IN DESCRIBING the events in the lives of the authors of the Talmud, we will have numerous occasions to refer to the Samaritans and their various attitudes to political development in Palestine. We will therefore pause to explain who these people were.
It is stated on historical grounds that the Samaritans are a mixture of a small remnant of the Ten Tribes whose kingdom in Samaria was destroyed by King Sargon of Assyria (722 B. C.). This king exiled over 27 thousand inhabitants of the Samarian population to Habor, the river Gozan, Halach and the cities of Media and in their place he settled people from Babylonia, Kutha, Ava, Hamath and Sfarvaim. The remaining people of the Ten Tribes mixed with the newly settled peoples and as a result of this union there developed in time the so-called Samaritans.
The Samaritans constituted a considerable population during the existence of the second Temple and for some time after its destruction. Later they assimilated with other Jewish sects to some extent, and the majority of them disappeared entirely.
Whenever the Samaritans are referred to in the Talmud or in the Midrashim, they are called Kuthim. The probable reason for this was that the people of Kutha constituted the most important element among the settlers whom the king of Assyria colonized in Samaria in place of the exiled Israelites. According to the Bible, these people did not observe the Jewish laws and did not believe in God during their first years in Samaria. As a punishment their dwellings were attacked by lions who killed many of them. The king of Assyria was then informed that the people whom he settled in the cities of Samaria in the place of the exiled Israelites did not know the laws of the God who rules there and, in his anger, God set upon them many lions to devour them. The king of Assyria thereupon commanded to have one of the exiled priests sent there to teach the people the laws of the God of Samaria.
One of the priests came and settled in Beth El and he taught the inhabitants to fear the God of Israel. From that time on the inhabitants continued to worship their old idols but they also erected an altar for the offering of sacrifices to the Jewish God. Since these people were converted to belief in the Jewish God because of their fear of the lions, they were called “Lions’ Converts”.
It is also necessary to keep in mind that in so far as the people of the Ten Tribes were descendants of the tribe of Ephraim, they harbored a deep seated hatred for the tribe of Judah, which dated back to the time of the Judges, when the people of Ephraim were warlike, loved to rule and constantly quarrelled with the other tribes. From the tribe of Ephraim descended Jeroboam who rebelled against king Solomon and at a later date detached the kingdom of Israel from the kingdom of the House of David.
133 years passed from the time of the exile of the Ten Tribes till the destruction of the first Temple. The land of Samaria underwent many changes during these years. Assyria ceased to exist and its nations came under the rule of another people. Even before the destruction of Samaria, there was a spiritual kinship between Jerusalem and Samaria, as is indicated by some of the prophets. We may also assume that this relationship between Jerusalem and Samaria continued to exist and was strengthened when the Samarians saw that the God of Judah saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians, a feat which their idols failed to accomplish.
It is probable that many Samarians went to Judea at that time and joined the kingdom of Judah. There are also indications that the king of Judah had some control over Samaria at certain times. Thus we read in Kings 2, 23 that king Josia destroyed the high places in Beth El and in the cities of Samaria. There also exists the possibility that only a small part of the Samarians denied the sacredness of Jerusalem even before the destruction of the first Temple. Thus it is told that after the death of Gedalia ben Achikam there came eighty men from Shechem, from Shiloh and from Samaria with offerings and incense in their hands to sacrifice in the Temple, for they did not know that it had been destroyed.
It is not quite clear what took place among the Samaritans during the 133 years from the exile of Samaria until the destruction of the first Temple, nor later, in the time of the Babylonian captivity. One thing we do know that when the Jews returned to Palestine from Babylonia under the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia, and the Samaritans heard that they were planning to build a new temple, they approached Zerubabel and the other leaders of the people and said: “We will gladly participate in your work, for we serve the same God that you do and to him we offer our sacrifices since the time of Esaradon, king of Assyria, who brought us here.”
The Samaritans are there called “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin,” which may serve as proof that the relations between the Samaritans and the Jews of that time were of a hostile nature. The Jews suspected evil intentions on the part of the Samaritans and refused their assistance. According to Josephus Flavius the Jews replied as follows: “Why should you help us when you will be able to use our Temple anyway, for our Temple will be a house of prayer for all nations.”
