MOUNT GERIZIM, West Bank (AFP) — Men and boys dressed in white led the sheep to their fate, pushing and dragging them to a narrow, stone-lined trench on the mountaintop ceremonial ground.
The tiny Samaritan community was marking Passover in their holiest place — Mount Gerizim, overlooking the West Bank city of Nablus.
As twilight approached and the sacrificial ceremony neared, hundreds of worshipers recited prayers together, their voices rising in unison, while tourists watched from nearby.
Blades were at the ready.
While Jews no longer offer sacrificial lambs during Passover, a festival marking their ancestors’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, Samaritans keep the tradition alive on their holy mountain.
With many in white ceremonial dress and red fez hats, the Samaritans this year sacrificed around 60 sheep then roasted them in accordance with the process explained in the Book of Exodus.
According to tradition, the sacrifice and command to smear blood on their door frames allowed for the plague of the first-born to pass over the houses of the Israelites.
On Thursday night, when the prayers were finished, the blades went to work on the sheep.
Immediately afterward, splotches of blood were smeared on foreheads, including on the children — a newer version of smearing it on door posts.
Sharon Yehoshua, a 36-year-old mother of two who planned to help salt the meat afterwards, said the ceremony was the “highlight of the year.”
“It’s a very special day for all of the Samaritans,” she said.
Only around 800 Samaritans remain in their two communities, one on the mount and one in the Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv. All are expected to return to the holy place to mark Passover.
They trace their lineage to the Israelites whom Moses led out of slavery in Egypt and who established themselves in the biblical northern kingdom of Israel, known as Samaria. They believe their high priest to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses.
Many Christians recognize the name through the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Benyamim Tsedaka, 74, believes his generation is the 125th since the biblical Joshua, the head of the Israelites after Moses. The scholar said the Samaritan community had faced various pressures over the generations in the turbulent Middle East and their numbers plummeted.
But with the help of increased inter-marriage and relative stability in their two communities, their population is now growing.
Tsedaka said the number of sheep sacrificed made him hopeful for the future.
“I remember the community offering only seven,” he said.
Each family is meant to sacrifice one, though those who cannot afford it join together with other families to do so.
“Our lowest number was in March 1919, when there were left in the world only 141 individuals,” Tsedaka said.
The Samaritans occupy a particular place between the Israelis and the Palestinians, part of neither community but living among them.
Many outsiders are unaware of their presence, said Shuki Friedman, who specializes in religion and state issues at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.
“They grow by the years but not dramatically,” he said, adding that “there is a real danger” of them being completely assimilated and losing their distinct identity.
But he said it was “really remarkable” that the community has kept its traditions alive for 2,500 years.
Samaritans say their customs are even older than that.
As they celebrated Thursday night, they exchanged hugs and kisses along with holiday wishes. Many of those wearing white were now splattered with blood.
Nine fire pits with wood from olive trees inside burned nearby, awaiting the meat from the sheep that were being cleaned.
“When you’re one-year-old and 100 you must come here,” said Yiftah Tsedaka, 52.
Another attendee nearby, Itzik Tsedaka, 45, agreed.
“You can’t be a Samaritan and skip this ceremony.”