The Essenes & the Dead Sea Scrolls

    October 1998         
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The impact of the Essenes, a Jewish ascetic splinter group that lived 2000 years ago influenced Christianity..


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Opinion & Society

The Essenes

By Robert Michaels

In Jewish History there has always been divergent opinions. These differences have caused many factions and groups. In the short period of time preceding the destruction of the Temple, roughly 200 to 100 B.C.E., such a splinter occurred. This division had a impact not only on Jewish life but also on Christian belief. During this period, the Jewish people had divided into three groups, the Sadduccees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes.

The Sadduccees, which in Hebrew means "righteous", were one group. They were characterized by their novel interpretations of the Torah. Although they did not accept the tradition of the "oral" Torah, that is the verbal traditions, they were very active in upholding the Torah in it's strict literal sense. In many ways, they were bigger religious zealots than the Pharisees or Essenes. As an example, the Torah states that no fire must be carried in the house on the Sabbath. They understood this simply as a total prohibition of use of fire through out the Sabbath day, therefore they did not allow the use of fire during the Sabbath. Another example was that they would wear their tephilin on the back of their hand since it states in the Torah, "and you shall tie them on your hands...:"

In opposition to the Sadduccees, the Pharisees taught that the proper interpretation of the Torah was based on the verbal tradition. Therefore, even though it is written, "and you shall tie them on your hands...:" the traditional interpretation is not on the back of the hand, but on the biceps. The Pharisees gained much power during this period and took command of the order of the Temple services, excluding the participation of the Sadduccees.

The third group, the Essenes, were an ascetic group. They rejected both the Pharisees and the Sadduccees as not being acceptable. Although the Essenes were closer in philosophy and tradition to the Pharisees than to the Sadduccees, still the Pharisees were considered corrupt, since their lives were much more worldly and therefore seemingly less intense in the religious observance than the Essenes. The priests, who conducted the services in the Temple according to the ways of the Pharisees, were also deemed evil. The Essenes retreated from the controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadduccees and sought out a more purified life style in the tranquility of a hermit type existence. Although they lived through out the land of Israel, their masses centered upon the Northwestern shore of the Dead sea an area desolate and given over to a quiet and thoughtful life style.

They formed a "brotherhood" which was almost monastic in form. Marriage was permitted, but due to the doctrine of holiness which they espoused, many men refrained from marriage in order to dedicate themselves to the service of G-d and spiritualism. Their lives were that of austerity, hard work, communal living and much introspection. They took upon themselves an oath which was to dedicate their lives to the most demanding rituals which would bring them closer to God. They worked hard for their common community and lived together in strict observance to their specific structured life as dictated by the "elders" of the community.

Although the Essenes followed many of the same traditional teaching that the Pharisees accepted, there were many additional rules that they instituted and some differences in other laws. Since the discovery of the famed "Dead Sea Scrolls" in the caves at Qumram, just north of Jericho, which included many various writings by the Essenes, much is known of their lives and thoughts.

One of the differences between the Essenes and the Pharisees was in the calendar. The Jewish people today follow the calendar of the Pharisees. This calendar is based on the moon. The month will have either 29 or 30 days depending on the sighting of the moon. Since a lunar year is 29.5 days times 12 months equaling 354 days. A solar year is 364.25 days, therefore the lunar year is short by 10.25 days from the solar year. The rabbis therefore had to add extra month every three years to make up this difference, otherwise the holidays, (such as Pesach would not be celebrated in the beginning of the summer) would rotate around the year.

To the Essenes, this calendar was an abomination. Their calendar was a solar calendar. Each month had 30 days. One month in three had 31 days, hence each season (three months ) had 91 days. Each year had 364 days. The holidays began on the same day of the week each year (as opposed to our calendar where the New Year varies from year to year on which day of the week it falls).

Practically speaking this caused a big rift in relations between the Essenes and the other two groups. When the Pharisees and Sadduccees celebrated the holidays, the Essenes worked. Conversely, when the Essenes celebrated the holidays, the other two groups worked. Although no known record of conflict is recorded, we can deduce that due to the reclusive nature of the Essenes, conflict was minimized.

Historians have long pointed to the Essenes as the forerunner to the Christians. It is known that early Christians took much from the Essenes and their doctrine of asceticism. Their abhorrence of the Temple service and view of the evil priests is well documented. Since the early Christian religion began protest group and as an extension of Judaism, it has been speculated that the early Christian leaders circulated amongst the Essenes. Much of the changes and reforms set in motion by the Essenes gave impetus to the early Christians to make further changes. However since they changed too many of the main tenets of the Jewish religion, they were not successful in attracting Jewish followers.

Today, all Judaism is based on the Pharisees. The calendar is universally accepted in the Jewish world. Though Jews may disagree on many things, be it politics or religion, still the roots for today's Judaism is in the Pharisees.


from the October 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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