On the basis of the scrolls, excavations at the site, and contemporary literary sources – the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Jerusalem-born historian Josephus Flavius, and the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder – most modern scholars have concluded that the people who lived at Khirbet Qumran and its environs were members of a Jewish sect affiliated with the Essenes. Together with Pharisees, Sadducees, early Christians, Samaritans, Zealots, and other Essene sects, they comprised the Jewish society of the land of Israel in the late Hellenistic-Roman period, from the rise of the Hasmoneans until the destruction of the Second Temple (167 BCE – 70 CE).
Most modern scholars believe that the origins of the Judean Desert sect, called in the scrolls the “Community of the yahad,” lie in the second half of the 2nd century BCE. The group probably arose against the background of bitter controversy that had erupted in Jerusalem surrounding legal issues relating to the Temple: the calendar, ritual purity, tithes, and marriage. The disputes apparently prompted the founder of the sect – an unknown figure referred to in the scrolls as the “Teacher of Righteousness” (Heb. Moreh Zedek) – and those who gathered around him (all or most of them from priestly circles) to renounce the Temple, which they considered impure, and break away from the Jewish people. Going into voluntary exile, they decided at some point to establish a settlement by the Dead Sea.
The sectarians were committed to a separatist ideology and held messianic expectations. Their ultimate goal was to return to Jerusalem and restore divine worship in a future, purified, Temple. These hopes were finally dashed in 68 CE, when the Roman army destroyed the settlement on its way to Jerusalem to suppress the revolt that had broken out in 66 CE. We have no reliable information as to what befell the sectarians. Some believe that they joined the rebels or, perhaps, other religious groups, such as the early Christians or the Pharisees; others have suggested, more radically, that their religious and spiritual heritage survived well into the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.
Communal Areas: Kirbet Qumran
“On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes. . . ” (Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis V, 17, 4)
Khirbet Qumran is situated at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, some 40 km east of Jerusalem. The name “Qumran” is modern; it is derived from the Arabic qamar, meaning “moon.” The name of the site in the Second Temple period was apparently Secacah.
Jewish settlement at Qumran began around the year 100 BCE. It came to an end in 68 CE, when the settlement was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Revolt. Most modern scholars believe that the Community belonged to a secessionist sect of Essenes, the Community of the yahad, who had left Jerusalem.
Two main structures have been identified at the site: a square building in the east, and another building in the west, built around an ancient water cistern, a remnant of some earlier settlement dating to the First Temple period. The eastern building was the inhabitants’ communal center, with a kitchen, scriptorium, library, and refectory, which also doubled as an assembly hall. The western building seems to have served as an administrative center. A sophisticated water system and several ritual baths, concentrated around the refectory, were also discovered at the site, as was a large cemetery, with some 1,200 graves, which was situated nearby.
The True Calendar
“They shall be neither early nor late for any of their appointed times” (Community Rule I, 14–15)
The Qumran sectarians believed that God had granted them knowledge of profound cosmological secrets, including knowledge of the true calendar and the exact times of the festivals. In their view, strict obedience to this calendar was a primary religious duty.
The sectarian calendar was based on the heavenly course of the sun and consisted of 364 days. These were divided into twelve months, each comprising 30 days except for the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth months, which had 31 days. Festivals always fell on the same day of the week: Passover on Wednesday, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) on Sunday, and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on Friday. The origins of this calendar lay in an ancient Jewish tradition (mentioned, for example, in the pseudepigraphical Book of Jubilees and First Book of Enoch); some scholars believe that it was even used in the land of Israel in the First Temple period.
In contrast to the Judean Desert sectarians, the priestly establishment in Jerusalem followed the lunisolar calendar that had been adopted by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE. Some authorities feel that the controversy surrounding the calendar was one of the decisive motives for the sect’s decision to leave Jerusalem.
Living in the Desert
“And when these become members of the Community in Israel according to all these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of unjust men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare there the way of Him [= of God]” (Community Rule VIII, 13)
Archaeological finds indicate that most of the sectarians seem to have lived in tents, booths, and, particularly, in caves hewn in the marl terrace opposite the central building and near it. Found in these caves were oil lamps, mezuzot, wooden tools, pottery, and other everyday items. In addition, a network of paths was discovered near some of the caves, probably used by the sectarians on their way to and from to the central building. This is attested by the many nails found along the paths, presumably fallen from their sandals.
The sectarians chose to live in the desert despite the arduous conditions. They considered the desolation of the desert to be a symbol of purity, an eschatological paradise, and a refuge from the corruption of society and culture, in the spirit of the Pentateuch and the Prophets. A life of isolation in the desert was necessary, they believed, to segregate themselves from what they considered an unclean world, and because they believed in their role as heralds of imminent redemption.
Celibates or Families?
“They shun pleasures as a vice and regard temperance and the control of the passions as a special virtue” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 2)
The prevailing view among modern scholars is that the community at Qumran consisted mainly of men, from priestly circles, who lived as strict ascetics, abstaining from all carnal pleasure and physical luxury and devoting themselves entirely to the worship of God. The fact that many of the scrolls deal with such matters as marriage, sexual relations, and family law can be explained by a single passage in Josephus, which relates that besides those Essenes who scorned wedlock, there were those who did in fact take wives (Jewish War VIII, ii, 6).
