Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, The Background of Christianity, The Lost Library of Qumran.

By Lawrence H. Schiffman

The Jewish Publication Society

Philadelphia, 1994

529 pages

Reviewed by Dr. Joseph M. Baumgarten

Although Torah Judaism has its ultimate roots in early antiquity, this does not imply that discoveries from ancient times will necessarily engage the attention of traditional Jews.  In fact, sometimes it seems that the opposite is the case.  Archaeology and the philological study of ancient Near Eastern texts are viewed by some Orthodox Jews as inimical to the traditional view of the past, or at best as irrelevant to the overriding primacy of Torah learning.  One may speculate whether this is primarily due to the secular orientation of most practicing archaeologists or whether it may also reflect a pragmatic piety based on the relatively recent authorities most frequently cited in popular Orthodox literature.  The halachic principle, halachah ke­batra, that in areas of doubt the law is in accordance with the more recent decision, may also be reflected in a negative stance vis-a-vis artifacts and manuscripts which are supposed to come from ancient times.

How does the religious community view the Dead Sea Scrolls?  It is doubtful whether any definitive Orthodox perspective can as yet be delineated.  When the Scrolls first emerged from the caves over 40 years ago, the late rabbinic scholar Dr. Sidney Hoenig depicted them as sharply antithetical to the traditional calendar and other significant elements of halachah.  His recommended response was to deny their antiquity and to attribute them to the medieval Karaites.  This writer took issue with this effort to link the Orthodox viewpoint with the dubious denial of the antiquity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was then espoused only by maverick historians like the late Professor Solomon Zeitlin.  Rather, the Scrolls, though indubitably ancient, may be viewed as a part of that extensive non-canonical Jewish literature, of which the Rabbis were aware, but for the most part did not recommend to be disseminated for religious edification.

Nowadays, the early date of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that is from the days when the second Beit Hamikdash still stood in Jerusalem, is universally recognized.  However, other factors have tended to reinforce the aforementioned reservations about archaeological findings.  The publication of the Scrolls, aside from those purchased by Sukenik in 1948 and the Temple Scroll acquired for Israel by his son, Yigael Yadin, in 1967, has until recently been exclusively in the hands of the non-Jewish scholars who originally worked on them under the Jordanian administration of Jerusalem.  Although competent in transcribing the Hebrew texts, these scholars were inclined to view them largely from the perspective of Christian theology.  As for the attention recently given the Scrolls in the popular media, it was sustained to a great degree by charges of monopoly against the “cartel” of original editors and unproved allegations about church suppression.  The fact that a computer-generated reconstitution of texts from a privately circulated concordance caused much sensation, while translations of well-preserved scrolls gathered dust on library shelves, illustrates the truth that “stolen waters taste sweet.”  Now that microfiche photos of all the scrolls are available to anyone who wants to purchase them, public concern with the evaluation of their contents may be expected to diminish.

In Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lawrence Schiffman argues forcefully that the Qumran library is a treasure-trove of primary interest for the history of Judaism.  Illustrations abound both from the sphere of law and liturgical practice.  The Sabbath laws are the most elaborate of the topics treated in the law code of the Zadokite Fragments which were originally found in the Cairo Genizah and ancient copies of which are now among the important finds from Cave 4 in Qumran. (Parenthetically, two British editions of these fragments, commonly referred to as the Damascus Document, completely omitted the law code, which was the central concern of the ancient authors, but apparently of little interest for some contemporary writers.)

Schiffman notes that the Sabbath code contains the earliest references to such ‘rabbinic’ institutions as the addition to the onset of the Sabbath before sunset (tosefet melachah) and the limit (techum) for walking up to 2000 cubits outside one’s settlement.  However, the principle that the saving of human life overrides the Sabbath (pikuach nefesh) was not fully accepted by the Scroll sect, as evidenced by their rule that a drowning man may be saved by extending a garment to him, but not by the use of a ladder or other work implement, which presumably would be what in halachic terms would be called muktzeh.

Qumran yields the most ancient specimens of tefillin and mezuzot ever found, and Schiffman provides an excellent discussion of their features.  He notes that while the construction of the tefillin batim is generally similar to those in traditional use, the text of the parshiyot deviates from the halachic standard by including additional biblical passages, such as the Ten Commandments.  The reader may recall that the daily recitation of the Ten Commandments together with the Shema was suppressed by the Sages so as not to encourage sectarian trends (Ber. 12a)

But who were these Tzedukim, who are depicted in the Mishnah as protesting against the leniencies of the Pharisees? 

