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Overview: Religious Life at Qumran

The Dead Sea Scrolls
Leadership

During the initial period between the founding of the sect and the arrival of the Teacher of Righteousness, the Qumran sect was led by Zadokite priests. The importance of the Zadokite priests stemmed from biblical tradition—they had served in Solomon’s Temple and were to serve in the future Temple described by Ezekiel. In sectarian literature, the Zadokite priests are instructors of the correct law, and will lead the community in the End of Days.

The Zadokite Fragments describes the next leader of the community, known as the Teacher of Righteousness. This teacher showed the sectarians how to correctly follow the laws of the Torah. The Torah is divided into two parts—the revealed, written Torah (nigleh) and the hidden or secret laws (nistar) which were revealed by the Teacher of Righteousness to the sectarians.

Pesher Habakkuk provides a fair amount of information about the Teacher of Righteousness and his career. The Teacher was a messenger of God who was granted understanding of the true meaning of the Prophets as well as true interpretations of the law. The Teacher was opposed by the Man of Lies. In one incident, the Teacher was verbally abused by the Man of Lies while a group called the “House of Absalom” looked on without intervening. Another opponent of the Teacher was the Wicked Priest, apparently one of the earlier Hasmonean rulers. This character attacked the sect and its teacher on the Day of Atonement (which took place on a different date than the Day of Atonement commemorated by the Jewish community outside of Qumran) and interrupted their fast and prayers.

According to Pesher Habakkuk, the Teacher was a priest. It would seem logical that from an initial group of Zadokite priestly leaders a single priest would emerge to take over leadership of the sect. Curiously, this biographical fact is not mentioned elsewhere in the sectarian literature.

The sectarians were certain that the coming of the Messiah was imminent and therefore did not prepare for the Teacher’s death or appoint a successor. When the Teacher passed away the sect weathered the crisis, appointing various officers to administer the affairs of the sect, which continued to adhere to the teachings of the Teacher of Righteousness. It is likely that the various official roles did not all coexist simultaneously.

A number of roles are mentioned in the sectarian literature. One of these is the mevaqqer, or examiner, who had a central role in sectarian life. He was a teacher and guide, responsible for the spiritual and physical welfare of the community. He approved new members, supervised business transactions, and approved marriages and divorces. He organized the members according to rank and judged disputes.

While the mevaqqer was, in many ways, a substitute for the Teacher of Righteousness, some of the Teacher’s tasks were shared with other officials. The paqid—as mentioned in The Rule of the Community—was responsible for administering initial tests for those wishing to join the sect. The maskil was a teacher of ideology and theology as well as legal knowledge. His role closely parallels that of the Pharisaic sages who were experts in the law and its interpretation.

Women in the Scrolls

As previously noted, the sectarian literature does not mandate celibacy. The Zadokite Fragments contain many references to marriage and family. These are probably laws which apply to sectarian communities scattered around the Land of Israel and not to the community at Qumran. The scroll prohibits polygamy, viewing marriage as a lifetime commitment. It also prohibits marriage with one’s niece. As only marriage between a woman and her nephew was prohibited by the Torah, Second Temple groups debated whether the prohibition should be extended to a man and his niece as well. The Rabbis allowed it, while the Qumran sectarians, Samaritans, and early Christians forbade it.

The Zadokite Fragments forbids sexual relations in the area surrounding the Temple. It describes the laws of ritual purity relating to women and the right of a father or husband to nullify a woman’s oaths and vows. The Temple Scroll mentions divorcees in this context as fully responsible for their own oaths and vows.

According to the scrolls, a woman is expected to reveal any of her imperfections or blemishes to a prospective groom, and a father is forbidden from marrying his daughter to an inappropriate groom. A man must be careful not to marry a woman of questionable moral standards—she must not have engaged in sexual relations out of wedlock, a standard which may be verified by other women.

According to the Temple Scroll, menstrually impure women are to be separated from the community. They are not allowed to enter cities, including the Temple City. A non-Jewish wife captured in war may not eat pure foods for seven years. A king may only marry a Jewish woman and is not allowed to divorce her and remarry.

Women are also mentioned in poetic texts found at Qumran. The Wiles of the Wicked Woman describes a woman who leads men astray. The Psalms Scroll contains an erotic poem in which the woman represents wisdom. In the Thanksgiving Hymns, a woman’s difficult labor and childbirth represent the birth pangs of the messianic era. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, is depicted as the most beautiful of women in the Genesis Apocryphon.

