The Sectarian Communal Meal, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


Dining Room at Qumran

Dining Room at Qumran

Although the messianic banquet of rabbinic sources was envisioned as a onetime affair inaugurating the messianic era, the Dead Sea community looked forward to a regular series of such banquets, as is evident from the words “whenever (the meal) is ar[ranged] when as many as ten [meet] together.” The sectarian practice of acting out the future messianic banquet in their everyday lives indicates the messianic overtones that were ever present during their frequent communal meals.

Rule of the Community alludes to the communal meal eaten during the present age. Wherever members of the group reside-

Together they shall eat; together they shall bless; and together they shall take counsel. (RULE OF THE COMMUNITY 6-2–3)

While this passage clearly indicates that communal meals were to be a part of the activities of the sect, it gives no specific information regarding them. There is no mention here of how often such meals should occur or whether all or only some meals were to be eaten communally.

Furthermore, the actions described here—eating, blessing, and taking counsel—are independent of one another. The community held various gatherings to fulfill each purpose. Blessing was apparently part of a fixed regimen of daily prayers such as those known from cave 4, which we have investigated in an earlier chapter. The blessing mentioned in the foregoing passage refers not to the blessings recited over food, but rather to the liturgical worship by the group. Taking counsel occurred in the sectarian legislative and judicial assembly.

What, then, actually happened when sectarians ate together at a communal meal?


Rule of the Community specifies that whenever there are ten members of the group, there must always be a priest (6-3–4). As in the messianic banquet, the members were to sit before the priest according to rank and in that order are asked for their counsel. At this point comes the only direct mention in this text of a meal-

Whenever they arrange the table to eat or the wine to drink, the priest shall extend his hand first to bless the first (portion) of the bread or the wine. (RULE OF THE COMMUNITY 6-4–5)

Claiming an analogy between this description and the Christian Eucharist, dominant scholarly opinion has tended to characterize the sect’s communal meals as sacral. In fact, some even consider the sacral meal of bread and wine central to Qumran fellowship, tracing its origins back to the priestly traditions of the Temple. By that analogy, the communal meal would effectively have replaced the sacrificial rituals in the Temple from which the sectarian Zadokite priests had withdrawn.

However, let us take a closer look at the passage. First, it indicates no obligation that all meals be communal. Second, it is clear that the priest is accorded special honors strictly because of position, not because of the performance of a substitute sacrifice. Third, bread and wine are mentioned simply because they were the usual food and drink at meals. As we can see from many literary sources, bread was the staple food in that region and period. Wine was a weak, diluted, and often unfermented grape wine, similar to modern grape juice. This passage from Rule of the Community does not describe meals at which both bread and wine are required, but rather occasions at which the table is set for bread or wine. The purpose of these occasions is not specified.

We have no evidence that the Qumran authors regarded their meals as a substitute for the sacrificial service. The required purity of food and drink and the rituals associated with grace before and after meals were certainly widespread by that time, but such practices in no way prove that every meal was sacral. All the motifs—purity, benedictions, bread and wine, role of the priest—can be explained within the context of contemporary Jewish ceremonial and ritual practice.

First and foremost among the so-called sacral features of this meal is the singular role of the priest, who blesses and eats first. However, we know that during Second Temple times, priests were called to read the first portion of the Torah (which includes the recitation of the initial benediction), to pronounce the grace after meals first, and to receive the best portion of food first. Such procedures were probably ancient customs that demonstrated no more than people’s deep reverence for priest, Temple, and sacrificial service. Showing this respect for the priest in no way transformed the meal into a sacral occasion. Rather, the priest is simply being granted the privilege of being the first to perform rituals permitted to each and every Jew present. In fact, if the meal were indeed sacral, only the priest would be privileged to perform these rituals by virtue of his special status.

The second motif usually seen as sacral is ritual purity. Of course, there is no question that the members of the sect ate their communal meals in a state of ritual purity. However, as we saw in our earlier discussion of initiation rites, the sect placed substantial emphasis on ritual purity relative to food. As new recruits’ state of purity rose, they were allowed increasing contact with pure food and drink, moving progressively closer to full membership in the sect.

