Notes from Limmud 2009
Good and Bad Sects: The Samaritans
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
This talk was one in a series, of which I only attended this one. The speaker opened with an introduction to the series, by saying: Judaism didn't have to turn out the way it did, and it very nearly did turn out another way. We could all have ended up Karaites learning here at Limmud about the sect of the Rabbanites of whom only a few thousand are left!
The Samaritans are the oldest sect/group within (or around) Judaism. There are about 710 Samaritans worldwide nowadays. This may change: they were down to 120 in the early twentieth century. They attribute their revival to the Six Day War, which allowed their two communities in Ashdod and Nablus to intermingle again.
They've been described as the smallest religio-ethnic group. If Jewish survival is a miracle, Samaritan survival is a miracle squared. And they are very conscious of this.
We have two histories of them: theirs and ours. We call them Shomronim: people of Samaria. They call themselves Shamerim: guardians, of the tradition.
Origins: The Jewish account
The traditional origin of the Samaritans comes from the Bible: When the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel, they deported the ten tribes who lived there:
2 Kings 17:29-17:35 מלכים ב יז כט-יז לה Nevertheless, every national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines which the people of Samaria had made at the high places. The men of Babylon made Succoth Benoth, and the men of Cuth made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima. And the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burnt their children in fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. They worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence. To this day they do after the former manners: they fear not the Lord, neither do they after their statutes, or after their ordinances, or after the law and commandment which the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel; With whom the Lord had made a covenant, and charged them, saying, Do not fear other gods, nor bow yourselves to them, nor serve them, nor sacrifice to them. וַיִּהְיוּ עֹשִׂים גּוֹי גּוֹי אֱלֹהָיו וַיַּנִּיחוּ בְּבֵית הַבָּמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ הַשֹּׁמְרֹנִים גּוֹי גּוֹי בְּעָרֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הֵם יֹשְׁבִים שָׁם׃ וְאַנְשֵׁי בָבֶל עָשׂוּ אֶת־סֻכּוֹת בְּנוֹת וְאַנְשֵׁי־כוּת עָשׂוּ אֶת־נֵרְגַל וְאַנְשֵׁי חֲמָת עָשׂוּ אֶת־אֲשִׁימָא׃ וְהָעַוִּים עָשׂוּ נִבְחַז וְאֶת־תַּרְתָּק וְהַסְפַרְוִים שֹׂרְפִים אֶת־בְּנֵיהֶם בָּאֵשׁ לְאַדְרַמֶּלֶךְ וַעֲנַמֶּלֶךְ אלה ספרים (אֱלֹהֵי סְפַרְוָיִם)׃ וַיִּהְיוּ יְרֵאִים אֶת־ה׳ וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם מִקְצוֹתָם כֹּהֲנֵי בָמוֹת וַיִּהְיוּ עֹשִׂים לָהֶם בְּבֵית הַבָּמוֹת׃ אֶת־ה׳ הָיוּ יְרֵאִים וְאֶת־אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הָיוּ עֹבְדִים כְּמִשְׁפַּט הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר־הִגְלוּ אֹתָם מִשָּׁם׃ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה הֵם עֹשִׂים כַּמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֵינָם יְרֵאִים אֶת־ה׳ וְאֵינָם עֹשִׂים כְּחֻקֹּתָם וּכְמִשְׁפָּטָם וְכַתּוֹרָה וְכַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה׳ אֶת־בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר־שָׂם שְׁמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ וַיִּכְרֹת ה׳ אִתָּם בְּרִית וַיְצַוֵּם לֵאמֹר לֹא תִירְאוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וְלֹא־תִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לָהֶם וְלֹא תַעַבְדוּם וְלֹא תִזְבְּחוּ לָהֶם׃
Population transfer is standard Assyrian practice to suppress rebellions: take people off their land, and dump them elsewhere. This deprives them of identity, and people will be too busy, simply trying to survive on a land they don't know, to rebel. This was so effective that a thousand years later the Talmud said we don't know who the Canaanites are any longer because the Assyrians mixed the peoples up. (So we can't any longer annihilate the Canaanites as we are commanded to, not that the rabbis of the Talmud wanted to do this.)
