Yitzhaq ben Amram ben Shalma ben Tabia, the High Priest of the Samaritans, Nablus, c. 1920.

Who are the Samaritans?

An ancient Jewish group called Samaritans still exists today. Who are they? What is their history? What are some of their practices? Did they change Judaism? Or, are they practicing an early version of Judaism, practices that existed before alterations were made in Torah law?

The name Samaritan refers to the inhabitants of Samaria, north of Jerusalem, the area where Jeroboam I established his kingdom around 922 BCE when he led ten of the twelve Israelite tribes away from the kingdom of King Rehoboam, the grandson of King David. Rehoboam remained king of only a couple of tribes. Jeroboam’s northern kingdom was called Israel and Rehoboam’s reduced monarchy was named Judea, after his tribe Judah.

The kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BCE as described in II Kings 17. According to II Kings, all of the Israelites were exiled by the Assyrians and became known as “The Ten Lost Tribes” because we have no idea what happened to them. However, we know that the Bible frequently uses the term “all” in a hyperbolic manner and means “many.” Thus the Bible may be saying that most of the Israelites were exiled.

II Kings states that the Assyrians replaced the Israelites in Samaria with people from various nations, including Cush. These people worshipped their idols and not the Lord, and according to II Kings God punished them by sending lions to kill them. The people were frightened, according to this account, and petitioned the king of Assyria to send them an Israelite priest so that they could learn how to worship the Lord. The king did so and the priest arrived and taught them how to worship the Lord. The story ends by stating that these people worshipped the Lord as instructed, but they continued to worship idols as well.

This is a rather strange tale. It seems unlikely that the Assyrians were able or even wanted to exile every Israelite from Samaria. More significantly, if God was so angered when they worshipped idols that God sent lions, why didn’t God send the lions again when these people resumed idol worship? Was God satisfied because besides worshipping idols they worshipped the true deity? This is unlikely because the chapter ends by stating that the Judeans were worshipping idols along with God and God was angry with them.

This is the biblical version of the origin of the Samaritans. The rabbis called them “Cutheans” because, according to II Kings, some of them arrived in Israel from the Babylonian city Cuth.

Samaritans argue that this tale is not true. They say they are remnants of the Israelites who were not included among their brethren exiled by the Assyrians because not all of their people were exiled. Therefore, they call themselves Bnei Yisrael, Israelites. They also insist that they and they alone are observing the Torah, which the Judeans changed. They say the II Kings account was composed by Judeans who hated the northern kingdom of Israel who rebelled against King Rehoboam. Scholars are unable to decide which claim is true. Let’s examine some facts.