Faith and Belief

The Qumran community was concerned not just with matters of law, but also with the nature of God and humanity. One of the most important texts for the investigation of Qumran theology is the Thanksgiving Hymns, which contains a series of devotional poems. Other texts, such as The Rule of the Community and the War Scroll, also contribute to our understanding of Qumran beliefs.

Although most Second Temple groups believed that all was foreknown by God, the sectarians took this concept one step further. They believed in predestination, asserting that all had been set forth by God’s plan and that human beings had no choice in how their affairs play out, both on the individual and the national planes.

According to the sectarians, God was good, righteous, and forgiving. In order to explain the notion of the existence of evil, given the belief that God’s goodness was absolute, the sect developed a kind of extreme dualism. In their opinion, two spirits, one good and one evil, acted as God’s agents in the management of the world. The good spirit was the spirit of light, and the bad spirit, or Belial, was the spirit of darkness. These two spirits competed for domination of the cosmos. Humans belonged to one of these two spirits and their deeds were determined by the group to which they belonged. This idea is similar to the rabbinic concept of the good and evil inclinations, although these inclinations were competing forces within each individual and not external powers.

Human sinfulness, in the view of the sect, was a result of belonging to the lot of Belial. Human beings were, in their view, lowly creatures, made of dust and water; only the divine spirit could elevate lowly flesh to holiness. Sin was inevitable but repentance was possible if one was predestined to belong to the good spirit. (Early Christianity was influenced by these views, viewing the physical and sexual as lowly aspects of humanity, and connecting the inevitability of sin to the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.)

The Law of the Sect

The sectarian legal documents contain laws which are familiar from the Mishnah, but they also contains some laws which are unique to the sectarians.

The Zadokite Fragments include a list of laws, or serekh, called The Sabbath Code. The first prescription in this list is the requirement to begin the Sabbath early. The Pharisaic Rabbis also required extending the Sabbath, adding time to the Sabbath both before and after the day itself. According to the majority opinion in the Talmud, this was for two reasons. The first was to show greater appreciation for the Sabbath, and the second was to avoid accidentally violating it. The Zadokite Fragments agree with the rabbinic sources, asserting that the Sabbath must begin early, and follow the minority opinion which maintains that extending the Sabbath is mandated by the Torah.

Another law in the Sabbath Code deals with the Sabbath limit. The Bible prohibits travel on the Sabbath- “Let everyone remain where he is- let no person leave his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16-29). During the Second Temple period this verse was generally understood to prohibit long journeys. According to the church father Hipploytus (third century CE), the Essenes did not leave their beds on the Sabbath. (Earlier sources do not report this.) Members of the Samaritan community do not leave their homes on the Sabbath except to go to synagogue to this day; the Jewish community in Ethiopia practiced in much the same way until its arrival in Israel.

The Qumran sect agreed with the rabbinic sources that the prohibition applied only to long journeys. They prescribed a one thousand cubit limit (about 1,500 feet or 450 meters) except in order to pasture an animal, in which case the limit was increased to two thousand cubits (about 3,000 feet or 900 meters).

The sectarians reached this decision through a kind of midrashic interpretation of Numbers 35-4–5. The biblical text requires that the Levitical cities include one thousand cubits of land and two thousand cubits of pastureland in each direction. The rabbis simply chose the larger measurement as the limit. The sectarians, however, took the stricter view, except where pasture for livestock was involved, since the Torah had specifically mentioned two thousand cubits as the area necessary for pasture.

The sect and the Rabbis both prohibited carrying from one domain to another on the Sabbath. The Zadokite Fragments describe the case of a sukkah, a temporary dwelling, which was a separate domain from the house, making the act of carrying to and from it prohibited. Since dwelling in a sukkah was a requirement of the festival of Sukkot, the prohibition of carrying posed a serious problem when the festival was on Sabbath. The Rabbis solved this problem with an eruv (a legal institution involving enclosing large areas and designating a symbolic common meal, so that the entire area was considered a private domain). Talmudic sources tell us that the Sadducees did not accept the concept of an eruv, but there is no information about the Qumran sect’s attitude towards this institution.

According to Jewish law, the Sabbath may be set aside in order to save human life. The Rabbis placed no restrictions on this law, but the sectarians required that the savior first attempt rescue without the use of forbidden instruments. If he was not successful, he could then use instruments.

