Samaritans and Mikveh Israel day tour in Holon Israel

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Middle East » Israel » Tel Aviv District » Holon
October 24th 2018
Published: October 31st 2018
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Holon - Third in a series of experiential, off the beaten path tours to encounter and appreciate other important religious communities in Israel led by licenced tour guide Rina Yellin. The city of Holon is located south of Tel Aviv. (See our blogs "Day around the Carmel in Israel - January 2016" and "Day tour of Minorities in the Galil - April 2016" for the two previous tours with Rina.)

Our Samaritan (Shomronim) Holon tour began with a visit to the Samaritans during their Sukkot holiday. We started in the house of Benyamim Tsedaka, an elder and head of the Israelite Samaritan Information Institute ( ). As we walked in we were confronted with a beautifully decorated sukkah in the middle of the living room and greeted by Binyamim who said "call me Ben or Benny." Ben worked for the Jewish Agency for 25 years and can count 125 generations in Israel. He met his wife Miriam at the age of 23 at the Hebrew University. Miriam is originally from Romania. As well as speaking modern Hebrew, the Samaritans speak ancient Hebrew. During the second Temple period the Jews started to read, write and speak Aramaic but the Samaritans retained ancient Hebrew as their language.

So how do the Samaritans celebrate their Judaism? They adhere to the Laws as written in the Torah. They do not take into consideration Rabbinic Jewry which is how the rabbis have interpreted the laws in Torah. So during Sukkot they do not wave the four species in the synagogue as it is not mandated in the Torah. Instead the sukkah itself is decorated with the four species along with fruits of the season, grapefruits, pomegranates and aubergines (eggplants) for contrast in colour. Hanging from the middle of the sukkah roof was the largest etrog I have seen! The roof is made of palm leaves and attached to the sukkah was the branch of a eucalyptus tree - although the branch of any tree would suffice. There were also plants from the river. The reason for the sukkah being inside the house is because of the pogroms some 1500 years ago and many were killed and so the priests decided that they move their sukkot inside to lessen their chances of being killed. They do not live in the sukkah nor do they eat and sleep in the sukkah, but merely sit in it during the days of the festival.

The Jewish calendar and the Samaritan calendar differ because the Jewish calendar is calculated from the date of creation whereas the Samaritan calendar is calculated from the date that Joshua Ben Nun entered the land of Israel. Hence this year the Samaritans celebrate Sukkot approximately one month after the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Monies saved during the year are spent on the festivals of Sukkot and Pesach. During Pesach the whole community ups and goes on pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans still carry out the Passover sacrifice every year.

Some of the differences between Samaritan religion and Judaism:

1. Fundamental love for the land of Israel - the Samaritans do not want to leave Israel. They receive many enquiries from around the world from people researching their roots. They do not believe in missionaries but if a man marries out of the community there is no form of conversion - rather his wife joins the community.

2. Shabbat is observed in the strictest manner. No electric timers are used, so any necessary lights are simply left on. Likewise the food fully cooked before Shabbat is placed under a hot towel to keep it warm, but not upon a hot-plate which would turn on and off.

3. The Passover sacrifice is still performed.

4. Family purity is observed in the strictest of ways. When a woman is in her period she stays in a special room in the house for seven days. She has full freedom but there is complete separation. The husband and the children take over all the duties of the household. At the end of seven days the woman bathes in a bath with running water. The formal mikveh is something which the rabbis formulated and is not written in the Torah, so the Samaritans do not require it. If a woman has a baby boy she is in purdah for 41 days and for a baby girl 80 days as mandated in the Torah. This is a very private time for the woman.

The Samaritan mezuzah is a very interesting thing. It is not a scroll on every doorpost in the house, but typically etched on a stone block at the front door. Just inside Ben's home is a needlework tapestry of a mezuzah in Ancient Hebrew. We saw other examples outside Samaritan houses in the village and at the gate of the synagogue. The star of David is not used anywhere as this is a relatively modern symbol. The Samaritans use the symbol of the menorah.

We walked around the village and went to the synagogue. Samaritan synagogues face Mount Gerizim, the holy place where the Samaritan tabernacle was established long ago. The synagogue was closed as it is only opened on the Shabbat and on festive days. There are seven holidays:

* the first day of the Passover, and the seventh day of Passover,

* Shavuot

* the first day of the 7th month (which Jews call Rosh Hashanah - whereas the Samaritan year starts at the beginning of the first month Nissan, two weeks before Passover)

* Yom Kippur

* the first day of Sukkot, and the eighth day (Shemini Atzeret).

In addition they have added Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) to their holidays. Prayers are said twice every day but privately in their own homes. Women do not go to the synagogue. Everyone fasts on Yom Kippur including babies from the time they are weaned.

There are two cemeteries, one in the Tel Aviv area and the other by Mount Gerizim near Nablus.

They have a school for teaching about the Samaritan religion after regular school hours. The children attend one of two schools locally - a Palestinian school or the local Israeli school.

We said goodbye and thanks to Benyamim after a very informative several hours,

and went off to the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School.

Mikveh Israel Agricultural village is currently 750 acres of green agricultural land nestled in the midst of the high rise world of Tel Aviv and Holon. It was founded in 1870 by Charles Netter. Today there are three schools on the site - one for children from dati leumi (orthodox) families, one for children from the secular world, and one which boards kids, many from troubled families.

