The Emergence of Rabbinic Culture
From the Perspective of Qumran
Introduction: From Scripture to Halakhah
For so said R. Aha b. Bizana in the name of R. Simeon the Pious: A harp was hanging above David’s bed. As soon as midnight arrived, a North wind came and blew upon it and it played of itself. He arose immediately and studied the Torah till the break of dawn. After the break of dawn the wise men of Israel came in to see him. . . . Thus spoke David before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world, am I not pious? All the kings of the East and the West sit with all their pomp among their company, whereas my hands are soiled with the blood [of menstruation], with the fetus and the placenta, in order to declare a woman clean for her husband. And what is more, in all that I do I consult my teacher, Mephibosheth, and I say to him: My teacher Mephibosheth, is my decision right? Did I correctly convict, correctly acquit, correctly declare clean, correctly declare unclean? And I am not ashamed [to ask]. (b. Berakhot 3b–4a).
This marvelous aggadah transforms the biblical David—leader, warrior and poet—into a sage of the Tannaitic and Amoraic era, who is totally immersed in the minutiae of the laws involving a menstruating woman. Mephibosheth, a more minor character in the dramatic story of David that
unfurls in the Book of Samuel, is transformed in this aggadah to a figure whose place is within the hierarchy of the beit midrash (study hall) (“My teacher Mephibosheth”). Moreover, the homilist does not feel satisfied until he converts David’s harp—the symbol of his religious devotion and his lofty psalms—into an alarm clock of sorts, a technical device intended only to rouse David from his sleep so that he can engage in a meticulous and rational halakhic debate. This particular midrash is one of many that enjoy “rabbinizing” the biblical heroes. They superimpose the image of the Jewish sages of Roman Palestine or Sassanid Babylonia on the scriptural characters, and replace the biblical scenery with that of the beit midrash of the Talmudic sages. The technique is actually a creative attempt to camouflage the enormous gap between the scriptural world and the rabbinic world, between a model of the ideal religious life of the Bible and the theological value system fashioned by the rabbis. The transformation of David in the above aggadah betrays the fact that the vast abyss between the two periods and the two literatures did not escape the eyes of the author.
The evolvement of the postbiblical halakhic world is shrouded in darkness that spreads over hundreds of years, from the end of the biblical era until the Hasmonean era. Incipient manifestations of a Jewish corpus of laws and lifestyle burst forth in a storm of controversy during the last two hundred and fifty years of the Second Temple period, against the background of a divided, diversified Jewish society. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, over the course of hundreds of years, this diversity solidified in the literary work of the sages into a single tradition that was multifaceted yet cohesive, rich, and intricate. This rabbinic halakhic system, which encompasses a period of hundreds of years, from the destruction of the Second Temple until the redaction of the Talmuds, with its many facets and the literary works
which comprise it, reflects a new Jewish culture, almost completely distinct from the biblical and postbiblical culture that preceded it.
Apart from the great differences between the internal foci, the linguistic and cultural characteristics, and the historical circumstances that shaped the Bible and rabbinic literature, the vast differences in their halakhic content and scope are immediately and patently obvious. The enormous expansion of certain halakhic topics, compared to their circumscribed biblical origins, and the total invention of legislative taxonomies with no biblical basis whatsoever, already bothered the early sages in the last centuries of the Second Temple era, the period when the following Mishnah was apparently composed:
The dissolution of vows flies in the air and has nothing to lean on (in the Bible). The laws of Shabbat, Festal-offerings, and acts of sancta violation are like <dry desert plants> (חררים) hanging by a strand (i.e., barely attached to the ground), since Scripture is meager and the rules are many. Civil cases, temple services, purities and impurities, and the laws of incest— these have bases for support, and they are the essentials of Torah. (m. Ḥagigah 1:8)
At later stages in the development of the Oral Law, the thickets of halakhah grew into mighty forests, and departed so radically from their biblical roots that the vast gulf between the Written Law and the Oral Law was regarded as a matter of course, no longer a cause for surprise, and no longer needing to be described or explained.
