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The Samaritan Passover. 



AFTER being deprived of the privilege at different times and for 
considerable periods, the Samaritans have for fifty years been 
permitted the uninterrupted celebration of their passover at the 
rightful centre, on Mt. Gerizim. Among the very first visitors to 
witness the festival after its restoration was the German Orientalist, 
Petermann, who was present April 22, 1853. The careful report 
which he gave of his observations is perhaps the most valuable one 
that we possess.^ Subsequent reports from other observers are quite 
numerous, and differ in excellence according to the care with which 
that which was actually seen is distinguished from what was learned 
second-hand or taken for granted. While in its main outlines the 
celebration has continued the same, it is clear that there has been, 
and still is, much freedom in matters of detail. It is in illustration 
of this fact and in directing attention to the peculiarities of a Sunday 
passover that the following report has whatever of value it may 
possess. There are really three methods of procedure, according 
as the passover falls on Saturday, Sunday, or a following week-day. 
At the time of Petermann's visit and that of several others since, the 
festival chanced to fall on Saturday, and so preparations were made 
in advance, and the lambs were all ready to be eaten by the setting 
of Friday's sun, which marked the advent of the Sabbath. When 
the feast falls on any other day than Sunday, preparations can begin 
in the afternoon or even earlier, but naturally this cannot take place 
on Saturday, and so a Sunday passover has its own particular method 
of procedure. It happened this year that the feast fell on Sunday, 
April 12, and, as the Jewish day is reckoned from sunset to sunset, 
was celebrated on the night of Saturday. 

We arrived at the Samaritan encampment about four o'clock Satur- 
day afternoon and found all very quiet. People could be seen mov- 

1 Reisen iiii Orient, i. pp. 260-292, Leipzig, 1 860 ; Herzog's Real-Eticyclopadie, 
ed. I, xiii. pp. 378 sqq. 


ing about and sitting in the tents, but there was no rush toward us 
on the part of the young men and boys, as there had been when we 
came up the day before, nor did any of them follow us or show more 
interest than to watch our movements from a distance. The place 
of the encampment was on the shoulder of the mountain below the 
summit and to the west of it, apparently the exact spot described by 
Petermann. The masses of stones which surround it testify to the 
labor that was necessary to clear this space, about half an acre in 
extent. The tents, of various shapes, were ranged in irregular lines 
about three sides of a court or square. The open side was the en- 
trance to the encampment on the east. Among the tents were two 
or three light, portable structures of wood and metal, resembling the 
camps sometimes used by those engaged in the work of excavation. 
At the time of Petermann's visit he speaks of finding six tents. Seven 
years later there were ten ;^ and early in the '90's it is estimated there 
were twenty-five or thirty;^ while in 1898 there were twenty-nine.'' 
This year we could count fully forty, one for each of the forty fami- 
lies. In the earher days, fear of their Moslem masters, and espe- 
cially fear of a raid from the neighboring Bedawin, led the Samaritans 
to curtail their sojourn on Mt. Gerizim as much as possible. The 
passover and the following feast of unleavened bread was not a reli- 
gious holiday to the same extent that it is now. The change has 
resulted from the development of a more tolerant spirit and a larger 
degree of security. The tents, as we saw them, were well equipped 
with household furniture, and the encampment had an air of perma- 
nence. The high priest, Yacub, invited us to his tent soon after our 
arrival. We found it of the same kind as the usual fourteen- rope 
tent of a Cook outfit. Its fittings were clean and comfortable, but in 
no way elaborate. The usual coffee presented to guests was replaced 
by lemonade, as there could be no fires on the Sabbath. Yacub was 
very willing to answer our questions, and also to receive the bakhshish 
for showing the sacred roll of the Pentateuch. 

