ETHNONYMS: Benei Yisrael, Shamerim, Shomeronim
The Samaritans are a sect numbering about 500 who currently reside in Nablus, on the west bank of the Jordan River in Israeli-occupied Jordan, and in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. The Samaritans call themselves "Benei Yisrael," Hebrew for the "Children of Israel," or "Shamerim," Hebrew for Observant Ones." The name "Samaritans" is based on the belief that the modern population is descended from the people who occupied Samaria about 2,700 years ago.
Modern-day Samaritans live in Samaritan neighborhoods or quarters in Nabulus and Holon, with about 250 people in each settlement, a significant population increase from a low of about 150 in the 1930s. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the Samaritans are Jews or Arabs or Jordanians or Israelis (those in Holon are considered citizens of Israel), but Samaritans prefer to see themselves as a distinct people. In Nablus, Samaritans are culturally similar to the Arab population, whereas those in Holon more closely resemble their Israeli neighbors; both populations are now politically aligned with Israel.
Depending on who they are communicating with and whether the subject matter is secular or religious, Samaritans use the English, Hebrew, Arabic, Samaritan, and Samaritan Aramaic languages, although Hebrew is now the primary domestic language.
According to Jewish tradition and the Bible, the modernday Samaritans are descendants of foreign peoples who were brought into ancient Israel after the Assyrians conquered and drove the Judeans out in 701 B . C . The Samaritans, however, trace their ancestry to remnants of the Judean population who remained in Samaria following the conquest. Recent scholarship tends to support the Samaritan view. With the return of the Judean exiles from Babylonia in the fifth century B . C ., a break developed between the Judeans and the Samaritans, resulting, in part, from the Samaritans' refusal to accept new religious texts and interpretations. At about this time, the Samaritans began calling themselves "Shomeronim" (Hebrew for "to conserve") in reference to their adherence to traditional religious beliefs and practices. Barred by the Jews from participating in the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, the Samaritans, in the fourth century B . C ., built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, overlooking Nablus. The temple was destroyed in 128 B . C .; a new one was built, and it too was destroyed, in A . D . 486. Since the building of the first temple, Mount Gerizim has been the destination for Samaritan pilgrimages, and continued access to the site is a major concern to contemporary Samaritans.
At about the time of Jesus, the Samaritans numbered several hundred thousand and were spread in settlements across the Fertile Crescent. Both before and since that time, Samaritan numbers and settlements steadily decreased at the hands of the Jews, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs.
Relatively few in number, the Samaritans have been easily absorbed into the Israeli and Jordanian economic systems, with many employed as civil servants in the Israeli government. Samaritans in Holon serve in the Israeli military. Again, because of their small population and because of their ambiguous identity, Samaritans occupy an uneasy position within the Israeli nation and enjoy no formal political or religious representation nor designation as a distinct ethnic minority. Their situation vis-à-vis Jordan was much the same prior to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Endogamous marriage is the rule; only Jews are allowed to marry in, and those who do (virtually all women) are expected to follow Samaritan religious beliefs and practices. Family relationships are now more egalitarian than in the past, when men dominated the family. Arranged marriages have given way to freedom of choice in selecting a spouse. Families are generally nuclear and small and provide the major arena for socialization into the Samaritan religion.
The Samaritan religion resembles the Karaite Jewish tradition in that Samaritans and Karaites are both outside the mainstream of Israeli Judaism, which mostly follows the Rabbinite tradition. Samaritans believe in one God, that Moses is the only Prophet, that only the first books of the Bible (the Torah) are authoritative, that Mount Gerizim is sacred, and that there will be a future time of messianic revival. They celebrate most major Jewish Holy Days and festivals, although their practices, such as the ritual slaughter of a lamb at Passover (Pesach) and kneeling in prayer, do not conform to those of modern Judaism. In short, Samaritan religion resembles contemporary Judaism in many ways, but also includes various beliefs and practices characteristic of early Judaism. There is a priestly class among the Samaritans, which consists of only a few priests and one high priest.
"Samaritans" (1972). In Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 14, 726-758. Jerusalem: Keter.