Fire pits in the foreground, trench in the background, and dais to its left.
Inside the gate and down a brief flight of steps opened a crowded plaza riddled with pits, gouged down the middle by a trench about thirty yards in length, and mounted by a paved dais on one side.
|Samaritans standing beside the trench|
The Samaritans mill about in their all-white garb, some sport red fezzes, others baseball caps; some hold staves or knives and others bucking, bleating sheep. Intermingling with the Samaritans were Israeli and foreign tourists, Israeli soldiers (like myself) in uniform, Israeli and Palestinian police officers (smiling and chatting with one another), and a profundity of journalists and photographers. Like flies on a carcass they buzzed about clicking their cameras at everything and everyone. The center of the dais was flanked by rows of chairs for we gentile spectators. On the stone wall behind, curious characters reminiscent of a Hebrew alphabet that fell out of style millennia ago are inscribed.
I interviewed Ovadia Cohen, the ritual's emcee, before the hubbub began. He told me that the Samaritans, who hold both Israeli and Palestinian ID cards, live in limbo between their more populous Jewish, Muslim and Christian neighbors. Despite the hardships they've experienced in recent years because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they "hope to act as a bridge between the two peoples" in the drive towards peace. The turnout for this year's Passover offering is evidence of the improving security situation in the West Bank, Colonel Raid Mansour says. The number of non-Samaritan attendants eight years ago was a fraction of this year's, which was estimated at over a thousand.
The Samaritan elders congregate in a concentrated mass, distinguishable from their flock by their brightly colored robes and a cream and gold band wrapped around the base of their fezzes. Chanting prayers as one in a language reminiscent of Hebrew but ringing of antiquity, they began their sacred rite. (I was later informed that their prayers were in Aramaic.) Several dozen sheep, bewildered by the multitudes of spectators and participants were herded to the edge of the trench and held by eager youths brandishing razor sharp blades. The high priest, donning a blue and white tallit like many I had seen in synagogues, uttered a final cantillation in an ululating, wavering voice. His prayer reached a climactic pitch, and with a whoop and cry the ritual sacrifice was on. In the blink of an eye several dozen knives slit the throats of the sheep, whose blood splattered on the pristine white clothes of their slaughterers and was smeared, like ash on Ash Wednesday, on their foreheads with the thumb.
|Entrails on the altar|
The men then set to work removing the wooly coats of their quarry, gutting them, and impaling them on ten foot spits. The fires were ignited and the smoke started billowing upwards. Guts were cleaned of their still-digesting contents, and soon the first entrails were tossed onto the massive grill thrown over the flame. The recently baaing carcasses were carried to the barbecue pits and the Passover offering was prepared for consumption.
As I left, the fires were crackling and the sheep were being moved onto the flames for the exclusive consumption by the Samaritans. Israelis and Palestinians stood clustered together as the Samaritans hustled about with unleavened bread (that closer resembled lafa flatbread than the water cracker style matzah that European Jews eat on Passover) and sprigs of bitter herbs, getting ready to add fresh meat to their pascal meal. Were it not for the cameras and cell phones, I reflected, there was little different about Sunday night's ceremony from the barbaric Jewish sacrifices carried out in this land in days of yore.
To all readers, a happy passover! חג שמח!