The place where the passover is celebrated is in a little enclosure 
at the southeast corner of the encampment. As one enters he comes 
first to a short trench, running north and south, in which the fire is 
kindled for boiling the water in two caldrons which rest on the walls 
that form the sides of the trench. Beyond these, towards the north, 
the trench expands into a circular end, where larger wood is laid for 

2 John Mills, Three Months^ Residence at Nablus, pp. 248 sqq. 
^ Macewen, Good Words, 1894, pp. 10 sqq. 
^ Thomson, PEF, QS. 1902, p. 84. 


the fire to consume the entrails and whatever may remain from the 
feast. The fuel was all in readiness when we went to inspect the place 
after our call on the high priest. The long fragment of a large col- 
umn, evidently from the ruins on the top of the mountain, lies near 
the farther side of the enclosure. Joined on to the northeast corner 
is a little mound, and in the centre of this a pit some eight or nine 
feet deep and about three feet in diameter, walled up like a well. 
This is the oven where the lambs are roasted. Apparently, since it 
is not possible to dig to any depth in such a rocky surface, they 
heaped up earth and stones in this small mound to increase the depth 
of the pit. The same one is used from year to year. Meantime it 
is kept in proper condition and preserved from defilement by being 
filled with small stones. A large pile of thorns, together with twigs 
and branches, was in readiness for the fire here. 

As the hour drew on toward sunset, there was a stir of life through- 
out the encampment. The high priest came for a last inspection. 
He was throughout the master of ceremonies and gave personal at- 
tention to details, lending a hand on various occasions. Visitors 
now began to arrive in considerable numbers, and along with them 
mounted soldiers and police. The walls of the little enclosure where 
the service was to be held became crowded, and police and soldiers 
were busy keeping back the curious boys. In previous years young 
Mohammedans have sometimes caused considerable trouble and 
come near defiling the passover. About half an hour before sunset 
the high priest took his place at one end of the broken column, with 
his face toward the sacred rock on the mountain top, the site of the 
ancient Samaritan temple. Behind him, at some little interval, was 
a company of men ranged in three rows, two long ones and a short 
one between. They took their places without any apparent principle 
of arrangement, as one after another joined this group. Petermann 
speaks of twelve men representing the nation appearing in this part 
of the service. These I did not see, unless they were collected in 
the first row. This, however, included fourteen, counting one small 
lad. Most of the company were clothed in white. The high priest 
had on a green robe at first, and later changed this for a white one. 
At first all knelt or prostrated themselves in silent prayer. Then they 
joined the high priest in the repetition of a prayer in the nasal chant 
or intonation employed by worshippers of all faiths in the East. This 
was attended with stroking of the face or beard in certain passages, 
and occasional prostrations. After this all rose, and the high priest 
continued the service with responses from the people. Then he 


mounted the broken column and looked out toward the Mediter- 
ranean, where the setting sun was almost hidden by a dense haze. 
He was repeating with marked emphasis what was presumably the 
account in Ex. 12, while closely observing the watch which he held 
in his right hand. Some twelve or fourteen young men, in white 
trousers and blouses, had been busied during this preliminary service 
with last arrangements. The centre of their activity was the trench 
where the caldrons of water were in place. They had driven in the 
lambs which had been feeding on the mountain near at hand, and 
now stood holding them between their knees around the circular end 
of the trench. At the moment of sunset the high priest stepped 
down from the column and turned with the rest of the company 
toward the young men. Thereupon the latter began the excited 
repetition of some prayer or blessing, and, throwing the lambs on 
their sides with their throats toward the trench, held them in this 
position while they were killed by two of the men who were appointed 
to this duty. The throats were cut, not with one or two but with 
repeated strokes. One of the knives used for this purpose had been 
shown to us by the high priest. It came from a German shop at 
Jerusalem. The blood ran down into the trench, or was absorbed by 
grass and weeds placed for the purpose. We watched to see whether 
any blood would be taken for " striking " the tents or marking the 
children. It was a time of greatest excitement, and the surging 
crowd made it difficult to watch proceedings closely ; but so far as 
we could observe, no blood was taken. At the time of Petermann's 
visit the high priest told him that this command of Ex. 12' was en- 
joined only for the first instance, and that they no longer observed 
it. On the other hand, he says that he saw boys marking themselves 
with the sacrificial blood by making a stripe which extended from the 
forehead to the end of the nose. Fathers and mothers were seen 
marking their children, and even their babes, in like manner. Subse- 
quent observers report seeing blood caught in basins to be used for 
such a purpose and for sprinkling the tents.^ The high priest told us 
later, in response to a question, that this rite had not been carried 
out for some five or six years because of the Mohammedans — at 
least not openly. He added that usually some blood was taken by 
two or three, and had been taken that evening. Later on, in walking 
through the camp, I could not anywhere detect the presence of blood 
about the tent doorways, and I saw no children who were marked ; 

^ So, for example, Trumbull, Studies in Oriental Social Life, p. 379. 


but there might have been such among those who remained in the 

When the lambs had been slain the congregation exchanged joyful 
greetings after the usual Oriental manner, falling with a kiss first on 
the right and then on the left shoulder, or, in the case of the high 
priest and of some others, presumably his relatives or the more ven- 
erable of the community, by taking the hand, kissing it, and pressing 
it to the forehead. This is undoubtedly an ancient custom and 
points to the central importance of the slaying of the lambs in the 
paschal celebration. 