The sect forbade food preparation on the Sabbath. According to rabbinic law, only cooking was not permitted on the Sabbath. The sectarians, in contrast, did not permit opening of containers or peeling of vegetables either. The sect forbade spending the Sabbath anywhere except in a Jewish environment and apparently prohibited the offering of sacrifices in the Temple except for the Sabbath offering.

Courts and Testimony

Greater divergence between rabbinic and sectarian law is found in matters of civil law. These laws clearly address the sectarian community and its organization.

The judiciary at Qumran was made up of ten judges- one priest, three Levites (one from each clan—Gershon, Kohath and Merari), and six Israelites. These judges were obligated to have studied the Book of Hagu (possibly read as Hagi), an unidentified book, which may be the Torah or a particular sectarian document. The judges were all between the ages of twenty-five and sixty.

Rabbinic law does not mention a court of ten, nor does it place age limitations on the judges. Some rabbinic sources require that priests and Levites be part of the Sanhedrin (the high court of seventy-one members), but the Qumran sect placed special emphasis on their participation in the judiciary. This requirement is understandable in a group formed by Zadokite priests.

Witnesses had to be at least twenty years of age and members of the sect. Witnesses who had not always observed the commandments completely must have undergone a process of repentance. Some scholars propose that women were allowed to testify at Qumran, but this assertion is based on a corrupt text and is not compatible with the role of women at Qumran or in Second Temple Judaism.

While the age of twenty is mentioned in rabbinic sources as a greater level of maturity than thirteen (when a man becomes obligated in the commandments), limiting testimony to men aged twenty and above was unique to Qumran law.

A controversial subject amongst Dead Sea Scrolls scholars is the number of witnesses required in legal cases. It appears that the sect required two witnesses for financial matters and three for capital matters. The sectarians regarded “reproof” as a formal process in which the witnesses came to court to record the first offense. The Rabbis, on the other hand, required only two witnesses in both financial and capital law. They considered and then rejected the sectarian form of reproof.

When property was stolen within the sect’s settlements, the owner had to swear an “oath of adjuration” (in Numbers 5-11–31 this oath applies to a suspected adulteress) that he did not know the whereabouts of the stolen property. Anyone hearing this oath who knew where the item could be found was responsible to reveal the truth. There are no rabbinic parallels for this law. However, this procedure was practiced in the medieval period. It is impossible to determine whether this is coincidence or the survival of an ancient sectarian practice.

In a case in which stolen property could not be returned because the owner could not be found, the sectarian law mandated that the property be given to the priest along with the added penalty of one-fifth of the item’s value prescribed by the Torah. The law was based on the verse in Numbers 5-8- “If the man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made …” (cf. Leviticus 5-21–26). The Rabbis, in contrast, understood these verses to refer only to a proselyte, since only he would have no relatives at all. In all other cases, the property would be returned to the nearest relative.

When the owner of lost property was unknown, the sect required that the object be given to the priest for safekeeping. This law is problematic, as the biblical law explicitly states that the finder should keep the object until the owner can be located (Deuteronomy 22-2). The sectarians may have understood the requirement to take it to “your house” to refer to the Temple, the house of God. Since they had distanced themselves from the Temple, the alternate solution was to give the object to the priest. The Rabbis ruled that the finder keep the object, as the Torah mandated. This required them to deal with the complex questions regarding property which had a high maintenance cost (for example, an animal which must be fed).

In sum, sectarian halakhah was derived from biblical interpretation, though, often, this interpretation differed from that of other Second Temple Jews and the later Rabbis. It also differed from early Christianity, which tended to be more lenient than the Pharisees; in contrast, the Qumran sect was more stringent. In many cases, the sect agreed with the rabbinic tradition.

Prayer and Ritual

During the Second Temple period, prayer was seen as supplementary to sacrifice; for those far away from the Temple it constituted a substitute for sacrifice. Once the sectarians had removed themselves from the Temple and its rituals, they sought other types of spirituality with which to replace them. They chose to concentrate on prayer, purity, and study.

Although the Pharisees still participated in Temple sacrifices, they, too, began to focus on prayer and study. Prayer occupied a greater role in Temple ritual, and the dispersion of the Jewish people meant that many people prayed instead of visiting the Temple. The Pharisees also transferred the ritual purity laws from the Temple to the home. After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis found themselves in a situation similar to the Qumran sect. They could no longer rely on the Temple and sacrifice for the nation’s spiritual welfare, and turned to prayer and piety instead.

