Twenty-Five hundred years ago the Samaritans embraced Judaism and at the same time cut themselves off from the Jews. Today the surviving remnant of this people, numbering only a few hundred, still maintain the religion and the rites which for them have remained unchanged, and which justify to them their right to consider themselves the true chosen of God. M. K. WANKOWICZ tells here of a visit to the Samaritans in 1943, when Palestine was still under the British Mandate, and of the impressive ancient ritual with which these men of antiquity annually celebrate the Passover.
The road from Jerusalem down to the ancient Hebrew city of Shechem or Shem, now the town of Nablus (an Arabicized form of its Greek name, Neapolis, or “new city”), is beautiful and wild, running across lofty plateaus, between wild rocky hills which part from time to time to reveal an Arab village. As I make the journey in the beautiful Palestinian springtime, these clefts are brilliantly green, the olives on the brows of the hills stretch out on the skyline, the people you meet wear the robes of pre-Exilic days, the flocks of sheep clinging motionless to the rocks might well be the flocks of Laban.
To understand what being stoned to death was like, you must travel along such a road as that from Jerusalem to Nablus, and see the mighty torrent of rocks along the way. To realize what Biblical sunrises and sunsets were like, you must see the sun hanging quite close, all its brilliance dimmed and, like the moon in a low cloud, concealing the opening to some green valley.
On the slow journey, there is plenty of time for my mind to go back over the strange history of the Samaritans, whose ancient rite of the Passover we are travelling to witness.
When Moses died, and Joshua entered the Promised Land at the head of a horde of Israelites hardened by forty years of wandering in the wilderness, by battles with the Canaanites, the Gabonites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Hivites, and all the other peoples who got a taste of the sword of Israel; when kings buried in caves were dragged out and hanged on wayside trees, and cities were wiped out; when, manna having ceased to fall from heaven after they had crossed the Jordan, the Israelites had to live on the fruits of the land—then this harsh and raging brotherhood had to be taken in hand, the conquered lands had to be parceled out, and the rigorous provisions of the Mosaic law reinforced. And then, gathering the twelve tribes in Shem, Joshua set six of them on the mount called Gerizim, and six on the mount called Ebal. The priests stood in the middle, between the two mountains, and read aloud the blessings and the curses. And with a loud “Amen” the six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim confirmed each blessing, and the six tribes standing on Mount Ebal confirmed each curse. Some kind of visible signal may have been given in each case, for the two mountains are large and the human voice could not carry so far. In any case it must have been a fascinating production.
Some five hundred years later the Babylonians overthrew the Temple of Solomon, and Jerusalem with it, drove the Jews to Babylon, and introduced Syrian settlers into Palestine; the result was a human amalgam that professed every possible kind of Eastern religion. But even so, a large number accepted the Mosaic law, and even called themselves shomerim, or “guards,” a word later modified into Samaritans. And as Jerusalem pretty well no longer existed, the Samaritans considered it only right and proper to erect a new temple in the city which was the next largest in the land during the years of the Jewish exile, namely in Shem, later called Neapolis, then Nablus.
Then Cyrus came and conquered Babylon, and issued a kind of Balfour Declaration. But as it happened, the Jews had not been by any means so badly off in their Babylonian enslavement, and so it was chiefly the poor who returned; as the poor always do, they thought it must be better elsewhere than where they were, and they dreamed of Jerusalem, which their fathers described in terms similar to those used by Southerners after the Civil War: that it was a place of enormous wealth, and the only thing lacking was chicken’s milk.
And then it was discovered that the Samaritans had made themselves comfortable in the land, that they had usurped the primacy of the capital with their Nablus, whereas these returned emigrants thought only of Jerusalem. This led to a clash. Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple under siege conditions, with the Samaritans trying to prevent them; Sanballat, the leader of the Samaritans, mocked the Jews, saying: “What do these feeble Jews? will they restore at will? will they sacrifice? will they make an end this day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, seeing they are burned?” (Neh. 4:2).
Of those days Nehemiah wrote: They that builded the wall and they that bore burdens laded themselves, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other held his weapon; and the builders; every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the horn was by me” (Neh. 4:11-12).
A hundred times more difficult than the building of the Temple was the task of reviving the ancient Hebrew customs in all their purity. Mixed marriages were a great hindrance. Nehemiah thundered vehemently against the foreign wives; as he himself says, “cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair.”
And so, some 2,500 years back, the Jews . broke off relations with the Samaritans, who went their own somewhat different religious way. In 1943 only 206 Samaritans were left in all the world, a dozen or so in Jaffa and the rest in Nablus. All the later developments of Judaism as a religion left them untouched; thus they have remained a community of the Bible, observing the Mosaic law with unusual strictness, but knowing nothing of the Talmud.