The number of lambs taken this year was seven. At the time of 
Petermann's visit there were five, and the number seems to have 
ranged from five to seven, according to the number of the partici- 
pants. In addition one or two are held in reserve, in case any 
should not be properly slain or should be found to be physically im- 
perfect. For one or the other of these reasons an extra lamb is often 
needed, but was not this year. The high priest inspected them as 
soon as they were slain and found that all had been properly killed ; 
and in the dressing nothing was found amiss, as was the case when 
Petermann was present, when in one lamb the lungs had grown 

The signal for slaying the lambs had been also the signal for light- 
ing the fires under the caldrons and in the pit. A fire-tender was 
busy in each place feeding the flames. When the preliminary ser- 
vices were over many of the older men withdrew to the tents, and 
there was a lull in the ceremonies while waiting for the boiling water. 
This was needed to pour over the lambs to make it possible to pluck 
the wool. The visitors began to scatter, and it was not long before 
the two of us who had come together were left alone with the 

It was about an hour after the killing of the lambs before the first 
one was ready to be dressed. Apparently the same men who had 
done the slaying served in the dressing and in making ready for the 
spit, although I saw the high priest preparing at least one. During 
the process of dressing, a lamb hung head downward suspended 
from a pole resting on the shoulders of two young men. All the 
young men thus engaged continued shouting in chorus, "The Lord 
God is one God." The entrails were thrown upon the fire that 
had been kindled in the circular end of the trench after removing 
the caldrons. The stomach and gall-bladder were taken aside and 
emptied of their contents before being cast on the fire. Once, in 


impatience because these were not promptly taken from him, the 
dresser threw them on the ground. The liver was not burned with 
the refuse, as formerly seems frequently to have been the case, but 
was put into one of the caldrons and later cleansed and inserted in 
the carcass to be roasted. The right fore leg and shoulder, which is 
the portion of the high priest, was cut off and put on the fire to be 
burned, since he eats with the others, and nothing can remain until 
the morning. When a lamb was dressed a very little water was 
poured into it, to rinse it, and this was allowed to run down on the 
ground. The spits were sharpened poles some eight or ten feet long 
made from the holm- or holly-oak (sindiyati) . These were thrust 
out through the lamb and through the hind legs. A square collar of 
wood, about a foot and a half from the larger end, served to keep 
the carcass from sliding down too near to the ground. Thus the 
spit of the present day has little resemblance to the shape of the 
cross alluded to by Justin Martyr {Dial. c. Trypho. c. 40). 

When the lambs were ready for roasting they were piled on a 
hurdle woven from large branches which was lying on the ground. 
It was not until two or three had been deposited that some new 
baskets were brought and placed on the surface of the wood beneath 
them. These baskets were of the kind used by workmen for carry- 
ing dirt and for many other purposes. They are pliable and can be 
so doubled as to serve for mats. After the lambs were dressed they 
were salted and the livers inserted. The fire in the pit had mean- 
while been kept briskly burning, and quite a circle of men was gath- 
ered here, watching the process and enjoying the grateful warmth. 
Another company centred about the burning refiise in the fire trench. 
Two fire-tenders, using what appeared to be the poles from which 
the lambs had hung, were kept busy in so disposing the material that 
it should be completely consumed. During the progress of the 
dressing, everything had been picked up with due care except the 
wool, which was allowed to be kicked about most of the night before 
it was finally gathered into the fire. Two or three older men were 
reading by the light of a lantern farther on in one comer of the 
enclosure. Another younger man read by the light of the fire, and 
others soon got out their books and joined him. 

