The Samaritans of Israel

The Samaritans of Israel

© David Burton 2022

The Samaritans of Israel

     In 2016, as part of a group from North America – CAARI, Canadian and American Active Retirees in Israel – I visited the special Samaritan neighborhood in Holon built by the IDF in 1988. There we listened as one of the leaders of the Samaritan community, Benny Tsedka, explained the religious and social practices of this unique Israelite remnant of First Temple days. The Samaritans observe practices close to that of Judaism 2500 years ago. In Hebrew, the Samaritans are called Shomronim. Samaria, part of what is now called the West Bank, is called Shomron in Hebrew. It is the mountainous, central region of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, based on the borders of the biblical Northern Kingdom of Israel. The name Samaria is derived from the ancient city of Samaria, once the capital of the Kingdom of Israel.

     The Samaritans claim descent from the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (sons of Joseph) as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. Their religion is based on the Samaritan Pentateuch and they claim that their worship is the true religion of Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile following the destruction of the First Temple. The Samaritans split from Judaism around 2,000 years ago, but because they speak ancient Hebrew and pray in synagogues, they are often mistaken for Jews.

     Samaritans celebrate Passover every year around their ancient temple site of sacrifice on Mount Gerizim, their holy mountain. The Day of Atonement is the Samaritans’ holiest day of their year. They rigidly observed the Sabbath. The Samaritans are a distinctly religious community and their high priest also acts as their political official and representative.

     The Samaritans maintain relationships with both Israelis and “Palestinians”. Neither Muslim nor Jew, Samaritans function well in both societies. In Holon, they have a special neighborhood and they live and work among Israelis, attending their schools and serving in the army.

     As of January 1, 2012, the Samaritans numbered just 751, divided between Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim in Samaria (West Bank) and the city of Holon, just outside Tel Aviv. Most Israeli-Samaritans speak Arabic and Modern Hebrew. In the past several years, the Samaritan community has been increasing in size, from under 200 to over 800 today. Part of the reason has been the marriage of Samaritan men to Jewish women from outside the Samaritan community. In 1924, Benny’s grandfather was the first to take a wife from outside his Samaritan community. Benny’s wife, whom he met in college, was a Rumanian Jew and a highly accomplished painter.

     Benny told our visiting group that he was born in the city of Nablus (also called Shechem) in Samaria and that his ancestry extends back some 127 generations. Nablus lies about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, in between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

     The Samaritans, or the Samarians, as they are sometimes called, consider themselves the true Israelites. While most Jews in Israel today are returnees from the diaspora, the Samaritans never left. They remained in Israel following the expulsion of the rest of the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Samaritans are the descendants of the 10 Israelite tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel while nearly all Jews are remnants of the other 2 Israelite tribes that comprised the southern kingdom of Judah.

     The Samaritans follow the precepts of the Torah, the five books of Moses. Anything after the death of Moses is regarded as history and not divine revelation. Certainly, the modern precepts that were developed by the rabbis of the diaspora and which form the basis of modern Jewish religious practice have no relevance for the Samaritans.

     The Samaritans write and speak in ancient Hebrew which means that their printed script is different than modern Hebrew script which is based upon Assyrian/Aramaic script . Their children learn both modern and ancient Hebrew. Children learn ancient Hebrew and the Samaritan version of the Torah from age 3. When boys and girls complete learning the Samaritan Torah, typically at age 7, they are considered to be adults in the same vein as Jewish boys and girls are considered to be adults when they are Bar and Bas Mitzvah’d at ages 13 and 12 respectively. Samaritan children, both boys and girls, attend religious school for about an hour every school day after regular school until they are 15 years of age.

     The Samaritan Torah has several differences from the Jewish Torah but most differences are minor. The Samaritan version of the 10 commandments, however, has one major difference from the Jewish 10 commandments – the 10th commandment.

The Samaritan version of the Ten Commandments is much closer to the version in the Book of Exodus than the Jewish version of the Ten Commandments. Samaritans count as nine commandments what others count as ten and the Samaritan tenth commandment concerns the sanctity of Mount Gerizim. The Samaritan tenth commandment is:

And it shall come to pass when the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land of the Canaanites whither thou goest to take possession of it, thou shalt erect unto thee large stones, and thou shalt cover them with lime, and thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this Law, and it shall come to pass when ye cross the Jordan, ye shall erect these stones which I command thee upon Mount Gerizim, and thou shalt build there an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones, and thou shalt not lift upon them iron, of perfect stones shalt thou build thine altar, and thou shalt bring upon it burnt offerings to the Lord thy God, and thou shalt sacrifice peace offerings, and thou shalt eat there and rejoice before the Lord thy God. That mountain is on the other side of the Jordan at the end of the road towards the going down of the sun in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah facing Gilgal close by Elon Moreh facing Shechem.

     For this reason, the Samaritans do not attach the religious significance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that do Jews. The Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem only came into during the time of King David and his son King Solomon, well after the time of Moses and the events and commandments written in the Torah.

     Benny and his wife started publishing a Samaritan newspaper, called alef-bet, which is printed bi-weekly. It consists of around a hundred pages that are printed in four languages - Samaritan Hebrew, Aramaic (modern) Hebrew, Arabic, and English. News about the Samaritans is also available on-line at

     During the holiday of Sukkot, Samaritan sukkahs are erected inside homes as opposed to the Jewish tradition of erecting them outside. This custom came into being when outside sukkahs were attacked by hostile neighbors. Samaritan mezuzahs are inscribed stone tablets placed over the entryway of homes as opposed to traditional Jewish mezuzahs which are miniature scrolls in very small housings which are affixed to the doorposts of homes and rooms. In addition to biblical verses, Samaritan mezuzahs often contain added personal writings.