As for the skeletal remains of women and children found in the cemetery, it has been suggested that these belonged to Bedouin buried there in modern times. Regarding the hairnets and jewelry that were uncovered, the issue has yet to be resolved: Scholars have variously attributed them to the wives of the sectarians; wives of the Bar Kokhba rebels; or even to Christian or Muslim women buried there in later periods. Whatever the case may be, the controversy over the nature of the Judean Desert sect is far from settled.
“Before the sun is up they utter no word on mundane matters, but offer to him [= the sun] certain prayers, which have been handed down from their forefathers, as though entreating him to rise” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 5)
Daily activities at Qumran began and ended with prayers and benedictions. Immediately upon rising, the sectarians hurried down the paths from their living quarters to the central building, where they recited the morning prayers as a community. They apparently wore phylacteries (tefillin) on their heads and arms while praying; some of them may, in fact, have worn them all day long, as a mark of special piety. The phylacteries discovered at Qumran are the oldest ever found.
Among the scrolls were copies of approximately one hundred biblical psalms, two hundred non-biblical prayers (mostly otherwise unknown), and many other liturgical works. Together, they attest to the crucial place of prayer in the sectarian experience. The prayers were probably regarded as a substitute for the sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem, as we read in the Community Rule (IX, 5): “And prayer rightly offered shall be as an acceptable fragrance of righteousness, and perfection of way as a delectable free-will offering.”
Farmers and Shepherds
“They are then dismissed by their superiors to the various crafts in which they are severally proficient and are strenuously employed until the fifth hour.” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 5)
In keeping with its separatist nature, the community at Qumran functioned as an independent productive unit, fulfilling its basic needs by maximum exploitation of the natural resources available nearby. After the morning prayers, each member went off to his daily work.
The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in his description of the Essenes, wrote, “Some of them are farmers, proficient in sowing and growing plants; some of them are shepherds, who rear various animals; and some of them deal with swarms of bees” (Philo, Apologia pro Iudaeis XI). Indeed, in the vicinity of Ein Feshkha, about 3 km south of Khirbet Qumran, remains have been found of a building and installations that may have belonged to a farm where date palms were cultivated. Further evidence of agricultural activity is provided by scythes, a hoe, and traces of date palms, fronds, dried dates, and pits discovered at Khirbet Qumran and its environs. In addition, various cereals, mainly barley, were probably grown in the el-Buqei‘a Plain, above the ridge. Remains of animal bones unearthed near the central building indicate that the members of the Community may have also raised farm animals and hunted ibexes, and some authorities believe that they raised fish in the area of Ein Feshkha.
A Collective Economy
“Riches they despise, and their community of goods is truly admirable” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 3)
The pottery workshop, pieces of fabric and spindles, and the remains of baskets, mats, and rope found in the archeological excavations of the site indicate that the sectarians also produced pottery, textiles, and woven goods. We may assume that they used these products themselves, but they also may have sold some of them in markets.
Both the scrolls and classical sources report that the members of the Community were not permitted to retain personal property, but rather shared all their possessions, as indicated, for example, by the passage: “When he has completed one year within the Community . . . his property and earnings shall be handed over to the Bursar of the Congregation” (Community Rule VI, 18–19). Some of the finds unearthed at the site have therefore been interpreted in this light: a hoard of silver, possibly containing the coins deposited by new members with the collective at the end of their first year of candidacy; and an ostracon (inscribed pottery shard) discovered a few years ago near the central building, whose inscription – according to one reading – may attest to the practice of handing over the candidate’s possessions to the 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).
“After this purification, they assemble in a private apartment . . . pure now themselves, they repair to the refectory, as to some sacred shrine” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 5)
After purifying themselves through ritual immersion, the sectarians crowded into a special hall for a communal meal. In a room adjacent to this hall, more than a thousand dining and serving utensils were discovered. During the meal the participants probably sat on mats, in rows parallel to the long walls of the building; according to Josephus, they dined in absolute silence. Their food included bread, dates, date honey, dairy products, meat, and “new wine” (possibly unfermented grape juice).
The sectarians aimed to establish, in the desert, a community that would serve as a “spiritual temple” or, as the scrolls put it, a “temple of man,” that is, a human substitute for the Temple in Jerusalem. Their lives were therefore modeled symbolically on the lives of the priests serving in the Temple. Indeed, their communal meals may have even symbolized the sacrificial rites in the Temple. Another possibility is that the meal was perceived as a prefiguration of the banquets of the righteous in the End of Days.
Service of the Heart: Evenings and Sabbaths
“And the Congregation shall watch in community for a third of every night of the year, to read the Book and to study the Law and to bless together” (Community Rule VI, 5–6).
“They are stricter than all Jews in abstaining from work on the seventh day” (Josephus, Jewish War II, viii, 9).
The work day at Qumran lasted until dusk, when the members of the Community immersed themselves once again in the ritual baths, in order to purify themselves before the evening meal. The nighttime hours served not only for rest, but also for spiritual pursuits: the study of the Law and communal prayer. The Community thus combined profane with spiritual affairs during the week, until the advent of the Sabbath day.
The sect’s Sabbath laws were extremely rigorous, the day being used primarily for prayer and study. The scroll known as Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice reveals some details of their worship: the scroll consists of thirteen hymns recited by certain angels, one hymn every Sabbath, for the 52 weeks of the year, so that each hymn was recited a total of four times a year. As the title indicates, these hymns were considered a substitute for the sacrifices that were offered on the Sabbath in the Jerusalem Temple; the sectarians believed that in singing them they were emulating the songs of the angels in the heavenly Temple.