Things You Didn’t Know About Samaritans

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, we read how God commanded that when the Israelites cross into the Holy Land, they should first make a stop upon two special mountains: Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval (Deuteronomy 27:12-13). The Tribes of Israel should split between the two mountains; six of them would set up on Mount Gerizim and six on Mount Eval. Then, a series of blessings would be proclaimed from atop Mount Gerizim, and a series of curses from atop Mount Eval. The people would answer “amen!” to signify their agreement. This would serve as one final reminder of their covenant with God before they settle down in their apportioned lands and get on with their new lives.

Har Gerizim in 1912

Today, that mountain of blessing, Mount Gerizim, is still venerated by the world’s last community of Samaritans, numbering less than 1000 people. About half of them live in the Israeli city of Holon, and the other half live around Mount Gerizim itself, in the village of Kiryat Luza, once part of the Biblical site of Shechem and currently the Palestinian town of Nablus (an Arabic corruption of the Roman title Neapolis). For the Samaritans, Mount Gerizim is the holiest place on Earth. They believe this is supposed to be the true location of the Holy Temple. They believe this is where Abraham bound Isaac during the Akedah. They believe this is the mountain upon which the Mishkan first rested, and where sacrifices to Hashem were originally brought. In other words, Gerizim is the Samaritan “Jerusalem”. Who, exactly, are the Samaritans?

Indigenous Tribes, or Foreign Settlers?

When the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian Exile to the Holy Land two and a half thousand years ago, they were met in Samaria by a group of people they did not recognize. These people claimed to be the descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe that had always inhabited the area. The Jewish returnees argued that was impossible, for the northern Kingdom of Israel that contained the tribal lands of Ephraim and Menashe had been crushed by the Assyrians two centuries prior, followed by the Babylonian conquest that resulted in the exile of just about everyone else from the lands in the previous century. The Jewish leaders looked to the Tanakh (II Kings 17:23-29) and found their answer:

So the Israelites were deported from their land to Assyria, as is still the case. The king of Assyria brought [people] from Babylon, Kutha, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and he settled them in the towns of Samaria in place of the Israelites; they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its towns.

When they first settled there, they did not worship God; so God sent lions against them that killed some of them. They said to the king of Assyria: “The nations that you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know the rules of the God of the land; therefore He let lions loose against them that are killing them—for they do not know the rules of the God of the land.”

The king of Assyria gave an order: “Send there one of the priests whom you have deported; let him go and dwell there, and let him teach them the practices of the God of the land.” So one of the priests whom they had exiled from Samaria came and settled in Bethel; he taught them how to worship God…

The Tanakh recounts how when the original Israelites were exiled from Samaria, the Assyrians had colonized the area by settling it with their own peoples from Babylon, Kutha and other places. Because of this, the Samaritans would come to be known to the Jews as the Kutim, and this is how they are referred to in Rabbinic literature. As expected, these new settlers were idolaters practising their old religions. The Torah tells us that the Holy Land does not tolerate such sin, and will “vomit out” anyone who dwells in the land and does so (Leviticus 18). Indeed, God sent lions upon the new idolaters. They complained to the king of Assyria that this colonizing project is not going to work, for the God of the land is not tolerating them. The king wisely sent for one of the legitimate kohanim that was exiled to come back and teach the people Torah. He did, and the lions relented. The settlers remained and built new towns, until the exiles returned some 70 years later.

Jews, or non-Jews?

The returning Jewish leaders didn’t know what to make of these new Samarians. They called themselves Shamerim, “guardians” or “custodians” of the land, apparently claiming to have always been there. (In Modern Hebrew they are somewhat inaccurately referred to as Shomronim, literally “Samarians”). They did seem to observe Torah law, for the most part. However, they worshipped God on Mount Gerizim, and not on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The Torah forbids bringing offerings to God anywhere outside of God’s chosen place, as repeated several times including at the very start of this week’s parasha. It is also stated in Deuteronomy 12:5, where the Ba’al haTurim comments that the words el hamakom, “to the place” that God chooses, is transformed in atbash to a value of 614, exactly equivalent to “this is Jerusalem” (זהו ירושלים)! We don’t need gematria, of course, to prove that Jerusalem is God’s holy mountain.