The text here is not very clear; it says they worship G-d but they also don't worship G-d. Also, what does "to this day" mean? After the Babylonian Exile, two centuries later? After the return, three centuries later?
Fast forward to the return of the exiles from Judah three centuries and two regime changes later, when the Persian emperor Cyrus let the Jews (and everyone else) go back to their ancestral lands. He thought that if you're nice to conquered peoples, they're not going to want to throw you out.
The people returned in 539 BCE; construction of the Second Temple was completed in 515 BCE. 450 saw the advent of Ezra and Neḥemiah, who were concerned about ethnic purity. The people round about are mentioned as being obstructive, and trying to rat on them to the Persian authorities.
Ezra 4:1-4:6 עזרא ד א-ד ו When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity were building a palace for the Lord God of Israel; they approached Zerubbabel, and the chiefs of the clans, and said to them, "Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as you do; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarḥaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here." But Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the chiefs of the clans of Israel, told them, "You have no business building with us a House for our God, for we ourselves together will build for the Lord God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia commanded us." Then the people of the land undermined the resolve of the people of Judah: they troubled them in their building, and bribed ministers in order to thwart their plans, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia until the reign of Darius king of Persia. And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ צָרֵי יְהוּדָה וּבִנְיָמִן כִּי־בְנֵי הַגּוֹלָה בּוֹנִים הֵיכָל לַה׳ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ וַיִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל־זְרֻבָּבֶל וְאֶל־רָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָהֶם נִבְנֶה עִמָּכֶם כִּי כָכֶם נִדְרוֹשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיכֶם ולא (וְלוֹ) אֲנַחְנוּ זֹבְחִים מִימֵי אֵסַר חַדֹּן מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר הַמַּעֲלֶה אֹתָנוּ פֹּה׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם זְרֻבָּבֶל וְיֵשׁוּעַ וּשְׁאָר רָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־לָכֶם וָלָנוּ לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לֵאלֹהֵינוּ כִּי אֲנַחְנוּ יַחַד נִבְנֶה לַה׳ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ הַמֶּלֶךְ כּוֹרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ־פָּרָס׃ וַיְהִי עַם־הָאָרֶץ מְרַפִּים יְדֵי עַם־יְהוּדָה ומבלהים (וּמְבַהֲלִים) אוֹתָם לִבְנוֹת׃ וְסֹכְרִים עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹעֲצִים לְהָפֵר עֲצָתָם כָּל־יְמֵי כּוֹרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס וְעַד־מַלְכוּת דָּרְיָוֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ־פָּרָס׃ וּבְמַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ בִּתְחִלַּת מַלְכוּתוֹ כָּתְבוּ שִׂטְנָה עַל־יֹשְׁבֵי יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם׃
We're not told who these enemies are. We're just told they say "we're you". They say "we're not the same people in origin; we've only worshipped the Israelite God since Esarhaddon brought us here." But the Jews wanted nothing to do with them.
In 450, when the Temple was rebuilt, and they were trying to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem:
Nehemiah 4:1-4:2 נחמיה ד א-ד ב It came to pass, that when Sanballat and Tobiah, and the Arabs, Ammonites and Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem had gone up, and that the breaches had begun to be stopped, then they were very angry. All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem, to hinder it. וַיְהִי כַאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע סַנְבַלַּט וְטוֹבִיָּה וְהָעַרְבִים וְהָעַמֹּנִים וְהָאַשְׁדּוֹדִים כִּי־עָלְתָה אֲרוּכָה לְחֹמוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם כִּי־הֵחֵלּוּ הַפְּרֻצִים לְהִסָּתֵם וַיִּחַר לָהֶם מְאֹד׃ וַיִּקְשְׁרוּ כֻלָּם יַחְדָּו לָבוֹא לְהִלָּחֵם בִּירוּשָׁלִָם וְלַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ תּוֹעָה׃
Who are these others? Some of them think they are us, but not all. Our story is that the Samaritans are alien peoples who picked up our customs but are not Israelites.
The Mishna calls them Kutim, men of Cutha. Tractate Kutim, which is not really part of the Talmud, but is tacked onto the end, and dates from about the seventh century CE, talks about how to deal with the Samaritans.
