Israelite Samaritan Benyamim Tsedaka speaks to an audience in Bath about his people and heritage
Benyamim (Benny) Tsedaka is an Israelite Samaritan who can trace his ancestry back 125 generations in the land of Israel, and a historian specializing on the people of Israel. He spoke passionately about the ancient heritage of his people and their lives in the modern day to a rapt Bath audience on Monday.
He described the situation the Samaritans are currently in, which is the best it’s been for centuries. Before Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, their population had dwindled to under 150 individuals in 1919 from a peak of 1.5 million during the 1st century CE; this was mainly due to war and forced conversions to Christianity and Islam. During the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank, the Samaritans living there were separated from those living in Israel, and unable to communicate with one another. However, since 1967, they have been reunited and the population has rebounded. There are now around 800 Israelite Samaritans in total – about 400 in Holon, Israel, and another 400 living on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Benny’s community is a very young one; over half the population is under 25, giving it vitality and hope.
Benny defines the Israelite Samaritans not as a community or a minority, but a nation. An ancient nation with over 3500 years of tradition and their own script – ancient Hebrew – unchanged over this time. They speak in ancient Hebrew, the language of the Israelites of the Second Temple period. Both the script and spoken language are used in everyday life, as well as for religious purposes.
Samaritans and Jews split after the fall of the Second Temple; while Jews adopted new ways to worship and to follow Torah, including the writing of the Talmud, the Samaritans stuck to the written Torah only. They don’t need a temple, just the holy Mount Gerizim on which to worship and perform animal sacrifices – this is done for Passover, just as the Torah commands. All Israelite Samaritan children learn the whole Torah, and the completion of this is marked with a special ceremony where the child will recite the last verse by heart and then the feat is celebrated lavishly.
The two communities in Israel and Palestine regularly join together in worship on Mount Gerizim – Palestinians and Israelis united in prayer, the borders between them non-existent. There are differences of course. Samaritans of Holon, such as Benny, are Israeli citizens and serve in the IDF, while those in Samaria do not serve, as they are not Israelis. Neither community takes sides in the conflict; they prefer to be the bridge between the two. Israelis and Palestinians who work with the Samaritans help themselves by working together, as well as with a third, completely neutral party.
Benny is incredibly proud of his roots in an ancient nation which has survived against all the odds and managed to keep its traditions alive and unchanged for millennia. His passion for his people and the land of Israel shone through his every word, giving his talk the life and vitality his people enjoy once again.