Schiffman is cognizant of other major sectarian elements in the laws of the Qumran community, such as their schematic solar calendar and the non-scriptural harvest festivals, the biblically-based ban on polygamy, the prohibition of uncle-niece marriages, and their extremely stringent rules of purity.  It is especially the latter which have figured in recent efforts to reevaluate the identity of the sect.

After the Temple Scroll was published in 1977, this writer had occasion to observe that on three technical questions of purity, which according to the Mishnah were points of controversy between the Perushim and the Tzedukim, the Qumran legists appear to have sided with the Tzedukim.  Thus, we read in Mishnah Yadayim 4:7 that the Tzedukim say, “We protest against you, Perushim, for you declare the nitzok (the stream of a liquid poured from a pure vessel into an impure receptacle) clean.” Precisely this stringency is now found in Miqtzat Ma’ase Torah (MMT), the recently published halachic letter from Qumran Cave 4, which insists that the stream forms a contaminating link between the source and the receptacle.  We need not enter here into the rationale for the more lenient opinion of the Pharisees.  What is dramatically illustrated here is the relevance of talmudic discussions to real life issues stemming from the days of the Beit Hamikdash, when the proper maintenance of purity was of crucial concern not only to the Kohanim, but to pious Jews at large.  Another such controversial issue, also detailed in the Mishnah and now in the Dead Sea Scrolls, pertains to the level of purity mandatory for those who prepared the ashes of the red cow (Mishnah Parah 3:7).  The fact that these halachic controversies with the Tzedukim, hitherto known only from the Talmud, are now confirmed by the ancient Scrolls, decisively refutes the notion of some modern historians that such talmudic debates merely reflect the scholastic theories of later rabbis.  Increasingly, current scholarship is returning to the recognition that rabbinic sources, despite their later editing, are indispensable for the understanding of Jewish life in the Second Temple era.

But who were these Tzedukim, who are depicted in the Mishnah as protesting against the leniencies of the Pharisees?  The usual rendering of their name in translations as “Sadducees” immediately evokes the contrast with the conventional image of the latter as upper class assimilationists, whose Epicurean denial of the after-life went hand-in-hand with a disdain for the pious practices rooted only in Pharisaic tradition.  Why would such this-worldly disbelievers be concerned with the stringent observance of ritual purity?  Schiffman’s proposed answer is that there were pious Sadducees, priests of the lineage of Zadok, who protested against the compromises which their more pragmatic fellow Sadducees were willing to make to accommodate themselves to the pro-Pharisaic policies of the Hasmoneans.  From this group, rather than the Essenes, as is widely assumed, the Dead Sea sect developed.

This thesis leans heavily on the recently-published halachic letter (MMT), but a closer examination of this rather fragmentary text, yields only the two halachot, detailed above, which are clearly identifiable with the Tzedukim of the Mishnah.  Assuming for the moment that the latter were Sadducees, it seems possible that on these specific issues of purity, the sect was in agreement with the Sadducean position, while not necessarily sharing other elements of their ideology.  This would account for the fact that the two known best-known doctrines of the Sadducees — their rejection of resurrection and divine providence — appear to be in sharp contrast with what we find in Qumran writings.

But there is another, more intriguing possibility: the Tzedukim in Mishnah Yadayim and Parah may not have been Sadducees at all, but the Zadokites now known from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Scroll writers refer to their sect as Bnei Tzadok or Bnei Tzedek and their leader as the Moreh ha-Tzedek, the Righteous Teacher.  It thus seems entirely possible that the term Tzedukim was applied in the Mishnah, not only to the “Epicurean” Sadducees, but to heterodox rigorists of the Essene type, whose extreme absorption with purity was well known. (Note the mention in Tosefta Yadayim of a somewhat similar debate between the Pharisees and another group called Morning Bathers).  That the forerunners of the Talmudic Sages would thus have found themselves in simultaneous conflict with assimilationists on the “left”‘ who made light of ancestral traditions, and dissidents on the “right” who followed other paths (derech acheret, a term applied to non-halachic stringencies in the Tosefta), and who contemptuously referred to the Pharisees as Interpreters of Smooth Things (dorshei chalakot) may provide much food for reflection.

