Medieval Hebrew document could reveal why Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Qumran

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A curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) shows fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in their laboratory in Jerusalem on June 2, 2020. (Image credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP via Getty Images)

Ancient Hebrew document created over 1,000 years ago and hidden in Cairo could reveal a secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Scroll scholars have long wondered why so many fragments of the mysterious manuscripts – over 15,000 pieces from over 900 original documents – were hidden in caves around Qumran in the hills of the Judean Desert just west of the Dead Sea in Israel, apparently far from any major built-up area.

The nearby archaeological site of Qumran itself also presents similar mysteries. For example, why was her pantry so well stocked, with over a thousand pottery storage containers and hundreds of bowls, plates and mugs – but excavations show very few people there. have ever lived? What was the purpose of a large open-air terrace called the “southern esplanade” in Qumran, and why is it isolated from a nearby cemetery? And why were Qumran’s many ritual baths, or “miqva’ot,” so large?

Related: Dead Sea Scrolls Gallery: A Glimpse of the Past

Now research suggests that Qumran was actually the site of a huge annual ceremony of the Jewish mystical sect of the Essenes, in which its members gathered from towns and rural communities across Israel to observe a key ritual known to exist. under the name of Alliance du Renouveau. Qumran’s particular construction, the researchers suggest, reflects this ceremonial function. Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls also mention a festival that appears to refer to the same gathering of the Essenes, the researcher said.

According to the new theory, many of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves could have been written by Essene communities across the country and brought to Qumran at the time of the annual festival to be studied and stored there.

“The national rally in Sivan [the third month of the Jewish calendar, which falls inMay or June] was an important and well-regulated event for which clear and detailed rules were established, “Daniel Vainstub, archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, told Live Science.” All of this corresponds to the archaeological remains of the site. “

Gathering of the Dead Sea

In a new study, published online at the end of July in the journal Religions, Vainstub argues that Qumran was the venue for this annual gathering based on a version of religious community rules contained in what is known as the Damascus Document or the Damascus Alliance.

The Damascus document – so named after its many references to the city in Syria, perhaps because Damascus was once ruled by Israel’s King David – was copied from an earlier Hebrew source around the 10th century AD It was eventually stored in the Cairo Genizah, a storage room attached to a Jewish synagogue in Fustat, the original Arab capital of Egypt which eventually became a southern district of the city of Cairo.

The destruction of any text containing the name of God is prohibited in Jewish religious law, even accidentally, and all documents of the Jewish community in Cairo were eventually stored in the genizah just in case, at least until ‘they can be officially buried.

Related: Photos: rare inscription from the time of King David

As a result, the writings have accumulated for many centuries in the Cairo Genizah; and in the 1890s, academic of the University of Cambridge Solomon Schechter visited the site and found a treasure trove of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts, including Hebrew religious texts, as well as works in several languages ​​on art, literature, philosophy and science.

Solomon Schechter studies boxes of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah. (Image credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy)

The most complete versions of the Damascus document have been found in the genizah, and fragments of it have since been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

And according to Vainstub, the Cairo version of the genizah contains a fuller description of a ceremony mentioned in the Dead Sea Scroll Fragments, which has so far been misunderstood. The description of Geniza from Cairo suggests that Qumran was the site of an annual gathering in the month of Sivan, when the feast of Shavuot is observed to mark the renewal of the Jewish covenant with God.

“I contend that the Damascus document contains the regulation or rule that governs the annual gathering,” Vainstub told Live Science in an email. “No one noticed it before me.”

The mysteries of Qumran

The passage in question in the Damascus Document refers to the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – and reads as follows: “And all [the inhabitants] camps will meet in the third month and curse whoever deviates is to the right [or to the left from the] Torah.”

Vainstub suggests that the “camps” were Essene religious groups scattered throughout Israel, often as isolated rural communities, but also in major cities. He argues that the passage shows that a gathering took place at a specific time and that people from different places were called to meet at one site.

Previously uncovered archaeological evidence suggests that the ancient Qumran complex would have supported relatively few cult members for most of the year, but the new text suggests that it swelled to accommodate several hundred people by the time of the annual gathering.

“A few dozen permanent residents of Qumran… have had to house several hundred people at the site once a year in ever-increasing numbers,” Vainstub wrote in the study. “The site of Qumran, with its facilities, caves and surfaces, matches the evidence of the annual gathering that emerges from the scrolls.”

Pilgrims who only stayed in Qumran for a few days did not need regular accommodation, writes Vainstub; instead, they may have slept in the open air or in one of the many caves in the area – like the caves where the first fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947.

Vainstub’s proposal explains why Qumran’s public buildings, such as its pantry full of dishes and storage vessels, were large enough to serve thousands of people, but no evidence has ever been found. He argues that the adjoining south plaza was an outdoor food court that had to be isolated from the nearby cemetery to maintain religious purity; and his theory also explains the large size of the many ritual baths at the site, which were an essential part of Jewish worship at this time.

The idea that the Essenes met at Qumran once a year could also explain the location of the scrolls, as cult members may have left their religious writings there in the caves they slept in, Vainstub wrote. “My theory is also consistent with the fact that the scrolls are not necessarily from Qumran, but have instead been brought to caves across the country and left in caves over the decades.”

Originally posted on Live Science.

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