Exploring the History of Halakhah
Yaakov Sussmann, in a seminal article, widely cited in subsequent scholarly discourse on the hi
story of early halakhah, begins with the following words:
One of the prime goals set for itself by the Wissenschaft des Judentums in its initial stages was the study of the history and development of the halakha—the attempt to reveal the process of the evolution and development of the halakha, and bridge the wide gap in Jewish history between Bible and Mishnah. One stands awed by the remarkable phenomenon of a fully developed halakhic system, governing all aspects of life and crystallized to its most minute details, which emerges fully formed in the classical halakhic literature of the Tannaim. How did all this evolve? What were the stages of its development? What changes did the halakha undergo from biblical times up to its final consolidation in Tannaitic literature?
The essence of Sussmann’s article is devoted to the far-reaching significance of Qumranic halakhah, as a way station between the Bible and the Mishnah, for understanding how Tannaitic halakhah had developed. This significance was demonstrated in the article’s preliminary review of the contents of Miqṣat Ma‘aśe ha-Torah and the relationship between its laws and Tannaitic law. Sussmann complained that the extensive scholarly literature on the Qumran scrolls had neglected the study of the history of the halakhah in the four decades that had elapsed from the discovery of the scrolls until the writing of that paper, and he called for a return to the study of this history with the aid of the treasure trove that had fallen into our laps with the discovery of the Qumran library.
The study of Qumranic halakhah has indeed gained great momentum since the publication of this paper, a quarter of a century ago. Nonetheless, it appears that the challenge of returning to the study of the history of halakhah, as Sussmann defined it, is still in its infancy. Scholars of Qumranic texts of religious law focus mainly on the exploration of Qumran
legislation in its own context, comparing it, at times superficially, to notable parallels in rabbinic literature. These parallels serve as “the perfumers, the cooks, and the bakers” of the hero of the scholarly research—the Qumran sect, its image and outlook.
The study of the Qumran sect per se against the background of Jewish society of the period constitutes historical research of great importance that touches on important stages in the history of halakhah; however, such research does not focus on following the course of halakhah, in all its conflicting manifestations, in disparate Jewish circles and in different time periods.
Now, following the complete publication of the Qumran literature, and in view of the extensive and productive exploration of the different sources in and of themselves, the time has come to begin to reinvestigate halakhah as a whole—its different streams, metamorphoses, and developments, beginning from its origins in the Bible and in ancient tradition, to “the garden of forking paths” in the Second Temple era, and on to the crystallized, intricate, sophisticated system formulated in Tannaitic literature. This ambitious undertaking, which should be based on the compilation and analysis of minute details, can be achieved only piece by piece, by carefully mapping different halakhic areas and examining them one after the other.
It is only by combining the results of research in the different halakhic realms that we may obtain the beginnings of answers to the weighty questions that have engaged scholars from medieval times to the beginnings of modern-day “Jewish studies”; questions that, it seems, we almost no longer dare to ask. What were the religious stimuli and the philosophical and theological stances that impelled the postbiblical evolution of a particular area of halakhah? What is the nature of the religious world that the formulators of halakhah, in different time periods and in different groups, wished to establish? Which components of their project were
deliberate innovations and which stemmed from an ancient tradition to which they merely gave a more precise formulation? To what extent are the layers of halakhic development rooted in biblical exegesis, extrabiblical traditions, or innovations in religious practice? What are the relationships between the various Temple-era corpora of halakhah, and how do these corpora relate to later rabbinic formulations? Should most of the disparities between Qumranic legislation and rabbinic law be attributed to the chronological gap between the two (the “vertical model”), or to an ancient polemic (the “horizontal model”)? Does the rabbinic project represent the ongoing, linear development of an ancient ancestral tradition, while the sectarian corpus carries the banner of rebellion and innovation? Or is it rabbinic culture that is the product of a revolution that other groups refused to accept? Is it possible to distinguish between the separate strata of the Tannaitic edifice? Combining the data obtained from a comprehensive exploration of specific areas of Jewish law in Second Temple and rabbinic literature could provide solid, cumulative impressions that reinforce or refute different elements in the scholarly Weltanschauung of the giants of earlier generations.