These purity laws, however, did not designate meals as sacred. First, the laws of purity were to be observed by members at all times, whether they ate alone or communally. Indeed, these laws represent the ancient heritage of the priesthood, and like the Pharisees, the Qumran sect extended them to a wider range of adherents. Second, purity of food was an obligation and did not impart any sacral character to the act of eating. One might even argue that these purity laws were, from a functional point of view, similar to the laws of kosher food, although, of course, according to Jewish law, they constitute two distinct categories.

Nor do the benedictions recited by the priest render the meal sacral. By early rabbinic times, blessings both before and after meals were most probably part of the life of the havurah, the table fellowship group described in talmudic sources. In fact, these benedictions were to be recited over anything one ate; they bear no sacral connotations.

The benedictions mentioned in Josephus’s description of the Essenes should be understood in the same spirit. There the priest says grace before and after the meal (War 2, 131). Correctly interpreting this practice in light of Palestinian Jewish custom of his day, Josephus notes that “at the beginning and at the close they do homage to God as the bountiful giver of life.”

Thus, the rules of purity and benedictions had a character and importance all their own. In fact, by this time they were totally divorced from the Temple context. They were now part of the daily life of many pious Palestinian Jews, whether Essene, Pharisee, Sadducee, or sectarian at Qumran.


For the Dead Sea group we are fortunate in having not only written remains in the form of the scrolls but also archaeological materials, which shed additional light on life at Qumran. Those archaeological remains include the site of communal meals and remnants of foodstuffs. As may be expected, there is no evidence for the offering of sacrifices. There is no archaeological or historical support for recent contentions that sacrifices were conducted at Qumran.

Already during period Ib of Qumran’s occupation, extending approximately from the reign of John Hyrcanus (135–104 B.C.E.) until the earthquake of 31 B.C.E., the largest room of the Qumran buildings was a hall 72 feet (22 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide with a system for washing and draining the floor. The more than one thousand pottery vessels stacked according to type and located in a pantry next door, together with the nearby kitchen, containing several fireplaces, have indicated that the group using these facilities held communal meals at Qumran.

Connected with the problem of characterizing meals at Qumran is the finding (primarily from period Ib) of deposits of animal bones buried between or around the buildings, which were placed in large shards of pitchers or pots or in intact jars with their lids on. These deposits are usually flush with the ground level. Examination of the bones shows that no deposit contained an entire skeleton. Rather, the bones had been taken apart and the flesh removed before burial. Many of the deposits contain the bones of a single type of animal; the remainder represent two, three, or four types. Animals included are adult sheep, adult goats, lambs or kids, calves, cows, and oxen. Without question these are bones of animals used for food. The meat was generally boiled and less often roasted.

Numerous attempts have been made to explain why these bones were buried. None is satisfactory because we have neither literary evidence nor archaeological parallel for the burial of bones in any Jewish sacrificial or religious rite. However, the practice may relate to a passage in the Halakhic Letter-

And one may not bring dogs into the holy camp because they eat some of the bones of the Tem[ple while] the meat is (still) on them. (HALAKHIC LETTER B58–59)

The text goes on to extoll Jerusalem as the “holy camp.”

Apparently, the authors of the letter were displeased that dogs were allowed in Jerusalem because dogs might scavenge the bones of sacrificial animals. Elsewhere in the text, bones are described as a source of ritual defilement. Perhaps the sectarians at Qumran buried bones to prevent dogs or other animals from scattering the bones throughout the settlement and potentially defiling the members. However, this interpretation must remain tentative until new discoveries provide a more definite explanation for the unusual practice.

The sect’s communal meals, conducted regularly as part of its everyday life, were preenactments of the final messianic banquet at the End of Days. Thus, we again see that the contemporary life of the sect reflected its dreams for the age to come.

Pages 334-338

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