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Possibly the smallest religious sect in the world. There are about 400 Samaritans, most of whom live in Nablus (Shechem), an Arab town in the West Bank; others are settled in the vicinity of Tel AvivJaffa. The Samaritans are historically related to the Jewish people. When the Israelite kingdom Samaria fell in 722 B.C.E., the Assyrian conquerors exiled most of the Israelites to Babylonia. Samaria was then resettled by members of varied Semitic groups. The few remaining Israelites intermarried with the heathen settlers. Out of this union grew the new Samaritan sect. The Samaritans were anxious to join the Jewish group. However, conflict developed. Jews who returned to Palestine from Babylonian captivity in 537 B.C.E. refused to accept the offer of the Samaritans to help rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem because of the differences in religious practice and belief between the two groups (the Samaritans strictly obeyed the laws of the Five Books of Moses, but rejected the Prophets and sacred traditions of the Babylonian exiles).

Hurt by this refusal of cooperation, the Samaritans informed the Persian King Artaxerxes I that the Jews were plotting a rebellion against him. In the days of Nehemiah, the Samaritans joined the “Arabians, Ammonites, and Ashdodites” in building a wall around Jerusalem.

Failing in their plans to join or harm the Jews, the Samaritans chose Mount Gerizim near Nablus as their holy place and later established a shrine there. Gerizim became the religious center of the sect. To the Ten Commandments the Samaritans added another, proclaiming the sanctity of Mount Gerizim.

During the reign of the Maccabees, the feud between Jews and Samaritans became intense. At the end of the 2nd century B.C.E., the Hasmonean king Johanan Hyrcanus, captured Samaria and destroyed its temple on Mount Gerizim. It was rebuilt in 56 B.C.E. by Gabinus, governor of Syria.

The Samaritans shared with Jews the painful conditions under the rule of the Roman emperors Vespasian (r. 79-81 C.E.) and Hadrian (r. 117-138 C.E.). When Palestine came under the rule of the Byzantine kings, persecutions continued. The Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was again destroyed. Twenty thousand Samaritans perished in a revolt against the Byzantine ruler Justinian I in 572. His successor deprived them of all rights and forced many of them to embrace the Christian faith. The Arab conquest of Palestine in the 7th century and the short reign of the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries saw the further dwindling of their numbers. After 400 years of Turkish rule (1516-1917), the sect had disappeared almost completely. By the end of World War I, only 200 Samaritans remained.

To this day, the Samaritans adhere strictly to the ancient traditions of their religion. Their yearly Passover ceremony of the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb on Mount Gerizim is a colorful event reminiscent of an old Jewish custom practiced in Jerusalem. The Samaritan Bible is written in the old Hebrew script and differs slightly from the traditional Jewish version. Like Jews, the Samaritans recognize the 613 laws of the Five Books of Moses. They also accept the Book of Joshua, but they reject the writings of the prophets and the oral law known as the Talmud. The sanctity of Mount Gerizim is another point of departure from Jewish tradition. The Samaritans believe that the patriarchs are buried in this mountain and that the sacrifice of Isaac took place upon it. They also believe in the coming of the Messiah, who will rebuild the Temple on Mount Gerizim and proclaim the glory of the Shomrim, or “the observant,” as the Samaritans call themselves.

The Samaritans possess a modest literature that includes a few works of biblical commentary, law, theology, and history. Some of their writings date back to the 4th century. At the head of the Samaritan community stands the High Priest, whom they believe to be a descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, wrote extensively on the Samaritans. His studies are collected in The Book of the Samaritans.

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