Initial attempts of this kind have already been made, some prior to the publication of the full Qumran corpus, and some in recent years. Insightful observations from a more general perspective were offered by Aharon Shemesh in his discussion of some overall issues concerning the relationship of Qumranic and rabbinic halakhic literature, such as the source of authority in the two communities, the interplay of tradition and scripture in each, and some characterizations of both legal systems. Thus, while gestures in the direction that Sussman had outlined are recognizable, the full-scale project he had envisioned has not yet been undertaken.
In the current paper I would like to present several impressions from a study that I
devoted to a specific area of Jewish legislation and its different manifestations in Second Temple literature and Tannaitic halakhah, namely, that of corpse impurity. Impurity laws were a central issue in the social and theological life of Jewish society of late antiquity. Moreover, the post biblical treatment of corpse impurity in different Jewish circles may reveal their attitudes to major themes, such as the boundaries of the human body, definitions of life versus death, nature versus culture, and the sacred versus the profane.
The biblical impurity of the dead is the most serious of all sources of impurity. According to the plain meaning of Scripture (Num 19:11, 14–22, see also 31:19–24) the corpse is the only source of impurity that defiles “in a tent,” without direct contact. It is the only external entity that can cause severe impurity that does not emanate from the body or appear on its skin. Unlike dead animals, for which only the flesh itself generates impurity, the human corpse defiles even when only the bones remain, or when it is placed inside a sealed grave. Above all, corpse impurity is the only impurity which requires the unique, complicated, and mysterious rite of purification by the ashes of the red heifer.
Compared to their circumscribed scriptural basis in the Bible, the rabbinic laws of Ohalot—the laws of corpse impurity—are remarkable in their sophistication and profusion. Despite the fact that only about ten verses of Scripture are devoted to corpse impurity, the laws of Ohalot are some of the most complicated and extensive in Tannaitic halakhah, as the sages themselves have already noted: “. . . Ohalot—scant Scripture and a profusion of halakhot.” The yawning gap, in this case, between Scripture and the eighteen chapters of tractate Ohalot, specifying the detailed and intricate Tannaitic model with its abundance of rules and principles, leaves us wondering as to the source of this mighty body of halakhah and its development.
A glimpse into this hidden process is provided in four Second Temple–era corpora: the Temple Scroll, which devotes a long and relatively detailed passage to corpse impurity; additional regulations that arise from other Qumranic works; and the works of Josephus and Philo, who likewise deal with this subject. Here I will focus on the material from the DSS. The following discussion is based on the scholarly assumption, shared by Sussmann, Daniel R. Schwartz, Schiffman; Hannah Harrington; Shemesh and others, that, in spite of their different nuances, the various legal documents from Qumran, including those which may have originated in pre-sectarian circles, such as the Temple Scroll, are all representatives of a distinctive “priestly” system also attested in other contexts (i.e., Jubilees) and factions (i.e., the Sadducees). Shared by various coteries and literary works, its characteristic legal concepts and practices typically contradict their counterparts in the later rabbinic framework.
Corpse Impurity—Qumranic Halakhah
Corpse impurity in Qumranic legislation, in contrast to in Tannaitic Halakhah, does not represent a new system. This legislation is fairly conservative and does not depart greatly from the plain meaning of Scripture. Deviations from the scriptural text are easily discernible in view of the solid scripturally–grounded foundation from which these laws emerge. These deviations can be divided into several types:
(a) Expansions that fill in exegetical gaps.
