Aug 17, 2022
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A group of researchers from Haifa University painstakingly pieced together 60 tiny fragments that made up the last of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovering that the Essene sect that lived near the Dead Sea during the Second Temple era followed a solar calendar vastly different than the lunar calendar used by the Jews. This deviation indicates a deeper belief that may have been the motivation for the sect choosing a desolate and isolated location to practice a type of Judaism that was essentially heretical.

The fragments were part of the Dead Sea Scrolls which were comprised of 972 manuscripts discovered in a series of 12 caves near Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea between 1946-1956. Most scholars believe they were written by a sect of Essenes and were hidden during the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 67 CE. It is believed that the Essenes of Qumran chose to live in a desolate and isolated area because their practices were austere and differed from some traditional Jewish beliefs, most notably in their commitment to celibacy.

Dr. Eshbal Ratson and Prof. Jonathan Ben-Dov of Haifa University’s Department of Bible Studies spent a year deciphering and translating the fragments which were written in Hebrew that was encoded. According to Dr. Ratson, piecing together the fragments was like “putting together a jigsaw puzzle — without knowing what was the picture.”

“The scroll is written in code, but its actual content is simple and well-known and there was no reason to conceal it,” the researchers said in a statement. “This practice is also found in many places outside the Land of Israel, where leaders write in secret code even when discussing universally-known matters, as a reflection of their status.”

Ratson estimates assembled fragments are only about half of the original scroll but text follows a formula well-known from other calendar scrolls. She feels she was able to convincingly reconstruct the text.

“Once you get a few full sentences you, you can guess all the rest of it,” said Ratson.

“The reward for their hard work is fresh insight into the unique 364-day calendar used by the members of the Judean Desert sect, including the discovery for the first time of the name given by the sect to the special days marking the transitions between the four seasons,” the university said in a statement on Sunday.

“The lunar calendar, which Judaism follows to this day, requires a large number of human decisions. People must look at the stars and moon and report on their observations, and someone must be empowered to decide on the new month and the application of leap years.”

“Because this number can be divided into four and seven, special occasions always fall on the same day,” the two researchers said in a joint statement. “This avoids the need to decide, for example, what happens when a particular occasion falls on the Sabbath, as often happens in the lunar calendar. The Qumran calendar is unchanging, and it appears to have embodied the beliefs of the members of this community regarding perfection and holiness.”

If the findings are accurate, this divergence from a Jewish calendar is another aspect of the Essenes that set them at odds with Judaism.

“Members of the Yahad [Qumran Essene sect] adhered to a year of 364 days, which was different from the luni-solar year of the Jerusalem temple and the Hasmonean state,” the researchers reported in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature. “The number of 364 days is neatly divided by seven, a typological number with significant religious connotation. Each 364-day year contains exactly fifty-two weeks, a fact that allows anchoring the festivals to fixed weekdays, thus avoiding their coincidence with the Sabbath. In addition, the number 364 divides neatly by four as well, yielding a good symmetry of the four seasons, each season containing exactly 91 days.”

Ratson described the calendar as “perfect” since 364 divides into 7 allowing every date to fall on a specific day of the week and giving every holiday a fixed date. The calendar begins on a Wednesday, the first of Nisan, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah – the New Year.”

The fourth day [Wednesday] was the day the heavenly bodies were created, making it possible to count time. All the holidays fell on Wednesdays: Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and Sukkot. Shavuot was on a Sunday,” says Ratzon.

But this divergence in their calendar sets the Essenes apart from Judaism in a manner that goes much deeper. The Jewish holidays are based on the seasons, usually in an agricultural context.  The Essene solar calendar would lead to a gradual skewing in which the days fall out of synch with the seasons. Within a few decades, the calendar seasons would have shifted entirely from their natural counterpart.

“The calendar seems like a technical aspect of this scroll, but is, in fact, a very significant subject,” said Ratson. “We think of time as a way to coordinate peoples’ activities in society, but actually it is a very political thing. This particular calendar is probably one of the reasons for the establishment of the sect, one of the reasons that they left the temple,” she said.

“He who rules the calendar, rules every aspect of life,” said Ratson. The sect in Qumran wouldn’t accept such a man-made authority. “Their calendar is already set from the beginning of creation; it is the calendar that God has decided upon.”

Rabbi Ken Spiro, a Senior Lecturer and Researcher for Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, believes this rejection of the calendar was an indication of a greater deviation from Judaism that led the group to distance itself from Jewish society.

“Attacking the calendar was the strongest method for splinter groups to challenge the authority of the Sanhedrin and the Temple, who established the calendar via witnesses,” Rabbi Spiro told Breaking Israel News. Rabbi Spiro cited the Biblical commandment requiring the Sanhedrin to establish the new moon via witnesses based on a verse in Leviticus.

These are the set times of Hashem, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time. Leviticus 23:4

The Hebrew word “tik’ra’ooo”, translated here as ‘celebrate’, also means ‘you shall declare’. The Talmud (oral law) learns this as being declared by witnessing in front of the Sanhedrin. Rabbi Spiro cited several examples in the Talmud of heretical sects trying to pervert the calendar, sometimes by sending false witnesses to the Sanhedrin.

“The whole statement of establishing the calendar by witnesses is a philosophical point making us a partner in creation. The mathematically set calendar comes from a philosophy typified by the Greeks who believed that everything in nature was perfect and intervention by man was rejected. This was also seen in the Greek rejection of brit milah (ritual circumcision).”

The scroll describes two special occasions not mentioned in the Bible, but which are already known from the other Dead Sea Scrolls: The festivals of New Wine and New Oil.

“These dates constituted an extension of the festival of Shavuot as we know it today, which celebrates the New Wheat,” the researchers said. “According to this calendar, the festival of New Wheat falls 50 days after the first Sabbath following Passover; the festival of New Wine comes 50 days later; and after a further interval of 50 days, the festival of New Oil is celebrated.”

Also mentioned was the Feast of Wood Offering, a celebration centered around the Temple which is no longer observed today but is mentioned in Nehemiah.

I purged them of every foreign element, and arranged for the kohanim and the Leviim to work each at his task by shifts, and for the wood offering [to be brought] at fixed times and for the first fruits. O my God, remember it to my credit! Nehemiah 13:30-31

But the Essene calendar diverges from the Jewish version of this feast. In rabbinic literature, the feast is spread over nine days throughout the year but the scroll states the Essenes observed it for six days at the end of the year.