities tend to be politically aligned with Israel, regardless of whether they live in Nablus or Holon. Hebrew has become the primary domestic language for Samaritans in both areas.
In recent years, the Samaritans attracted a great deal of attention from geneticists: because of the small size of the group and the near-exclusive practice of endogamy, they are the “most inbred population known anywhere in the world” (Steve Olson, Mapping Human History, p. 115). In more than 80% of marriages, the partners are either first or second cousins. Yet despite the high levels of inbreeding, Samaritans do not have any genetic disorders specific to their group, unlike the Ashkenazi Jews. This is because endogamy per se does not generate genetic disorders, but rather promotes their growth in the group’s gene pool. It is thus a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The other necessary component is rapid population growth, which in the case of Ashkenazi Jews took their population from a few thousand in the early medieval period to approximately 10 million; such expansion can multiply whatever genetic disorders were found in the original gene pool over and over again. But the Samaritan population went through a severe population bottleneck at the end of the 19th century. The people who survived had very few genetic problems, and as a result the incidence of genetic diseases among the Samaritans is not higher than the global average.
Several studies have also been conducted with the Samaritans to examine the group’s past through a genetic lens. Detailed pedigrees of the last 13 generations show that the Samaritans comprise just four lineages: the Tsedakah lineage, claiming descent from the tribe of Manasseh, the Joshua-Marhiv and the Danfi lineages, both claiming descent from the tribe of Ephraim, and the priestly Cohen lineage from the tribe of Levi. Males in the first three lineages belong to haplogroup J: the Joshua-Marhiv family belongs to haplogroup J1, while the Danfi and Tsedakah families belong to haplogroup J2. Unlike Jews that self-identify as belonging to the Cohen priestly tradition, Samaritans in the Cohen lineage belong to haplogroup E3b1a-M78.
The 2004 article on the genetic ancestry of the Samaritans by Shen et al. compared Samaritans to several Jewish populations, all currently living in Israel: Ethiopian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Iraqi Jews, Libyan Jews, Moroccan Jews, and Yemenite Jews, as well as Israeli Druze and Palestinian Arabs. The authors concluded that Samaritan and Jewish patrilineages share a common ancestry. They also further speculated that when the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel, resulting in another exile of many of the Israelites (ca. 734 BCE to 712 BCE), a subgroup of the Israelites who remained in the Land of Israel “married Assyrian and female exiles relocated from other conquered lands, which was a typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities”. They explain that “such a scenario could explain why Samaritan Y chromosome lineages cluster tightly with Jewish Y lineages, while their mitochondrial lineages are closest to Iraqi Jewish and Palestinian mtDNA sequences”.
The Samaritans’ celebration of Passover takes the holiday to its roots. Unlike the Jews, who abandoned the ritual of the Paschal lamb sacrifice when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Samaritans maintained the practice. Following the biblical commandment in Exodus 12:5, each male head of household selects an unblemished lamb and the entire community gathers to observe the sacrifice in a festive matter. After a sacrificial prayer, led by the Samaritan High Priest, Aharon ben Ab-Chisda ben Yaacob, the sheep are brought to the alter and killed by special slaughterers. Matzo bread and bitter herbs are distributed to all members of the community. The sheep are cooked in ovens until late at night, when the Angel of Destruction went out to slay the Egyptian firstborn. The meat is then taken out of the ovens, pulled off the skewers, and eaten, accompanied by singing. Any remains left over are brought to be burned before dawn. This colorful ceremony makes the chicken wing on the typical Jewish Passover plate pale in comparison.
Levy-Rubin, Malka (2000) New evidence relating to the process of Islamization in Palestine in the Early Muslim Period—The Case of Samaria. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 43(3): 257-276.
Shen, P; Lavi T, Kivisild T, Chou V, Sengun D, Gefel D, Shpirer I, Woolf E, Hillel J, Feldman MW, Oefner PJ (2004). “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations From Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation“. Human Mutation 24: 248–260.
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