To the Jewish returnees, it was obvious that anyone who denied the holiness of Jerusalem was erasing centuries of Jewish history and contradicting the entire Tanakh, which mentions Jerusalem hundreds of times. The Samaritans did not know of Tanakh; they only knew the law of Moses. (After all, that kohen sent by the Assyrian king was only instructed to teach them the law of the land, and nothing else.) To this day, in fact, Samaritans only regard the Chumash as divine, and entirely reject the rest of Tanakh! They dispute the entire Biblical history that we have, and say that the kohen gadol Eli (who raised the prophet Samuel, who would anoint the first kings of Israel) was an imposter who usurped the priesthood. They claim he built in Shiloh a replica of the original Mishkan that was on Mt. Gerizim, with a fake Ark of the Covenant, too. Thus, they disagree with the entire historical account following the time of Eli. (It is worth noting that by rejecting both ‘Nakh and Jerusalem, Samaritans are at odds not just with Jews, but with Christians and Muslims, too.)

Not surprisingly then, the Samaritans could not be embraced by the Jews of the Second Temple era. These were irreconcilable differences. Yet, the Samaritans did keep the Torah’s laws, making their status unclear. The Talmud mentions the Samaritans (Kutim) countless times, and generally holds that when it comes to those mitzvot which they do observe, they observe them well and can be trusted (Gittin 10a). Intriguingly, there is a little-known short Talmudic tractate called Kutim, entirely devoted to the Samaritans. It begins by teaching that “The Samaritans in some of their ways resemble the gentiles and in some resemble Israel, but in the majority they resemble Israel.” (It is worth mentioning that the Samaritans do not refer to themselves as “Yehudim”, but they do call themselves “Bnei Israel”.)

Samaritan high priest Yitzhaq ben Amram ben Shalma (c. 1920). Samaritans still write their Torahs in ancient Israelite script. The Samaritan Chumash has several thousand differences with our Chumash, most of them minor, and a few substantial ones.

We learn from this tractate that we are not allowed to intermarry with Samaritans (1:6), but we are allowed to associate with them freely and befriend them (1:10). Jewish women should not serve as midwives for Samaritan women (1:8), but we may circumcise their children and even have their mohels circumcise ours! (1:9) We can’t sell any animals to them that they may use to bring an offering with on their mountain, but we can rely on them to serve as kosher witnesses for things like divorce (1:11). Their impoverished people may take from our leket, shich’cha, and pe’ah (“gleanings”, “forgotten sheaves”, and “corners”), and ours may take from theirs (1:7).

We are allowed to eat their meat because their shechitah is kosher, but we suspect they might sell us carrion so we should only eat Samaritan meat that they themselves eat. (2:1) Their cheese is kosher, as is their wine on the condition that the bottle is sealed (2:3,6). Samaritans have full legal rights in civil and tort law, and are not different from a Jew in this regard (2:2).

The tractate concludes by suggesting that the Samaritans were originally righteous converts, but they have become mixed up over time and we can’t trust their lineage. Ultimately, they can be considered fully Jewish and enter the Jewish community on two conditions: 1) If they renounce Mount Gerizim and acknowledge Jerusalem; and 2) while they reject ‘Nakh they should at least accept that there will one day be a Resurrection of the Dead. (2:8) Since then, Samaritans have indeed accepted the Resurrection of the Dead as a fundamental belief (based on the verse in Ha’azinu that God “puts to death and revives”, Deuteronomy 32:39).

Elsewhere, the Talmud (Berakhot 47b) teaches that a Samaritan can be a part of a zimun of three people who together recite birkat hamazon. More amazing still, the Talmud here says that an ignorant Jew (am aretz) should not be part of a zimun! So, in some ways a Samaritan is more kosher than a secular Jew! Another intriguing detail is in Sukkah 8b, which says Samaritan sukkot are kosher (as long as they have a proper s’chach). This is hard to understand because today Samaritans build their sukkot inside their homes, and instead of s’chach use actual fruits (including etrogim) as a “roof”. It is quite possible that in Talmudic times, the Samaritans built their sukkot more like Jews do—which is why they were kosher back then—and over time changed to the current style of indoor, fruit-roofed ones. (Samaritans themselves admit that they had to hide their sukkot indoors because of Byzantine persecution.)

Alexander and the Good Samaritan

Perhaps the most well-known story about the Samaritans is from the time of Alexander the Great. The Midrash and Talmud (Yoma 69a) describe how while Alexander was approaching Jerusalem with his armies, the Samaritans sent envoys and convinced him that the Jews are his enemies and he should destroy their Jerusalem Temple (or allow the Samaritans to destroy the Jerusalem Temple). Shimon haTzadik, the kohen gadol at the time, donned his priestly vestments and went out to greet Alexander. Apparently, Alexander recognized Shimon haTzadik’s face from visions he previously had, and credited his face with helping him in battle. At the end, it was the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim that got destroyed, and Alexander spared Jerusalem.

