Dead Sea Scrolls
Of all the archaeological discoveries, the Dead Sea Scrolls, first found in 1947, have had the greatest impact, not only on Jews but also on non-Jews. The near miraculous preservation of Hebrew texts, both Biblical and non-Biblical, after 2,000 years proves the strength of Jewish tradition and the correctness of our ancient texts. Many more keys to our early past are still hidden in these scrolls. My pioneering work, starting in the 1950s, opened the avenue from our Oral Torah to the earliest scrolls. Other archaeological discoveries are also of paramount importance in helping appreciate our unbroken history and culture. The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish Tradition.
June 2, 1993, marked a very memorable occasion, when I was privileged to deliver the annual Memorial Lecture in memory of our son Jamie z"l, to a standing-room only audience at Fifth Avenue Synagogue. My wife and I were overcome by the enormous outpouring of interest in these Memorial Lectures, which—as Rabbi Roth of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue said—have become the highlight of Jewish cultural life in New York. Since many who could not attend have expressed interest in the subject, I will herewith give some of the main points covered.
In my talk I stressed that we must be proud of the rich heritage represented by hundreds of written scrolls, some 2000 years old, which document our forefathers' piety, values and aspirations. We should allow no one take our Jewish patrimony away from us, as was attempted in the early stages of the Dead Sea Scroll scholarship.
Christian scholars had quickly jumped to the conclusion that the Scrolls were the product of a little known group, the Essenes. No authentic Jewish sources have ever mentioned this "sect," which, according to Josephus, Philo and Pliny, existed alongside two other "sects," the Sadducees (Tzedukim) and the Pharisees (Perushim). The Essenes were pictured as a rebel group, opposed to the "legalistic" religion of the Pharisees and their "vain ceremonies." The Essenes were pictured as being on a strictly spiritual level—for the most part they were celibate and lived as hermit-like recluses. In other words, they were divorced from normative Judaism and isolated. As such, the Essenes could not be suspected as having been the source of Christianity, nor of having influenced the early Jewish-Christians. In this manner these researchers tried to maintain the myth of Christianity's "originality."
In my opinion, no Essenes, as so described, ever existed. However, our rabbinic sources mention a host of groups within Judaism, separated mainly by the degree of their observance of the mitzvot: Beit Shamai, more stringent than Beth Hillel, the Chasidim Harishonim, Vatikim, Tzenuim, etc., even more stringent than Beit Shamai. But in reality there was no "split" between them and the normative Pharisaic school. In fact, the Talmud tells us that although they differed in regard to many laws, once the halacha was established, they all followed the same rules, they intermarried with one another, used the same implements, etc.
There were, of course, those whom our rabbis condemned, e.g., the Baitusim, who tried to upset our calendar and our observance of the holidays. But even the Tzedukim, although they conflicted with the Prushim, who rejected their writings, did not leave the people, and their kohanim still served in the Temple.
This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls benefit us, for the halachic texts (especially the Temple Scroll, the Damascus Document, the MMT text) all show an extreme degree of stringency and strictness in the observance of mitzvot, especially those related to the concepts of purity and impurity, the Temple service, the sanctity of Jerusalem, etc.
It would seem that Hillel beseeched them not to divorce themselves from the Jewish people: "al tifrosh min hatzibur" (Do not separate from the congregation.). However, they answered (in MMT) "peirashnu mi'rov ha'am" (we have separated ourselves from the majority of the people). That was their undoing, and soon, after some disputations between them and the rabbis (reported in MMT as well as in the Talmud), their halachic writings, such as found in the Scrolls, were condemned to destruction. This, according to Megilat Taanit, happened on Tamuz 14, which for a while remained a joyous day in the Jewish calendar. But they returned to the fold of the Jewish people.
One unusual Scroll is the "Copper Scroll," written on thin copper foil, not on parchment or papyrus as the others were. It contains a strange inventory, listing huge hoards of gold and other precious items, worth about $30 million in current value, with 64 hiding places where they were concealed. Could this refer to a real treasure, or was it a fable? Christian scholars, unaware of the halachic background involved, preferred to call the Scroll a fantasy, no such treasure was ever accumulated. One Polish Catholic priest, Milik, to whom the Copper Scroll was officially assigned for publication, fumbled totally in his interpretation, mistranslating the most elementary terms.