Through the Dead Sea Scrolls, one may observe the rise of prayer and other religious institutions found in later Judaism, which serve to highlight much about the history of their development.

Where did the sectarians pray? The Zadokite Fragments makes mention of a “house of prostration.” Apparently the sectarian communities scattered around Palestine established permanent houses of worship. The archaeological site of Khirbet Qumran does not show any remains of a synagogue. Therefore, it must be assumed that the inhabitants assembled for prayer in one of the communal rooms, such as the dining hall. Since the entire settlement was created for ritual purposes, there would have been no need to dedicate another building for this purpose.

A poem at the end of Rule of the Community lists the times when prayer was required. The sectarians prayed every morning and evening, with special prayers recited on the festivals and New Month days.

Sectarian prayer has some parallels to the main themes of rabbinic prayer. In Rule of the Community (10-10), we find-

With the entry of day and night I will enter the covenant of God, and at the exit of evening and morning I will speak of His laws.

The expressions “enter the covenant of God” and “speak of his laws” are direct allusions to the major themes of the Shema prayer—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6-4). This prayer was already central in the Second Temple period (Mishnah Tamid 5-1).

The poem also uses expressions which are suggestive of the language of the Amidah (literally, “standing”) prayer. The Amidah was the core of the service in rabbinic Judaism. Because we have no direct evidence that the text of this prayer existed during the Qumran period, it is quite interesting to find in the scrolls parallels to its language. However, this evidence alone is not enough to establish that the prayer as it exists today was recited by the sectarians.

Daily Prayers

An extremely fragmentary text called Daily Prayers includes prayers for every day of the month. It also provides liturgy for the daily prayers. One section of the text focuses on the heavenly luminaries, echoing the first benediction recited before Shema in rabbinic liturgy. It also speaks of gates or portals of light. This idea can be found in the rabbinic benediction before Shema on Sabbath morning- “The God who opens every day the doors of the gates of the east, and opens the windows of the firmament … and gives light to the entire world and its inhabitants.” Another significant parallel to rabbinic liturgy is the benediction which blesses God who has chosen the Jews from amongst the other nations. This theme constitutes the benediction said over the reading of the Torah in the synagogue.

Prayer at Qumran took place twice each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Some Rabbis in Talmudic times felt that this should be the norm. Even after rabbinic law required three daily prayers, the evening prayer remained optional, as it did not correspond to a sacrifice offering in the Temple.

The Qumran Supplication Texts

The rabbinic Tahanun (supplication) texts have parallels in the Qumran corpus. A text called Lament (copied in approximately 50–25 BCE) appeals to God to remember the downtrodden condition and disgrace of Israel. It pleads with God not to hand over the land to foreigners and to avenge the wrongs the nations have perpetuated against Israel. This text, like the rabbinic prayer (whose present form was fixed in the Middle Ages), is based on the verse in Joel 2-17- “Let not Your possession become a mockery, to be taunted by nations! Let not the people say, ‘Where is their God?’”

Words of the Luminaries is another text which parallels the supplication texts, prescribing supplications to be recited on each day of the week. The themes of these supplications are- destruction, mercy, return, and forgiveness. The text uses the formula, “we have sinned, we have transgressed,” which has its roots in the Bible (Ezra 9-6–15) and is a recurring theme in the rabbinic liturgy for the Day of Atonement.

Festival Prayers

A liturgical text called Prayers for Festivals is preserved in four of the sects’ manuscripts, which have been reconstructed to follow the Jewish calendar, beginning with the New Year in Tishre and concluding with Shavuot. The New Moon is also mentioned, but the Festival of Passover has not been identified in the surviving fragments.

The liturgical text includes a prayer for the return of Israel from the Diaspora. This request is paralleled in the rabbinic Festival Mussaf (additional service). The Qumran text indicates that this prayer may go back as early as the first century CE. It seems that Second Temple Jews still mourned the destruction of the First Temple and yearned for its glory and the dissolution of the Diaspora.

Purification Rituals

The sectarians were concerned not only with the mechanics of ritual purity, but also with its ethical and spiritual dimensions. To that end, they composed prayers which were to be recited along with purification. These prayers emphasized that the ritual purification must be preceded by an inner turning, a dedication to God. Repentance and purification were substitutes for the process of repentance by sacrifice performed in the Temple.

