I am Jewish and thus am obviously not a Samaritan. I try to stick to Jewish topics here, as I don’t like to speak outside my lane, but given that, (1) Samaritans are our closest ethnoreligious cousins, (2) less than 1000 Samaritans survive in the world today, and (3) there seems to be a ton of interest, I decided to write this post.
I recommend my recent posts THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE A TRIBE and WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS for more helpful and important context on these topics.
Samaritans are an ethnoreligious group Indigenous to the Land of Israel, specifically to the region of Samaria in what is now known as the West Bank. Like Jews, Samaritans are descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites; however, they do not practice Judaism or identify as Jews. Instead, they practice a very closely related religion known as Samaritanism.
THE KINGDOM OF ISRAEL
In 1047 BCE, a confederation of Israelite tribes united to form a centralized state known as the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel. In 930 BCE, the united monarchy split into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. In the 720s BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled most of its residents. The account of the Assyrian captivity is verified by both Assyrian and Israelite sources of the time period.
Samaritans are descended from the survivors of the Assyrian destruction belonging to the ancient Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. In other words, while Jews can trace their ancestry to the southern Kingdom of Judah (which the Assyrians did not destroy), Samaritans trace their ancestry to the northern Kingdom of Israel.
In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the southern Kingdom of Judah, exiling about 25 percent of its residents to Babylon. The account of the Babylonian exile is confirmed by archeological finds, as well as Jewish and Babylonian sources of the time period. The majority of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was compiled during this period. In 539 BCE, the Babylonians allowed the Jews to return.
It was upon this return that the split between Judaism and Samaritanism became complete (previously, all practiced Yahwism, which is the precursor to Judaism). Samaritans consider their practices to follow the true religion of the ancient Israelites, whereas Jewish practices are (in their view) an “amended” version that the captive Judeans brought back from Babylon.
SAMARITANISM VS JUDAISM
As mentioned on the previous slides, Samaritans believe their religious practices are the true practices of the ancient Israelites, whereas, in their view, Judaism is an amended or edited version of ancient Israelite religion that the captured Judeans brought back from Babylon in 539 BCE.
Samaritans follow the Samaritan Torah, also known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, which they consider to be the true and unaltered version of the Torah that Moses received on Mount Sinai. While the Samaritan Torah is similar to the Jewish Torah, there are some 6,000 differences. Most notably, Samaritans believe that Mount Gerizim, not Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is the holiest site. Mount Gerizim is located near the ancient city of Shechem (now known as Nablus in the West Bank).
Samaritans reject all post-Torah texts of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”). They also reject the Talmud and follow a different version of the Ten Commandments.
Samaritans observe the holidays of the Torah, such as Shabbat and Passover. They still practice sacrificial offerings during Passover, whereas Jews do not since the destruction of the Second Temple. The priestly class (Kohanim) still play the role of religious leaders. In Judaism, Kohanim still carry special duties and privileges, but rabbis are the religious leaders.
HISTORY & PERSECUTION
Like Jews, Samaritans have a long history of persecution.
In 332 BCE, the Samaritans built a new temple on Mount Gerizim. This angered the Jewish population and created animosity between Jews and Samaritans. This animosity was later depicted in the Gospel.
During the Maccabee Revolt against the Seleucid Greeks, the Samaritans repudiated all connection with Jews in exchange for safety. In 113 BCE, after the Jews had won the Maccabean revolt, the (Jewish) Hasmonean ruler destroyed the Samaritan temple. In 136 CE, the Samaritans rebuilt their temple.
Samaritans, like Jews, were persecuted during the Byzantine period. Many then converted to Christianity, often by force. In 529, the Samaritans revolted with the goal of creating their own state, but the revolt was crushed. At the start of the Byzantine period, Samaritans numbered at about a million; by the time the Arabs conquered the Levant, only tens of thousands remained.
During the Arab period, Samaritans were initially considered “People of the Book,” subjected to second-class citizenship. Later, however, they were persecuted and forcibly converted to Islam, particularly after the al-Hakim Edict of 1021, when both Jews and Samaritans were faced with the option of converting to Islam or leaving Palestine. This nearly obliterated the Indigenous Jewish and Samaritan communities. During the Crusades, Samaritans were generally tolerated because they had been mentioned positively in the Gospel, whereas Jews and Muslims were massacred.
By the 17th century, the Ottomans had massacred most of the Samaritan population. By the time the British took over Palestine after World War I, only a little over 100 Samaritans remained.
By the time the 1948 war broke out, most Samaritans lived in Samaria (yet to be renamed the West Bank). In the 1950s, during the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank, some 100 Samaritans were transferred to Israel under an agreement made between the Israeli and Jordanian authorities. In 1954, the Israeli president created a Samaritan enclave in the city of Holon, where most Samaritans live to this day.
