Back from near extinction

Back from near extinction

The Samaritans’ senior cantor leads the processional during the first pilgrimage festival of the religious group’s new year. (Photo by Dale Lazar)
The Samaritans’ senior cantor leads the processional during the first pilgrimage festival of the religious group’s new year. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

When Dale Lazar agreed to travel with a group of professional photographers at 2 a.m. from Tel Aviv to Kiryat Luza in the West Bank, he really had no idea where that journey would lead.

In the end he got some pretty great photos. But, more importantly, that early morning jaunt ultimately lent Lazar an understanding and appreciation for the Israelite Samaritans — a religious group that traces its lineage to the tribes of Menassah, Ephraim and Levi — and led him to a friendship with an elder of that community, who Lazar would bring to Pittsburgh the following year.

It was March 2013, and Lazar, a member of Temple Sinai, had joined his wife, Lynn, on a trip to the Jewish state to attend the World Union for Progressive Judaism Biennial. While there, an Israeli friend, noted paper-cut artist Archie Granot, suggested Lazar accompany him and others to photograph the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim for their Festival of Unleavened Bread.

The Samaritans, or Shomronim (“guardians”), have been celebrating their Passover for more than 2,000 years by sacrificing lambs on Mount Gerizim near Nablus. The Festival of Unleavened Bread is a separate holiday the Samaritans celebrate on the seventh day after the Passover sacrifice.

“We arrived in Kiryat Luza at 3 a.m.,” Lazar recalled. “We had an opportunity to see where the Passover sacrifice area was. I took photos, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Lazar soon discovered that what he was shooting was the Samaritans first pilgrimage festival of their new year. Prayers begin at 1 a.m. in the Kiryat Luza synagogue on Mount Gerizim, and at around 4 a.m., the congregation — hundreds of men dressed in white robes and red caps — departs from the synagogue to make the pilgrimage to the mountaintop, where they move through seven stations.

The stations are all delineated in the Samaritan Torah, a work similar to the Jewish Torah, but with significant differences — 6,000 differences, according to Benyamim Tsedaka, who was in Pittsburgh last week to address members of the Pittsburgh community on the life and history of the Israelite Samaritans.

Tsedaka, with whom Lazar first connected via email after his initial introduction to Samaritan culture in 2013, is an elder of the Samaritan community and the author of “The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah,” the only English translation of the work, which includes a comparison of the Samaritan Torah to the Masoretic, or Jewish, version.

While in Pittsburgh, Tsedaka addressed groups at Temple Sinai and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. He also lectured on “The Historical Significance of the Good Samaritan Parable” at the Calvary Episcopal Church.

The Samaritans are not Jews, Tsedaka emphasized in an interview, yet they hold a “special status” in Israel.

“We are very pampered by the Israeli government,” he said. “They see the Samaritans as very special.”

The Samaritans descend from the Israelites that settled in the northern Kingdom of Israel, whose capital was Samaria, Tsedaka said.  There are currently around 800 Samaritans in the world, with half living in Holon, Israel and half living in Kiryat Luza.

They practice a style of Israelite religion that predates the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Tsedaka said.

“I can’t describe the Samaritans as another Jewish community,” Tsedaka said. “They are Israelites.”

There are four principals that differentiate the Samaritans from others, Tsedaka noted: living in the “Holy Land, without living outside the Holy Land”; the Passover sacrifice on Mt. Gerizim; keeping Shabbat “in the most strict way — even more strict than most Orthodox Jewish rabbis”; and observing the laws of family purity.

“The Samaritans are fundamentally an Israelite religion that has the same congruent history as the Jews,” Lazar said. “Moses was their prophet, and Aaron was their high priest, and they utilize a Torah that is very similar to the Jewish Torah.”

After developing an email relationship with Tsedaka, Lazar returned to Israel in 2014 and visited his new friend as well as the two communities of Samaritans.

“The warmth and courtesy I received was exceptional,” Lazar said.

As Tsedaka travels abroad for two months each year to lecture on Samaritan culture, Lazar decided to bring him to Pittsburgh.

“I wanted people to get some insight and think about our commonalities, and who they are now and where they come from,” Lazar said.

“We don’t like to be considered a curiosity,” Tsedaka said. “I want to show the Samaritans in a positive way, to show people that this is a developing community.”

In 1914, the Samaritans were on the verge of extinction, with only 141 left, Lazar said. But since that time, they have been able to revive their community.

Jews and Samaritans are all Israelites, Lazar stressed, but have “developed different customs over time. The Israelite Samaritans maintain the ancient Israelite Samaritan practices.”

The Samaritans, for example, only observe holidays found in the five books of Moses, as opposed to holidays like Purim and Chanukah that are found in other Jewish scriptures; they recognize patrilineal descent of their followers; and there are no rabbis, only a High Priest.

Today, the Samaritans are a highly educated group that is active in commerce, banking and manufacturing, according to Lazar.

“Those in Holon are fully integrated into Israeli society,” he said.

Lazar’s photographs of the Samaritans will be exhibited at the American Jewish Museum at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh from May 4 to July 24, 2015.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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