By April 14, 2008 Read More →

The Study of Qumran Law, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Initially, scholars focused their efforts on studying the law of the Qumran sect itself, about which we have much significant information. But the texts from Qumran also tell us a remarkable amount about the more general state of Jewish law in the Hasmonaean period, not only about the nature of the law within the sect itself. Through these documents, we are constructing a fuller picture of Pharisaic and Sadducean law, of attitudes toward the authority of the Torah during that period, and of the sect’s views in this regard. Thus, we are able to understand better the development of Jewish law that plays so important a role in mishnaic and talmudic Judaism and into our own day.

Law has always been central to Judaism. Throughout history and up until the onset of the modern period, all forms of Judaism were grounded in the principle that the obligation of each and every Jew was to fulfill the word of God as revealed in the Torah. To carry out this obligation, all groups of Jews adhered to a system of Jewish law. Although they may have disagreed about how to interpret and fulfill the Torah’s legislation, they nevertheless all accepted that these laws were binding. Furthermore, because they did often differ on theological issues, their common adherence to Jewish law often gave the Jews their distinct character in the eyes of others. This was certainly true in the Greco-Roman period, when the Jew was distinguished most prominently for observing the Sabbath, abstaining from pork, and circumcising male children.

We are accustomed to using the term “halakhah,” literally “the way,” or according to another interpretation, “the required portion,” to refer to a set of regulations espoused by the Rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud. Unfortunately, halakhah is often treated as if it were monolithic, as if the various legal materials did not stem from different periods and express differing views. Nothing could be further from the truth. And even in its broader definition, the term usually designates the law only of the Pharisaic-rabbinic Jews. We will see that in Second Temple times things were much more diverse.

Although technically the term “halakhah” refers exclusively to Pharisaic-rabbinic law, excepting other groups including the Sadducees and the Dead Sea sect, scholars generally use it to refer to non-Pharisaic or nonrabbinic trends, because it captures so well the mix of ritual, civil, and moral law constituting the Jewish legal system in all its forms.


At the heart of any system of Jewish law is the source of authority that motivates it. All premodern systems of Judaism agreed that the written text of the Torah was that source. But because the Torah text itself did not provide full guidance about how to live as a Jew but left much open to interpretation, supplementary laws had to be developed. Therein lay the problem. All systems of ancient Judaism had solved the problem in some way; the scrolls provide much information about how it was done.

One of the fundamental issues in Second Temple Judaism consisted of how to incorporate extrabiblical traditions and teachings into the Jewish legal system and how to justify their inclusion theologically. Although in antiquity and late antiquity Jews (except in the Hellenistic Diaspora) engaged in little theoretical theology, issues of Jewish belief were of central importance and often lie behind other, more clearly expressed disputes.

Pages 245-246

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