By the time of the Mishna the Jews were heavily into classification: is something kosher or not. As with all things on boundaries, the Samaritans are a problem (as also, in other areas, are women, hermaphrodites, and slaves). The Samaritans are so much of a problem they have a whole tractate to themselves. The rabbis wrestle with them... which implies that the history is not as clear as above: If they were idolaters, there wouldn't be a question of whether we can eat their shechita [meat slaughtered by them]!
Origins: Samaritan account
The Samaritan account is quite different. They don't have such vast amounts of texts. There is a Samaritan Chronicle, but it was compiled in the twentieth century from old manuscripts.
When the high priest Uzi took up the high priesthood in succession to his fathers, there was a man named Eli ben Yefuneh, of the descendants of Ithamar ben Aharon the priest, as overseer of the House of Ithamar. This Eli sacrificed on the altar of stones, and under his control was the entire revenue of the Israelites' tithe which they offered to the Lord. He was a prince over the whole tribe of Levi, under the command of the High Priest Uzzi. Now Uzzi was but a youth, and Eli ben Yefuneh was well advanced in age. Eli yearned to take over the position of the high priest Uzzi.... and the people of Israel again did, at that time, what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and furthermore Eli ben Yefuneh was possessed of evil designs, with the result that many of the Israelites turned from the way of truth. He seduced them, and they took after idols, formed marriage alliances with gentiles, and even gave their daughters to them; and they took the daughters of gentiles as wives for themselves.... The Josephites followed the high priest Uzzi ben Bahki, and the Judahites followed Eli ben Yefuneh. The Ephraimites and Manassites drove out Eli and his community from the chosen place Mt Gerizim Bethel. Eli and his community, with their families and cattle, departed to sojourn in the territory of the tribe of Judah at Shiloh. Eli dwelt there at that place, and he made himself an ark of gold based on the structure of the ark of the testimony. He made himself also a mercy seat, cherubs, a table, a menorah, and altars just like those of the sanctuary of Moses, which is to be found in the chosen place of Mt Gerizim Bethel.
Their claim is that they had the real thing! The Eli of the Book of Samuel is a schismatic! He and Judah (i.e. us, the Jews) split off, with a false tabernacle, at Shiloh! The real one was at Mt Gerizim.
The Samaritan history said the division was way back, long before the Assyrians came along.
That's the early version of their history. The second version says that not all of the Samaritans got deported; some remained. The Jews were deported, and picked up funny ideas from the Babylonians. Binyamim [sic] Sedaqah:
The two leading forces in the ancient people of Israel—the sons of Joseph on the one hand, and the tribe of Judah on the other hand—created two spiritual centres that competed with each other. The Pentateuch is characterised by the creation of the religious foundation of the people in the northern part of the land of Israel: the bulding of the first altars in Schehem and its surroundings, the ceremonies of blessings and cursings on Mt Gerizim and on Mt Ebal... But the sources also tell us about the second spiritual centre founded on the other tribe's land, namely Judah on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which vied for the loyalty of the people of Israel. Two traditions branched out from these rival geographical and political centres... These two traditions used different calendars... and differed in the materialisation of the text of the Pentateuch; the North presenting an "Ephraimic" version, the south a "Judaic" version.
This is more friendly to the Jews... which is best when you're surrounded by a lot of them! Who knows what the true version is; it's probably not the same as either their or our account. We don't have external records.
But we've never said they are completely outside the sphere of our interest.
The two groups became further and further apart. The Samaritans suffered under Antiochus IV Epiphanes just as badly as the Jews. But the Jews weren't good to them either: King John Hyrcanus waged a major war against the Samaritans, and according to some accounts, destroyed their temple on Mt Gerizim.
And then there's the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan. Luke 10:
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his garb and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said to him, Take care of him; and however much more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you. Which now of these three, do you think, was neighbour to him that fell among the thieves?
At this time, there were a lot of Samaritans, in their own territory of what's now the West Bank. The Romans didn't like the Samaritans any more than they did the Jews.
After the Destruction of the (Jewish) Temple in 70CE, the Jews were still the majority in Judaea; the Romans didn't depopulate the country of Jews until after the Bar Kochba revolt. The Romans didn't distinguish the Samaritans much from the Jews; they got smashed up too, and Hadrian built a temple of Zeus [lacuna, presumably: on Mt Gerizin].