In the year 70 C.E., when die Second Temple, the one built by Nehemiah and magnificently enlarged by Herod, king of Judah (the lower stones of the Wailing Wall are said to date from the days of Nehemiah), was overthrown, blood sacrifice of animals ceased among the Jews. For at that time their religion was centered in the Temple at Jerusalem, and the synagogues were not sanctified, but were ordinary houses in which the faithful gathered for common prayer. The Temple was to be rebuilt when the Messiah came. And then blood sacrifice would be renewed. During one Yom Kippur I talked in the street with the propagandist of some Christian sect; he clutched Jews by their robes as they hurried to the synagogues and explained to them that repentance was worthless if not ransomed with blood; and as the blood sacrifice had been symbolically transferred to Christianity, he claimed it alone insured ransom from sin.
But the Samaritans have retained the blood sacrifice in an unchanged form right down to the present time. As we drive along the roads of Palestine and see a wooden plow drawn by an ass yoked with a cow or a camel, we think that nothing has changed here for three thousand years. As we sit in a shepherd’s tent, we can be sure that in the time of Jesus guests were welcomed with the same ceremonial, and people wore the same kind of abbais.
I traveled to Nablus in the Mandate days with an excursion of Sephardic workmen. We talked mainly in French: this was a survival from the days before the 1914-18 war, when the whole of the Levant was covered with a network of French schools.
Among those who went on the excursion was Ben Zvi, the chairman of the Va’ad Leumi, or Jewish National Council in Palestine—in a sense the then president of the Yishuv, and now the second president of Israel. Ben Zvi had been settled in Palestine for many years. He was a workman in a sense peculiar to Palestine, for he had gone to a university in Russia, and the First World War found him studying in Constantinople. Even so, his hands have dug many a ditch in Palestine.
When, as a representative of Palestine, he attended the coronation of George VI in London, he had to wear knee-breeches. This caused as much amusement among Jews as the Russian Jewish delegates at an early Zionist Congress had experienced when they saw Herzl, Nordau, and other Western Jews entering the hall in frock coats.
Nablus lies in a valley surrounded by hills. The climb up the Mount of Blessing takes an hour of good going. This caused sorrow not so much to me as to the ass on which I triumphantly rode. We fell in line behind a solid throng of tourists hurrying upwards as fast as possible. For many years now tourists had been afraid of becoming separated from each other in this nest of Arab irredentism. Police patrols in armored cars constantly rode up and down the mountain. The Arabs I passed spat at me. And I spat back at them. They shouted at me, gutturally and rudely. I shouted back at them in my own language but with much rolling of r’s. It is always windy on top of the mountain, and it was rather cold when I got there. I found Ben Zvi in the tent of the Samaritan high priest who presided over this miniature community.
The Samaritans go up and dwell on the mountain summit for all the ten days of Passover. The whole population, from the aged to the infants, abandon their hearths and homes on the appearance of the full moon, break off all their labors, and go and climb a mountain. There for ten days they live face to face with the Lord Most High, praying at sunrise and sunset on the edge of the mountain to the clouds that conceal the heat of the raging fires amid which the Terrible and Unpronounceable Name has His habitation.
Seated on his heels before us, in Eastern fashion, Hakohen Avraam ben Itzchak, the elder of the community, told the story of his nation in excellent Hebrew. Hebrew is the sacred language of the Samaritans too, as befits a people who live by the Bible. As with the Jews of the Levant, their daily tongue is Arabic. “We are the remnants of three Israelite tribes, the children of Jacob, may the Lord be with him,” said Avraam.
I gazed at his Assyrian profile, and reflected on the Jewish assertion that the Samaritans are descended from Assyrian colonists; I looked at Ben Zvi, who had the face of a Russian intellectual; I recalled the pictures of Abel Pann, whose Biblical Israelites look like Avraam or like the swarthy twenty-year-old lad near him, the back of whose head was covered with thickly braided plaits. And I confessed myself to be at a loss in this darkness of the centuries.
Of the 206 surviving Samaritans, 45 are kohanim, or priests, directly descended from Levi, the son of Jacob—may the Lord be with him. The others are descended from Ephraim and Manasseh—may the Lord be with them, too. While the pigtailed lad was serving us matzos as soft and moist as pancakes (“When we came up out of Egypt we didn’t have any matzos,” Avraam says ironically), I wondered what my late aunt would have said about such a pedigree; she had a mania for tracing her lineage back to the 14th century. But this lad with the pigtails could go right back to Levi, of the 14th century B.C.E.
Now the high priest of the Samaritans, Ab-Chisda-ben-Yakov-Hakohen-la-adat-ha-Shomrim, arrived. He had been called to this office on the death of his predecessor some weeks before my visit. He was a man of perhaps fifty, of a fine build, and dressed in Arab fashion. After exchanging greetings we went out of the tent. The karban, the blood sacrifice, was about to begin.
