By: Noah Meimoun  | 

YU’s Israelite Samaritans Project: A Deep Look Into a Micro-People

It would likely not come as a surprise to most Yeshiva University students that humanities majors represent a somewhat meager percentage of YU’s undergraduate student body. Among the dozens of students I met during my brief stint thus far at YU as a recent Post-Pesach student (plus a two-week tenure on campus this semester), I recall meeting few, if any, students who were declared humanities majors. Let that not, however, be suggested as an accurate representation of the importance of these studies at YU, especially Jewish history and contemporary Jewish culture. 

The Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies  — a department that supports diverse educational and academic opportunities that enhance awareness and study of Israel — is an instrumental resource of YU. It provides rich and engaging educational material on Eretz Yisrael, covering Abraham, Zionism and the many millennia in between. One of their current enterprises is the Israelite Samaritans Project — a program that will exhibit the complex history and culture of the micro-people who claim to be descendants of Biblical Jews. Dr. Steven Fine, a YU professor of Jewish history and the director of the center, spearheaded this program.

Who are the Israelite Samaritans? A brief history is due. (Disclaimer: Events described in the forthcoming narrative will be inconsistent with the Tanakh’s storyline. For our purposes, we will use the Samaritan’s historical account from their website. Readers are encouraged to read and compare/contrast both accounts, especially Tanakh’s.) Their story goes as follows: After the Jews entered the land of Israel and conquered the city of Ai, Yehoshua established the Mishkan on Har Gerizim while the Jews proceeded with the reciting of the blessings and curses as described in Deuteronomy 11:29 and Joshua 8:33-34. According to the Samaritans, the schism begins here with the rivalry of two kohanim: Eli, a descendant of Itamar, and Uzi, a descendant of Elazar. The Samaritans believed that the legitimate line of the kohen gadol passed only through Elazar. While the Tanakh records the Mishkan being brought to Shiloh after the Jews conquered Israel,  the Samaritans claim that it was set up first at Har Gerizim. They claim that after a dispute between Eli and Uzi, Eli left Har Gerizim to set up the Mishkan in Shiloh. (Interestingly, the Tanakh only once mentions the Samaritans; The Talmud, however, refers to them as Kutim, suggesting they were descendants of Mesopatamian Cutheans and not true Israelites.) 

According to the Samaritan tradition, the split occurred as a result of the Babylonian exile and the Jews’ subsequent return to Israel. Despite rapprochement efforts between returning Jews and Israelites in Samaria during the period of the Second Temple, the two groups eventually developed into distinct tribes with unique identities. The Jews and Samaritans considered themselves descendants of the Kingdoms of Judah and Samaria, respectively. The Jews proceeded to add 19 books to Tanakh, leaving us with the 24 we have now. The Samaritans only follow the Chumash and do not recognize the other 19. Today, the Samaritans make up a clan of around 800 people residing in Har Gerizim and the city of Holon.

I had the privilege to discuss the project’s details with Dr. Fine. He recounted the origins of his fascination with the Samaritan tribe when he met a Samaritan during college. I was especially privileged to receive access to the outline of the exhibit’s contents — most captivating was the glimpse at its documentary directed by filmmaker Moshe Alafi. Aside from its stunning visuals and striking cinematography, the documentary’s emphasis on Samaritan intermarriage hits particularly close to home for Jewish viewers. As mentioned, the Samaritans are made up of some 850 individuals, and at present, the discrepancy between male and female populations forces men of marrying age to look outside their community for spousal potential. How do they solve this issue? Perhaps surprisingly, they turn abroad — Eastern Europe to be precise. More than 15 Ukrainian women have married Samaritan men in recent years, and for a population that is smaller than that of either of YU’s undergraduate campuses, that is no modest number. 

Dr. Fine praised YU’s and Alafi’s approach to the project’s admirable research ethos and dogma. He outlined many faults exhibited by anthropological endeavors similar to this one, particularly the tendency to minimize a studied tribe to a status similar to a lab rat. He reminds us that these are real people living real lives with real complexities and real issues, not merely a project for our educational repertoire and ensures us that this project’s personnel have expressed genuine interest and care for the specific individuals involved and the Samaritan tribe collectively. Dr. Fine also stressed the unparalleled value of projects of this nature, an appreciation for the significance of Israel, its history and all its complexities. He exalted this undertaking as an exemplar of the Torah U-Madda mantra and exudes a contagious passion for this enterprise. 

As expected, there are unique ramifications that arise from this division, especially consequences that are halakhic in nature. For example, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate requires Samaritans to undergo a formal conversion to be considered halakhic Jews. Interestingly, while similar to ours, their Chumash shares some 6,000 differences to our Masoretic text. While most are minor variations such as spelling or grammatical nuances, some semantic discrepancies vastly change the meaning of the text. Historical affairs such as this are frequently enriched when intersecting halakhic discourse and the Samaritan story is so captivating given its relevance to both the Torah and maddah spheres. 

This brief background is barely a glimpse of the complex yet fascinating history of the Samaritans and their neighboring nations. The Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies offers a more comprehensive, accurate and engaging history. Their Israelite Samaritans Project includes a 2018 lecture by Benyamin Tsedaka, director of the A-B Center for Samaritan Studies in Holon, who spoke about Samaritan traditions and their connection to manuscripts housed in the Gottesman Library’s special collections.

The project will culminate in a traveling exhibition by the Yeshiva University Museum that is meant to open at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. this coming spring. The exhibit will include the full length documentary by Alafi, an exhibition volume, a stunning Samaritan cookbook (to which I was also privileged to preview and must recommend as well), a compendium of fascinating artifacts and a rich and extensive history among many other things, including online courses and student field work with the Samaritans. Tsedaka’s lecture will be featured in Alafi’s documentary.

As per the Samaritans Project website, students are encouraged to engage with the project’s exhibition and content for a greater understanding and appreciation for Israel’s extensive history and role as a focal point to a myriad of tribes, cultures and peoples.

Photo Caption: Cantor Matzliaḥ (Najah) Cohen and his son, Brito, examine the Abisha Scroll during the filming of CIS’s documentary, The Samaritans: A Biblical People.

Photo Credit: YU Center for Israel Studies