The Shomronim had a tumultuous history over the past three millennia and it is a miracle that any survive. Banned twice by the Jewish people, massacred and persecuted over the centuries, their numbers dropped from a population of over a million during the 4th century C.E. to a mere 150 at the turn of the 20th century. Although their numbers are slowly growing it is doubtful they will ever menace the Jewish people as they did when Klal Yisroel were rebuilding the second Beis Hamikdosh.
The First Ban
The Tanach tells us that the King of Ashur brought the Shomronim to Eretz Yisroel in the year 4205 after the exile of the Ten Tribes. His goal was to fill the empty territory left behind.
The king of Ashur bought [people] from Bavel and from Kusoh and from Ava and from Chamat and Sefarvayim and settled [them] in the towns of Shomron instead of the people of Yisroel and they inherited Shomron and settled in its towns. (II Melochim 17:22- 24)
Because some of the transplanted peoples came from Kuta, they became collectively known as Kusim. In later years the Greeks called them Shomronim because of their location in Shomron. The pesukim go on to describe how they converted. It came to pass that at the beginning of their dwelling there they did not fear Hashem, and Hashem sent lions upon them and they used to kill them… The king of Ashur commanded, saying, Take there one of the kohanim that you exiled from there. And they went and settled there and taught them the law of the G-d of the land. (ibid 17:26, 28)
A famous controversy appears a number of times in the Gemara. Did the Kusim convert for idealistic motives or only because of their fear of the lions? The chachomim say that they were gerei arayos and only converted because of the lions. Tosfos (d”h Kesavar, Chulin 3b) says that according to the chachomim’s opinion they were not Jews at all for they also continued serving idols as the verse (II Melochim 17:32) tells us: They feared Hashem and served their gods according to the custom of the nations that had been exiled from there.
Rabbi Meir, on the other, insists that the Shomronim were true converts and absolutely Jewish. As to the verses that report them serving idols, Tosfos (ibid) explains that according to Rabi Meir they later repented and converted a second time after leaving idolatry.
The Kusim reappear in Tanach at the time the Jews return to Eretz Yisroel and want to rebuild the Beis Hamikdosh. At first, the Kusim eagerly offered to take part in the holy enterprise. They approached Zerubavel and the family heads and said to them, Let us build with you for to Him we sacrifice from the days of Aisar Chidon king of Ashur who bought us here. (Ezra 4:2).
Suspecting insincerity, the Jews rejected their offer: Zerubavel and Yeshua and the other family heads of Yisroel said to them, It is not for you and for us to build the house of our G-d. For we together will build for Hashem the G-d of Yisroel, etc. (ibid 4:3)
The subsequent behavior of the Kusim reveals that they were indeed unfit to be partners with Klal Yisroel. In revenge, the Kusim sent letters to the Persian authorities saying the Jews wanted to rebel against them and the building of the Beis Hamikdosh was delayed for eighteen years until Daryavesh gave permission to proceed once more. Even then, the Kusim and other local nations tried to prevent the rebuilding by force to the extent of attempting to assassinate Nechemiah.
Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 38) and other sources relate that because of the Shomronim’s wickedness, Ezra and other leaders gathered the people to the Beis Hamikdosh with 300 kohanim, 300 children, 300 shofaros, and 300 sifrei Torah. There they blew shofars, the Leviyim sang, and they excommunicated the Kusim.
The Yalkut (vol. II 234) adds, “They excommunicated the Kusim with the secret of the explicit name and the script written on the luchos and with a cherem of the lower beis din and with a cherem of the upper beis din that no Jew may eat the bread of a Kusi. Because of this they said, ‘Whoever eats the bread of a Kusi is considered as if he ate the flesh of a swine. No Jew may convert a Kusi and they have no portion in the resurrection, and no portion or inheritance or remembrance in Yisroel.’”
Later, when Alexander the Great met Shimon Hatzaddik, he allowed the Jews to destroy the Kusim’s temple on Mount Gerizim that had stood for 200 years (Yuma 69b). The Chashmona ruler Yochanan Hurkenos destroyed the temple (perhaps it was rebuilt in the meantime) and their major city of Shechem in 108 B.C.E. The anniversary of the destruction of their temple, the 21st of Kislev, was a day of remembrance and joy for the Jews for many years.
