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Evidence of the Halakhic Letter, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.

The Dead Sea Scrolls
A Qumran text, today known as the Halakhic Letter, demonstrates quite clearly that the root cause that led to the sectarian schism consisted of a series of disagreements about sacrificial law and ritual purity. The full name of this document is Miqsat Ma‘ase ha-Torah (some legal rulings pertaining to the Torah). The writers of its text list more than twenty laws that describe the ways their practices differed from those prevailing in the Temple and its sacrificial worship. But even more important, the document reveals more precise information than we have previously had about the origins of the sect.

The Halakhic Letter begins with a statement about its own intent-*

These are some of our (legal) rulings [regarding Go]d’s [Torah] which are [some of the] rulings of [the] laws which w[e hold, and a]ll of them are regarding [sacrifices] and the purity of. . . .

*Information on this and all texts quoted or cited in this book is found in the Guide to Dead Sea Scrolls Texts cited at the back of the book. All translations presented here are by the author, except for biblical texts, which for the most part follow the New Jewish Publication Society translation. Square brackets are used to indicate restorations made by scholars to fragmentary scroll texts. Parentheses are used to indicate explanatory material added to the translation.

The first sentence announces that what follows are some of “our (legal) rulings” that “we” hold.” Throughout the letter the authors refer to themselves in the plural. What then follows is a list of twenty-two halakhic matters over which the sectarians disagree with the addressee of the letter. For most of these, the text includes both the view of the writers as well as that of their opponents. Such phrases as “but you know” and “but we hold,” indicate the polemical nature of the text. Later we will look at one of the document’s specific laws, which demonstrates unquestionably that this group adhered to the Sadducean trend in Jewish law.

The second part of the letter returns to general principles, presenting the writers’ general views on the schism now under way. The authors state-

[You know that] we have separated from the mainstream of the peo[ple and from all their impurities and] from mixing in these matters and from being involved w[ith them] regarding these matters. But you k[now that there cannot be] found in our hands dishonesty, falsehood, or evil.

The writers here state that in accepting the aforementioned rulings, they had to withdraw from participation in the rituals of the majority of the people. The purpose of this document was to call on their erstwhile colleagues in Jerusalem and the Hasmonaean leader to effect a reconciliation that would allow them to return to their role in the Temple. Needless to say, reconciliation meant accepting the views this document puts forth. Accordingly, the authors make the general statement that the addressees know that the members of this dissident group are reliable and honest, meaning that the list of laws is indeed being strictly observed as stated by the authors.

At this point, the letter plainly explains its purpose-

[For indeed] we have [written] to you in order that you will investigate the Book of Moses [and] in the book[s of the P]rophets and of Davi[d . . . , in the deeds] of each and every generation.

The sectarians have written to the addressee (now for the first time in the singular) in order that “you” will examine the words of the Torah, the Prophets, and David (presumably the biblical accounts of the Davidic monarchy), as well as the history of the generations.

The text now turns to what is to be found in those particular documents, that is, the Scriptures that the sectarians want their opponent to search. The addressee is told (again in the singular) that it has been foretold that he would turn aside from the path of righteousness and, as a result, suffer misfortune. The text of the Halakhic Letter then predicts that in the End of Days, the ruler will return to God. All of it is in accord with what is written in the Torah and in the Prophets. This time the authors do not mention the Writings, probably because the relevant blessings and curses do not occur there.

The text now returns to the discussion of the kings, recalling the blessings fulfilled during the time of Solomon, son of David, and the curses visited on Israel from the days of Jeroboam, son of Nebat (c. 922–901 B.C.E., son of Solomon), through the time of Zedekiah (597–586 B.C.E., last king of Judah).

Next the writers state that in their view some of the blessings and curses have already come to pass-

And we recognize that some of the blessings and curses which are written in the B[ook of Mo]ses have come to pass, and that this is the End of Days when they will repent in Isra[el] for[ever . . .] and they will not backsli[de]. (HALAKHIC LETTER C20–22)

Here the authors reveal their belief that they are currently living on the verge of the End of Days, a notion that later became normative in Qumran messianic thought. It is also clear that they considered their own age the period foretold by the Bible as the final repentance of Israel.
In light of these beliefs, the authors exhort the addressee (singular) to recall the events surrounding the reigns of Israel’s kings, to examine their deeds, and to note that those who observed the laws of the Torah were spared misfortune, their transgressions forgiven. Such was the case with David, whom the addressee is asked to remember.

