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In the new museum exhibition, a rare journey into Samaritan life and religious practice

Next month, when the leaves begin to change color and the air becomes crisp, Jews from around the world will gather in makeshift huts for Sukkot, a festival that celebrates the fall harvest. The sukkah, or cabin, built by each family will follow the same guidelines: three walls, with one side open; and a roof, partly open to the sky, made of plants such as palm branches or fronds.

In two tiny corners of Israel and the West Bank, another Sukkot will be observed: a familiar but somewhat different celebration, which is marked on the inside for fear of a millennial fear of persecution, under colorful roofs adorned with fruits of every variety.

This is the Sukkot celebrated by the Samaritans, an ancient Israelite religious group whose members are just 850, split between Holon, near Tel Aviv, and Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. Visitors to “Samaritans: A Biblical People,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, can sit under a replica of a Samaritan sukkahdecorated with more than 1,800 pieces of plastic fruit in a rainbow series of concentric circles.

“Everyone has heard of the ‘good Samaritan’, of course, or just the story of the New Testament,” said Jesse Abelman, curator of the Hebraica and Judaica museum. “They go further back than that. They consider themselves the descendants of the biblical tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, and therefore have continued their tradition a little alongside, in parallel, with the Jews “.

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A replica of a Samaritan sukkah at the Bible Museum (Photo: Gabby Deutch)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a good Samaritan as “one who voluntarily lends help to another in distress, although he does not have a duty to do so,” and suicide prevention charities around the world bear the name of ” Samaritans “. But the notion of the good Samaritan comes from a parable in the Book of Luke, in the New Testament. Jesus tells of a man who was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who was attacked and left for dead. A priest passed him, and then a Levite, before a Samaritan – a member of a religious group regarded by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – stopped to help him.

“I try not to interpret New Testament passages for people,” joked Abelman, who earned his doctorate from Yeshiva University. “But I think the key point is clear, that you shouldn’t reject people a priori, but that they may actually be the person who best embodies your values.”

On an exclusive tour that premiered the exhibit last week, Abelman highlighted some of the unique artifacts on display, such as a centuries-old mosaic from a Samaritan synagogue and a stone with an inscription of the Ten Commandments of the Samaritans, on loan from the president. Israeli Isaac Herzog. The exhibition, which runs until the end of the year, aims to educate visitors about the Samaritans and their encounters with other monotheistic religions over the past 2000 years.

It is the museum’s first partnership with Yeshiva University, which helped curate the exhibition through its Center for Studies on Israel. The museum, which opened in 2017, has close ties to the evangelical Christian community through its founder and board chairman Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby. But in recent years it has made efforts to expand its reach to other religious communities.

The museum has also faced controversy over the provenance of some of its artifacts. In 2020, the museum returned thousands of items to Iraq after discovering they had been looted, three years after the Green family was forced to hand over thousands of other artifacts from their personal collection – and pay a $ 3 million fine. dollars – for the same reason. Also in 2020, independent researchers confirmed that 16 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments in the museum’s collection are modern fakes. The permanent exhibit in which those fragments appeared still shows the fakes now clearly marked, also offering insight into how experts discovered the fragments were not authentic.

Samaritan exhibition at the Bible Museum (Photo: Gabby Deutch)

Like the Jews, the Samaritans are descended from the Israelites. Their religion is similar to Judaism – they also read a version of the Torah and use a form of ancient Hebrew with different letters – but one of the biggest differences is that they continue to conduct animal sacrifices, a ritual that is explained in videos and photographs at the Museum. . The exhibit also makes other comparisons between faiths, such as a showcase in which a Samaritan Torah and a Jewish Torah are placed side by side to show the difference in calligraphy and style.

In the Samaritan origin story, when the Jews went to Jerusalem to build the Temple, the Israelites remained at the foot of Mount Gerizim, the mountain where they believe the biblical story of the bond of Isaac took place (and not Mount Moria, which is where took place according to the Jewish tradition). “None of this happened, according to the Jewish side of the story,” Abelman said. “And so there has historically been a conflict: who really holds the correct Israelite tradition?”

The Samaritans were historically considered suspicious by Jews, and here Abelman pointed to a famous travelogue by Benjamin of Tudela, born in what is now Spain in the 12th century. Abelman traveled to the Middle East and met the many people, including Jews and Samaritans, who lived there.

“He says, ‘Basically they all get along. Jews don’t marry Samaritans, but they basically get along, ‘”said Abelman. “At the same time, he also repeats things about the things he thinks are wrong. He them “others”.

Christians too were often intrigued by the Samaritans, given the prominence of the parable of the “Good Samaritan”. In the early 20th century, as the number of Samaritans dwindled and many lived in poverty, they sold artifacts to collectors, usually Protestants. This has aroused interest around the world. In the museum exhibit, a showcase displays in-depth stories from magazines, one on National Geographic in the 1920s and another in the LIFE in the 1950s (along with a large Kool-Aid announcement) – about Samaritan rituals. (Twenty-seven different institutions from around the world have lent objects, letters, and artifacts to the Bible Museum for the exhibit.)

The exhibition explains the history of the Samaritans and how the group expanded into the eastern Mediterranean, to places like Greece and Syria. At the time the Mishnah, an important rabbinic work, was written, the Samaritans were the largest ethnic group in the region, which is why they appear in that Hebrew text.

The Samaritan exhibition at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC (Photo: Gabby Deutch)

But they were killed in large numbers after revolting against the Byzantines, and fewer than 1,000 remain today. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, helped mend Jewish-Samaritan ties after arriving in Ottoman-era Palestine in the early 20th century to learn Hebrew and accidentally ended up in a family’s home Samaritan rather than a Jewish family.

“The relationship with the office of the president was important to the Samaritans in terms of their relations with the State of Israel and Jews in general,” said Abelman. “That has really helped to repair, like, thousands of years of – if not absolute animosity, at least dislike, distrust and ambivalence.”

The museum also features several short films that take visitors to the homes of the Samaritans, people who today are mostly assimilated to modern life in Israel and the Palestinian territories. (Samaritans living in Holon have special permission to go to Mount Gerizim, where religious ceremonies take place.)

“They are really happy and excited to be able to organize this exhibition and help tell their story,” said Abelman.

This is how the museum always tries to “tell a story about another people,” said Rena Opert, director of the museum’s exhibitions. “We will work with them and we will never assume that we are just doing our show on a community we don’t work with.”