As explored in the past, Josephus provides an alternate account where the kohen gadol at the time was actually Yadua haKohen, not Shimon haTzadik. He begins by affirming that the Samaritans are, in fact, Kutim who were settled there by the Assyrian king. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, 7:2) A Samaritan leader named Sanballat (perhaps related to the Sanballat mentioned in the second chapter of Nehemiah) decided he might be able to affect a union between Jews and Samaritans, and wed his daughter to a powerful kohen named Menashe, the brother of Yadua. Yadua and Menashe battled for control of the high priesthood. When Yadua won and became the kohen gadol, Menashe was convinced by Sanballat that he could start his own temple on Mt. Gerizim. Sanballat received permission from Alexander, and this is how the Samaritan Temple was built.

We know from historical sources that the Samaritan Temple continued to exist for about two centuries, and was finally destroyed by, perhaps surprisingly, the Maccabees! Josephus, too, affirms that the Samaritan Temple was destroyed by John Hyrcanus, son of Shimon, brother of Judah Maccabee. (John Hyrcanus is probably the same person as the Talmud’s Yochanan Kohen Gadol, as explored recently here.) It isn’t clear why John Hyrcanus did so. It’s highly possible that the Samaritans allied with the Hellenists against the Jews. Josephus claims they even allowed their Temple to be Hellenized and dedicated to Zeus (XII, 5:5). The Second Book of Maccabees (6:1-2), meanwhile, simply says the Greeks profaned the Samaritan Temple just like the Jerusalem Temple.

And what of the now-common term “Good Samaritan”? This comes from the Christian New Testament (Luke 10), which tells a parable of a person who was accosted by thieves and left bleeding, nearly dead, on the ground. A kohen walked by and didn’t help him, presumably because he didn’t want the man to die in his hands and make him impure, or maybe because he thought the person wasn’t Jewish, or just didn’t care. Then a Levite walked by and also failed to help the man. Finally, it was a “good Samaritan” who saved him. The New Testament uses this as a polemic against Jews, who are supposedly too concerned with the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law, who might have a lot of brain but not enough heart, or who just don’t care about others. In contrast, the Samaritan was a good person who did help the dying man. Needless to say, the story is not true; the Torah makes clear that, of course, one cannot stand idly while another’s blood is shed (Leviticus 19:16), and Jewish law requires one to step in and help save another’s life, even if it means violating Shabbat or other rules.

Although Samaritans originally did not believe in any messiah (since they reject ‘Nakh), they did have a couple of messiah-like figures in their history. The first is mentioned by Josephus (Antiquities, Book XVIII, 4:1-2), who speaks of a Samaritan revolt against Pontius Pilate (yes, the same Pilate who is supposed to have crucified Jesus). Pilate killed the Samaritan messiah, and was later summoned to Rome to explain his actions. Intriguingly, Josephus makes no mention of Jesus, but does say Pilate killed a messianic pretender—the Samaritan one, that is. The second Samaritan liberator figure was Julianus ben Sabar, who led a revolt against the Byzantine Empire in 529 and had a short-lived independent Samaritan state. (Relations between the Samaritans and Byzantines had dramatically soured when the latter built a church atop Mt. Gerizim in 475 CE.) Ben Sabar’s rebellion was put down by Emperor Justinian I, who also outlawed the Samaritan religion. (That’s probably when those sukkot moved indoors.)

The Samaritan community dwindled due to persecutions and forced conversions to Christianity and Islam. By the end of the 19th century, there were just 100 or so Samaritans left. Ironically, it was the return of the Jewish people to the area en masse, again, at the start of the 20th century this time, that saved the Samaritans and allowed them to rebound. When Jordan took over Samaria after Israel’s War of Independence, Israel’s second president Yizhak Ben-Zvi saved a group of them by resettling them in Holon. (Ben-Zvi was particularly interested in the Samaritans, and argued that something like two-thirds of all Palestinian Arabs in Samaria are descendants of Samaritans forcibly converted to Islam.) After the liberation of the region during the Six-Day War, the Samaritans came under IDF protection.

Today, the Samaritans enjoy both Israeli and Palestinian Authority citizenship. Their numbers stand at only about 874 individuals. Inbreeding within the small gene pool has made genetic disorders a serious problem. Conversion to Samaritanism is not an option and intermarriage is generally forbidden. On the contrary, more and more Samaritans are converting to Judaism and marrying into Jewish families. Under these circumstances, it isn’t clear whether the Samaritan community will survive for much longer.