According to the 1949 armistice agreement, Jordan was obligated to grant Jews, Christians, and Samaritans access to their sacred sites. In actuality, Jews were not permitted to visit our holy sites even once. Samaritans were only allowed to visit Mount Gerizim once a year.
When Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war, most Samaritans resided in the city of Nablus (to them and to Jews, the city of Shechem). In the 1980s, Palestinian militants began attacking Samaritans. During the First Intifada (1987-1990), the Samaritans fled Nablus for safety and resettled in the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha. Only an abandoned Samaritan synagogue remains in Nablus.
THE COMMUNITY TODAY
Today the Samaritan community numbers at just about 840 members, with the majority living in Holon, within the Green Line. The rest live in the West Bank. They speak Samaritan Hebrew, modern Hebrew, and Arabic and hold two or three ID cards: Israeli, Palestinian, and sometimes Jordanian. Samaritans are the only people to hold dual Israeli-Palestinian citizenship, following an agreement made during the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. They consider themselves a bridge of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian communities, generally maintaining good relations with both. Most Samaritans use two names: one in Hebrew and one in Arabic.
The Israeli rabbinate considers Samaritanism a “sect” of Judaism, but Samaritans are still required to undergo Halakhic conversion to Judaism if they want to be recognized as Halakhic Jews. Conversions going both ways — from Samaritanism to Judaism and from Judaism to Samaritanism — are common when a Jew and a Samaritan choose to marry. Like Jews, Samaritans call themselves “Children of Israel.” However, they do not call themselves Yehudim (Jews).
Today Samaritans consider themselves fully Israeli and even serve in the IDF, though they do not serve in the West Bank or in combat units, as they cannot afford to lose more community members because their community is already so small. Samaritans living within the Green Line are drafted, while those living in the West Bank are not and only serve if they choose to.
There are two small Samaritan diasporic communities: one in Brazil and another in Italy.
Numerous genetic studies have been done on the Samaritan population since the 1960s, which demonstrate that Samaritans and Jews (including Ashkenazi, Iraqi, Yemenite, Libyan, and Moroccan Jews) have clear common paternal ancestry.
The Samaritan community comprises of four lineages: the priestly Kohen lineage from the Tribe of Levi, the Tsedakah lineage from the Tribe of Manasseh, the Joshua-Mahriv lineage from the Tribe of Ephraim, and the Danafi lineage from the Tribe of Manasseh. For more on the Twelve Tribes and where Jews fit in, I recommend my post THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE A TRIBE.
In particular, the Kohen lineage has clear common ancestry with Jewish Levites and Kohanim, implying that they did in fact originate from the same tribe (i.e. the Tribe of Levi).
Some archeologists surmise that, during the period of the Assyrian destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel, Samaritan men married Assyrian women, which “was a typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities.”
Due to centuries of intermarriage within such a small population, Samaritans suffer from various serious birth defects and genetic diseases. However, Israeli medical advances and genetic testing have helped the community in recent decades, and since 1997, only 4 out of 97 Samaritan newborns were born with disabilities.
To alleviate the issue, Samaritan men have also started marrying women outside of the community in the past 40 years, including Jews and non-Jewish Russians and Ukrainians who convert to Samaritanism.
Some Samaritan women have also chosen to convert to Judaism. For example, Israeli actress and singer Sofi Tsedakah converted to Judaism when she turned 18.
THE “GOOD SAMARITAN”
Most people — even those who know nothing about the Samaritan community — are likely familiar with the phrase “Good Samaritan.” The term comes from a story in the Christian Gospel, which goes that a beaten, naked, half-dead (implicitly) Jewish traveler is suffering on the side of the road. A Jewish Kohen and a Jewish Levite walk by and ignore him. However, when a Samaritan walks by, he helps the injured man, despite the animosity between Samaritans and Jews. In this telling, the Samaritan is depicted favorably, while Jews are depicted negatively.
Some Christians believe that the Samaritan represents Jesus Christ who saves the sinful (Jewish) soul. Others see the parable less literally and believe the Samaritan simply represents the ethics of Jesus.
Today the phrase “Good Samaritan” refers to someone who helps a stranger. Many hospitals and charities are named after this parable. In many countries, including most of the United States and Israel, “Good Samaritan laws” provide legal protection to those who provide assistance to injured, ill, or otherwise disabled folks. These laws are meant to protect bystanders from being sued or prosecuted for wrongful death or causing unintentional injury.
According to some members of the community, they dislike the term “Good Samaritan” because it comes from the New Testament, which they, like Jews, do not believe in.
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