Here I refer to halakhic expansions that are based either on internal exegesis or on other scriptural passages, which fill in the gaps in the biblical passage concerning corpse impurity in
Num 19. For instance, the Torah teaches that an unsealed vessel in a tent with a corpse becomes impure (Num 19:15). It does not explain what sort of vessel is affected, the fate of its contents, the status of different sorts of vessels, or the status of food and liquids that are defiled because they are found in a tent with a corpse or were in contact with a corpse. The Temple Scroll supplements these laws based on a passage that deals with impure “swarming creatures” in Leviticus (Lev 11) and a passage concerning the war with the Midianites in Numbers (Num 31). From these passages, the authors deduce the sorts of utensils that become impure; the susceptibility of food and liquids to impurity; and the ruling that only food that is wetted by certain liquids is susceptible to impurity. The Scroll equates the vessel defiled by its contents in a tent with a corpse (Num 19), with an earthenware vessel specifically, and adds to the vessel in this situation the properties learned from the passage that deals with swarming creatures in Lev 11. In this case, a great similarity exists between the laws of the Temple Scroll and later Tannaitic halakhah, with regard to both the regulations themselves and the Midrashic strategies that produced them.
An example of an exegetical problem in the biblical text may be found in the laws concerning bones in Num 19. The Bible mentions impurity conveyed by a “human bone” (עצם אדם) only in the context of direct contact “in the open field” (על פני השדה) (v. 16), whereas “tent impurity”—impurity which spreads under an overhang and defiles without direct contact—is mentioned only in connection with “a person who dies” (אדם כי ימות) (verse 14), that is, an entire human body. Tannaitic halakhah uses this distinction to conclude that only a whole corpse or the greater part of it (רוב בניינו ורוב מניינו) imparts tent impurity. But the sect combined the two scriptural statements to produce astringency and established that a bone
conveys tent impurity in the same manner as an entire corpse. This ruling is presented in MMT as part of a polemic against an existing opposing opinion, which itself is similar to the later rabbinic stance. This fact may suggest that the sectarian ruling is a stringent innovation in protest against the lenient ruling suggested more easily by the plain meaning of the verses, which preceded it.
(b) Expansions that derive from a practical need.
Certain deductions from the biblical verses, as well as autonomous laws not grounded in Scripture, were apparently born out of circumstances and situations that are not addressed in Scripture. The nature of most of these expansions is fairly lenient. They appear to be necessary supplements to scriptural legislation for circumstances and matters not mentioned in the Bible, rather than the products of intentional reform or of a tendency towards stringency. The most notable example is the transposing of biblical commandments from the wilderness to civilization. Postbiblical legislation required the transposition of the biblical concepts of wilderness, camp, tent, and sanctuary to the permanent, settled circumstances of the Second Temple-era house and town in the land of Israel. Qumran literature “translated” these concepts in broad, simplistic brushstrokes that are also quite logical and predictable in view of the scriptural background. The “tent” of the deceased (Num 19:14, 18), with all its halakhic implications, was converted into a house which could impart impurity to its contents and which itself could contract impurity (11QT 49:5–19, 50:11–13). This fundamental conversion preceded Qumran, as it is already documented in the Septuagint to Num 19:14, 18. The wilderness residence of the Israelites—the biblical camp (see Num 19:3, 7, 9)—was converted in Qumran law to all “your cities”
עריכמה (11QT 49:5), that is, to all Jewish settlements in Judea. Accordingly, in sectarian terms, the corpses themselves, as well the most severely defiled persons, were separated from the entire precinct of Israelite residence.
The Temple Scroll stresses the obligation of designating cemeteries outside of inhabited areas. Nowhere does the Bible expound the laws of burial in general, or the requirement that graves be distanced from settlements, in particular. However, this understanding derives fairly directly from the spirit of the scriptural text, which is stringent with regard to corpse impurity and even with regard to prolonging the impurity of living people who contract corpse impurity within the camp. The strict distancing of the dead from the realm of the living appears to have been a very ancient and widely accepted practice in many Jewish circles. This practice was observed even in the later rabbinic world, though the sages wished to divest it of any obligatory status. Thus, it appears that this ruling is not an innovation of the Temple Scroll, but at most, a new emphasis on an ancient custom. In a similar manner, the Temple Scroll supplements the law in the specific case of a dead fetus, which Scripture does not expound. It also adds new tools—a grindstone and a mortar—to the list of vessels which contract impurity according to Scripture.
