samaritans: how one of the smallest religious communities in the world is struggling to sustain its community

NABLUS, West Bank — Mount Gerizim, south of Nablus in the northern West Bank, is home to the Samaritans, who call themselves the world's smallest religious community. There are some 780 Samaritans total, distributed between Gerizim, where 380 of them live, and the city of Holon in Israel, where they number 400.

SummaryPrint The Samaritans are desperately trying to sustain their lineage in their West Bank enclave on Mount Gerizim.
Author Ahmad Melhem Posted September 20, 2015, al-monitor
TranslatorSahar Ghoussoub

Hosni Wassef, a Samaritan priest and curator of the Samaritan Museum, located on Mount Gerizim on the outskirts of Nablus, told Al-Monitor that the Samaritans are the descendants of Israelites who fled with Moses from Egypt to the Holy Land some 3,600 years ago to escape the oppression of the Pharaoh. “We have not left the Holy Land since,” he said.

The word “Samaritan” in Ancient Hebrew, the language of Moses, means “guardian,” referring to those who guarded the Torah, said Wassef. Samaritanism is based on five key pillars: the oneness of God, the prophecy of Moses, the first five books of the Torah, the sanctity of Mount Gerizim (not Jerusalem) and the Last Judgment.

The Samaritans celebrate seven holidays a year. One is Passover, during which they present offerings to God, who made way for the Israelites to save them from the Pharaoh. Among their Passover traditions, Samaritans eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs, commemorating the bitterness of life in Egypt. The others are the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which lasts for six days, the Harvest Festival, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shavuot.

Today, Mount Gerizim has been divided, distributed among Areas A, B and C in the Oslo Accord between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. The Samaritans had bought some 150 dunams (37 acres) of land in Area B, on which they built homes. Reflecting the historical struggle over the Holy Land, they hold Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian passports.

The holiest place for Samaritans is the summit of Mount Gerizim, which they believe to have been the chosen location for the holy temple. By order of Israel, the area is now fenced off and only accessible to the Samaritans for pilgrimage three times a year, during Passover, the Harvest Festival and Sukkot.

The Samaritans are led by a high priest, the eldest member of the Levites, who are descendants of Eleazer, the second high priest of the sect and son of Aaron, the first high priest and Moses' older brother who accompanied Moses during the Exodus. Abdullah Tawfiq is the current high priest. The occupant of the office traditionally makes decisions on religious affairs, while two five-person committees, elected to two-year terms in Mount Gerizim and Holon, are in charge of managing the community's daily life, explained Wassef.

Samaritans take great pride in their history, which is preserved in the Samaritan Museum, built in 1997. According to Wassef, the museum documents the lineage of 163 generations of Samaritan history, beginning with Adam all the way to the current high priest. It also includes what is alleged to be the oldest copy of the Torah, written in Ancient Hebrew, as well as a collection of Ancient Hebrew documents, books, coins, stones, pottery, traditional glassware and models of the Samaritan holy places. The Samaritans claim their Torah, housed in the synagogue at the museum complex, was written 13 years after their ancestors entered the Holy Land. Only Samaritans can view it, and then only on three occasions per year. By religious tradition, only three priests hold the keys to its repository. 

About the differences between Samaritans and Jews, Wassef said, “Samaritans use the original [authentic] Torah, written in Hebrew by the fourth descendent of Aaron, Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, brother of Moses. It was written 13 years after [Abishua] arrived in the Holy Land. Therefore, there are 7,000 differences in verses and words between the Samaritan and the Jewish Torah. This is not to mention the sanctity of Mount Gerizim, where the true temple of Moses was built. It was mentioned 13 times in the Torah, while Jerusalem was never mentioned. It is where Ibrahim [Abraham] built his temple and wanted to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God.” The split between Samaritanism and Judaism resulted from tribal and succession conflicts.

According to Wassef, the Samaritans originally settled in Nablus, until moving to Mount Gerizim in 1987 because of overcrowding in the neighborhood where they concentrated and the outbreak of the first intifada. He told Al-Monitor that Samaritans are considered “an integral part of the Palestinian people and their social fabric, sharing their joys and sorrows. Our mission is to be a bridge for peace based on democracy, freedom and the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, alongside Israel, along the 1967 borders.”

During the 20th century, Wassef said, the Samaritans faced the prospect of extinction, their population dwindling to 146 people in 1917. They survived, but today the community is struggling demographically due to a gender imbalance. “Samaritans are suffering from a lack of females, thus young men are obliged to marry girls belonging to other religions, which is theologically forbidden unless they convert to Samaritanism. During the past 40 years, young Samaritans managed to marry 40 girls of different religions who converted,” said Wassef.

These days, Wassef said, the community also harbors concerns about telecommunications towers erected on Mount Gerizim. “There are six towers for mobile [cellphone] companies [Jawwal and Cellcom] and for the Israeli army that have increased the chances of cancer among Samaritans, affecting and threatening our future,” he asserted. “These towers were set up without our approval.”

Wassef concluded, “Samaritans numbered 3 million before the arrests launched by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of ancient Babylonia, in 586 B.C. Their number dwindled through the centuries, and 800 remain today. They live with the obsession of preserving their lineage and protecting their history, which goes back to the days of Adam.”