From early morning Samaritan youths dressed in white robes had been carrying from wells the water for the sacrifice. Wood and branches had been set afire in a round hole in the ground some ten feet deep. The Samaritan carpenters had prepared seven wooden spits. For the Lord commanded: “In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household” (Ex. 12:3). And the entire nation of the Samaritans consists of seven families. A crowd was already waiting on a rise in the ground. To one side we saw a great tub of hot water from which steam was ascending. Boughs were still being thrown on the white-hot fire called tannur. Pressing through the crowd, we saw a flat stone, the altar. All the forty-five descendants of Levi were standing in several rows before the stone, dressed in white sacrificial robes. A little apart was a small flock of seven male yearling lambs without spot or blemish. For some time they had been looked after with the utmost care, being washed in a spring every day.
The imam— the priest in charge of the service—began to intone a refrain that was taken up by the congregation. This same refrain was sung with the same intonation 2,500 years ago, in the days when the people swarmed up for the Passover from distant Galilee, from the mountains of Gilboa and the mountains of Gilead, and from the mountains of Haggoim and the hills of Judea and the valleys of Ezdrelon, Hayarden, Beitshan, and from the sands of Beersheba, and from around the castle of Lachish and from Aza. They had gone gaily, playing on tympani, blowing trumpets, each group preceded by a sacrificial ox with gilded and garlanded horns. Upwards of a hundred thousand people had gathered in Jerusalem in those days.
From time to time the singers made a gesture as though washing their faces from brow to chin. I have never seen this done in a Jewish service. Was it an Assyrian accretion, or some kind of pass for controlling the breath?
Just as cold and contemptuous legionnaires used to keep watch in a cordon between the columns of the Temple, their short swords drawn and gleaming, so now a policeman of the British Mandate government, the district commissioner, wearing a sheepskin of uncured hide, was comfortably seated on a rock and watching the ceremony.
There came a moment when the white-robed Samaritans forced their way past the singers and seized the lambs, dextrously fettered them, carried them to a small cleared spot near the tub of boiling water, laid the sacrificial lambs on their backs, and, with sleeves rolled up, raised their knives.
The high priest went to the altar and began to recite the appropriate text from the Bible. When he came to the verse from Exodus (12:6)—”And the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk”—the knives flashed downward and buried themselves in the animals’ throats.
The assembled people dipped bunches of hyssop in the blood, with which they would anoint the lintels of their houses and the brows of their children. The lambs were dressed at once, their entrails burnt, their skins soaked in boiling water and cleaned with knives. Then the carcasses were spitted and laid over the white-hot fire, which was then covered. They would be cooked after three hours.
We went to the high priest’s tent, where we were given tea, and more of the pancake-style matzos, and fried salted sheep’s cheese.
It was time to return to reality. But the reality was none too pleasant. A Samaritan, a veterinary surgeon from Jaffa, was squatting on his heels in front of Ben Zvi, pestering him to persuade the Histadrut (the Jewish trade union organization) to give work to ten unemployed Samaritans. And he also wanted the Va’ad Leumi to support a Samaritan school. It had done so at one time. But during the moraoth, or Arab disturbances, the Samaritans had hastened to make declarations disowning Jewry. “What were we to do, living as we were in Nablus surrounded by Arabs? Allow ourselves to be slaughtered?”
Once, on the borders of Syria, I met a Jewish refugee from Bagdad who opened his clothing and showed me the still unhealed knife wounds he had received during a pogrom. He raised to me mournful eyes filled with the honey of Levantine sorrow, and poured out his complaints in guttural Arabic. Now the Samaritans were complaining in exactly the same tone of voice, and undoubtedly the Jews had once lamented that way by the waters of Babylon.
We went down from the Mount of Blessing. Just as we reached Nablus the full moon floated up. Now the Samaritans would be gathering round the fires. To each family a spitted lamb would be carried. “And ye shall eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s pass-over.”
For this smallest of all the peoples in the world devoutly believes in Ata bachartanu, the doctrine of the elect: that they are beloved of the Lord above all other nations, and that they alone will be called to welcome the Messiah. Are they not the only people who have maintained blood sacrifice? Do they not rigorously observe the Mosaic prescriptions?—even their infants, who~ are not given the breast during Yom Kippur?
They were gathered together now, all two hundred and six of them, hastily eating the sacrificial meat with the bitter herbs, in the hour in which the first-born of Egypt perished. For who knew whether the Messiah would not come at this very moment, and whether they would have time to finish the meal?
They would remain seven more days on the mountain. On the last day they would go up to its summit, where the Shekinah —the incarnation of the Divine Spirit—dwells. Then they would come back down the mountain to their crafts and their little shops—all 206 of the “chosen nation” working industriously so that nothing might be lost. The female baby born the day before yesterday already had its appointed husband.
But meanwhile they would also pester their far richer Jewish relations for work and a school, they would avoid the Arab knife, and dream in secret of the day that would surely come, when all the Jews and Arabs would carry in their arms these poor and despised remnants of the mighty Assyrians to the region of bliss.