SABBATH OBSERVANCE IN THE ISRAELITE SAMARITAN TRADITION
The Seventh Day is the Holy Day
The seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, the Holy Day. The Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown, and lasts until sundown on Saturday evening. Israelite Samaritan life on the Sabbath is different from the other days of the week. We make preparations to distinguish the Sabbath from the other days.
We observe Festival days like the Sabbath, following tradition laid down in the Torah. There are two differences: one is that if a pilgrimage festival (Unleavened Bread, Shavuot or Sukkot) falls on a weekday, worshippers may be conveyed to the place of pilgrimage in a vehicle driven by someone who is not a member of the Samaritan community. Thus, every Israelite Samaritan may fulfil their desire to visit the place where Shehmaa has chosen to dwell His Name.
Secondly, we must save life, to choose life over death, for good or ill. If a festival falls on a weekday, then in a life-or-death situation, for example childbirth or critical illness, we do everything to provide first aid, even if vehicular transport (normally forbidden on the Sabbath) is required.
Israelite Samaritans consecrate the Sabbath and observe it at all costs. On Friday afternoon the community and each family prepares for the Sabbath. All family members contribute to preparations for the Sabbath’s return. The men remove their weekday clothing and wear a full-length robe, reaching from the shoulders to the feet. For spring and summer it is made of fine white cloth; the autumn and winter garment is made of wool.
The robe buttons up to the neck, where there is a loop around the collar. There is a sash at the waist made from the same fabric. Each side of the garment has a wide pocket, used for holding house keys, and a handkerchief in autumn and winter. On the front of the robe a small pocket, measuring 10 x 10 cm at the most, used to hold a pocket watch. Now the wrist watch has replaced the pocket watch, but the pocket remains.
Preparing for the Sabbath
The mother and daughters of the house make final preparations for the Sabbath. When a couple has no children, or if the children are very young, the husband helps his wife with the preparations. If the family purity laws prohibit her from taking part in the preparations, he makes all preparations for the Sabbath. We fill large Thermos flasks with hot water. From Sabbath to Sabbath, we keep dedicated serving-dishes in the kitchen, and also in the main room of the house where we take meals and read the weekly Torah portion.
We light a lamp, primarily to prevent and treat emergencies, observing the commandment, “Do not block the way of a blind person, because in total darkness each person is blind”.
Before the Sabbath we disconnect all electrical appliances in the home and turn off the radio, television, computer and telephones. We dedicate twenty-four hours to the Sabbath family gathering. We do not cook, smoke or drive on the Sabbath. The special Sabbath clothing restricts community members to their own neighbourhood. We also switch off the refrigerator. Frozen blocks keep the fridge cold until the end of the Sabbath. We are forbidden to use a timer switch or operate power tools during the Sabbath. This would violate the injunction: “Do not light a fire in your dwelling on the Sabbath day”.
There is a difference of opinion in the community whether to permit the operation of air conditioners on the Sabbath, for relief during very hot summer days. Most of the community in Mount Gerizim and Holon do not turn them on. The High Priests have not yet decided on this issue, and continue to find ways to relieve the discomfort of worshippers. One of the High Priests ruled that in times of excessive heat, the Sabbath morning service will merge with the afternoon prayer. The decision is at the discretion of the Cantor managing the prayers.
The women, still dressed in weekday clothing, prepare the Sabbath meals in advance.
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Popular Foods on the Sabbath Menu
1. Chicken stuffed with spiced rice and beans, green or yellow string beans; rice with cooked green vegetables and chicken, sprinkled with lemon and salt.
2. Grape leaves or green beets, stuffed with rice and small pieces of chicken giblets, with fresh tomato sauce.
3. Slices of baked potato cooked with chicken and spices, known as Tashtush.
In addition, we serve side dishes:
Egyptian, green or yellow string beans. Green vegetables.
Rice cooked with chicken, sprinkled with lemon salt and olive oil.
Finely-chopped fresh green salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and lettuce, with an olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and herb dressing.
When the hot dishes are ready, we cover them with a blanket to retain heat until we return from the synagogue.
As the Sabbath begins the ladies dress in their finest clothes in honour of the Sabbath. Women only wear trousers on weekdays, not on the Sabbath.
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About an hour before sunset the head of the household and his children, the boys dressed in Sabbath robes, go to the synagogue. At the entrance to the synagogue we remove our footwear, leaving socks on our feet in winter, or going barefoot in summer. We place our shoes on the shelves provided, or on the floor of the synagogue’s small entrance hall.
