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Adding Beauty to Holiness: A Rare Samaritan Ketubah

Of greatest interest and rarity is a decorative Samaritan ketubah, inscribed in the Samaritan language, for the wedding of the groom, Tamim ben Yisrael ben Yishmael Danafi, and his bride, Pu'ah bat Abraham ben Marhib Safari, which was solemnized in Shechem (Nablus) March-April 1901. The Samaritans, an ancient Jewish sect, go back to biblical days. Their scriptures are the Five Books of Moses, and their religion centers on the meticulous observance of Pentateuchal law and worship at Mt. Gerzim, especially the offering up of the Paschal sacrifice there. They observe kashrut (dietary laws), laws of purity, circumcision, and seven holidays — among them Passover, Shavuot, Sukkoth, the Day of Atonement, Sh'mini Atzeret and a festival of the seventh month celebrated on the same day as the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

A Samaritan ketubah is an oddity and rarity in a display of ketuboth. Unlike the other ketuboth whose language is Hebrew and Aramaic, this is in the Samaritan language, the language of an ancient Jewish sect, now all but extinct. Let us record the name of the bride and groom whose 1901 marriage was their commitment to Samaritan survival when they numbered but one hundred and ninety: Tamim ben Yisrael ben Yishmael Danafi and his bride, Pu'ah bat Abraham ben Marhib Safari, (Samaritan Ketubah, Shechem, (Nablus), 1901, Hebraic Section,  Library of Congress Photo).

On the fourth day of a week of rejoicing which celebrates a wedding, the groom takes a piece of parchment to a priest and asks him to write the ketubah. in the evening, the bride arrives accompanied by singing and instrumental music. The groom hands the ketubah to the high priest, who reads it aloud slowly, expounding upon the status of the families and the virtues of the bride and the groom, and detailing the marital stipulations and agreements. The ketubah is then presented to a representative of the bride, her father or a relative, for safekeeping.

In late antiquity, the Samaritans constituted a significant segment of the population of the Holy Land, but in cruelly crushed uprisings against the Byzantines in the fifth and sixth centuries, their numbers began to dwindle. Widescale massacres accompanying the Arab conquest in the seventh century further diminished their number, so that in 1163 Benjamin of Tudela found only about one thousand in Shechem and vicinity. The number of Samaritans at the time of the writing of the ketubah was, according to a British consulate census, about 190. They were recognized as Jews by the State of Israel, and in 1954 those in Israel formed one community in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. The Six-Day War in 1967 united these with those Samaritans who had remained in Shechem, marking also a reunification with the Jewish people after some twenty-five centuries of separation.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).