The Sabbath Code, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


The Sabbath code, clearly marked as a discrete literary unit by its heading, is one of the primary legal sections in the Zadokite Fragments. It contains a list of laws—called a serekh. We will briefly discuss some of its laws, noting how these laws derive from the Torah and how they compare to the views of other Jewish groups, most importantly to the rabbinic tradition of halakhah.
We begin with the first prescription in this code-

No one shall do work on Friday from the time when the sphere of the sun is distant from the gate (by) its (the sun’s) diameter, for this is (the import of) that which He said (Deuteronomy 5-12), “Observe the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 10-14–17 = De 10 V 1–3)

For ritual purposes, the Jewish day begins at sunset the night before. The Rabbis derived this approach from various scriptural sources. From the foregoing passage we learn that this understanding of the day was normative in Second Temple times. But sectarian law goes even further. The sect effectively agrees with the later talmudic sources requiring that the observance of the Sabbath begin even before actual sunset—that is, on Friday afternoon. According to most views in rabbinic literature, such a measure was only an added stringency, designed to show greater appreciation for the Sabbath by extending its beginning and end. But our text and one rabbinic opinion maintained that the Torah indeed required such an extension of the Sabbath. It is likely that in Second Temple times all Jews began the Sabbath early, when a set of trumpet blasts in Jerusalem announced the time to stop work. Even those who did not consider this precaution required by the Torah probably followed this practice in order to avoid accidentally violating the holy day.

This text has sparked a curious debate. One scholar has suggested that Sabbath in Qumran began on Saturday morning, a practice that would fit in with the solar calendar used by the sect. However, that theory flies in the face of the explicit prescription found in our Qumran Sabbath code. To account for the contradiction, the theory’s advocates have claimed that a medieval copyist added this prescription to the genizah manuscripts of the Zadokite Fragments. But since the discovery of cave 4, especially since the release of these documents in 1991, it has become clear that this supposedly late medieval addition was unquestionably part of the original text (Zadokite Fragments De 10 V 1–3). Although one scholar has continued to promote the idea of a Saturday morning onset for the Sabbath, any fair reading of the text must acknowledge that the sectarians shared with the rest of the Jewish people the notion that the Sabbath began on Friday at sunset.

Two laws deal with Sabbath limits, meaning, the distance one is allowed to walk beyond the city limits on the Sabbath. The first law sets a general limit-

Let him not walk about outside his city more than a thousand cubits. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 10-21)

The medieval scribe was sufficiently surprised at the one thousand-cubit limitation that he wrote the last part of the sentence in large letters. Later on, the text includes a law specifying a two thousand-cubit limit, similar to that known from mishnaic law-

No one shall walk after an animal to pasture it outside his city more than two thousand cubits. Let him not raise his hand to strike it with a fist. If it is stubborn let him not take it out of his house. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 11-5–7)

According to the first text, on the Sabbath one was permitted to walk only one thousand cubits (about 1,500 feet or 450 meters) beyond the city limits. But the second text notes an exception- in order to pasture an animal, one could go another thousand cubits, reaching a total of two thousand cubits, about three thousand feet (900 meters).

These prescriptions are based on the prohibition of travel on the Sabbath, found in the Book of Exodus, “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 third-century C.E. church father Hippolytus, the Essenes did not leave their beds on the Sabbath, a view not supported by earlier sources. Yet we do know that both Samaritans and Falashas refused to leave their home on the Sabbath, except to go to synagogue. Clearly, our sect did not subscribe to such a limiting interpretation of Exodus 16-29. Like the Rabbis, the sect allowed walking about within one’s immediate city limits. What was debatable was how far and under what circumstances one might extend that limit.

The sect reached its decision about Sabbath limits through a kind of midrashic interpretation. We can conclude from the way these laws are formulated that they depend on an interpretation of Numbers 35-5, which sets out the boundaries of the Levitical cities, prescribed by the Torah as homes for the Levites. There we find an early version of urban planning, the requirement that areas be set aside for “town pasture” for animals.

This biblical passage specifies two limits for the size of the pastureland surrounding the cities- one thousand and two thousand cubits. Selecting the larger number, the Rabbis ruled that the limit for Sabbath travel was two thousand cubits. Therefore travel for all purposes was limited to that distance. Sectarian law, however, chose the stricter view, ruling that one could travel only one thousand cubits, except when one needed to pasture animals. To sectarians this interpretation seemed to accord completely with the Torah, because Numbers specifies two thousand cubits as the pasture area. Although the sectarians and the later Rabbis disagreed on this matter because of their different interpretive approaches, we see that they both based their legal rulings on this text from Numbers, applying to the question of Sabbath limits a case seemingly unrelated to Sabbath law.

A few regulations in this scroll are virtually identical to those in rabbinic law, suggesting that all Jewish groups in the Second Temple period shared the great bulk of Jewish law. One example is the following prescription about carrying on the Sabbath-

No one shall carry (anything) from the house to the outside, or from the outside into (the) house. And if he is in the sukkah, let him not carry (anything) out of it or bring (anything) into it. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 11-7–9)

As in rabbinic law, sectarian law prohibited carrying anything on the Sabbath from a private to public domain. This law is stated explicitly in Jeremiah 17-21 and 22- “Guard yourselves … against carrying burdens on the Sabbath day…. Nor shall you carry out burdens from your houses on the Sabbath day, or do any work….” Here the sectarians derived their law from prophetic texts, whereas the Rabbis stretched to avoid using this passage.

