Nine tiny, previously unexamined scroll fragments from the world-renowned Dead Sea Scrolls have turned up among the Israel Museum’s collection. The newfound scrolls were originally unearthed in the same caves in Qumran as the rest of the collection, but remained unidentified until now.
Dr. Yonatan Adler is a lecturer at Ariel University and a post-doctoral researcher on Qumran tefillin (phylacteries) at Hebrew University. He is the one who found the unknown scrolls.
Tefillin, or phylacteries, are black leather boxes traditionally worn by Jewish men during prayer. One is bound to the arm and another to the head. Inside the boxes are parchment scrolls of biblical passages from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The box for the head contains four scrolls, while the arm box contains one.
During the course of his research, Dr. Adler found a phylactery case in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s climate-controlled storehouse in Jerusalem in May of last year. He wondered if it might contain a scroll, as tradition dictates, that had never been documented, so he took it to Shaare Zedek Hospital to undergo an MRI. The imaging suggested he was correct, though the case has still not been opened to verify. The incident got Adler thinking it may not be the only one.
Upon subsequent visits to the Israel Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls lab, Adler came across several more sets of phylacteries with scrolls inside. Two were documented in 1952, but never opened, photographed or studied. Another seven were found among phylactery fragments from Qumran cave 4.
“Either they didn’t realize that these were also scrolls, or they didn’t know how to open them,” Pnina Shor, head of the IAA’s Department of Artefact Treatment and Conservation, said, explaining why they had remained untouched for so many years.
Dead Sea Scroll expert Eibert Tigchelaar of the University of Leuven in Belgium was not surprised these scrolls were ignored for decades. The history of the Dead Sea Scrolls, their discovery and preservation is complicated, and the collection changed hands over the years. ”Things physically remained somewhere, but administratively were forgotten,” Tigchelaar said.
Moreover, “confronted with 10,000 or more fragments from Cave 4, of which the last were only published a few years ago, there was little attention [paid] to those tefillin that might not be opened at all,” he said.
Now that they have been recovered, the next step is to carefully open and photograph the nine scrolls, if possible. Shor will be responsible for the documentation and preservation process.
“We’re going to do it slowly, but we’ll first consult with all of our experts about how to go about this,” she said, though she was hesitant to say when. “We need to do a lot of research before we start doing this.”
Although the fragments are not expected to contain any earth-shattering revelations, the could offer insights into the religious practices of the Second Temple Jewish community. Other tefillin scrolls from Qumran which were opened in the past showed variations in spelling from the tradition commonly followed today, and some contained additional biblical passages.
“Some tefillin use a spelling very close to the traditional one, [but] there are several tefillin that use an extreme form of divergent spelling that also occurs in many other scrolls,” such as additional letters in possessive suffixes, Tigchelaar said.
“We have to be prepared for surprises,” Professor Hindy Najman of Yale University said, of the new discoveries. “On the one hand there’s tremendous continuity between what we have found among the Dead Sea Scrolls — liturgically, ritually and textually — and contemporaneous and later forms of Judaism. But there’s also tremendous possibility for variegated practices and a complex constellation of different practices, different influences, different ways of thinking about tefillin.”
Still, Professor Lawrence Schiffman, a vice provost at Yeshiva University and expert on Second Temple Judaism, commented, “Given the amount of research that’s been done… important discoveries like this don’t overturn previous ideas,” he said. “We’re going to be able to augment what we know about the tefillin already.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in the 1940s in a series of caves in Qumran, near Jordan. Prior to 1967, much of the collection was in Jordanian hands, but that changed when Israel reclaimed East Jerusalem during the Six Day War.