Although there are now fewer than 800 Samaritans, their Passover sacrifice – set according to a calendar different from the mainstream Jewish one – draws an even bigger crowd.

By Andrew Esensten /

Roasting a sacrificial sheep over an open pit at the Samaritans' Passover celebration at Gerizim.
Roasting a sacrificial sheep over an open pit at the Samaritans’ Passover celebration at Gerizim.

The Samaritan community conducted its annual Passover sacrifice Tuesday evening under the leadership of a new high priest, as 50 sheep were slaughtered on Mount Gerizim in an ancient ceremony that attracted more than 1,000 spectators from around the world.

High Priest Aabed-El Ben Asher was elevated to his position, which is reserved for the eldest member of the priestly family, following the death last week of High Priest Aaron Ben Ab-Hisda at age 84. Ben Asher, 78, is the 133rd high priest in a line that the Samaritans claim stretches back to Aaron, brother of Moses.

“My task is to preserve our religion, lead prayers and ensure that my people love one another,” Ben Asher said in an interview at his home in the Samaritan town of Kiryat Luza in the northern West Bank. He noted that while the Samaritans have clashed in the past with their Muslim neighbors in nearby Nablus and were forced out of the city during the first intifada, the two peoples have reconciled in recent years.

“There is no problem between us,” he said. “We live next to each other and work together as well.”

The Samaritans, or Shomronim (in Hebrew “guardians,” ie. of the law), trace their roots to the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe and practice a Torah-based religion similar to Judaism. They number about 760 today—half live in Kiryat Luza and the other half in Holon—and are celebrating Passover this week because they calculate their calendar differently from Jews.

As the sun set on Tuesday, Ben Asher led his community in a prayer service on their holy Mount Gerizim, which is where they believe God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Members wore white clothing and chanted passages from the 12th chapter of Exodus, which describes how the Israelites fled Egypt, in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. (The Samaritans learn to read the ancient Hebrew script as children and some of their liturgy is in Aramaic; They converse in Arabic and modern Hebrew.)

Then a cheer was raised and the community’s butchers simultaneously slit the throats of the sheep. The men then dabbed the spilled blood on their foreheads. As the uninitiated in the international audience watched with horrified expressions, the men gutted and skewered the animals on long spits and placed them in sunken fire pits. The cooked meat was served with matzah and bitter herbs at midnight.

“I love this part of the holiday,” said Cochava Yehoshua, a Samaritan woman from Holon who, like all community members based there, spends the entire week of Passover in Kiryat Luza so as to avoid leavened bread. When asked if the bloody scene made her squeamish, she said: “When you grow up in this community, you get used to it.”

The origins of the community are shrouded in mystery, according to Abraham Tal, a retired professor of Hebrew language at Tel Aviv University who is an expert in Samaritan Aramaic. “Many scholars believe they are a sect that diverged from Judaism around the time of the Second Temple,” he said. “What is sure is that they are mentioned by the historian Flavius Josephus,” who wrote during the first century AD.

Aside from its annual sacrifice, the community is best known for manufacturing rich tahini. In addition, Kiryat Luza is a popular destination for Christian tourists, owing to Jesus’ “Parable of the “Good Samaritan,” which has given the entire community a positive if unearned reputation, joked Benyamim Tsedaka.

A community spokesperson and historian who lives most of the year in Holon, Tsedaka, 68, said the Samaritans are not a curiosity but rather “an integral part” of the State of Israel. They hold Israeli citizenship – in some cases they also have Palestinian and Jordanian passports – and the Holon residents serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Many have had success in fields like high tech and music, he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Tsedaka received a constant stream of guests at his “summer home,” which was decorated with paintings of Samaritan rituals by his Jewish wife, Miriam. After the size of the community dipped below 150 in 1919, the men began intermarrying with Jewish women who agreed to adopt the Samaritan lifestyle. He also showed off his recently published English translation of the Samaritan version of the Torah, which is distinct from the more traditional Masoretic text.

As for what the future holds for the Samaritans, Israel’s smallest religious minority, Tsedaka said that the rate of assimilation into mainstream Israeli society remains relatively low.

“Despite the seductions that we have around, people prefer to stay in the community,” he said. “They prefer to keep their heritage, which is the language, which is the script, which is thousands of years of tradition.”

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