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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Mystery of Qumran©

By Vardah Littmann

No one is quite sure of its real identity. Its name Qumran, meaning “two moons” in Arabic, adds to the intrigue.
Archaeologists claim that the Qumran site (on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947) dates from the end of the Hasmonean Era, the period of Yochanan Horknus.  He served as High Priest in the Beis HaMikdash for eighty years, and then became a heretic. Chazal say that one should not trust oneself until the day of death, and they bring Yochanan Horknus as an example and warning. His keeping company with Zedokim was the undoing of this once faithful disciple of the Sages.
The tower seen at Qumran was the only visible sight when the archaeologists came here in the 1800s. It was probably built by Yochanan Horknus and/or his sons Yania HaMelech and Aristoblus who were both enthusiastic builders. Most of the Hasmonean projects and buildings around Eretz Yisrael were built by them.

The community at Qumran probably existed until the destruction of the Second Temple. (The settlement was temporarily abandoned after an earthquake and fire in 31 BC, but the people later returned.) The “Mered HaGadol” occurred at the time of the Chrban. All Jewish enclaves in the Land were crushed and destroyed by the Roman legions.
The Essene Sect
The question is: Who exactly inhabited the settlement at Qumran? Most theories hold they were Essenes. In his book Antiquities (13: 5, 9), Josephus divides the nation of Am Yisrael at the time of the Second Temple into three sections: the Pharisees, (Prushim)the Sadducees, and the Essenes (Isiyim).

Rav Avigdor Miller states that the Essenes were nothing but a tiny minority group. It is know that Essenes were fanatical extremists whom Chazal ostracized. Their idealistic Spartan way of life was very problematic in the eyes of Chazal. The word Isiyim comes from the word “health” in Aramag - asosah. Perhaps the word comes from the Hebrew self-designation of the sect, found in some Dead Sea Scrolls, “osey haTorah” (doers of Torah).
 At first the Isiyim were associated with the Rabbies (Pharisees) of the time. As they grew increasingly disenchanted with what was happening in Jerusalem, they started adopting practices that were not recommended by Chazal.  They overstepped the boundaries of halacha. For example their standards of taharah went overboard, and they committed themselves to an overly strict observance of the Sabbath. This included practices that involved the names of the Angels.

Isolation in the Barren Desert

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (died c. 79 CE), in his book Natural History, mentions that the Isiyim where to be found in the desert near the western shore of the Dead Sea. Josephus also places them there.
What was it that attracted people to come to live in this far-off wilderness at the end of nowhere? At the time there was no Kvish 90, and the place had to be reached by boat. It would seem that its inhabitants were disgruntled Jews who were dissatisfied with the Establishment in Jerusalem. As the Churban neared, they became more disillusioned. They wanted to live in voluntary isolation in the barren desert, stripped of all unnecessary baggage.
 Logic dictates that the same people who lived in this community wrote the scrolls stuffed into the clay jugs which were found in the surrounding caves. But we cannot know this for sure.
There are certain telltale signs of the Essene presence that can be ascertained from basis archaeological finds. Qumran is covered in mikvahs. They are kosher form all perspectives, including the fact that they hold Mem (40) saahs of water. (Because of these mikvahs, all scholars agree that these ancient inhabitants were undoubtedly Jewish.)

“The Sons of Light”
If indeed this is the habitation of the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, then as revealed in their descriptions of “Benei Ohre” and “Benei Choshech” (The War Between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness), they attributed much significance to purity. As “The Sons of Light” and separatists, the Essenes believed themselves to be the real Chosen People. They considered “The Sons of Darkness” to be the Prushim. A good portion of their daily life involved numerous immersions in a mikvah for they emphasized bodily purity over all else in Jewish observance.
It is known that this community was most regimented and kept a strict rule book. It also seems to have followed a trend towards misogyny or distrust of women. For Christians, this makes the ancient community in Qumran very appealing as their priests also live in monasteries and never marry. In the huge cemetery at Qumran, of over a thousand people who were buried there, only three or four were women.

A Life Style of Austerity
During the entire period of the approximately two hundred years of Qumran’s existence, only two to three hundred people lived there at any given time. Even though they probably kept on dying out, it seems that their brand of ideology was appealing enough to draw new adherents.

Two hundred and ten of each type of food utensil was found, an indication that the community was extremely orderly. Collective ownership was practiced and life was lived in a controlled fashion with great simplicity and great austerity. They chose to embrace poverty and abstinence from worldly pleasures which led scholars to compare them to later Christian monastic living. Apparently, their impoverished way of life was voluntary since many coins were found in the area.
In Qumran, the archaeologists found what seem to be a large kitchen, dinning area, a variety of storage spaces, a potter's workshop, a flour mill, and more. Water was supplied through an aqueduct which was supported by cisterns to catch and store rainwater. In what is called the Scriptorium Room, inkwells and a long structure (maybe a table?) were found. It was therefore deduced that this is the room where the scribes worked, but this cannot be definitely proven.

Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The first digs at Qumran (in the nineteenth century) started there because of the large cemetery in the region. Even trees, which can be seen today, were planted for shade, and the excavations lasted for as long as there was a budget.
In 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Muhammad edh-Dhib and Ahmed Mohammed, two Bedouin shepherds of the Ta'amireh Tribe, when they threw a stone into one of the eleven caves at Qumran and heard the clang of pottery being hit. The young teenagers gathered them up and brought them to their family’s tent. Some of these scrolls ended up being used as burning material for the family’s cooking and heating fire and the rest of them were sold.
There is a long and complicated saga of how the world came to know about the scrolls. The Christians latched onto these scroll in order to try proving their religion and made a big to-do about them.  Eventually the entire area ended up being thoroughly excavated for almost a decade.
Thousands of scrolls were discovered. Most of them were written on parchment, a few on papyrus, and one on copper. The contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls compare in remarkable precision to the standard Hebrew Masoretic text (40% of them are copies of different parts of Tanach). There are only a handful of mistakes in the scrolls. The most frequent texts copied are those of Sefer Iyov (theme of suffering) and Sefer Daniel (replete with references to the Messianic Era which seemed to intrigue the people at Qumran).
The biblical Secacah in Joshua 15:61 is identified with Qumran. This is an area of underground water that is in of 

Yehudah’s inheritance.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden at about the same time as the Second Temple was destroyed, yet the dry arid climate and low humidity conditions of the Dead Sea kept them in good condition. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls can be seen at the Rockefeller Museum and the Shrine of the Book, a section of the Israel Museum located in Jerusalem.
However, to really appreciate the sense of mystery attached to this subject, you need to visit the Qumran National Park which is located near Kibbutz Kalia. To travel there, take Highway 90 South from the Jericho area, along the western shore of the Dead Sea to Qumran.

I would like to thank tour guide Rav Menashe Bleiweiss for the helpful information he added to this article. 


  1. Dear Mrs. Littman
    My name is Galit Litani and i'm working for the Tower of david museum at Jerusalem.
    Could you contact me about using the first Photo on this page for an exibition.

    Thank you very much



  2. Dear Galit,
    You may use any photo you like in this page. But please give it credit.
    Thanking you,
    Mrs. Littmann