This refusal to accept the cooperation of the Samaritans revived the old feud between the tribe of Ephraim and the people of Judah. The Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim. It is told that when Nehemia came to Jerusalem and found that the son of the High Priest Jojada ben Eliashiv was a son-in-law of Sanbalat the Horonite who hindered the building of the Temple through false reports to the Persian government, he expelled him from Jerusalem.
Josephus offers a somewhat different account. He relates that Manashe, the brother of the High Priest Jojada, married the daughter of Sanbalat the Samaritan. Nehemia commanded him to send away his wife even as he had everyone send away their non-Jewish wives. When Manashe refused to do so, he was driven out from among the Jews. He thereupon went to his father-in-law Sanbalat who built for him a temple on Mount Gerizim, where an altar had already existed for some time, to offer sacrifices, and he appointed him priest of the temple. Josephus continues to relate that many other men of Judea flocked to Samaria because they refused to send away their foreign wives and there they abolished the regulations of Ezra the Scribe. They did other things in order to sanctify Mount Gerizim and even falsified the text of the Torah as suited their purposes.
Ezra the Scribe regulated the form of the Hebrew script at that time. Historians differ as to the reasons for this. However we may safely assume that prior to this the Jews employed the old Phoenician script, which is now used by the Samaritans only, and not the square Assyrian alphabet which we have today. The broad masses of the people were illiterate and the Phoenician letters were difficult to learn. Another motive of Ezra in selecting the Assyrian script was to establish a dividing wall between the Jews and the Samaritans. This choice of an alphabet was approved and carried through by the Great Synagogue.
According to Josephus, Sanbalat built the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim with the consent of Alexander the Great. This consent was granted as a reward for the assistance which the Samaritans extended to him in his war against Tyre.
But according to the Talmud the Samaritan temple no longer existed in the days of Alexander the Great. However, there is an obvious contradiction in the Talmud legend which confuses two events which transpired at widely separated periods, namely, the journey of Simon the Just, together with other Jewish leaders, to meet Alexander the Great who intended to destroy Jerusalem and the destruction of the Samaritan temple by the High Priest Jochanan.
The Talmud relates: The twenty-fifth day of Tebeth is the day of Mount Gerizim on which no eulogies must be delivered. On this day the Kuthim (Samaritans) tried to obtain permission from Alexander the Great to destroy God’s house and he already granted this request. When the news was related to Simon the Just he put on his priestly vestments and taking the best men from among the Jews he put torches in their hands and thus they walked all night to meet the king.
They (the Jews) went on one side and the others (the Samaritans) on the other side until it began to dawn. When morning came and the king saw the Jews he asked his followers: “Who are these?” His people replied: “These are the Jews who revolted against you.” By this they meant to remind the king that the Jews refused to open the gates of Jerusalem for him before he conquered the Persians.
When they arrived in Antipatris the sun rose. As the king saw Simon the Just he descended from his carriage and bowed to him.
Then the king asked the Jews: “What is the purpose of your coming?”
To which they replied: “Is it possible that idol worshippers can persuade you to destroy a house in which prayers are offered for you and your kingdom?”
Who would have that done? the king asked.
These Kuthim who stand before you, the Jews replied.
I give them into your hands, the king answered to this.
The Jews seized the Kuthim and pierced the soles of their feet, they then tied them to their horses and dragged them over the thorns until they came to Mount Gerizim.
When they reached Mount Gerizim they plowed it and sowed it to lentils even as the Kuthim planned to do to the house of our God.
Later this day was set aside as a day of feasting.1)יומא ס״ט א׳.
With the construction of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim near the city of Shechem, which is located in the very center of Palestine, Sanbalat hoped that it would soon become the religious center for all those for whom the road to Jerusalem was too long. In selecting Mount Gerizim he believed that he did the best thing possible because there God’s blessing was pronounced on those who follow his commandments.
In later years the priests of the temple on Mount Gerizim attempted to persuade the people that the Torah was handed down from Mount Gerizim and not from Mount Sinai as the Jews claimed. To lend strength to this contention, the text of the Torah was falsified. But this attempt did not succeed and the claim was afterward dropped.
