Devorah Hoffman

Typically when I anticipate going to a non-Jewish home for Shabbat, I need to ask my host a few questions ahead of time: Will the food be kosher? Is it ok for me to leave a light on throughout the Sabbath because I do not use electricity on Shabbat? Will the food be cooked on the Sabbath or beforehand? I was assured to find out that the Samaritans only eat kosher food and strictly observe the Sabbath.

Because the Samaritans diligently follow the 5 books of Moses, they observe the Sabbath and Kashrut (the dietary laws) in similar ways that many observant Jews do. While it says in the Torah that one should not cook a goat in its mother’s milk, observant Jews have interpreted that to mean that one should not mix milk and meat together. The Samaritans have adopted this interpretation as well, and do not eat milk and meat together. In addition, like observant Jews, Samaritans only eat food that is slaughtered and prepared Kosher.

The Samaritans observe Shabbat, like all other Biblical Holy days, precisely by the letter of Torah. They do not use any electricity on Shabbat, as it says in the Torah not to kindle fire on the Sabbath. For the Samaritans, Shabbat is truly a time of rest, worship, and sharing with family and community.

When I arrived at my host, Yakov’s home, Friday afternoon, I could feel preparations for Shabbat in the air. Yakov’s wife was at the beauty shop getting her hair done, his mother, who lives across the street, was preparing food for Shabbat, and Yakov was getting ready for Shabbat by dressing in his white robe. During the Sabbath, all men and boys wear white robes women and girls dress in their finest dresses.

At 6:00 PM, the Samaritan men welcome in the Sabbath with a service of consisting of many guttural chants. The Samaritans pray in their synagogue where they sit on the floor on cushions. While Samaritan women do not attend worship services, I was welcome to come and pray with the men. I felt like I was being transported back in time hundreds of years as the ancient Hebrew pulsated through me. It sounded like a mixture of the Hebrew that I know and Arabic.

After services, I went with my hosts to Yakov’s parent’s home for tea and cake. Like everyone I met that Shabbat, Yakov’s family was loving, warm, and hospitable. Because his parents had just returned from a trip abroad, many of their relatives and friends were streaming in and out to welcome them back.

We retired ate about 10:00 in order to rest a bit before Saturday morning worship, beginning at 3:30 am. These services might have been the highlight of the entire experience for me. The services were outside in a community park area where men sat on cushions. During the service, men chanted with fervor at the top of their lungs, bowed at different moments, and at the end, the leader of the service took out the Torah and paraded around with it for several minutes. I was moved by the spiritual energy in the air and the primal noise of the chanting.

After services at about 6:00am, families came together in their respective homes to chant the portion of the week from the Torah. While mostly men and boys attended, there were 3 girls present in Yakov’s family. Yakov explained to me that once the girls get married, they will no longer attend the chanting of the Torah gathering. The chanting was beautiful, and vaguely reminded me of the troupes that the Jewish people use when they chant from their Torah.

When the chanting concluded most of the men went to sleep for a while until breakfast while the women took walks together or were busy preparing breakfast. Breakfast was a feast of Middle Eastern salads, pita, chumus, techina, and of course, warm hospitality. After breakfast, most of the men rested during the remaining hours of the morning while others joined the women in making rounds to visit friends and family.

Anytime I entered someone’s home, I was welcomed with tea, something sweet, a cucumber, or a piece of fruit. The first question was always, "Are you married?" Once I answered "No," the next question that followed, without fail, was "Do you want to become a Samaritan?" The Samaritans explained to me that they are in desperate need of women in their community as there are many more men than women. When I replied that I was not seriously interested in becoming a Samaritan, I was bombarded with, "Why not? You will have a nice husband, a house, a very special community…it is an honor to be a Samaritan…."

That was clear…the Samaritans take pride in their community, their lifestyle, and their heritage. One woman said to me, "Every day when I go work at the school in Nabelous, I thank God that I am a Samaritan…that I don’t have the problems they have…I live in a community where people look out for and take care of each other. When someone has a problem, he is not alone…it becomes the community’s problem until it is solved." Never in my life, have I experienced such a strong sense of community and camaraderie in a religious community. I was blown away by their commitment to family, faith, and community.

As the day progressed, they had another service in the afternoon, with a light meal that followed. During the remainder of the afternoon, people rested, took walks, or visited more with friends and family.

The Sabbath concluded with an evening service, followed by a cooked meal Saturday night. We ate with Yakov’s family, and again, they were incredibly hospitable. However, this meal was different for me, because just one hour before, I realized that I had "entered sick time," my menstrual flow. Ordinarily this only means that I become a bit more sensitive and emotional, but "entering sick time" had another set of implications with the Samaritans. When a woman is menstruating, she sleeps in a separate room, sits on separate furniture, eats on separate dishes, and cannot touch anyone except for other women in "sick time." She cannot even touch her children when they need her. While many of the women have a hard time with this custom, they accept it, habituate to it, and honor it's significance.

So, when I went to Yakov’s parents for dinner, I ate on a paper plate and sat on a plastic red chair. I had to be very careful not to step on the rugs in the house or lay a finger on any of the furniture. In addition, when someone handed me something, I had to open my hands and passively receive it instead of actively taking it from another person's hand.

Shortly after dinner, it was time to say goodbye. Although I only spent a day plus with the Samaritans, I really developed a strong connection to the Samaritan community, and a deep appreciation for their way of life. Although I was frustrated that I could not hug my hosts and new found friends good bye because I was in "sick time," I fully honored and appreciated this boundary and communicated my gratitude and good bye with a heart felt words. As I rode away in the cab on root back to Jerusalem, I realized that my experience of Shabbat will never quite be the same.