The Second Ban
The Gemara (Chullin 6a) says that the Kusim were excommunicated a second time during the time of the Tanna’im after people discovered that the Kusim had an idolatrous image of a dove in their temple at Mount Gerizim. Tosfos cites a medrash saying that this was the same idol Yaakov hid under an oak tree on a mountain at Shechem (Bereshis 35:4). In reaction, Rabi Meir decreed that their wine was forbidden like the wine of a non-Jew.
Raban Gamliel and his beis din later forbade their shechitah, and about 150 years later in about 300 CE the beis din of Rav Ami and Rav Assi decreed they should be related to as non-Jews (Chullin 6a).
All this is puzzling for earlier we cited a medrash that they were already banned in the days of Ezra and Nechemiah. Why ban them a second time? Tosfos Yeshonim (Yuma 69b) addresses this question. According to Tosfos’s answer, the first conversion of the Kusim was null and void due to their serving idolatry. Therefore, the first cherem made while they were non-Jews was abrogated after they converted a second time, this time properly. Rabbi Meir banned them a second time after this second conversion. At some time in their history the Shomronim began to forge their Torah scrolls to confirm to their separatist ideals. To the verse, You shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there and rejoice before Hashem your G-d (Devorim 27:7), they added the words, at Mount Gerizim to confirm to their article of faith that the temple must be built on that mountain.
They changed other verses to avoid well known theological problems. To avoid referring to Hashem as a ‘man,’ they changed Hashem is an ish milchamah (Shemos 9:3) to Hashem is a gibor milchomoh. To escape the question of how the creation could be completed on the seventh day, they changed, God completed His work on the seventh day, to, God completed His work on the sixth day. Most brazenly of all, they telescoped the first two of the Ten Commandments into one, and replaced the tenth commandment with an injunction stressing the importance of
Mount Gerizim as the place of the temple.
In general, Rav Ashtori Haparchi (born 1291) who discusses Eretz Yisroel in his sefer Kaftor Vaferach wrote, “I testify that there is not in [their] whole Torah a parshah that they did not forge in” (chapter 5 page 11)
Their Numbers Dwindle
The Shomronim claim that by the 4th century C.E., they numbered about one million and two hundred thousand. Between 484-572 they became involved in four rebellions that lowered their numbers by an estimated over one million. Further persecutions over the centuries lowered their numbers further. Rav Binyomin of Tudela writes that when he visited the region in 1163 they numbered only 1,600 people, 1,000 in Shechem, 300 in Ashkelon, 200 in Caesarea, and 100 in Damascus.
In 1623, the “kohen godol” the Kusim claimed to be the last descendant of Aharon Hakohen died and from then on their sacrifices were made by a substitute titled Hakohen-Halevi.
Between 1831-1841 when Ibrahim Pasha ruled Eretz Yisroel from Egypt, he decided that because the Shomronim did not believe in any holy script acknowledged by Islam they must either convert or leave, ignoring their plea that their strangely written scrolls were actually the Five Books of Moses. In desperation, the Shomronim turned for help to the Chacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) of Yerushalayim, Rav Chaim Avrohom Gagin. Graciously, he wrote them a letter affirming that “the Shomroni nation is a branch of the people of Yisroel that acknowledges the truth of the Torah.”
In 1922, a British census found that there 163 Shomronim in the mandate, 83 men and 80 women. So many Shomronim had been forced into Islam over the years that many distinguished Muslim families trace their lineage to this persecuted people. The president of Israel, Yitzchak Ben Tzvi who was an avid researcher of Jewish anthropology wrote that the number of people in any one of these extended families exceeded the number of the entire Shomroni population.
Their numbers grew during the 20th century. But 1948 there were 250 in Shechem and 58 in Tel Aviv who later moved to the Neveh Pinchas neighborhood of Cholon. By 2012 they number 751 people, half in Shechem and half in Cholon. Due to a predominance of males in their population, they have accepted a few dozen Jewish women, a few Muslim women from Turkey, and a small number of Ukranian women on condition that they accept the principles of their religion.
The Shomronim presently live exclusively in Eretz Yisroel, mostly in Shechem and Cholon. Those living in Shechem are unique in holding citizenship of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and even have a representative in the PA government. They live in Kiryat Luza, an area in the municipal area of Shechem under control of the IDF. Once a year the two groups unite at Mount Gerizim in the West Bank where they sacrifice sheep to roast and eat in their version of the Pesach seder.
Sources: Avraham Korman, Zeromim Vekitos B’yehadus, Sifri’ati Tel Aviv, 1966; Wikipedia