  • Like the Jews, Samaritans had a temple, but it was on Mount Gerizim and not on Mount Moriah, the site that King David set for the temple. The first Israelite temple was built by King Solomon soon after he was crowned king around 967 BCE following some instructions from his father David. This first temple existed for about four hundred years until its destruction by invading Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Judeans built the second temple in 516 BCE after many of them returned from the Babylonian exile. It lasted until it was destroyed by invading Romans in 70 CE.
  • Samaritans date their temple during the governorship of Judea by Nehemiah during the second half of the fifth century BCE.[1] This temple was destroyed by the Judean leader and High Priest John Hyrcanus in 110 BCE. This was part of his campaign to consolidate an independent Judean state.[2]
  • Samaritans built their temple in the area of Shilo where a sanctuary existed for between 300 and 400 years, from the days of Joshua until it was destroyed by Philistines during the lifetime of Samuel. Thus they built their temple in a traditional area, while Solomon’s temple was constructed in Jerusalem a city David captured and set as his capital for political reasons, because it was between the tribes of Judah and Ephraim and David hoped that by not making his capital in the land of Judah, he would appease the northern tribes who would be more amenable to his rule.
  • Jews changed the Hebrew script during the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE, but the Samaritans retained the ancient Paleo-Hebrew script that the Jews abandoned entirely after 135 CE. The representation of the Decalogue displayed in many synagogues is not true because the original Decalogue was composed in Paleo-Hebrew, not the Modern Hebrew script.
  • The Samaritans only accept the first five books of the Bible as the Bible. This is because Jews accepted the idea that the Bible has 24 books long after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. Although the idea that the Torah contains 613 commandments was first introduced into Judaism in the third century CE, many Samaritans accept the idea that the Torah contains this number of commands.
  • Samaritans have continued the biblical practice of offering sacrifices which Jews stopped after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. They offer the Pascal sacrifice that the Torah obligates to be brought on 14 Nissan, which the Torah calls Passover, a sacrifice which Jews no longer offer.[3] Jews also no longer observe Passover on 14 Nissan and instead call the seven day “Festival of Unleavened Bread,” that starts on 15 Nisan, Passover.[4]
  • Samaritans have their own calendar and Passover occurs on it about a month after the Jewish celebration.[5] On Saturday May 2, 2015, for example, dozens of men and boys dressed in white prepared sheep for the Pascal sacrifice in a spacious courtyard on Mount Gerizim while singing prayers in the ancient Hebrew dialect. The animals were sacrificed at sundown, roasted in fire pits, and eaten during the Passover meal. Samaritans placed a thumbprint of the sheep’s blood on their forehead. Israeli soldiers guarded the event which had many non-Samaritan onlookers.
  • Samaritans, Karaites, and Christians celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, Pentecost, on a Sunday, after seven full weeks, as Leviticus 23:11 mandates. The Torah states that the Israelites should count seven “full weeks after the Shabbat” after Passover and call the fiftieth day Shavuot, “Weeks.” The rabbis totally revamped this holiday and instead of it recalling the seven days of creation, it commemorates the season when the Decalogue was revealed. The rabbis understood Sabbath to mean Passover.[6]
  • As required by the Torah, Samaritans make a pilgrimage to their temple during the three pilgrimage festivals Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, a practice virtually all Jews ignore.
  • Unlike Jews who have scattered throughout the world, Samaritans have always lived close to their place of worship, Mount Gerizim in Samaria. This is why many people call them Samaritans. They point out that the Torah wants them to live in Israel.
  • While the Pharisees and later rabbis generally, but not always, changed biblical law to make Judaism easier and more enjoyable, the Samaritans retained stringent ordinances. Thus many of their practices are more stringent than those in Rabbinic Judaism. For example, Exodus 35:3 prohibits burning a fire in any dwelling on the Sabbath. The Pharisees and later rabbis interpreted “burn” as “ignite” and said the Torah only forbids igniting a fire. Samaritans retain the literal prohibition and spend the Sabbath in darkness.[7]
  • There are more than 6,000 differences between the Masoretic text used by Jews and the Samaritan version of the Torah. For example, the Samaritan version combines the ninth and tenth command and adds the obligation to build an altar on Mount Gerizim. There are many scholars who contend that the original Torah (called the ur-Torah) was lost and we have three versions today: The Masoretic Text, the Samaritan Version, and the Greek translation the Septuagint. I do not share this viewpoint.[8]
  • Samaritans and Muslims pray barefoot even as the ancient priests performed their duties in the ancient temple.

Do these and similar activities support the Samaritan claims that they are ancient Israelites and are maintaining Torah Judaism that Jews changed? Whether one accepts their claim as to their origin or that of the rabbis, what is clear is that they are observing an ancient form of Judaism which has changed.              

 

Notes:

[1]     Josephus claims that it was not until 322 BCE that Alexander the Great gave Samaritans permission to build a temple on Mount Gerizim. Recent excavations of the area led archeologist to believe that the temple was not built until around 200 BCE. It is possible that a large structure was built either in 322 or 200, but the Samaritans had a smaller shrine in the area during the earlier period.

[2]     As part of his campaign, he also fought against the Edomites and after beating them, forcibly converted them. This is the first time that we hear of conversions in Jewish history, around 125 BCE.

[3]     They offer a sheep for each family. Today only about twenty sheep are sacrificed for there are only about 600 Samaritans in existence today.

[4]     This change is discussed in detail in my Mysteries of Judaism.

[5]     Judaism established its calendar long after the Bible was composed. Tradition states that this was done in the fourth century CE by Hillel II (330–365).

[6]     See my Mysteries of Judaism for a full description of the biblical holiday Shavuot and why the rabbis changed it.

[7] The rabbinically originated practice of lighting candles before the Sabbath and keeping them lit, until they go out, during the Sabbath is generally understood as a demonstration that the Samaritans, Sadducees, and Karaites are wrong when they insist that no fire may exist in Jewish homes during the Sabbath.

[8]     In my first study of Targum Onkelos, a blue volume published by Ktav in 1980, I compared the changes that the Aramaic translator made to the text for about a dozen reasons such as to remove anthropomorphisms and to present a more favorable portrayal of Israelite ancestors. I compared these changes with the different wordings in the Septuagint, Samaritan Bible, and Samaritan Targum. I showed that the authors of the Septuagint and Samaritan Bible and Targum made changes in the Masoretic text just as the Targum Onkelos translator. Thus there is only one version, not three.