The Christians persecuted the Samaritans as well as the Jews; in the fourth century their High Priest Baba Rabba rebuilt their Temple. He wrote a major work we still have called [lacuna].
Tens of thousands of Samaritans died under Roman and Byzantine repression. Under Justinian there was a big rebellion, in the wake of which the Samaritans were incredibly repressed.
The advent of Muslim rule in 634 saw massacres and forced conversions. During the Abassid period, almost all of the Samaritans in the small villages converted to Islam under duress. Genetically, many of the Palestinians today probably have Samaritan ancestry.
In 624 their line of High Priests died out, which had been maintained all the time of Aaron. Since then their High Priests have been descended from Ithamar son of Aaron, not Eleazar.
There used to be a significant Samaritan diaspora in Egypt, Damascus, Athens, Corinth and Rome. Under the Ottoman Empire that diaspora was extinguished. The last place they were expelled from was Gaza in 1820.
In 1841, the Muslim clergy of Nablus had a go at killing or forcibly converting them, on the grounds that they weren't People of the Book, and therefore didn't have the rights of such. The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem wrote them a declaration that they were part of the People of Israel, and things calmed down.
Western travellers got excited at encountering them because of the story of the Good Samaritan.
The Samaritans today
Today the Samaritans are divided between Kiriat Muz on Mt Gerizim, Ashdod or Holon. They felt uncomfortable in Nablus during the Intifada, so have moved out to Mt Gerizim itself. They stay as neutral as possible; those in Nablus speak Arabic, those in Ashdod in Hebrew as their first language, but also Arabic.
Until recently they didn't have a conversion procedure at all. Until then their advice was: if you're going to marry out, get the person to convert to Judaism and then you can marry them! They're cool with marriage with Jews so long as the spouse takes on what [lacuna; probably the principles of Samaritan faith (see below)]. [This ties with what I had previously heard of them: that they wouldn't marry anyone apart from themselves and Jews, and that the Jews wouldn't marry them.]
Some of them, faced with a lack of marriage partners, went off to the Ukraine recently, and brought back Ukrainian girls. Faced with this fait accompli, their authorities had to deal with it. The High Priest said, grudgingly, all right, but they're going to have to be very frum.
There is now a process ongoing to sort of a procedure of conversion to Samaritanism; within ten years, this ought to be up and running.
There are just four families today; due to the population bottleneck they went through at the start of the twentieth century, they have a high rate of birth defects: many are deaf or have physical and mental problems. They are worried about this, and this is the reason they will be introducing conversion.
In the West Bank they tread a narrow tightrope. In the 1990s they had a representative in the Israeli parliament; in Israel there is a section for Samaritans and Karaites in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Samaritan priests have the same status and pay as rabbis.
Jewish halacha does not count them as Jewish, but the State of Israel does. They have rights under the Law of Return, though this somewhat academic as they're all in Israel in the first place!
They don't use the Hebrew alphabet, which was originally Assyrian. They're still using a descendant of the original Palaeo-Hebrew alphabet. They also use the original Hebrew month names, not the Babylonian ones.
They've said very loudly that they want to be a bridge to peace in the West Bank. They get on well enough with the Palestinians, though not so well with the West Bank settlers.
They're all frum.
Samaritans in Jewish law.
The Mishnaic view:
1.1 The ways of the Cuthim are sometimes like those of the gentiles, sometimes like those of Israel, but mostly like those of Israel.
1.5 We do not sell them weapons or anything with which they can cause harm to the public.
1.6 We do not [let Jewish women] marry them nor do we marry their women, but we lend to them and we borrow from them with interest.
1.9 An Israelite might circumcise a Cuthite, and a Cuthite may circumcise an Israelite. Rabbi Yehudah says, A Cuthite may not circumcise an Israelite, for he circumcises in the name of Mt Gerizim.
2.1 We do not take meat from a Kuti butcher except that of which he himself eats. [There's an issue of trust here!] [We do not take] baskets of [slaughtered] birds, unless he first puts them in his mouth and does not choose the ones to be given to the Israelite, for they have been suspected [lacuna, I think: of selling unslaughtered meat and] nevelot [animals which died of natural causes].
