The Qumran Community
---Ritual Immersion and Purity
“They again assemble in one place and, after girding their loins with linen cloths, bathe their bodies in cold water” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 5)
As noon approached, the members of the Community stopped working to purify themselves through immersion in ritual baths (miqva’ot), a necessary condition for participation in the communal meal. They saw in this act, carried out mainly in the ritual baths near the refectory, a symbol of spiritual purity above and beyond its physical significance.
Ritual immersion was widely practiced by Jews at this time, but the way in which the sectarians observed it differed from that of other Jews of the period, in two main respects: Non-members were not permitted to immerse themselves in the ritual baths together with the members of the Community; and all members of the Community were required to immerse themselves before the communal meal, for only those who were in state of purity were allowed to partake of it, a rule recalling the biblical prescriptions for priests.
The finds from Qumran provide further evidence of the importance of purity to the sectarians. Scholars hold that the so-called “measuring cups” made of stone, which is not susceptible to impurity according to Jewish law, were used mainly for ritual hand washing. A mattock found in one of the caves brings to mind Josephus’s report that the Essenes used a special tool to dig a deep hole in the ground, into which they relieved themselves, believing that feces defiled the body (Jewish War II, viii, 9).