Friday, April 26, 2013

Samaritan Passover, 2013

Staff outing to the Samaritan Passover (23rd April 2013)

By Philip Sumpter
Several members of the staff at NETS had the opportunity to experience the Samaritan Passover last Tuesday evening (23rd April) in a small village on top of Biblical Mount Gerizim in the West Bank. Here is a brief report of what we experienced:

We took the road from Nazareth down the Israeli coast before turning eastward just north of Tel Aviv to cut into the rolling hills of Samaria. The scenery was stunning, with its donkey riding shepherds and endless terraced olive groves reminding me of the photos of the “Holy Land” you get in some Bibles . The road leading to the holy mountain was entirely “Area B,” which means that Palestinians and Jews can use it but it is run by the Israeli military (which has a fairly visible presence, both in military bases, checkpoints, and the odd police vehicle park at the entrance to some Arab villages; here perhaps one see another Biblical analogy to the Roman presence at the time of Jesus, though the machinery, tactics, and justifications have changed since then). Because of this, you could see local Arabs and Jewish settlers standing almost side-by-side at the same bus stops, coolly distant from one another but not causing any visible trouble. There were even some signs still in Hebrew in the Arab villages we drove through, reminders of days when Jews and Arabs could mix fairly freely in this part of the world, before the second Intifada (2000) caused a change in Israeli policy.

At the foot of Mt Gerizim we were told we could not ascend in private vehicles due to the number of visitors (5,000, I’ve been told), so we left our car at the bottom and got a free ride in a Jewish run bus. It was fascinating to see how many Jews came to see this event: crammed into our bus were secular Jews, National religious settlers, and even black and white clad Haredim and Hassidim (I saw a Breslauer debating with a Samaritan priest up on top). I think my good friend and colleague Azar was the only Arab on the bus!

The village, simply called “settlement of the Samaritans” in Hebrew, is right on top of the mountain and consists almost entirely of Samaritans, who number around 700 in Israel (a few Muslims live there too). Interestingly, this area is classified as “Area C” by the Israeli government, a designation normally used only for Jewish settlements in the West Bank (“Area A” is Palestinian run and the Israeli government bans Israelis from visiting them for reasons of safety). The reason why is that Samaritans are the only people group to have dual citizenship: they are all both Palestinian and Israeli, though they do not have to serve in the army. Once inside the village it was interesting to note that not only were Jews freely mixing with the Samaritans, the Israeli army and police force were happily joking with Palestinian firemen, both groups being on duty at the same time.

Once in the village we sought out what I think is their version of the “temple,” a modern looking open-air complex with pits in one end for baking the slaughtered sheep, a sitting area in another corner for women, and an area for the priests to do the chanting. Given the sprawling nature of the complex it was quite difficult to get an overview of the entire proceedings, but luckily we discovered an entrepreneurial Muslim who charged 70 shekels (14 Euros/pounds) for us to climb on the roof of a shop, from where we could see everything (a Samaritan would not be allowed to do business on this day; that guy made a fortune). Given that you had to do some dodgy acrobatics to get up there and jump/clamber over a couple of fences, one of them being barb wired, only half our group decided to risk it. It was definitely worth the effort and money, especially as I had the good luck of standing behind an Israeli Jew with a book on the proceedings who kindly explained to me what was going on!

All the village men were dressed in white with some form of white head covering, a baseball cap often being sufficient. The ceremony began when the high priest, wearing a green robe, a red turban and covered in a Jewish style prayer shawl entered the grounds surrounded by other priests. They made their way to the main gathering area for the priests and sat down in a circle. After a brief welcome in three languages (Hebrew, English, Arabic—in that order), the proceedings began. With a passionate voice full of what I took to be pathos, he began chanting the traditional prayers and verses from the Samaritan version of the Torah. What surprised me was that everyone else seemed to know the long texts off by heart (I saw a couple of liturgical paperback in the throng for those who were not so well versed). As such the whole congregation and not just the high priest were involved in the chanting, holding their hands out as if in supplication and occasionally wiping their faces with their hands in a ritualized manner. I also noted what seemed to be a conscious effort to be sincere and passionate about what they were doing: everyone, from the high priest to the young boys, were giving it their best, pounding their fists and pointing their fingers as if to say, “This really is true you, know!” As for the melody, I’m not an expert but it seemed slightly less variable and melodic than the other version I’ve heard (Jewish Orthodox; Eastern Oriental Christian), but it really did communicate a great sense of urgency and significance.
At some point the slaughter began. Behind the chanting priests was a long, deep ditch, along some men from the village had been standing with their unwary sheep stationed between their legs. Apparently, in order to be “kosher” they have to be male, one year old and without blemish, as we know from the Pentateuch. When the time came, a man or men (couldn’t make that out) went from one to one with a big rectangular shaped knife and slit their throats with a single cut (as per regulation—only one cut is allowed; the poor sheep!). The blood flowed plenteously and about half the sheep kicked around for quite some time until their life finally drained out of them. This is not a quaint religion, but perhaps the gruesomeness of it all communicates something of what is at stake when wrestling with ultimate realities. The whole proceeding was accompanied by much rejoicing, everyone cheering, dancing a little, hugging and giving each other the three-fold kiss typical of Arabs in this part of the world.

Once the sheep had had their last kick, the men anointed themselves and their women on the forehead with the blood, and then the preparation of the meat began. The carcasses were hooked up onto a specially prepared framework and skinned and gutted (my colleague Stan, who once worked as a butcher, pointed out that at no point did they cut the muscle, always cutting along the “seams”). They were then impaled or rapped around huge wooden stakes and showered off with water in preparation for being lowered into the aforementioned pits, now fully ablaze. At this point we left, though I was told that the sheep would be baked in the pits like huge kebabs for four hours, during which there would be more chanting, until around midnight when they would be eaten by the Samaritans, and the Samaritans only.

It was getting dark and cold so we decided to head on home, content to know that we have witnessed an event that had been an everyday experience of the people of God throughout the entirety of its existence (starting with Abel), up until the destruction of the second temple about 2000 years ago (70 A.D.) (early Christians such as Paul continued to sacrifice in the temple).  The locals seemed pretty content too: now the sheep were dead and their life-blood marked upon their foreheads, this little community of the “true Israel” has had its sins atoned for for the next year, when they’ll have to do it all again.

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