2.3 The cheese [lacuna]
2.5 ... R. Shimon forbids the mata[lacuna. I may still have the handout for this talk, in which case I might be able to come back and fill in the gaps.]
2.7Why are the Kutim forbidden to marry into Israel? Because they intermarried with the priests of the [idolatrous] high places. R. Yishmael says, Originally they were genuine converts, so why are they forbidden? Because of safek mamzerut [doubt regarding bastardy], and because they do not perform yibum [Levirate marriage] with a married woman.
2.8 When do we accept Kutim? When they deny Mt Gerizim and acknowledge Jerusalem and the resurrection of the dead.
Principles of the Samaritan faith
- Belief in One G-d.
- Moses as the greatest Prophet.
- Belief in Torah.
- Belief in Mt Gerizim.*
- Belief in the Day of Judgement.
* There are things they can only do there, much like us and the Temple in Jerusalem. Mt Gerizim is mentioned in the Torah as the place of blessing the Israelites; Jerusalem came along much later, in the time of King David. As for identification of Jerusalem as the site of the Binding of Isaac, it's Chronicles that talks about Mt Moriah, the Torah just talks about the incident taking place on one of the mountains in the land of Moriah.
The Samaritans are hot on Moses to a greater extent than us; this may be under the influence of the veneration of Muḥammad in Islam. Maybe we've played it down because we don't want to be like Muslims or Christians; the status of Moses has gone up and down throughout Jewish history.
[Mention of Memar Marqah—a book of Samaritan liturgy.]
The Samaritan Torah differs from the Masoretic text in a number of ways; some of these differences are doctrinal. Wherever it talks about worshiping G-d "in the place where I shall cause My name to dwell", for example, the Samaritan version says "Mt Gerizim." So which is original? The Dead Sea Scrolls include both versions!
Example: Deuteronomy 27:
When Shema* your God will bring you to the land of the Canaanite, which you are going to inherit it, you shall set yourself up great stones, and lime them with lime, and you shall write on them all the words of this law. It shall be, when you are passed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, which I shall command you today in Mt Gerizim.
[10th Commandment] There shall you build an altar to Shema your God, an altar of stones: you shall lift up no iron tool on them. You shall build the altar of Shema your God of uncut stones; and you shall offer burnt offerings thereon to Shema your God; and you shall sacrifice offerings, and shall eat there; and you shall rejoice before Shema your God.
[The seven location witnesses:] 1. That mount 2. On the other side of the Jordan 3. Behind the way of the sunset 4. In the land of the Canaanite who dwell in the Aravah 5. Before the Gilgal 6. Beside the plain of Moria 7. Before Shechem.
* שֵׁמָא, "the [Divine] Name", being the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew הַשֵּׁם as used by the Jews. (It's got nothing to do with the prayer the Shəma (שְׁמַע).)
They still perform the Pesach sacrifice (now a big tourist attraction). They (the men) dress in white and go up and sacrifice lambs on the mountain.
Summary of differences with Judaism
|Torah||Masoretic text||Samaritan text|
|Joshua||Masoretic text||Samaritan text|
|Rest of the Bible||Masoretic text||Absent|
|Script||Assyrian||[Development of] Palaeo-Hebrew|
|Calendar||Soli-lunar, calculated||Soli-lunar, based on observations|
|Meat and milk||Elaborate rules for separation||Not an issue beyond not seething a kid in its mother's milk|
|Gentile wine||Forbidden||Not an issue|
|Kol Isha||An issue for some||Not an issue.|
|Shabbos||Yes||Yes, but not observed the same as ours|
|Post-Toraitic festivals||Chanukah, Purim||None|
|Succah||Must have two and a half walls, and be able to see the stars above||Built inside the house, with no walls. Beautiful pattern of fruit, like a mosaic, on a framework.|
|Nidah/mikvey||Yes||Different system, no mikveh (but they may have had)|
|Mezuzah||Certain Torah passages on parchment mounted on doorpost||Various Torah passages inscribed on the stone above the door|
|Circumcision||Yes||Yes, but they're down to using a Jewish mohel because they don't have their own any more.|