Who Stole the Samaritan Torahs?

Samaritan cermony Mt Gerazim_Tanya Habjouqa-Noor for NPR

A Samaritan ceremony at dawn on the summit of Mt. Gerizim. (PHOTO: Tanya Habjouqa-Noor for NPR)

From the NPR web-site comes an intriguing article by Jerusalem-based international correspondent Daniel Estrin offering a rare glimpse inside the modern Samaritan community in the Holy Land. This tiny sect, tightly-knit and steeped in colorful ancient traditions, consider themselves the “true Israelites” (and those of you who have witnessed the Samaritan Passover ritual might be inclined to agree).

Today’s Samaritans, less than 1,000 in number, are split between the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon and their ancient center atop Mt. Gerizim overlooking the West Bank city of Nablus, thus the community maintains a delicate balancing act between the Israeli and Palestinian spheres.

The narrative that carries Estrin’s story–one which he himself has been enmeshed in for the past several years–is the mystery of two, centuries-old Samaritan Torahs stolen from their Gerizim synagogue in 1995. One was a scroll, the other a bound codex, both written by hand in the Hebrew-like but still cryptic Samaritan script. Despite some vexing clues, hints and innuendo, the theft of the two works remains unsolved.

However, on his quest in search of these missing relics, Estrin takes us on a fascinating journey through Samaritan history and culture, including fault lines within the community itself– not to mention the shadowy world of the illicit antiquities trade. You’ll be introduced, too, to the ultimately enigmatic figure of Benny Tsedaka, a proponent and self-appointed spokesman for all things Samaritan.

This extended account, accompanied by some excellent photographs, is well worth a read. Estrin writes, in part:

If the Samaritans are the true keepers of the biblical faith, their Torahs are title deeds: rare and sacred manuscripts, written in a variation of the original Israelite script that Jews abandoned long ago and featuring passages scholars say preserve some of the earliest drafts of the Bible. Of the three dozen old biblical manuscripts left in the community’s coffers, the Samaritans say one is the oldest in the world, written by Moses’ great-grandnephew. These manuscripts are the Samaritans’ most jealously guarded possessions, and collectors across the globe have gone to great lengths to get their hands on them.

So have thieves.

Word of the burglary spread fast. Some 30 miles southwest, a Samaritan named Benyamim Tsedaka — everyone calls him Benny — left his home in Israel and drove straight to the West Bank, to the scene of the crime. Benny didn’t know it then, but he would soon embark on a years-long international hunt for the missing Torahs. The hunt would eventually beckon me, too. The search would take us deep into the illicit artifact trade, where ancient manuscripts have more than just spiritual value.

To view the complete article on the NPR site, follow the link below. Happy reading…

Who Stole The Torahs?

An Ancient Sect, A Brazen Theft

and The Hunt To Bring The Manuscripts Home

by Daniel Estrin

This entry was posted in Antiquities, Israel-Palestine Scene, Nablus area, Old Testament, Religion, West Bank and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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