Dr. Eshbal Ratson and Prof. Jonathan Ben-Dov of the Department of Bible Studies at the University of Haifa have managed to decipher and restore one of the last two Qumran Scrolls that remain unpublished, out of some 900 scrolls uncovered at the site. The researchers spent over a year painstakingly reassembling more than 60 tiny sections written in a secret code. The reward for their hard work is fresh insight into the unique 364-day calendar used by the members of the Judean Desert sect, including the discovery for the first time of the name given by the sect to the special days marking the transitions between the four seasons.
Most of the Qumran Scrolls discovered in the 1940s and 1950s have long since been restored and published. The tiny remaining fragments, some smaller than one square centimeter, that remain undeciphered include some 60 sections written in code on parchment. An earlier researcher who examined these sections claimed that they came from several different scrolls. However, in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature based on a study funded by the Israel Science Foundation, Dr. Ratson and Prof. Ben-Dov show that the fragments actually constitute a single scroll. The researchers are now turning their attention to the last remaining scroll that has yet to be deciphered.
The members of the Qumran sect, who referred to themselves as the Yahad (“Together”) community, were a fanatical group that lived a hermitic life in the desert and faced persecution by the dominant establishment of the time. They wrote numerous scrolls, including a small number written in code. An important peculiarity for the present discovery is the fact that the sect followed a 364-day calendar. According to the researchers, this calendar was involved in one of the fiercest debates between different groups during the late Second Temple period. “The lunar calendar, which Judaism follows to this day, requires a large number of human decisions. People must look at the stars and moon and report on their observations, and someone must be empowered to decide on the new month and the application of leap years. By contrast, the 364-day calendar was perfect. Because this number can be divided into four and seven, special occasions always fall on the same day. This avoids the need to decide, for example, what happens when a particular occasion falls on the Sabbath, as often happens in the lunar calendar. The Qumran calendar is unchanging, and it appears to have embodied the beliefs of the members of this community regarding perfection and holiness,” the researchers explain.
As noted, the present scroll details the most important dates in the sect’s calendar. The scroll describes two special occasions not mentioned in the Bible, but which are already known from the Temple Scroll of Qumran: the festivals of New Wine and New Oil. These dates constituted an extension of the festival of Shavuot as we know it today, which celebrates the New Wheat. According to this calendar, the festival of New Wheat falls 50 days after the first Sabbath following Passover; the festival of New Wine comes 50 days later; and after a further interval of 50 days, the festival of New Oil is celebrated.
Nevertheless, the scroll also provides some surprises. The researchers were aware from the previous scrolls that the members of the sect celebrated the transition between the seasons, adding a special day for each of the four changes of season. Until now, however, the name of these special days has remained unknown. The present scroll reveals that these days were referred to by the word Tekufah. In today’s Hebrew, “Tekufah” translates into the word “period”. “This term is familiar from the later Rabbinical literature and from mosaics dating to the Talmudic period, and we could have assumed that it would also be used with this meaning in the scrolls, but this is the first time it has been revealed,” Dr. Ratson and Prof. Ben-Dov explain.
The present scroll also provides additional information about the customs of the authors of the scrolls. It emerges that the person who wrote the scroll – probably one of the leaders of the sect familiar with the secret code – forgot to mention several special days marked by the community. Accordingly, another scribe was forced to correct the errors, adding the missing dates in the margins between the columns of text. “The scroll is written in code, but its actual content is simple and well-known, and there was no reason to conceal it. This practice is also found in many places outside the Land of Israel, where leaders write in secret code even when discussing universally-known matters, as a reflection of their status. The custom was intended to show that the author was familiar with the code, while others were not. However, this present scroll shows that the author made a number of mistakes,” the researchers not.
“This scroll includes numerous words and expressions that we find later in the Mishna. This shows once again that many of the subjects discussed by the Scribes several centuries later had origins that predated the Second Temple period,” they conclude.