Formulating the law in its own words, the sect added here the case of the sukkah, referring either to any temporary dwelling or, more likely, to the sukkah connected with the Festival of Sukkot. This Festival posed a particular problem for those who abstained from carrying on the Sabbath, as it still does today- when the sukkah is in a field, or in a yard next to the house, it constitutes a separate domain; therefore, food cannot be carried from the house to the sukkah. For rabbinic Jews, the solution to this problem lies in the eruv, a legal institution designed to create a wider “home” by enclosing large areas and designating a loaf of bread as a symbolic common meal, thereby making carrying permissible on the Sabbath. Did Qumran sectarians accept this procedure? Talmudic sources tell us that the Sadducees did not. Unfortunately, our sources simply do not provide this information. But certainly the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Qumran sectarians all agreed that carrying from domain to domain was forbidden on the Sabbath.

In the headlong rush by many scholars to compare the scrolls to the New Testament, the halakhic material has been generally ignored. Yet a number of laws demonstrate that the views of the sectarians were very different from those of the early Christians as recorded in the New Testament. One such case is the following-

No one shall deliver an animal on the Sabbath day. And if it fall into a cistern or a pit, one may not lift it out on the Sabbath. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 11-13–14)

This text deals with two similar cases, both involving the question of whether one can set aside or otherwise relax the Sabbath laws to aid an animal on the Sabbath. Both cases concern issues about caring for domesticated animals on the Sabbath.

The prohibition against delivering a newborn animal on the Sabbath applies specifically to removing the fetus from the uterus. This action is prohibited by rabbinic law. In fact, the Rabbis prohibited any other help to the animal on the Sabbath. In this case, the Qumran sectarians agreed with rabbinic halakhah. Although both the sectarians and the Rabbis set aside the Sabbath restrictions to save a human life, including providing aid during childbirth, they did not set these restrictions aside for the benefit of animals.

The second part of this law concerns an issue apparently common in the agrarian everyday life of Second Temple times- animals that have fallen into pits. The Rabbis ruled that if an animal falls into a pit on the Sabbath, it should be given food to keep it alive. The later talmudic sages understood this ruling even to permit placing pillows or other devices there to allow the animal to climb out.
But rabbinic law still prohibited lifting the animal out of the pit, even if its life were endangered by remaining there. If rising water in the pit threatened to drown the animal, the case assumed here by the later Rabbis, it would be no different from the case of an animal’s giving birth, during which the life of both the mother and the offspring was at risk. The ruling was still the same- Sabbath rules could not be suspended or relaxed to save an animal.

In this matter, the sectarians again agreed with the view expressed in later rabbinic texts. But the New Testament indicates that the early Christians disagreed, perhaps reflecting a more lenient view common among other Palestinian Jews in this period. We know from Matthew 12-11 and Luke 14-5 that early Christian tradition considered it acceptable to draw animals directly out of a pit on the Sabbath. In this case, the sectarians and the Rabbis agreed; the sectarians and early Christians did not.

Closely related to this issue is the question of violating the Sabbath to save a human life. Did the sectarians accept such violation as permissible? This issue, long under debate, can at last be resolved with the help of the newly released cave 4 documents. The text of the medieval manuscript of the Zadokite Fragments, partly confirmed by a Qumran manuscript and in one case slightly emended, reads-

And as to any human being who falls into a place of water or into a reservoir, let no one bring (him) up with a ladder, rope, or instrument. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 11-16–17 = Df 3 I 10–11 = De 10 V 19–20)

If one looks at this text with no preconceptions, it appears to outlaw setting aside the Sabbath restrictions to save a life. Apparently one may not use tools and equipment normally forbidden for Sabbath use even to save a life, for then one would be engaged in forbidden labor. Most scholars, including myself, have always refused to accept this understanding of the Qumran law, because it is so antithetical to the spirit of Judaism. Furthermore, the context of this law suggests that the sect did in fact accept violation of the Sabbath to save a life, because it is presented in contrast to the ruling immediately preceding, which forbids relaxing Sabbath rules in the case of an animal.

The idea of setting aside the Sabbath is a pillar of rabbinic Sabbath law. The Bible says about the laws of the Torah, “by the pursuit of which man shall live” (Leviticus 18-5), meaning that the commandments were given to ensure life, not to bring death. Further, the Rabbis, enlisting additional support from various verses, argued that it was better to violate one Sabbath in order to make sure that many more would be observed.

This principle was promoted by the Maccabees after a group of Hasidim (pietists) gave their lives early in the Maccabean Revolt rather than defend themselves on the Sabbath. Refusing to handle work-related equipment to block the entrances to their hiding places, the Hasidim proved that they regarded this prohibition as inviolable (I Maccabees 2-29–41). After the revolt, this law seems to have been firmly in place among virtually all Jewish groups.