     Our visiting group ended our visit to the Samaritans of Holon with a visit to their local synagogue and community center. Their symbol is the 7-branched menorah rather than the 6-pointed Star of David. Synagogue services are held on Saturdays and holidays and are attended by men. Women are not prohibited from attending. Weekday services are held at home - morning, noon and night. Before entering a Samaritan synagogue, one removes one’s shoes.

     In late 2021, a writer from World Israel News (WIN) was greeted with “Welcome to the smallest sect in the world!” by Samaritan priest Husni Yefet Cohen as she stepped into his well-appointed home in Kiryat Luza, just outside of Shechem (Nablus) in Samaria.
     Perched on a hill steps away from the site where Samaritans slaughter hundreds of sheep every year as part of their Passover ritual, Cohen’s house has seen guests ranging from international diplomats to major players from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
     A smattering of awards and certificates of appreciation in the foyer of Cohen’s home - some from the IDF and leaders of local Jewish councils, some from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and educational institutions affiliated with it - testify as to how the Samaritan community deftly straddles both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
     The members of the sect that numbers 820 in the year 2021 claim direct descent from the ancient Israelites and they practice what they believe is a Torah-observant form of religion. The community is almost evenly split between a compound in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, and this outpost deep in the heart of Samaria.
     Although the community resided in Nablus for thousands of years, the first intifada sparked a Samaritan mass exodus from the city. They sought refuge on Mount Gerizim - the holiest site in their religion and a pilgrimage point visited on major holidays - and established their 90-house town of Kiryat Luza in the early 1990s.
     The Palestinian Authority provides electricity and trash collection to the locality; Israel provides water. This foot-in-both-worlds approach encapsulates the unique circumstances in which the Samaritans live. The community has learned not to pick sides in clashes and instead turns its focus inwards, with a steadfast commitment to sustaining its traditions despite plunging birth rates.
     The Samaritans are the only people in the world to hold both Israeli and “Palestinian” identification cards, as well as Jordanian and Israeli passports and “Palestinian” travel documents. “We have good relations with the Jews and we have good relations with the Palestinians,” Cohen said.
     The Samaritans’ careful approach to such diplomatic relations was born of hard-won experience. After suffering invasions and subsequent massacres at the hands of the “Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, and everyone else,” the community favors keeping a low profile and nonviolent resolution to conflict.
     “War is a disaster for everyone,” said Cohen. “There are no winners. We pray for peace, for real peace.”
     He recounted how thousands of years ago, the Samaritans were said to number in the millions. But Muslim invasions and the Crusades saw many convert to Islam and Christianity. Others were simply wiped out during the various takeovers by some of history’s biggest empires.
     While Samaritan women do not pray in synagogues like men, save for special occasions such as Yom Kippur and other high holidays, they learn in coeducational settings and study the Samaritan language and Torah alongside boys.
     Growing up in the small sect means that Samaritan women know from a young age who they’ll marry – one of the 30 to 40 boys in their age group. The shortage of girls is the biggest challenge currently facing the Samaritan community which has been caused by a marriage crisis and stagnant birth rates in the sect.
     Access to the internet, increased exposure to pop culture from around the world, and modernization have caused arranged marriages, which were once the norm, to fall by the wayside. Many Samaritan women now hold college degrees, and on average they have more formal education than their male counterparts. The higher levels of female educational attainment have led to more women than ever before working outside of the home.
     Today, the majority of Samaritan families average just one or two children. One generation ago, families of five children or more were the standard.
     Adding to the demographic challenge is the disproportionate amount of male to female births in Samaritan families, which means that a significant number of men are left without a marriage partner. The crisis triggered Samaritan elders to relax millennia-old prohibitions on marrying outside of the faith. Around a decade ago, they permitted Samaritan men to wed non-Samaritan women for the first time, albeit with a caveat that the brides officially convert to the Samaritan religion before marrying.
     Samaritans trace their lineage via patrilineal descent, so men interested in converting are not met with the same warm welcome as women. Non-Samaritan men could potentially convert and snag a Samaritan bride, further weakening marriage options for men born into the community – a scenario which the group strives to prevent. A woman who abandons tradition to marry a non-Samaritan man would be effectively excommunicated.
     Despite the physical distance between Kiryat Luza and Holon, the Samaritans consider themselves a single entity. On major holidays, such as Passover, everyone gathers on Mount Gerizim. Parties, holidays, and social events also bring the community together. Marriages between Samaritans from Holon and Samaritans from Kiryat Luza are common.
     Because Samaritans in Nablus have “Palestinian” ID cards - along with Israeli documents - they do not serve in the Israeli army. However, their coreligionists from Holon, who hold only Israeli citizenship, are drafted into the IDF.
     In order to avoid potential tension with neighboring “Palestinian” localities, community elders reached a compromise with the military. Samaritans are never assigned to roles that would have them serve in Judea and Samaria.
     For their community to survive, unity is key. “One hundred years ago, National Geographic came here,” said the Samaritan priest, Husni Yefet Cohen. Their goal was to document a dying community for posterity. At that time, the Samaritan population numbered in the low hundreds, even smaller than in 2021.
     “They said, ‘This is the last time we’ll see the Samaritans.’ But look at us. We’re still here.”[1]


  1. Meet the ancient, tiny sect that called Israel home since antiquity, Lauren Marcus,, World Israel News,
    21 October 2021.

  13 January 2022 {Article_510; Israel_62}    
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