About a quarter to eleven the high priest appeared and put a few 
last sticks into the pit. Then the lambs were brought, and the men 
stood about in a circle, holding the spits upright with one end resting 
on the ground. The high priest led in a short prayer, after which 
all the lambs were thrust into the pit at about the same time. The 

moulton: the Samaritan passover. 193 

hurdle had been brought and was now placed over the mouth of the 
pit. The spits, being allowed to protrude through its open squares, 
were thus kept in position. Grass, wild mustard, etc., at hand for 
the purpose, was piled on this, and then all was plastered over with 
mud. This smearing was kept up as long as a puff of steam or 
smoke could anywhere be seen. The oven mound was then de- 
serted, save for one man who lay down there by a lantern as a guar- 
dian and droned away, for two hours and more, at some poems or 
prayers in the book which he held. After a little time some of the 
group around the coals in the fire-trench also took part. There were 
others reading at the end of the enclosure. Many retired to their 
tents. In two or three of these the voices of those who were reading 
could be heard. In others we could see people lying on their beds 
and rugs, sleeping or engaged in conversation. Some young women 
now ventured forth and crouched with the group about the coals. 
Outside here also a few men curled up in their mantles and slept. 
During this period of waiting for the roasting of the lambs there 
came, after a little time, a long prayer by the high priest, in which 
many of the congregation took part. In this service the relative 
positions of priest and people were as they had been at the opening 
of the celebration. Another season of inactivity followed. 

Soon after one o'clock a slight bustle arose in the tents. People, 
at least a few, could be seen by the tent doors engaged in washing 
hands, face, mouth, and feet. They began to assemble about the 
fire with their white robes girt about them and carrying a staff or 
some rude substitute for the same. The new baskets, before used on 
the hurdle, were ripped down one of the sides and thus made into 
larger mats for holding the roasted lambs. Some of the men had 
brought plates and platters as they came. It was two and one-half 
hours from the time the lambs had been put in when the young men 
began to dig away the mud from the mouth of the oven, a rather 
shorter time than usual, it was said. It took some minutes to make 
it possible to lift up and turn over the hurdle. The lambs, now 
reduced to black, unappetizing- looking masses, were removed with- 
out accident, and each was folded in its basket-mat, borne down into 
the enclosure, and laid on the ground. They were not placed in any 
noticeable order, but grouped irregularly. No sheet or other cover- 
ing, save the basket, was spread on the ground. Usually the spit was 
pulled out, but in one or two cases it was allowed to remain. The 
high priest divided the bitter herbs, throwing a few handfuls on each 
lamb. Unleavened bread was also distributed beside each lamb. 


The bitter herbs are such as are gathered on the mountain and are 
known to the Samaritans only under the name bitter {inurr). They 
have rather long, bright green leaves and bear some resemblance to 
dandelion greens. 

Before eating, all the people stood together about the mats, repeat- 
ing a prayer or blessing. In leading this the chief fire-tender (who 
was possibly the second priest) was more conspicuous than the high 
priest. Then all fell to, tearing the meat from the carcasses with 
their fingers and eating as they tore. Handfuls were pulled off and 
passed about. Plates and platters were filled and borne to the tents. 
Some ate crouching by the lambs or about the fire, while others were 
standing. There were some of the smaller children with the group 
in the enclosure. Little regard seemed to be paid to the grouping. 
I noticed some who moved from lamb to lamb in search of new bits. 
The high priest and his family were apparently in one company, and 
had a lamb to themselves. All ate " in haste," certainly, and in a 
few minutes, about twenty, possibly, nothing but bones remained. It 
was not yet two o'clock when the hurdle, spits, poles, baskets, etc., 
and all that remained from the feast was piled together in the circular 
end of the fire trench where the entrails had been burned, and a 
brisk fire was started by a branch lighted at the mouth of the pit, 
which continued to send forth bursts of flame now and then from the 
accumulation of fat that remained from the roasting. Plates of 
refuse from the tents and considerable quantities of unleavened bread 
were thrown on the new fire. The burning was a long, slow process, 
for after two hours each stirring of the embers brought to light new 
material and caused the flames to leap up afresh. After the washing 
which followed the meal, the high priest took his place once more, 
kneeling at the end of the broken column with his face toward the 
mountain top, and began a service of prayer. Behind him, as previ- 
ously, was ranged the congregation in a like attitude. The numbers 
gradually increased until there were nearly as many in this company 
as when the service began the previous evening. Only thrfee or four 
remained about the fire. Lights could still be seen in the tents, but 
all was quiet there. The scene continued unchanged as dawn came 
on. The weird chorus of seeming lamentation was the last sound we 
heard as we left the fire and passed down the mountain about four 
o'clock Sunday morning.