The tiny community of Samaritans in Israel and the West Bank gathered on Sunday to celebrate the biblical festival of Shavuot, the anniversary of the day when they believe Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Rejecting the rabbinic traditions of the oral law, the Samaritans, whose sect number some 750 members, derive their religious customs straight from their version of the Torah or Pentateuch, which parallels closely the story of the Five Books of Moses.
But whereas Jews celebrated Shavuot last Wednesday, the Samaritans marked the festival, as always, on Sunday. The discrepancy comes from the verse which says that, “You shall count for you from the day after the Sabbath… seven complete weeks, until the day after the seventh Sabbath you shall count fifty days,” (Leviticus 23:15-16).
Rabbinic Judaism interprets “the day after the Sabbath” as referring to the day after the first day of the Passover festival. However, the Samaritans understand it to literally mean Shabbat, so they begin counting their seven weeks only from the Saturday during the intermediate days of Passover, and therefore Shavuot always occurs on a Sunday.
Unlike Jews, for the Samaritans Shavuot is a seven-day festival, and as one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the faithful all gather on Mount Gerizim, near the West Bank city of Nablus, which they believe is God’s chosen site, rather than Jerusalem, and where layers of the ancient Samaritan temple destroyed and rebuilt over millennia still exist today.
Samaritans in general trace their lineage back to the biblical tribes of Menashe and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph. They defied imperial conquests and clung to the land while much of the population of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was exiled to Assyria — presently northern Iraq — by King Sargon II in 722 BCE.
When exiled Jews began returning to Jerusalem from Babylon in the 6th century BCE and building the Second Temple, they refused to recognize the Samaritans as coreligionists.
From the nearly 1,000,000 strong Samaritan kingdom that existed in the Roman period, only 750 Samaritans populate the earth today. Half live in the Samaritan village on Mount Gerizim and the other half live in the Israeli city of Holon.