Today’s daf continues our discussion of individuals within the Jewish community who the rabbis forbid to marry each other. One prohibition jumps out as particularly strange:
It is taught in a beraita(Tosefta 5:2): And similarly Rabbi Elazar says: A Samaritan man may not marry a Samaritan woman.
Almost all of the cases of forbidden marriage the rabbis have discussed so far involve two people of different statuses — free and enslaved, legitimate and mamzer, Ammonite and Egyptian. Yet here, where the two are both Samaritan, Rabbi Elazar forbids their marriage anyway. Unsurprisingly, then, the rest of the daf is taken up by an extended rabbinic discussion of why. Here’s just a piece of it:
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba says that Rabbi Yohanan says, and some say that it was Rabbi Abba bar Zavda who says Rabbi Hanina says and some say it was Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi who says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: There are three positions with regard to the matter.
A word of context to understand the three opinions. The Samaritans were, and still are, a community of people who live in the region of Samaria (between Judah and the Galilee). Their origins are debated. The Bible explains that when the Assyrians deported the Jews of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, they brought in “people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites.” (2 Kings 17, 24) These people continued to worship their own gods, so God sent lions to attack them. In response, an Israelite priest was sent to teach this community of foreigners what the God of Israel requires of those who live on this land.
The Samaritan community — which has a Pentateuch nearly identical to the Jewish Torah but does not regard the rest of Jewish scripture, including 2 Kings, as authoritative — has a different understanding of its history, in which the Samaritans are the original inhabitants of the land who hold fast to the original modes of worship of the God of Israel, modes which are then rejected by those who come back from the Babylonian exile with new ideas.
The rabbis of the Talmud follow the biblical account. And this matters because,
Rabbi Yishmael holds that Samaritans are lion converts, and the priests who assimilated among them were unfit priests, as it is stated: “And made unto them from among themselves priests of the high places.” (II Kings 17:32)
If the Samaritans were converted to Judaism by force (of lions), by unfit priests, then their community’s Jewish status is in question, in particular given that some are the descendants of priests who are described as “thorns.” If one of the Samaritans is actually the descendent of a Jew with a flawed lineage, then they cannot marry another Samaritan who is descended from Jews without flawed lineage. And there’s no way to know which is which.
Here’s the second opinion about why Samaritans should not (in rabbinic imagination) marry one another:
And Rabbi Akiva holds: Samaritans are true converts, and the priests who assimilated among them were fit priests, as it is stated: “And made unto them from among themselves priests of the high places.” (II Kings 17:32)
And for what reason did the sages prohibit them? As they would perform levirate marriage with betrothed women.
The problem does not stem from the time of their conversion, but Samaritan practice that introduces flaws. Their levirate marriages were not rabbinically correct, and so introduced elements of doubt and uncertainty into their lineage.
In this vein, on tomorrow’s daf, the rabbis offer a third explanation: that Samaritans are not experts in the mitzvot of betrothal and divorce, which again, introduces uncertainty. If one of two Samaritans wanting to marry was legitimate, and the other was the product of an illegitimate marriage, then they would be forbidden to marry each other. And again, we have no way to know which is which.
While there is a kind of logic in these rulings, the overall consequence is troubling: Rabbis ruling, for another group, that they cannot marry one another. And they didn’t have to rule this way. After all, in the case of a couple where both have doubtful lineage, you would think and expect that they would be able to marry each other — since they have the same (doubtful) status. That suggests this ruling was a deliberate choice.
In many cases, we’ve seen the rabbis rule with an idea that the “right” halakhic answer is not just one that is logical, but one that creates more good in the world. What “good” might they think will come of this ruling? Here’s a guess: Given what we know from both the contemporary world and the ancient world, perhaps for the rabbis the case of the Samaritans was different. Unlike converts to Judaism who have fully embraced a Jewish life as articulated by the rabbis, the Samaritans retain different practices that they see as authentically Israelite. Perhaps in trying to ensure that Samaritans would have to marry outside their own community, the rabbis were trying to accelerate Samaritan assimilation into a normative Judaism.
Of course, that didn’t happen. It’s safe to say that ancient Samaritans — who at this time had already had centuries of animosity with Jews — ignored the rabbis’ rulings. Their community survives to this day, a powerful reminder that Samaritans, like rabbinic Jews, are resilient, and committed to their own traditions in the face of adversity.