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The Samaritans

Descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the Samaritans still travel to biblical Mount Gerizim to offer their Passover sacrifice.

The parable of the Good Samaritan immortalized the performance of a single actor on the stage of our religious history. As a result, every Christian who reads the Gospel knows something about the Samaritans. Yet in all the world there are only 300 of them. They are Arabic-speaking Israeli citizens. Half of them live in the town of Nablus, twenty-five miles north of Jerusalem. The other half live in the town of Holon, near Tel Aviv.

We know that Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other at the time of Christ. Jews worshipped at their Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and Samaritans worshipped at their Temple on Mount Gerizim near Nablus. Animosity between them goes back several centuries before Christ’s birth.

Samaritans claim descent from three of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The seventy-five members of the priestly class trace their origin to the Tribe of Levi. Laymen consider themselves descendants of the Tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. When the Jews returned from their captivity in Babylon in the sixth century B.C., they did not accept Samaritans as religious equals. In fact, since the Samaritans had intermarried with pagan women, they were no longer considered Jews. According to rabbinic law only those who have Jewish mothers are Jews. Since they were no longer regarded as Jews, the Samaritans were not entitled to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. They were not even permitted to help in the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity. Jews and Samaritans have gone their separate ways ever since, except for their very brief alliance against the Romans in the first century.

Christ had told the Samaritan woman whom He met at Jacob’s well at the foot of Mount Gerizim that the time was coming when people would worship God neither on Mount Zion nor on Mount Gerizim. In 66 A.D. the Romans killed 12,000 Samaritans as a punishment for joining the Jewish revolt against Roman authority. They completely destroyed the Samaritan Temple. Today all that remains is a few thousand square feet of rubble on the top of a wind-swept and barren mountain. Four years later the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple on Mount Zion. Today all that remain are some of the stones that supported the western wall of the Temple.

Jews no longer offer sacrifices at the Temple area in Jerusalem. Samaritans, however, journey to Mount Gerizim every year in our month of March or April to offer their Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nissan. On the tenth of the month all of the Samaritans go to the summit of the mountain where they set up wooden huts and tents. The huts become their homes for the next ten days. The tents store the supplies necessary for their sacrifice.

The Samaritans begin their preparations for the Passover sacrifice on the morning before it takes place. Six young men are assigned to fetch water for the sacrifice. Garbed in white trousers, over which they wear a white robe girded with a white belt, they carry the water to the altar and pour it into the large pots set over the altar. They light a fire in the altar about two hours before the sacrifice begins. The altar is a shallow ditch about twelve feet long and three feet wide lined with plain, unmasoned stone. Fifty feet away from the altar is a pit about ten feet deep and four feet in circumference called the tannur. This is the oven in which the sacrificed animals are roasted.

The ceremony for the sacrifice begins two hours before sundown. The Samaritans stand solemnly in two groups. The priests, the elders and the other notables are clad in white headgear and white belts. They carry walking sticks in obedience to the command to eat the Passover meal as though they were about to begin a hasty journey. The young Samaritans who had prepared the altar for the sacrifice have rolled up their sleeves and stand over the altar.

The Samaritan community is composed of seven principal families. In compliance with the regulations of the Book of Exodus, an unblemished lamb is provided for each of the seven families.

They shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household … Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old.

The High Priest, who is the oldest member of the priestly class, recites passages from the Book of Exodus which recall the flight of the Jews from Egypt across the Red Sea into Sinai. When he reaches the verse …and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening, the sheep are stretched over the altar and slaughtered. Then the people take some of the blood of the animals and smear it on the lintels of their huts.

The young men pour hot water on the skins of the slaughtered animals. They pluck the wool from the hides of the animals until they are convinced that the animals are unblemished. The butcher cuts the carcasses open and removes the intestines and internal organs. He cleans these with water, salts them and throws them into the fire. The young men pierce the carcasses lengthwise with poles to fulfill the command that not a bone of the animals should be broken. They carry the animals to the oven and set them down in it.

By this time the oven is already hot from the fire lit in it before the ceremony began. The top of the oven is covered over. It is sealed by wooden latticework which is first plastered over and then covered with red earth. This extinguishes the fire. The oven becomes both airtight and smoke-proof so that the meat can be cooked according to the directions given in the Book of Exodus: Do not eat of it raw, nor boiled with water, but roasted.

The animals remain in the oven for about three hours. Near midnight, the heads of the families, led by the High Priest, approach the oven carrying trays made from straw. The six younger Samaritans break the plaster which sealed the oven and take away the wooden cover. They remove the animals from the oven and carry them to designated places of prayer where their families have gathered to celebrate the Passover meal.

The Samaritans played the role of villains on the stage of our religious history for several hundred years. Originally, the Samaritans came into existence through disregard of a strict prohibition against the intermarriage of Jews with pagans. By the time of the Maccabees, they had abandoned the Jewish religion to the point where they dedicated their Temple on Mount Gerizim to the Greek god Zeus Helenios. Through the centuries, Samaritans have steadily declined in numbers because of their own refusal to intermarry with non-Samaritans. Inevitably the house will become dark, since no one will be left to worship atop Mount Gerizim.

Father Mulkerin is Coordinator for Volunteers, Refugees and Disasters for Catholic Relief Services.

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