Only in isolated instances do we find that sectarian law is intentionally more stringent than the biblical text. These stringencies derive from two central characteristics of sectarian doctrine: the tendency to extend the holiness of the sacred sphere to everyday human life; and the tendency to combine disparate laws and avoid internal distinctions, a tendency which Jacob Milgrom terms “homogenization.” An example of the first sort is the extension of the laws concerning the biblical sanctuary to the entire “Temple city” (עיר המקדש). We have seen an example of the second sort in the application of the impurity laws relating to a whole corpse to
individual bones. A further example is the extension of the biblical injunction that the zav (a male with an oozing bodily discharge) should not remain in the Israelite camp (in addition to the leper and the corpse-contaminated person): the Temple Scroll reframes the law to encompass as well all those with severe sexual impurities (the zava—a women with an oozing discharge; the menstruant; and a woman after childbirth). .
(c) Incorporation of ancient traditions
The Qumranic laws which I have examined contain several halakhic traditions that are not in any way grounded in Scripture. They do not appear to be sectarian innovations or an invention of the authors of the Temple Scroll, but rather, elements of an earlier legacy. Interestingly enough, these traditions, or vestiges of them, are also found in earlier strata of Tannaitic halakhah. These ancient traditions include the concept of corpse-blood impurity, which is inserted into the Temple Scroll‘s paraphrase of Num 19:16, in spite of the fact that it is not expounded in Scripture as we know it: “And every man … who touches the bone of a dead man … or the blood of a dead person” (11QT 50:5-6). The same statute is found in an early Tannaitic midrash: “How do we know that this applies even to one who touches blood? [Scripture teaches]: או בדם ‘or blood‘” (Sifre Zuta on Num 19:11). The language of the midrash implies that the words או בדם, “or blood,” appeared in the biblical passage explicated. As I have shown elsewhere, it seems that an otherwise unknown reading – or at least a shared early “midrashic” integration – regarding the impurity of corpse blood, had been incorporated into the language of Num 19:16 prior to the composition of the Temple Scroll, as attested by both the Scroll and the Tannaitic midrash.
Another ancient tradition that is not grounded in scripture is the concept of the powerful ability of liquids to convey and intensify impurity, a tradition which lacks any actual scriptural basis. The greater impurity conveyed by liquids is familiar from both sectarian and tannaitic law. Sectarian law bars a candidate for admission into the sect from touching the communal pure-food for a year, but he “must not touch the drink of the Many until he has completed a second year among the men of the Community” (1QS 6:16-17, 20-21). The Temple Scroll (49: 11-13) requires the cleansing of any “defiling smirch” of liquid–oil, wine, or water–found in the house where someone has died, and an identical law, using similar terminology, appears in CD 12:15-17.
This concept, in different and more developed manifestations, is very dominant in the rabbinic system as well, from its very earliest layers. In tannaitic halakhah, when a liquid enters the descending chain transmitted from a generative cause of impurity (אב טומאה), it functions as a replicator of impurity. Not only does it reactivate the strength of the “first degree of impurity” (ראשון לטומאה), but it also defiles vessels (a characteristic that in other cases applies only to the original generative causes of impurity – אב הטומאה), unconsecrated food, and liquids.
An early stringent tradition in the Temple Scroll that lacks scriptural basis is that of the impurity acquired by utensils and food inside a sealed earthen vessel in a tent with a corpse. This stringency cannot be regarded as an expansion of scriptural content into new areas since it is in complete contradiction to Scripture, which stresses the fact that the contents of such a vessel do not contract impurity (Num 19:15). This stringency, too, has a parallel, though much more limited in scope, in Tannaitic halakhah.