Calendar Controversies

By studying a number of the more recently released Qumran texts, it is possible to reconstruct the entire sectarian calendar. Talmudic sources report that this same calendar was used by the Boethusians (who were closely linked to the Sadducees). Use of the sectarians’ calendar was also advocated by the authors of the apocryphal books Jubilees and Enoch.

The report in Pesher Habakkuk of the Wicked Priest’s attack on the Teacher of Righteousness indicates that the Wicked Priest traveled on the Day of Atonement to the Teacher’s place of exile. This can only be explained if the calculations of the sect caused them to observe the Day of Atonement on a different day from the majority of Jews.

The Qumran calendar was solar-based. It was three hundred and sixty-four days long, divided into twelve thirty-day months. A thirty-first day was added every three months. This calendar had the advantage of ensuring that Shavuot always fell on a Sunday. As mentioned earlier, the Dead Sea sect and the Sadducees understood that the Omer sacrifice always had to be brought on a Sunday. The disadvantage of this calendar was that it was shorter than the solar calendar by a day and a quarter each year. Since there is no information on how the sect dealt with this problem, scholars have debated this issue. Some have suggested that it used intercalation—adding extra days—to even out the calendar. It is possible that the calendar was not used for long enough for the issue to surface.

The Pharisaic calendar was a lunar one which used intercalation to in order to bring the calendar into harmony with the solar year. The Hebrew words for month—hodesh (“new moon”) and yerah (“moon”)—indicate that the biblical calendar was lunar. Some scholars maintain that the sectarians followed the biblical calendar and that the lunar calendar was a Pharisaic innovation. If this were true, we would expect to find amongst the many sectarian polemics a criticism of the Pharisees for changing the calendar.

Interestingly, the manuscript of Daily Prayers is keyed into a lunar calendar. Some scholars have suggested that the sect used both calendars and had a system for synchronizing them.

Tefillin and Mezuzah

Tefillin (or phylacteries) are leather boxes containing parchments, each with certain biblical passages. The boxes are attached with leather thongs to the head and arm. The mezuzah is a similar parchment enclosed in a container and placed on the right doorpost of entryways. Although tefillin and mezuzah are biblical commandments, for many years it was not clear how these commandments were practiced, if indeed at all, in ancient Israel. Since the discoveries at Qumran, however, it is clear that the observance of tefillin and mezuzah existed at least as far back as the Hasmonean period.

The construction of the Qumran tefillin was similar to that of the rabbinic tefillin. Virtually all of the tefillin found at Qumran contain the four passages which mention tefillin, as required by rabbinic law (Exodus 13-1–10, Exodus 11–16, Deuteronomy 6-4–9, and Deuteronomy 11-13–21). Many of the tefillin contain other passages as well.

The Rabbis forbade adding extra passages to the required four. It is possible, therefore, that the tefillin which contain only those four passages are Pharisaic, while the tefillin with additional passages belonged to the sectarians.

Rabbinic sources report disputes over the order of the passages in the tefillin. The Qumran tefillin, as well as those found in the Bar Kokhba caves, reflect fluidity in this regard. Different tefillin have the passages in different orders. Apparently the order was not yet fixed in Second Temple times.

The formation of the letters in the Qumran tefillin differs from the formation required by rabbinic law. It may be that these halakhot did not yet exist; alternatively, it may be that this was yet another point of contention between the Pharisees and the sectarians. It is likely that these rules were not yet fixed or enforced, as the biblical scrolls found at Qumran, which were not all copied there, also do not follow these halakhot.

Only twenty to twenty-five tefillin were found at Qumran. This may indicate that not all the males at Qumran wore tefillin. According to rabbinic sources, the practice was not widespread during this period, although the Pharisees claimed the Torah required it. However, it is also possible that there were many more tefillin at Qumran which did not survive due to their small size and fragility.

A small number of mezuzot were also found at Qumran, indicating that the sectarians observed this commandment in much the same way as did the rest of the Jewish people. Here, too, the sectarians included additional passages beyond those required by rabbinic tradition.

The Qumran sect had a complex religious life, with a distinctive leadership and a unique perspective on law and theology. It must be noted, however, that the sectarians, like all other Jewish groups of the period, were committed first and foremost to the laws of the Torah. For this reason, the Qumran sect in fact had much in common with the rest of Second Temple Judaism.

We now turn to an examination of the manuscripts found at Qumran, which will further demonstrate the similarities and differences between the Qumran sect and other religious groups of Second Temple times.

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