Thick carpet covers the square floor of the synagogue hall from wall to wall. It is comfortable for sitting cross-legged or standing upright for prayers. The very elderly and the infirm sit on small, lightweight chairs. Benches or shelves around the walls hold Torah and prayer books.
At the front of the synagogue stands the altar, divided into two parts. The Cantor and the eldest priest of the community sit at the rear. At the front a curtain conceals the ark containing the Torah scrolls in cylindrical metal cases. The priest waves the scrolls aloft during the morning and noon prayers of the Sabbath, to bless the congregation.
The worshippers sit more or less in regular places in the synagogue. Everyone attends. Only illness exempts community members from attending, and they will pray at home. Each worshipper knows his place. Guests from outside the community sit at the rear of the synagogue. Those who are impure on the Sabbath (through having sexual relations on the previous night, or unintentionally touching impurity, for example), also pray. They sit beside the rear wall of the synagogue. There is no shame involved, because it can happen to anybody.
Women do not take part in all the prayers. They attend the synagogue on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), sitting at the rear of the hall. On Sabbath and festive days, they attend the synagogue for a short time during morning prayers. They receive the blessing from the priest, then return home. Of course, when they are in an impure state, women are not allowed to attend the synagogue, or take part in the Passover sacrifice and pilgrimages.
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Seven Sabbath Prayers
Worshippers recite seven prayers on the Sabbath: two consecutive ones on Sabbath eve; two consecutive ones on Sabbath morning; two consecutive ones at noon and one at the end of the Sabbath. All prayers are conducted without shoes, and with the head covered.
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Sabbath Eve Prayer on Friday Evening
During the first prayer we read all the passages from the Torah which relate to the Sabbath. The second prayer comprises liturgical poems and prayers. The two consecutive prayers begin about an hour before sunset, ending as the sun sets. We sit or stand according to the context of the prayer, which is led by the Cantor. We recite most of the prayers by heart. Children read from prayer books until they also know the prayers by heart. To bow down, we kneel on the floor, head touching the carpet and resting on both open hands, placed side by side on the carpet. There is also a bowing position during prayers where it is sufficient to tilt the upper body forwards, from the waist up, for a few seconds.
Most of the prayers are recited and sung aloud by all the worshippers. The Cantor has only a short part in the liturgy. At the end of the prayer the Cantor reminds us that it is the Sabbath. The worshippers respond several times, saying “Amen”. Then we kneel and bow, to finish the prayer.
End of Prayers
Then we all stand. The Cantor’s parting blessing is “Shabbikon Taben Yesi” (“May Your Sabbaths be Good”). The worshippers respond: “Shabbikon Taben Yesi” (“May Your Sabbaths be Good”). We all leave by the same doorway. Each puts his shoes back on, and quickly returns home where his family awaits. There is no more exhilarating sight than worshippers leaving the synagogue in their robes, flocking swiftly home in every direction.
We sit at the Sabbath table, sing Sabbath songs and give the blessing over the wine “Maa shehna abyoomikimma kallaakimma yesi” (“May you live a hundred years”) and “Kal shehna watimma shaaloomem” (“May you have peace every year”). Then the ladies of the house remove the blanket covering the pans, and serve the food.
We eat peacefully. The Sabbath is an opportunity for the whole family to meet, parents, children and grandchildren. They arrive after the meal and sit together for a while. Tea and cakes which have been prepared for the Sabbath are served. Every subject under the sun is discussed. Two hours before midnight, the last family members retire for the night, to wake on time for the morning prayer.
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Sabbath Morning Prayers
For morning prayers at the synagogue, worshippers wear a white tallit (prayer shawl), made from simple cotton cloth, over the robe. The tallit reaches from the shoulders to the feet. For convenience, slits on the left and right sides allow access to the robe pockets. On the right shoulder there are twenty-two buttons made of the same material as the prayer shawl, and on the left shoulder there are twenty-two loops corresponding to the buttons. The number symbolises the number of letters in the Ancient Hebrew alphabet in which the Torah is written. As in ancient times, the Hebrew alphabet has no additional final letters. In the Israelite Samaritan tradition the buttons and loops are the equivalent of tzitziot (prayer fringes).
Neither in daily life, nor on the Sabbath, do Israelite Samaritans use tefillin (phylacteries), as used in the Rabbinical Jewish tradition. Israelite Samaritans regard the word tefillin as a metaphor for memory. They interpret it, not as a physical small box containing a biblical text, but as a synonym for ‘reminder’. In this way they obey the commandments, “And they will be a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes” and also “You will remember all the commandments of Shehmaa.”