The authors then sum up why they sent this text to the addressee-

And indeed, we have written to you some of the rulings pertaining to the Torah which we considered were good for you and your people, for [we have seen] that you have wisdom and knowledge of the Torah. Understand all these (matters) and seek from Him that He correct your counsel and distance from you evil thoughts and the counsel of Belial, in order that you shall rejoice in the end when you find some of our words correct. And let it be considered right for you, and lead you to do righteousness and good, and may it be for your benefit, and for that of Israel. (HALAKHIC LETTER C26–32)

Here the phrase Miqsat Ma‘ase ha-Torah (some of the rulings pertaining to the Torah) appears. The authors state that the letter is intended for the benefit of the addressee and the nation. The addressee is credited with being wise and having sufficient knowledge of the Torah to understand the halakhic matters presented in the letter. The writers call on him to mend his ways and renounce all of his incorrect views on matters of Jewish law. Doing so will lead him to rejoice at the end of this period (the End of Days), for he will come to realize that the writers of the letter are indeed correct in their views. His repentance will be judged a righteous deed, beneficial both for him and for all Israel.

One of the interesting features of the Halakhic Letter is the way the grammatical number of addressees shifts. In the introductory sentence, the letter is addressed to an individual, but in the list of laws, the authors engage in a dispute with a group (“you,” plural). When the text returns to its main argument—at the conclusion of the list of laws—it shifts back to the singular. We will see later that the plural sections are addressed to priests of the Jerusalem Temple, and the singular to the Hasmonaean ruler.

To understand the nature of this text, we will consider an example of one of its halakhic controversies—the law regarding liquid streams-

[And even] regarding (poured out) liquid streams, we sa[y] that they do not have [pu]rity. And even the liquid streams do not separate between the impure [and the] pure. For the moisture of the liquid streams and (the vessel) which receives from them are both considered one identical moisture.

This enigmatic rule refers to questions of ritual purity in the pouring of liquids from one vessel to another. In a case when the upper vessel is pure and the lower one is not, the question in our text concerns whether the upper vessel—the source of the liquid stream—can be rendered impure when the stream itself links the two vessels together. The text of the Halakhic Letter asserts that the entire entity is “one moisture,” that is, that the impurity does rise back up the stream, against the direction of the flow, so as to render the upper vessel impure.

This law has a close parallel in the Mishnah. There, in reporting a number of disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Mishnah states-

The Sadducees say- “We complain against you Pharisees. For you declare pure the (poured out) liquid stream.” (M. YADAYIM 4-7)

In contrast to our text and the Sadducean view implied in the Mishnah, the Pharisees ruled that in such cases the stream did not impart impurity to the pure vessel from which it was being poured. To them, the impurity of the lower vessel could not flow up, against the flow of the stream, to render the upper vessel impure. Because the Sadducees, in this and many other cases, share the same positions we find in the Halakhic Letter, we can convincingly show, using this and other Qumran texts, that the Qumran sect had a substratum of Sadducean halakhic views.

It appears that this letter was written to the head of the Jerusalem establishment, the high priest. The comparisons with the kings of Judah and Israel must have been particularly appropriate to someone who saw himself as an almost royal figure. In the letter, the ruler is admonished to take care lest he go the way of the kings of First Temple times. Such a warning could be addressed only to a figure who could identify, because of his own station in life, with the ancient kings of biblical Israel.

The Halakhic Letter makes no mention of the Teacher of Righteousness or any other leader or official known from the sectarian documents. Because the sect’s own official history, presented in the Zadokite Fragments, claims that their initial separation from the main body of Israel took place some twenty years before the coming of the teacher, we can conclude that the Halakhic Letter was written by the collective leadership of the sect in those initial years. This explains why the teacher does not appear in this text.

Pages 83-87

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