Whatever will ultimately emerge from the ongoing discussion of these alternatives, Schiffman has made a very persuasive case for the thesis that Jews, especially Jews familiar with talmudic learning, have strong reasons to be interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and to help “reclaim” them by familiarizing themselves intellectually with their contents.  We must, however, caution that such reclaiming for historical purposes should not be confused with reclaiming in the sense of identification with the religious outlook found in the Scroll literature.

Aside from their heterodox stringencies in halachah, the Qumran sect also adhered to a catechism which set them apart from Pharisaic teachings.  Like the Essenes, they leaned toward a predestinarian fatalism, which left little scope for human choice.  Those whom they viewed as Sons of Darkness, whether Jews or gentiles, were doomed even before they came into existence; they belonged irrevocably to the realm of Belial.  Those who by Divine grace were granted the capability to receive illumination, are under the sway of the Prince of Lights.  This determinism goes hand-in-hand with a dualism of cosmic proportions, a conflict of two powers (shtei reshuyot) to culminate only at the end of time.  It is a plausible premise that it was against such sectarian tendencies that the Sages established the opening of the daily blessing on the luminaries, based on Isaiah 45:7, which proclaims the one Creator who makes peace between light and darkness.

But there is another, more intriguing possibility: the Tzedukim in Mishnah Yadayim and Parah may not have been Sadducees at all, but the Zadokites now known from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Another dubious element of Qumran theology was the ascription of divine attributes to personified angelic powers.  This is illustrated by their glorification of Malchizedek.  In Genesis 14, Malchizedek is merely the priestly king of Shalem who comes to greet Abraham after his rescue of Lot and the captives from Sodom.  Aggadic tradition identified him with Shem and censured him for putting his blessing of Abraham before that of the Almighty (Ned. 32b).  In a Qumran text, Malchizedek is made into the heavenly judge at the final judgment for both angels and men, dispensing atonement and retribution, and assuming the role of divine judge portrayed in Psalm 82.  This is theologically very hazardous, and we need not be surprised to find that in early Christianity, Malchizedek was viewed as a potential rival savior.

Another enigmatic figure from Genesis was Enoch, of whom it says that “he was no more, for God took him.”  Schiffman describes the Enochic apocalyptic literature, which developed the theme that Enoch was translated into heaven where he was granted visions and knowledge of cosmic mysteries.  Interestingly, a midrashic tradition considerably deflates this aura surrounding Enoch by asserting that God knew that he was going to deteriorate and therefore took him away before his time (cf. Rashi on Genesis 4:24).  Regarding the apocryphal literature as a whole, Schiffman writes that “eventually these texts influenced the aggadic tradition of the Rabbis,” but he does not evaluate the widely-shared thesis that the tannaitic Sages took a distinctly dim view of the non-canonical apocalyptic literature.

Aside from these reservations about the laws and lore found in the Qumran writings, what might give contemporary Jews pause before “reclaiming” them is the very tenuous adhesion of their authors to Klal Israel.  While engendering mutual love for adherents of the sect, Qumran ethics evince little concern or sense of responsibility for the fate of Jews outside its orbit.  In fact, instead of what is today considered the major imperative for kiruv, the Community Rule calls upon initiates to nurse their hatred for “men of the pit” and “to conceal the counsel of the Torah from men of falsehood.”  It is against such a background that the contemporaneous teachings of Hillel, “Separate not thyself from the community”, (al tifrosh min hatzibbur), take on added significance.

At this point, the reader may conclude that we have made a pretty good case for returning the Scrolls to their caves, and maybe even for an issur to read them as “outside books.”  Not quite.  Aside from the question of what is subsumed under sefarim chitzonim, the Ritva, as noted by Sid Leiman (The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture, p.98), makes a significant distinction between studying with devotional regularity (keva), reserved for Torah, and occasional (‘arai) reading.

In doing historical research, this distinction may not be so easy to maintain.  Schiffman’s volume, the most comprehensive compendium of information about the Dead Sea Scrolls currently available, is surely the product of more than occasional study.  I believe that it will also enhance the study of Torah, by illuminating the historical Sitz im Leben of many ancient halachot and putting in sharper relief the polar ideologies with which the forerunners of Chazal had to contend.

Joseph M. Baumgarten is Professor Emeritus of Rabbinic Literature at Baltimore Hebrew University and Rabbi Emeritus of Bnai Jacob Congregation in Baltimore.

This article was featured in the Fall 1995 issue of Jewish Action.