Waving the Torah
The Cantor carries the Torah scroll and waves it before the worshippers. Over the white prayer shawl he wears a silk prayer shawl in blue and white or in green and white, with tassels. He only wears it during the short time he is carrying the covered Torah scroll. When he returns the Torah scroll to the ark, he folds the silk prayer shawl, and lays it in the ark.
We wear our prayer shawl over our robe and go to the synagogue. The prayer begins three and a half hours after midnight, and ends at six in the morning. The prayer includes verses from the Torah, and liturgical poems. Thus the first prayer session is concluded.
The reading of the weekly Torah portion forms the second prayer of the morning. We leave the synagogue, split into small groups of 10-15 people according to kinship, then go to the home of the senior member of the group. There we sit on the carpet along the wall of the largest room in the house, and begin to chant the weekly Torah portion. Men and women, and boys and girls of all ages may take part in the reading. The portion is divided into passages. Each participant chants one passage at a slow pace. If there are more passages than participants, a second round is made, each then reading at a faster pace.
At the end of the reading the lady of the house with the young girls serve cups of tea, cakes and pastries. We have lively and sometimes noisy conversation, and then each returns home to eat breakfast. The morning hours of the Sabbath are devoted to rest and sleep until the noon prayers.
Breakfast includes many different tasty and satisfying salads. I recommend preparing them according to the book: The Wonders of the Israelite Samaritan Kitchen, written by the sisters Batia Tsedaka and Zippora Sassoni, edited by Benyamim Tsedaka, and published by A.B. – Institute of Samaritan Studies Press, Holon, 2011.
The salad ingredients have been ready in the disconnected refrigerator since Friday afternoon. Spices, lemon, tahini and olive oil are added. We drink soft drinks, and some enjoy wine in moderation. Eating salad usually satisfies the appetite for the whole day until the end of the Sabbath. The ladies prepare breakfast, then they put on fine dresses, shirts and suits to complement their beauty, and go out to visit neighbours or receive friends and relatives in their homes.
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The Sabbath Noon Prayer
At noon, or at 1 pm in summer time, we gather in the synagogue for the two noon prayers. The first prayer includes verses from the Torah and liturgical poems. The second prayer includes liturgy and a calm reading of the weekly Torah portion in a faster pace than in the morning.
Reading alternates between those sitting on the left and right sides of the synagogue. Those sitting on the right begin reading the first verse, and when they get halfway through, those on the left begin to read the second verse. And so on, alternately, until the end of the Torah portion. Then we conclude with a short liturgical poem, and return to our homes wearing the white Tallit on the robe. The Cantor bids farewell to the worshippers with the blessing “Shabbikon Taaben Yesi”. Then the worshippers respond with the same words. Then we hang up our prayer Tallit and proceed home for a light meal. During the winter it is a cold delicacy, and in the summer, homemade white cheese with watermelon pieces.
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Between Sabbath Noon and Evening
We spend the afternoon and early evening of the Sabbath visiting friends and relatives. Perhaps someone has been hospitalised and allowed home for the Sabbath, so everybody visits and asks how they are feeling. And if there has been a celebration we visit the relatives.
The afternoon is also an opportunity for the children and teenagers to gather and read the Torah portions, including the Torah portion for the following week. This is how we teach the young people to read the Torah correctly. They learn the chants and liturgy from experts, so they can carry on the tradition in the synagogue on future Sabbaths and festivals.
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End of Sabbath Prayer and Afterwards
The End of Sabbath Prayer begins half an hour before sunset, and ends as the sun sets. The prayers are conducted wearing robes without prayer shawls, unless the prayer for a new month falls at the end of the Sabbath: in this case, we wear a prayer shawl. A central element of the prayer is an ancient liturgy for the end of the Sabbath. We conclude with a final prayer. The priest bids the worshippers farewell with the blessing “Ashshehlaam ‘aleekimma” (“Shalom – Peace – upon you all” ) and they respond: “‘Alek Ashshehlaam” (“And peace be upon you”). We return to our homes after the prayers, and together sing the Praise To Moses, “Ashshehlaam ‘al Mooshe”. Then the lady of the house serves coffee in small cups. So, a new week begins. We take off our robe, fold it, place it in the wardrobe, then dress in our weekday clothes.
If the Sabbath falls at the beginning of, or during a festival, the morning prayer is especially long. It starts at 2 am and finishes around 9 am. Then, we do hold a noon prayer session, and do not read the weekly Torah portion. The prayer session on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) lasts around 25 hours, from evening to evening, without a break. If a Brit Mila (ritual circumcision) takes place on the Sabbath, we interrupt the prayers during the ceremony, and later return to the synagogue to continue the prayers.
Photography: Ori Orhof