To establish that the sect refused to violate the Sabbath to save a life, some scholars have argued that this law did not specifically concern using equipment, but rather was listing the ways people were usually saved. In effect, they regarded this law as a blanket prohibition against saving people. I have argued in response that what the law demanded was that one should not use those prohibited articles—ladder, rope, or tool—to save the life, but if possible should find another means that would not require setting aside the Sabbath rules concerning these tools. When I initially made my arguments, I was criticized for being apologetic and for harmonizing the sect’s laws with rabbinic sources. However, when the documents from cave 4 began to appear, I learned that I had been proven correct. Among the cave 4 fragments is a text called Serekh-Damascus. This document, an interesting piece of evidence about the history of sectarian literature, brings together some of the laws in the Zadokite Fragments with the Penal Code of Rule of the Community. In addition, it contains other laws not known from other texts. Its composite nature demonstrates that sectarian law was a living, developing phenomenon constantly giving rise to new compilations of lists of laws (serakhim). In this document we find a parallel to the Sabbath code we have been studying-

And if it is a human being who falls in[to] the water on the Sabbath [day,] he (the rescuer) should extend to him his garment to bring him up with it, but he should not pick up an instrument. (SEREKH-DAMASCUS 7 I)

Here we see the rescue prescribed according to the sectarian legal system; the sectarians do in fact believe that the Sabbath is to be set aside to save a life. The text contrasts this ruling with the preceding lines, which, as in the text of the Zadokite Fragments, concern an animal, which is not to be saved on the Sabbath. As I had originally suggested, the rescue was to be accomplished without the use of forbidden utensils, if possible. But if such utensils provided the only way to save a person’s life, we can be certain that the sect would have allowed their use. In this passage, sectarians were simply proposing that this be avoided—if at all possible.

Parenthetically it may be noted that here again we have come upon an incongruity between the sectarian approach and that of the early Christians. The New Testament (Matthew 12-1–8, cf. Mark 2-23–28) regards even feeding the hungry as a form of “saving of life,” permitted on the Sabbath. It argues that this positive commandment sets aside the negative one, that is, violating the Sabbath. In this case, the early Christians were the most lenient, but the Pharisees, with whom they argued, accepted this principle only when an actual risk existed. And the sectarians were even more strict by requiring that the use of forbidden utensils be avoided whenever possible.

Once again we see that the law of the sect can be understood only in the context of what we know about Jewish law in this period. Certain basic principles, such as the need to override the Sabbath to save a life, were shared by all groups, from the Hasmonaean period on.

We can now sum up the Qumran Sabbath law, including other laws not treated here, to create a general picture of sectarian Sabbath practice. Like the mishnaic treatise of Shabbat, the Sabbath code of the Zadokite Fragments deals primarily with labors forbidden on the Sabbath, not with the positive actions that are required as well.

The sect began its Sabbath on Friday night, some time before sunset, to be sure there would be no violation of the Sabbath. Any discussion of business was forbidden, including all financial matters and the planning of work to be done after the Sabbath. For this reason, it was forbidden to walk in the field on the Sabbath to plan further work. It was probably also forbidden to enter a partnership on the Sabbath.

The sect had two Sabbath limits- One permitted a person to walk only one thousand cubits beyond the city; if one were pasturing an animal, one could go an additional thousand.

All food had to be prepared before the Sabbath, including not only cooking (as in rabbinic law) but all aspects of preparation as well. Containers had to be opened in advance, and vegetables had to be peeled. Food and drink could be consumed only within the “camp,” the settled area. Other food and drink were regarded as not prepared before the Sabbath.

To avoid carrying on the Sabbath, a person on a journey had to drink directly from a water source since it was forbidden to draw water. Even within the camp, it was forbidden to carry from domain to domain. Children, likewise, could not be carried on the Sabbath. Nor were women permitted to wear ornamental perfume bottles. It was forbidden to have non-Jews do labor on one’s behalf on the Sabbath. A servant could not be instructed to do even permitted labor. It was expected that members of the sect would wear clean, deodorized clothes on the Sabbath. It may have been forbidden to fast on the seventh day.

Although the Sabbath limit was extended in order to pasture animals, nevertheless one was forbidden either to help deliver an animal being born or to draw it out of a pit on the Sabbath. In fact, the Sabbath could never be profaned for the sake of material possessions. The sect allowed violation of the Sabbath to save a life, but it demanded that such rescue be undertaken if at all possible without using instruments or tools forbidden to be handled on that day. Handling rocks and earth on the holy day was forbidden because these were objects not suited to the spirit of the Sabbath. The sect forbade spending the Sabbath anywhere other than in a Jewish environment and prohibited, apparently, the offering of sacrifices except for the Sabbath offering.

Even though the sect had separated from the Temple because the sectarians regarded Temple procedure as improper, they still legislated for Temple worship on the assumption that they would resume their participation after their approach had triumphed over that of their opponents. The Rabbis likewise continued, in the Mishnah and Talmud, to legislate for sacrifice long after the Temple had been destroyed.

Pages 273-287

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