ETHNONYMS: Benei Yisrael, Shamerim, Shomeronim
The Samaritans are a sect numbering about 500 who currently reside in Nablus, on the west bank of the Jordan River in Israeli-occupied Jordan, and in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. The Samaritans call themselves "Benei Yisrael," Hebrew for the "Children of Israel," or "Shamerim," Hebrew for Observant Ones." The name "Samaritans" is based on the belief that the modern population is descended from the people who occupied Samaria about 2,700 years ago.
Modern-day Samaritans live in Samaritan neighborhoods or quarters in Nabulus and Holon, with about 250 people in each settlement, a significant population increase from a low of about 150 in the 1930s. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the Samaritans are Jews or Arabs or Jordanians or Israelis (those in Holon are considered citizens of Israel), but Samaritans prefer to see themselves as a distinct people. In Nablus, Samaritans are culturally similar to the Arab population, whereas those in Holon more closely resemble their Israeli neighbors; both populations are now politically aligned with Israel.
Depending on who they are communicating with and whether the subject matter is secular or religious, Samaritans use the English, Hebrew, Arabic, Samaritan, and Samaritan Aramaic languages, although Hebrew is now the primary domestic language.
According to Jewish tradition and the Bible, the modernday Samaritans are descendants of foreign peoples who were brought into ancient Israel after the Assyrians conquered and drove the Judeans out in 701 b.c. The Samaritans, however, trace their ancestry to remnants of the Judean population who remained in Samaria following the conquest. Recent scholarship tends to support the Samaritan view. With the return of the Judean exiles from Babylonia in the fifth century b.c., a break developed between the Judeans and the Samaritans, resulting, in part, from the Samaritans' refusal to accept new religious texts and interpretations. At about this time, the Samaritans began calling themselves "Shomeronim" (Hebrew for "to conserve") in reference to their adherence to traditional religious beliefs and practices. Barred by the Jews from participating in the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, the Samaritans, in the fourth century b.c., built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, overlooking Nablus. The temple was destroyed in 128 b.c.; a new one was built, and it too was destroyed, in a.d. 486. Since the building of the first temple, Mount Gerizim has been the destination for Samaritan pilgrimages, and continued access to the site is a major concern to contemporary Samaritans.
At about the time of Jesus, the Samaritans numbered several hundred thousand and were spread in settlements across the Fertile Crescent. Both before and since that time, Samaritan numbers and settlements steadily decreased at the hands of the Jews, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs.
Relatively few in number, the Samaritans have been easily absorbed into the Israeli and Jordanian economic systems, with many employed as civil servants in the Israeli government. Samaritans in Holon serve in the Israeli military. Again, because of their small population and because of their ambiguous identity, Samaritans occupy an uneasy position within the Israeli nation and enjoy no formal political or religious representation nor designation as a distinct ethnic minority. Their situation vis-à-vis Jordan was much the same prior to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Endogamous marriage is the rule; only Jews are allowed to marry in, and those who do (virtually all women) are expected to follow Samaritan religious beliefs and practices. Family relationships are now more egalitarian than in the past, when men dominated the family. Arranged marriages have given way to freedom of choice in selecting a spouse. Families are generally nuclear and small and provide the major arena for socialization into the Samaritan religion.
The Samaritan religion resembles the Karaite Jewish tradition in that Samaritans and Karaites are both outside the mainstream of Israeli Judaism, which mostly follows the Rabbinite tradition. Samaritans believe in one God, that Moses is the only Prophet, that only the first books of the Bible (the Torah) are authoritative, that Mount Gerizim is sacred, and that there will be a future time of messianic revival. They celebrate most major Jewish Holy Days and festivals, although their practices, such as the ritual slaughter of a lamb at Passover (Pesach) and kneeling in prayer, do not conform to those of modern Judaism. In short, Samaritan religion resembles contemporary Judaism in many ways, but also includes various beliefs and practices characteristic of early Judaism. There is a priestly class among the Samaritans, which consists of only a few priests and one high priest.
"Samaritans" (1972). In Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 14, 726-758. Jerusalem: Keter.
People claiming descent from the ancient Kingdom of Israel.
