newsJewish & Israeli Holidays

Taking Passover back to its roots

The Samaritans' Passover pilgrimage on Mount Gerizim in 2006. Credit: Edward Kaprov.
The Samaritans' Passover pilgrimage on Mount Gerizim in 2006. Credit: Edward Kaprov.

JERUSALEM—When most Israeli Jews sit down for the Passover seder on the night of March 25, the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, they’ll wait for the kids to recite Mah Nishtana, the four questions; pucker up to inhale the bitter herbs; relish the sweet Charoset; dip herbs in salt water; sing rousing renditions of Dayenu and Chad Gadya;and knock back four cups of wine.

But none of these rituals are part of the Passover observance of Israel’s Karaite and Samaritan believers, who observe the biblically mandated holiday in quite a different way.

Rabbi Ovadya Murad, 62, leader of the Karaite community in Jerusalem’s Old City, explains that the Karaite belief in a strictly literal interpretation of the Torah without any adherence to the Oral Law embodied in rabbinic-Talmudic tradition makes observing Passover quite simple.

“We buy a sheep; bake matzot; make wine from soaking raisins and prepare the maror— what you call bitter herbs—from pickled lemons,” he tells recent visitors to the Karaite Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem.

Pulling out the Karaite Haggadah, Murad points out that the text includes only verses from the Torah describing the Exodus from Egypt and the ten plagues, with the addition of some Psalms and portions of Hallel. “The whole thing doesn’t take more than 90 minutes,” he says with a smile.

“Karaites eat only fresh foods during the festival of unleavened bread—fruits, vegetable, fish and poultry—nothing out of a box,” he adds. (Karaites generally do not refer to “Passover” since the Torah uses that word only to describe the sacrifice on the night before, never to refer to the 7-day festival of unleavened bread). Anything that has fermentation potential—such as wine, cheese and yogurt—is forbidden to Karaites during Passover.

Karaites in Israel today number in the tens of thousands, with the largest presence in Ashdod and Ramle. Despite their outright rejection of rabbinic Judaism, Karaites are recognized as Jews, according to Prof. Michael Corinaldi, a legal scholar and expert on Israel’s minority Jewish communities at Netanya College.

Most historians believe that Karaites emerged in the 9th century as a sect of followers of Anan Ben David in Baghdad, who prescribed following the Bible to the exclusion of rabbinic tradition and laws. Over the centuries Karaites spread throughout eastern Europe and into Lithuania, Crimea and Egypt. A tiny Karaite presence in Jerusalem has existed since medieval times, but most of the Karaites in Israel today arrived from Egypt with the wave of Egyptian Jews fleeing the unrest surrounding the Arab-Israel wars of the 20th century.

Samaritans in Israel today are more visible than Karaites, despite their smaller numbers, largely due to the curiosity of Israelis. The annual Samaritan Passover sacrifice that takes place on Mt Gerizim overlooking Nablus in Samaria has turned into a major spectacle, attracting thousands of onlookers to the scenic hilltop.

This year, the Samaritans, who number just 756 souls divided between the Kiryat Luza village on Mount Gerizim and Holon, will mark Passover on April 23. Prof. Corinaldi says the calendar discrepancy is because Jews start calculating from the first year of creation, whereas the Samaritan calendar starts from the first year Joshua Bin-Nun entered Israel. As a result, the leap years are not parallel and Samaritan festivals sometimes take place a month later.

While both Karaites and Samaritans are full-fledged Israeli citizens according to Israel’s Law of Return, Samaritans are not considered Jews by Israeli rabbinic authorities. Samaritans, who claim to be original ancient Israelites with genealogy going back to the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, hold that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the spiritual center of Israel. Like the Karaites, Samaritans accept only the Five Books of Moses and the book of Joshua—for this tiny remnant, the history of Israel after Joshua is that of a renegade sectarian community. According to British Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen, an authority on Passover customs around the world, “Only they (the Samaritans) remain the faithful ‘Israel.’”

Jews abandoned the ritual of the Paschal lamb sacrifice when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. The shank bone on the seder plate is the closest most Israelis will get to a sacrifice.

Samaritans, who never identified with Jerusalem and who believe Mount Gerizim to have been where the binding of Isaac took place,never gave up the sacrificial practice. This year the Samaritans will perform the Passover sacrifice as they have done on Mount Gerizim for thousands of years. Following the biblical commandment in Exodus 12:5, each male head of household selects an unblemished lamb and the entire community gathers with the High Priest Aharon ben Ab-Chisda ben Yaacob at twilight on the 14th of Nisan to observe the sacrifice in a festive manner.

Samaritan community leader Benyamin Tsedaka, director of the Institute of Samaritan Studies in Holon, describes the ancient annual ritual.

“The High Priest opens with the sacrifice prayer and announces the ritual slaughter,” he says. “The sheep are brought to the altar and are slaughtered by experienced slaughterers. Members of each family check the kashrut of the slaughter for each other. Matzot with bitter herbs are distributed to all members of the community. The sheep are then cleaned both inside and out and they are bound, each sheep on a spit and koshered by being sprinkled with salt. About two and a half hours before midnight, the sheep on their spits are put into ovens, which have been well heated. The opening of the oven is completely sealed with an iron net to stabilize the skewers and with burlap, which is immediately covered with a damp mixture of earth and bushes. The fire is stifling and the immense heat that wafts from the deep ovens roasts the sheep. In the middle of the night, at the time when the Angel of Destruction went out to slay the Egyptian firstborn, the sheep are removed from the ovens, taken off the skewers, transferred onto large platters, and accompanied by singing, which has not ceased since the start of the sacrifice, and the platters are brought home. There, the meat of the sacrifice will be eaten in haste with matzot and bitter herbs. Any remains left over are brought to be burned before dawn.”

“Karaite and Samaritan Passover customs are differences not in principle, but in practice,” asserts Prof. Corinaldi. In his view, they illustrate freedom of religion in Israel.

“The Orthodox would like to have unity and uniformity of practice, but that will only happen when the mashiach appears,” he concludes.

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