Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Samaritan Passover 2007: the Good, Bad, and Bloody

As the festive community's males aggressively goaded forty-five sheep into the sacrifice pen atop Mount Gerizim, an ancient Passover rite entered its 3645th year.

White-clad Samaritan youths frolicked with bahhing Paschal lambs, on which they would feast a few hours later.

Having defied historical odds, the continuity of the Samaritan culture is baffling.

"We Samaritans are the smallest and oldest people in the world,” said Benyamin Tsedaka, the sect's historian.

The Israelite Samaritans are an extant link to the northern Kingdom of Israel, which, along with Judea, comprised biblical Israel.

Many groups around the world claim descent from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, but the Samaritans precisely trace their lineage to particular Israelite tribes that were vanquished by the Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C.

Samaritans cite genetic proof that they descend from the tribes of Levi, Menashe, and Ephraim, the latter two of which are sons of Joseph. Meanwhile, some skeptics claim that the Samaritans descend largely from ethnically mixed Assyrians.

Yefet ben Asher Cohen is the director of the Samaritan Museum in Kiryat Luza and one of many Samaritan priests. Like most Samaritans, Cohen said he "can trace his Levite lineage back 127 generations to Aaron."

Today, the Samaritans retain an intense connection with their Israelite heritage by perpetuating a rite focused on literal interpretation of the Five Books of Moses.While there were an estimated 1.2 million Samaritans in 100 A.D., there are approximately 750 today. The community is split between Holon - a southeastern suburb of Tel Aviv - and the town of Kiryat Luza atop Mount Gerizim, overlooking Nablus in the northern West Bank.

"There is no Samaritan diaspora, since we are all in Eretz Yisrael," said Samaritan Natan Yeshua Marhib, of the tribe of Ephraim.

In 1920, there were just 146 Samaritans in the world, according to a National Geographic report from that year.

Scholars believe that a large number of Samaritans converted to Islam during centuries of Arab domination.

Mount Gerizim, the site of the destroyed Samaritan temple in ancient Luza, is the sacred epicenter of the Samaritan faith – just kilometers away from Sebastya, the political capital of biblical Samaria.

One primary difference between the Jewish and Samaritan Torahs is that the Samaritan 10th Commandment dictates the supreme holiness of Mount Gerizim, in contradistinction to the spiritual and political significance of Jerusalem's Temple Mount in the Judean tradition.

Historians believe that the Samaritans had become completely separate from the Jews by the Fourth Century B.C. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, among other tales, reflects the ill will that existed during New Testament times between Jews and Samaritans.

To this day, the Samaritans have retained the high priesthood, the annual Passover sacrifice, and the celebration of the New Year holiday of Aviv in the spring, in accordance with a distinctly Samaritan calendar. Samaritans do not consider themselves to be Jews, and they employ a number of unique legal texts that interpret Samaritan law.

Traditionally, the Samaritan religious leader is the eldest living Levite. Since 2004, the high priest has been Elazar ben Tsedaka ben Yitzhaq - the 131st Kohen Gadol.

Today, Gerizim Samaritans speak Palestinian Arabic in daily conversation, while those in Holon mostly use Modern Hebrew. For liturgical purposes, Samaritans use Samaritan Hebrew, a dialect of ancient Hebrew that predates Aramaic influence on the Hebrew language.

Samaritan Hebrew is written in a form of ancient Hebrew script whose letters are closely related to those of the ancient Hebrew inscriptions found on both the 1 and 10 New Israeli Shekel coins.

The community's monthly magazine, the Samaritan Times, was established in 1969 during a significant Samaritan cultural renaissance. Holon resident Benyamin Tsedaka is the current editor and the co-director of the A.B. Institute of Samaritan Studies, in addition to his other roles as historian and ambassador-at-large.

Tsedaka's father was the chief of the Holon community from 1928 to 1984.
As he turns towards portraits of his ancestors on the wall of his modern Holon home, Tsedaka said, "We regard the contemporary nation of Israel as the fulfillment of a historical dream."

Tsedaka is a distant cousin of Sofi Tsedaka, the Israeli actress and singer who converted from Samaritanism to Judaism. Benyamin Tsedaka believes that her recent musical notoriety has attained “positive publicity in a negative way for the Samaritan people."

He is currently in the midst of producing parallel translations of the Samaritan Torah (in Samaritan Hebrew, biblical Hebrew, and English), a seven year project that should be available on the internet by fall 2007.

He has also been preparing for the seventh International Conference of Samaritan Studies, which will take place in Papa, Hungary, in 2008.

Tsedaka speaks optimistically about the Samaritan community's fecundity. Though there is a small pool of potential mates amongst the four families (Cohen, Danfi, Marhib, and Tsedaka), a geneticist approves all marriages in order to prevent genetic illness.

This year's vibrant Passover festivities demonstrate the incredible longevity that the Samaritans have attained.

From 1948 to 1967, Passover was the only week in which the two communities in Holon and Nablus were allowed to see each other, as per an agreement between Israeli and Jordanian authorities.

This year's Passover sacrifice on the eve of April 30th was no exception to the annual celebration of primal, communal spirit. The slaughter and subsequent feast of Paschal lamb remains faithful to ancient Israelite rite. By marking each community member with lamb's blood, the Samaritan tradition holds that the angel of death will pass over every Israelite.

"The Passover sacrifice is just something routine that we do every year," said Rafi Tsedaka, a Samaritan from Holon, who compared the Samaritan Passover sacrifice to "celebrating one's birthday."

Samaritan priest Yafatayem Cohen said, "This slaughter is special for us because of the gradually increasing size of our community and the consequent number of sheep we must sacrifice." He added, "Since we need one per family, this year we are sacrificing 45."

Cohen's niece, 19-year old Kiryat Luza resident Salwa Cohen, studies English Literature at An Najah University in Nablus. She vividly recalls having celebrated each Passover since she was 6.

Salwa was four months old when the community relocated from Nablus to the summit of Mount Gerizim, during the height of 1st Intifada in 1988. Despite the consistently turbulent political situation, she emphasized, "We love Israel, and we love Palestine."

Most Samaritans seem intent on remaining neutral for the duration of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Though the remarkably small Samaritan ethno-religious entity has preserved its heritage for over 2700 years, the uncertain future of Israeli control in the West Bank places the Samaritans' welfare in doubt. While the Holon-based half of the community will remain under Israeli rule, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim will likely become part of a future Palestinian state.
Gerizim Samaritans do not view this as a problem, since they hold both Palestinian identity cards and Israeli passports. Moreover, the Samaritans maintain friendly relations with the current Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government, having negotiated an agreement of mutual understanding the day after Hamas came to power.

For now, the Gerizim community falls under Area B of the Oslo Accords, allowing for Israeli security control and Palestinian civil control, an arrangement instituted in 1995.

Many Gerizim Samaritans still work and study in Nablus, which is the northern West Bank’s largest population center.

The Samaritans, an officially recognized minority, formerly held a seat in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

For his part, Benyamin Tsedaka hopes that the Israeli military will remain on Mount Gerizim.

“Without Israel, the Samaritans could disappear," said Tsedaka. "You cannot find a people more loyal to the State than the Samaritans.”

He continued, “If you want to prove the unbroken settlement of Israel, you can only do so with the history of the Samaritans.”

Tsedaka believes that relations between Israel and the Palestinians will never be perfect, but he envisions a return to the level of rapport that existed prior to the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.

“As a peacemaker, I’m talking about the future of my community - working between the raindrops without wetting ourselves,” said Tsedaka.

Samaritan Website Link

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