From that time the struggle between the Jews and Samaritans gained in intensity. Often it was a struggle of ideas, each side claiming that the truth was on its side. On other occasions it took the form of bloody wars which lasted for centuries. The mutual hatred between the contending sides was so strong that even in times of relative peace it was considered a good deed to kill a member of the opposing side. Every time the Jews were attacked by enemies the Samaritans made common cause with these enemies, with two notable exceptions, the destruction of the second Temple and the siege of Betar.
How deeply rooted was the hatred between the Jews and Samaritans we can see best from the writings of Josephus, although he might have been prejudiced against them because in his time they fought on the side of the Jews against the Romans. But this hatred of the two peoples is also mentioned earlier in the books of the Maccabees and Ben Sira says of them that he is “disgusted with the shameful people who dwell in Shechem.”
When the Hasmoneans warred against the Greeks, Josephus relates, the Samaritans allied themselves with the enemies of the Jews and, at the time that religious Jews were tortured and persecuted by the Greeks, the Samaritans wrote to Antiochus Epiphanes: “We are not Jews and we do not recognize the Jewish God. If to this day we observed the Jewish Sabbath and other Jewish feast days, we did so not out of our own choice but through compulsion. If the king disapproves of our going in the ways of the Jews and our worshipping their God, we will return to the Gods of our forefathers and we will dedicate our temple to Zeus.”
After the victory of the Hasmoneans, the Samaritans joined with the nations about Palestine and sought to incite them to war against the Jews. Their hatred of the Jews was very great. It was for this reason that Jochanan Hyrcanos conducted against them a war of annihilation and destroyed their temple two hundred years after it was founded.
He was followed by his two sons who, although they fought amongst themselves, were united in their hatred of the Samaritans. When they conquered the city of Samaria, they leveled it with the ground and plowed up the site of the temple. The inhabitants fled the city to save their lives. Only much later, when Jerusalem was occupied by the Romans under Pompey, were the Samaritans returned to their dwellings.
The religious relations between the Jews and Samaritans varied with the times. Since the Samaritans resided among Jews for hundreds of years, legislation concerning them did not always follow the same system. At times they were considered as idol worshippers and it was told that their temple contained an image resembling a dove which they worshipped. On other occasions some of the Talmudic scholars maintained that the Samaritans should be considered Jews.
It was thus only natural that the Samaritans too should invent all kinds of stories about the Jews. Their main contention was that they were the real Jews and that only they observed all the commandments of the Torah. In order to prove that the Jews did not properly observe the laws of purity they did the following. On a certain Passover, when the Jews were gathered in Jerusalem, they placed the bones of a dead person among the wood which was kept near the altar in order to desecrate the Temple. But this action did not have the effect which the Samaritans anticipated. The scholars declared that after the bones were removed the Temple was pure again and argued that such dead bones do not have the power of profaning the Temple. Since no one knows where are the bones of the people that were drowned during the flood nor those of the victims of Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed the first Temple, it is entirely possible that some of those bones are interred near the Temple. Nevertheless, they said, no one would claim that the Temple is desecrated because of such bones.
At other times the Samaritans tried to spite the Jews. When the latter lit fires on the mountains to announce to far-away residents that a new month was beginning, the Samaritans sometimes put out these fires in order to cause erroneous celebration of the feast days.
At the time of the destruction of the second Temple, the Samaritans were the allies of the Jews in their struggle against the Romans. The Romans did not distinguish between Jews and Samaritans. The same was the case in the wars of Bar Kochba.
After the destruction of the second Temple the Samaritans remained in their city and their shrine continued to exist. Only about 150 years later they revolted against the Romans. The emperor Septimus Severus vanquished them, he destroyed the city of Samaria and killed its inhabitants. The same thing happened when the Romans warred against the Persians and the Samaritans helped the Persians.
The opinions of the Talmudic scholars concerning the Samaritans were not always the same. The great disputes occurred when both the Samaritan and the Jewish temples were in existence. Later the opinion prevailed that the Samaritans were true converts and according to Rabbi Simeon Ben Gamaliel a Samaritan was the equal of a Jew in every respect.
Sharply opposed to the Samaritans were the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer who said that “one who eats the bread of a Samaritan is like one who eats pork.”2)שביעית ח׳ י׳. Other scholars were milder in their attitude and permitted partaking of Samaritan food.3)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ה׳ הלכה ד׳.