In the fourth and fifth centuries c.e., the Samaritans numbered about 1,200,000 persons dwelling in many cities and villages in the biblical Land of Israel (from southern Syria to northern Egypt). By 1917, centuries of harsh religious decrees, forced conversions to Islam and Christianity, slaughter, and persecution had thinned the Samaritan community to a bare 146 persons. During the 1930s, however, the community began to increase, and it has been gradually developing in all areas of life. By January 2003 its numbers increased to 654: 349 in Holon, near Tel Aviv, and 305 in the Kiryat Luza neighborhood, on the peak of Mount Gerizim overlooking Nablus.
Throughout their history, the Samaritans never lost their uniqueness as a people. They have their own writing, the ancient Hebrew script; they speak their own language, the ancient Hebrew dialect spoken by Jews until the beginning of the first millennium c.e.; and they are brought up in accordance with a unique, millennia-old tradition, dating back to the return of the people of Israel under Joshua, son of Nun, to its homeland.
The Samaritans are guided by four principles of faith: (1) one God, who is the God of Israel; (2) one prophet, Moses, son of Amram; (3) one holy book, the Pentateuch (the Torah handed down by Moses); and (4) one holy place, Mount Gerizim.
The Samaritans celebrate only those holidays mentioned in the Torah: Passover, the Feast of Un-leavened Bread; the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot); the First Day of the Seventh Month; the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur); the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot); and the Eighth Day of Assembly and Rejoicing of the Torah (Shemini Atzeret, Simhat Torah). Unlike that of mainstream Judaism, the Samaritan New Year is celebrated fourteen days before Passover, and the eve of their Passover is marked by a sacrifice of lambs and male goats on Mount Gerizim.
Samaritans adhere to four symbols of identification: (1) living in the Land of Israel, (2) compulsory participation in the animal sacrifice on Mount Gerizim at Passover, (3) keeping the Sabbath as written in the Pentateuch, and (4) adhering to the laws of purity and impurity as written in the Pentateuch.
The Samaritans perform circumcision on the eighth day following a male birth. A boy or a girl who completes the reading of the Pentateuch is considered "Concluder of the Law." The attachment between a couple proceeds in three stages: consent, engagement, and marriage. Marriage with Jews outside the community is acceptable. Divorces are rare. Funerals take place on Mount Gerizim, or in the Samaritan section of the Kiryat Shaʾul cemetery in Tel Aviv.
The peace process between the government of Israel and the Palestinians, bringing Nablus under Palestinian administration, has led to a separation between the Samaritan communities in Holon and on Mount Gerizim.
The Israelite Samaritans. Available from <http://www.mystae.com/samaritans.html>.
Sa·mar·i·tan / səˈmaritn; -ˈme(ə)r-/ • n. 1. (usu. good Samaritan) a charitable or helpful person (with reference to Luke 10:33).2. a member of a people inhabiting Samaria in biblical times, or of the modern community in the region of Nablus claiming descent from them, adhering to a form of Judaism accepting only its own ancient version of the Pentateuch as Scripture.3. the dialect of Aramaic formerly spoken in Samaria.• adj. of or relating to Samaria or the Samaritans.DERIVATIVES: Sa·mar·i·tan·ism / -ˌizəm/ n.
In the New Testament, the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans gave especial point to the story (in John ch. 4) of Jesus's asking for water from the woman of Samaria, and to the parable of the good Samaritan (see below).
In the UK, the Samaritans (taking their name from the parable) are an organization which counsels the suicidal and others in distress, mainly through a telephone service.
good Samaritan a charitable or helpful person, with reference to the parable told by Jesus in Luke ch. 10 about a man who ‘fell among thieves’ when travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was left lying by the side of the road, and the first two people who saw him, a priest and a Levite, ‘passed by on the other side’. It was the third traveller, a Samaritan, who took pity on him and succoured him.
Around 932 b.c.e., after the death of King Solomon, there was a schism caused by the Samaritans that led to the constitution of two kingdoms: Israel to the north, and Judah to the south. After the city of Samaria fell in 721, which marked the end of the Kingdom of Israel, a part of the population was deported and replaced by Assyrian colonists, who gradually assimilated with the native peoples. Returning from exile, the Jews banished them from their community and from the Temple, since they considered them to be "half-Jews." Another schism occurred, resulting in the building of a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, north of Nabulus. Samaritans recognize only the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua as sacred, while practicing their own special kind of Judaism. Currently, the Samaritan community counts some six to seven hundred people, who live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, in the village of Kiryat Luza, or in Holon, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.