The name Mikveh Israel comes from Jeremiah and means “hope of Israel”. In 1970 David Ben-Gurion visited on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the organisation. Ben-Gurion said that without Mikveh Israel the nation would not have grown and may not even have been established.

Charles Netter, an agronomist, was sent to Israel by a French organisation called Alliance Israelite Universelle. This organisation had been set up to establish agricultural schools in Africa. In 1870 it was decided to send somebody to Palestine (as Israel was then known) to establish a school. They purchased a tract of land from the Turkish sultan just northeast of Jaffa. Charles Netter was looking for students and went to Jerusalem. His first student was a youth whom he spotted eating a watermelon. The boy was putting the seeds into his pocket. When Netter asked him why he was saving the seeds the boy said that he wanted more watermelons. This seemed like a likely scholar. The boy’s mother was exceedingly poor and saw it as a way of improving the family’s financial situation and giving the boy an education. Netter and his pupil initially lived in the cave which was the first stop on our tour.

We ate our lunch in the picnic area which was in the eucalyptus grove. Eucalyptus trees are not native to Israel but they were introduced with a view to drying up the swamps. However, eucalyptus trees are very frugal with water and so the idea failed. The eucalyptus was introduced by Horatio Spafford who was a staunch Presbyterian who after a series of personal tragedies came to Jerusalem and founded the American Colony. He was responsible for helping those who came to Israel on the First Aliyah in 1852 and also the Yemenites who were not accepted at first.

According to Mark Twain (in "Innocents Abroad") who visited Israel in 1867, the land that Netter subsequently purchased was barren, tree-less land with no shade and a dismal landscape. The area was surrounded by Arab villages. Why this parcel of land? Because there was a water supply and there was a source of labour nearby.

From a distance we saw the place where Theodor Herzl met Kaiser Wilhelm II on his one and only visit to Israel in 1898, recently marked with a statue by the main road. This meeting was organised thanks to Leah Niego, the wife of Joseph Niego who was the General Manager of Mikveh Israel for fifteen years. Leah was in Tel Aviv and saw a hubbub and realised it was Herzl and his entourage. The entourage arranged everything but they forgot a horse and buggy. She told Herzl to come to Mikveh Israel and she let him use a horse and buggy from the school. The meeting was organised for a place along the main route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Rina told us about a famous picture of Herzl and the Kaiser which was widely published at the time. The photographer rushed to capture the scene of Herzl standing on the gound and greeting the Kaiser riding his horse. In fact the photographer managed to capture (left to right) one of the Kaiser's aids on a black horse, the back end of the white horse upon which the Kaiser was seated, and a leg of Herzl. The published photo has the Kaiser (instead of his aid) sitting on the black horse and the fully standing Herzl - actually an image of Herzl acquired from a different photograph - facing the Kaiser directly. So we learned that the PhotoShop technique stems from the 19th century!

We visited the synagogue which is truly beautiful. Because there are Sephardi and Ashkenazi pupils there are two pulpits. The décor is a mixture of all of the styles in Israel at that time. For example there are Templar style doors with a plaque in Hebrew, Arabic, French and English and a dark brown plough and a cluster of grapes. Inside there is Turkish influence in the paintings on the ceiling - although it is also rumoured that they were painted by Chinese painters! In 1970 the synagogue was restored. Outside the synagogue is the oldest tree, a Ficus Bengali or Banyan weeping date tree. The tree appears to have numerous trunks but in fact it has just one true original trunk. These additional “trunks” are branches which have bent over and after they touched the ground they took root. If you stand at the main door and look back you can see the straight boulevard which leads to the school’s main entrance which is flanked by palm trees.

The school is a National Heritage site and the head office of The Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. Their logo is the facade of the Herzliya Gymnasium. That was Israel’s first Hebrew high school, which was established in 1905, and it became a symbol for the importance of preserving heritage sites. Even so, today Mikveh Israel is a modern fully functioning school refining agricultural technology and techniques, with an experimental botanical garden, facilities for raising horses and farm animals, etc.


Then we went down into the winery. This was constructed in 1873, and is deep down underground. The workers dug into the limestone to construct four arched underground chambers. This winery played a vital role during the War of Independence. It was the place where new recruits (both male and female) took the oath of allegiance to the Hagenah military organisation. The oath was taken on a Bible whilst holding a gun. It was also the place where weapons and ammunition were stored and hidden. In fact when they were restoring some of the limestone in modern times a stash of bullets was unearthed. We sat and watched a film about Mikveh Israel whilst drinking a glass of the wine produced there!

Our final stop on the tour was the machina also known as the blacksmith work shop. It was intended that the whole school site be independent and not reliant on outsiders to repair and make tools. Some of the machinery is still working. It was in this workshop that the Davidka mortar was invented. The inventor was David Leibovitch. The mortar was very noisy and inaccurate. In one notable incident the Davidka was used against an Arab insurgency in Tsfad. It went off with such a bang and created such a huge crater in the middle of the market that the Arabs just upped and left in fear, particularly as just then rain began falling during what was normally the dry season and the rumour quickly spread that this was nuclear fallout.

And then the tour was finished. We all said goodbye and wended our way home! A big thanks to Rina Yellin for such an insightful pair or visits.


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