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


Halakhah, Jewish law, has always used a technique of midrashic interpretation that figures prominently in the scrolls as well. For our present purposes, Midrash may be narrowly defined as the interpretation of one biblical passage in light of another. In the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, such techniques are used to harmonize variant biblical passages on the same theme. The problem of apparently contradictory biblical texts confronted the Jews in the early Second Temple period because the Torah was already circulating as a unified whole. In the sectarian halakhic texts, this technique is quite developed.

Somewhat rare in the scrolls is a technique of halakhic Midrash in which the biblical text is quoted explicitly. A complex example, involving a number of biblical passages, is the sectarian understanding of the required reproof of transgressors found in the Zadokite Fragments-

As to that which He (God) said, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinfolk” (Leviticus 19-18), any man from among those who have entered the covenant (i.e., the sect) who shall bring a charge against his neighbor which is not with “reproof” before witnesses … is taking vengeance and bearing a grudge. Is it not written that only “He (God) takes vengeance on His adversaries and bears a grudge against His enemies” (Nahum 1-2)? But if he kept silent about him from day to day and (then) accused him … , his (the accused’s) guilt is upon him (the accuser) since he did not fulfill the commandment of God, Who said to him, “You shall surely reprove your neighbor, lest you bear guilt because of him” (Leviticus 19-17). (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 9-2–8)

In this text we have a string of biblical verses all interpreted to yield a unique sectarian legal interpretation.

The Bible’s prohibition on bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19-18) is understood here to refer to one who improperly observes the requirement of giving “reproof,” the subject of verse 17 in Leviticus. As we know from other passages, the sectarians understood reproof as a formal process executed before witnesses. Unless reproof had been made and recorded for a previous offense, the offender could not be punished at a later date. This procedure was designed to ensure that an offender knew that offending actions were in fact prohibited and that therefore the individual was a purposeful transgressor. To support its claim that grudges are not permitted, the text quotes the prophetic passage from Nahum, interpreting it to mean that only God, not man, may take vengeance. The end of Leviticus 19-17, “lest you bear guilt …” is thus understood to mean that if one accuses a neighbor of a crime without having first executed reproof, one is liable for the same penalty for which the transgressor would have been liable.

These conclusions all emerge from interpreting two verses in Leviticus as referring to each other and from interpreting a verse in Nahum as sanctioning the requirement of sectarian reproof. Implicit in this interpretation is an unstated verse- Numbers 30-15, “if he kept silent about her from day to day,” referring to the law that if a husband does not object to his wife’s vows on the day they are made, the vows are considered valid. The sectarian text has borrowed this language to create the clause, “But if he kept silent about him from day to day.” It is this uncited verse from Numbers that informed the sectarians that reproof was comparable to canceling a wife’s vow and that it had to be executed on the same day. A variant text of the Zadokite Fragments (Db 10 1–3) reads, “[But if he kept silent about him] from month to month.” If this version is correct, then we would have to restrict the influence of the Numbers passage on our text only to the supplying of some biblical expressions.

My interpretation of this passage was challenged when I first presented it, some scholars arguing that reproof was simply an ethical action, not a formal legal procedure. However, one of the newly released documents proves that my view is correct. One of the texts, probably a document prepared by the examiner according to sectarian procedures, records an actual reproof process in the Qumran community. Although extremely fragmentary, the relevant bits of text support my conclusions-

… their soul, and to reprove … the [c]amp of the many … Yohanan son of … because he was short tempered … And (as to) Hananiah son of Notos, he reproved him … [to cor]rupt the spirit of the community… (DECREES OF REPROOF 2 I 2–3, 2 II 3–6)*

  • A passage farther down on this fragment was read so as to refer to an offense of masturbation and translated, “he loved his bodily emissions.” This reading is completely unfounded. The correct reading would yield, “he loves his relative.” What a difference!

Here we have a court docket regarding reproof for offenses against the sectarian way of life. With this document in hand there can no longer be any question that Qumran reproof was a formal, legal procedure.

Other legal interpretations in the sectarian scrolls never mention the biblical sources of a law but weave the source into the language of the text in such a way that it can be teased out by close textual analysis. In these cases, the biblical texts that are being interpreted are not quoted. An example of this type of exegesis can be cited from the Sabbath laws-

No one shall walk about in the field to do the labor of his business on the Sabbath. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 10-20–21)

This sentence seems to be a simple declarative statement of the law—what biblical scholars call an apodictic law. It prohibits one from taking a Sabbath walk in one’s field for the purpose of determining what work needs to be done during the coming week. But detailed study of the words in this passage reveals that it is based on a biblical text. Several times the prophets rail against doing business on the Sabbath. A passage in Isaiah (58-13–14), literally translated, begins, “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from pursuing your business on My holy day.” Our sectarian law is an interpretation of the passage in Isaiah- “turning back your foot” means “not taking a walk”; “from the Sabbath” means “on the Sabbath”; and “business” refers to labor in connection with one’s business, prohibited on the Sabbath. But the key to this sectarian law is the interpretation of the Isaiah passage as referring to the planning on the Sabbath of business to be done afterward. This interpretation is fundamental to the sectarian legal text. In this case, the resulting law is exactly in accord with the later talmudic halakhah, but the interpretive route leading to it is different.

One feature of this interpretive method will seem strange to those who know the talmudic sources. Whereas the Rabbis avoid using prophetic passages and those from the Writings, instead limiting themselves almost exclusively to the Torah to derive Jewish law, the Qumran sectarians had no compunctions about interpreting non-Torah passages for this purpose. It is most likely that the Rabbis avoided using this material from Prophets and Writings because Christians were drawing on it to justify their claims regarding the messiah. In reaction, therefore, the Rabbis shied away from using these texts for authoritative derivation of law.

Because the sectarian corpus, and for that matter other documents found at Qumran as well, were entirely pre-Christian, they reveal no such hesitation.

The interpretations outlined here are quite complex, representing only a small sample of the many such interpretations found in the sectarian legal corpus Indeed, it is my view that this form of interpretation together with harmonizing interpretation typifies the Sadducean trend of biblical exposition alluded to in rabbinic sources. In any case, examples like these certainly prove that complex legal interpretation of the Bible was already quite developed in Second Temple times, well before the Destruction of the Temple and the creation of the great literary classics of talmudic Judaism.

The scrolls found at Qumran, some from the literary heritage preserved by the sectarians and some composed by them, present a variety of forms of biblical interpretation. Some attempt to establish the plain sense of the biblical text, some to expand upon it. Some retell the Bible, seeking to fill the spaces between the words—to fill in, as it were, the white spaces between the black letters. The more expansive, interpretive texts involve various types of harmonizations, midrashic interpretations, and detailed legal exegesis. Evaluated as a whole, the corpus offers forerunners and parallels to all the types of interpretation we find in the later Jewish tradition as transmitted by the rabbinic sources- Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Bible; direct, simple interpretation of the sense of Scripture; aggadic expansion; and halakhic Midrash. All these techniques were available when the Pharisees were competing with the various sectarians to dominate the religious scene in Hasmonaean Palestine. We have no reason to doubt the Rabbis’ statements about the crucial role played by these types of interpretation during the period when Pharisaic Judaism was evolving into the form it would later bequeath to the Judaism of the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud. But one more type of interpretation still needs to be investigated. It is pesher, the unique historicizing and contemporizing interpretation developed by the sect and through which it saw itself and the events of its time as the fulfillment of God’s prophecy to Israel.

Pages 219-222

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