In 1964 I published a new interpretation: Based on several passages in the Talmud, I concluded that the Scroll simply listed gifts to the Temple and other taxes which Jews continued to offer, even though the Temple was destroyed and the Romans had prohibited them from entering Jerusalem. Under such circumstances, the halacha requires that the gifts are to be redeemed, and their counter-value hidden away, in the Dead Sea area and in similar places. I listed the Hebrew terms actually contained in the Scroll which I re-translated totally. It took 29 years before my interpretation was accepted the world over, and Milik's mistranslations condemned as faulty.
Still, the question remained: What ever happened to those treasures? For this, too, I have found a solution, and my method of discovery may be described as a detective's coup:
I have in my possession a large Roman coin, issued by the little-known Emperor Nerva, who ruled from 90-92 C.E. This unusually large coin bears the Latin legend "Fisci Judaici Calumnia Sublata" (The insult of the Jewish tax has been lifted). Until now, the universal interpretation of this inscription was that the Romans had levied a discriminatory tax on the Jews, but that Nerva cancelled it, and issued this large coin in celebration of his kindness. Nonsense, I said, who could believe that Rome would celebrate having been good to Jews by striking such a large commemorative coin? In fact, three Roman Emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, issued coins marked "Judea Capta" or "Judea Devicta," celebrating Jerusalem's destruction. Would Rome now issue coins for having helped the Jews? Impossible.
Rather, I say that Nerva discovered that the Jews had continued, clandestinely, to collect their regular Jewish taxes right under the noses of the Roman oppressors. The Romans, of course, put a stop to the practice, since it was "insulting" to Rome. Nerva and his soldiers no doubt helped themselves to these treasures, and therefore no trace of them remains today.
The Copper Scroll therefore provides proof that even decades after the churban the Jews were confident that the Beit Hamikdash would be rebuilt at any time, and were planning for that time when they would be able to complete the delivery of their gifts and taxes to Jerusalem.
As we all know, several books written after the close of the Tanach were not included in our Bible. Among them is the Book of Ben Sira, a wisdom-book written about 300 B.C.E. Although it was not included in the Tanach, it is quoted countless times in the Talmud and the Midrashim. For a very long time the original text of the book was lost, and only the Greek and Syrian translations were known. But then 100 years ago, a Hebrew text of Ben Sira's work was found in the famous Cairo Genizah.
However, there was still some doubt as to whether this newly discovered text may have been only a re-translation from the Greek. In 1950 I predicted that some original Hebrew Ben Sira texts would be found in the Dead Sea Caves. My prediction was fulfilled. Small fragments of Ben Sira's book were found in what is called Cave No. 2.
After that, we all experienced another startling sensation uncovered at Masada: Yigal Yadin, the great archaeologist-scholar-general, found long pieces of the Ben Sira work in the ruins of the fortress where 1000 staunch Jewish men and women had committed suicide. Since Masada fell in 73, any text found there therefore had to be from a time preceding that date, and the Masada Ben Sira—in script like all the other Dead Sea Scrolls—contained the original Hebrew text, almost the same as the document found in Cairo 100 years ago.
The book of Ben Sira is the link between Biblical days, the Dead Sea literature and the Talmud. I have found countless parallels between Ben Sira and the Dead Sea texts, and have delivered a lecture on the subject at the Hebrew University as part of the World Congress of Jewish Studies.
In sum, the Dead Sea Scrolls prove to a surprising degree how reliable and faithful Jewish tradition is. For over 2000 years, Jews copied the same Biblical texts, and were concerned with the same mitzvot, some more leniently, some more strictly. But no one ever did away with the Jewish traditions or the divine commandments, except for the Christians, who therefore were promptly counted out of our people.
I hope that more and more Jewish scholars and experts will take a serious interest in the Dead Sea texts which still have not been translated and interpreted. The thousands of papers and books on the subject published till now were worthless, since they did not see the literature as authentic Jewish literature, which can only be understood based on our rabbinic sources. That task is now up to our Jewish scholars.
As we study the Dead Sea Scrolls, we vividly relive and revive the lives, ideals and practices of our forefathers. We preserve their memory in awe and respect in a manner akin to what we have been doing now for eleven years, keeping alive and preserving the memory of our son Jamie z"l, along with his hopes and aspirations.
May such memories be a blessing for us all.
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