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The Samaritans

by Rev. Terrence J. Mulkerin
photos: CNEWA files


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The parable of the Good Samaritan immortalized the performance of a single actor on the stage of our religious history. As a result, every Christian who reads the Gospel knows something about the Samaritans. Yet in all the world there are only 300 of them. They are Arabic-speaking Israeli citizens. Half of them live in the town of Nablus, twenty-five miles north of Jerusalem. The other half live in the town of Holon, near Tel Aviv.

We know that Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other at the time of Christ. Jews worshipped at their Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and Samaritans worshipped at their Temple on Mount Gerizim near Nablus. Animosity between them goes back several centuries before Christ’s birth.

Samaritans claim descent from three of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The seventy-five members of the priestly class trace their origin to the Tribe of Levi. Laymen consider themselves descendants of the Tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. When the Jews returned from their captivity in Babylon in the sixth century B.C., they did not accept Samaritans as religious equals. In fact, since the Samaritans had intermarried with pagan women, they were no longer considered Jews. According to rabbinic law only those who have Jewish mothers are Jews. Since they were no longer regarded as Jews, the Samaritans were not entitled to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. They were not even permitted to help in the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity. Jews and Samaritans have gone their separate ways ever since, except for their very brief alliance against the Romans in the first century.

Christ had told the Samaritan woman whom He met at Jacob’s well at the foot of Mount Gerizim that the time was coming when people would worship God neither on Mount Zion nor on Mount Gerizim. In 66 A.D. the Romans killed 12,000 Samaritans as a punishment for joining the Jewish revolt against Roman authority. They completely destroyed the Samaritan Temple. Today all that remains is a few thousand square feet of rubble on the top of a wind-swept and barren mountain. Four years later the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple on Mount Zion. Today all that remain are some of the stones that supported the western wall of the Temple.

Jews no longer offer sacrifices at the Temple area in Jerusalem. Samaritans, however, journey to Mount Gerizim every year in our month of March or April to offer their Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nissan. On the tenth of the month all of the Samaritans go to the summit of the mountain where they set up wooden huts and tents. The huts become their homes for the next ten days. The tents store the supplies necessary for their sacrifice.

The Samaritans begin their preparations for the Passover sacrifice on the morning before it takes place. Six young men are assigned to fetch water for the sacrifice. Garbed in white trousers, over which they wear a white robe girded with a white belt, they carry the water to the altar and pour it into the large pots set over the altar. They light a fire in the altar about two hours before the sacrifice begins. The altar is a shallow ditch about twelve feet long and three feet wide lined with plain, unmasoned stone. Fifty feet away from the altar is a pit about ten feet deep and four feet in circumference called the tannur. This is the oven in which the sacrificed animals are roasted.

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Tags: Israel Jews Religious Differences