To summarize: Qumran law regarding corpse impurity is based on three sources: (1) ancient tradition; (2) scriptural exegesis; (3) innovation—necessitated by circumstances or by the sect’s unique ways. It is of interest to note that these sources constitute an embryonic version of Maimonides’ classification of the sources of the Oral Law in general: “It appears that all of the laws laid down in the Mishnah . . . some are interpretations received from Moses . . . and some are learned by means of one of the exegetical principles . . . and some are edicts, and some are enactments.” As stated, in Qumran literature sectarian legislation generally does not reflect bold innovation or new world views, but rather, exegesis and moderate expansion of the biblical law, side by side with early traditions and ancient customs.
Corpse Impurity—Tannaitic Law
The comparison of Qumran law and Tannaitic law offers new perspectives on the exegetical-halakhic enterprise of the Tannaim and their Second Temple era predecessors.
In the Tannaitic halakhic model, the most striking trend in our field of interest is the tendency to curtail, ab initio, the extent to which impurity takes effect. This was achieved by “shifting,” so to speak, the partition that separates the “world of defilable things” from the sphere of elements that are not defilable. A careful comparison of sectarian and Tannaitic material concerning corpse impurity with the plain meaning of Scripture exposes the power, scope, and far–reaching revolutionary nature of this trend in rabbinic law vis-à-vis Scripture and vis-à-vis the tradition that preceded the rabbis. In certain cases we see that the process of reduction and retreat from the earlier stringent practice occurred in stages, layer upon layer.
It appears that certain principles fundamental to the understanding of impurity were
shared by all streams of Judaism in the Second Temple era. This includes the intuitive perception that impurity attaches only to the world of manufactured items, and not to nature and to raw materials. This perception itself adopts the general tenor of the scriptural text. The sect included the house and its components under the rubric of human creations that are susceptible to impurity. However, rabbinic halakhah cast a “dismantling glance” over certain products of civilization that in some way were still close to the earth or to the raw material from which they were created, and virtually turned them back into their “natural components.” The walls of a building and anything joined to them were perceived as extensions of the earth, which cannot contract impurity, and even utensils of a primitive nature, made of stone, earth, or dung, were perceived as bits of “nature” that cannot acquire impurity.
In certain respects, the sages also reduced the power of the primary source of impurity, that is, the corpse itself. As we have seen, the Qumran sect maintained that any bone, whether an incomplete bone or a whole bone, had the same ability as a complete corpse to impart tent impurity. Tannaitic halakhah, in contrast, construed that only bones that were in a condition close to that of an entire corpse could convey tent impurity in the manner that a corpse does. The far-reaching implications of this leniency are clearly demonstrated in a situation described in the Tosefta. “Boxes of bones” were placed in the synagogue in Lod, yet the sages declared pure all those who were there, following the testimony of doctors with regard to the character of those bones.
The extent of a corpse’s ability to defile is seen also in the laws regarding a dead fetus. According to the sectarian approach, the fetus defiles its mother, and this impurity is conveyed to the building she is in, its furnishings and those who enter it. According to the Tannaitic
approach, this “absorbed impurity” does not defile the mother who is carrying the fetus, and certainly does not affect the house and its utensils. It would appear, in this case, that underlying the dispute is the totally different perception of the fundamental character of the concept of impurity, and what affects its ability to spread. According to the rabbinic approach, impurity does not affect the body from within, and also does not spread out from it. The Qumran sect did not share these laws, and perhaps was not even aware of them.
It is sometimes possible to discern an autonomous, extrabiblical halakhic tradition, generally leaning towards stringency, that is documented both in rabbinic and sectarian literature. But a comparison demonstrates that in the Tannaitic context, the tradition is reworked, circumscribed, and reduced. In most of these cases, it is evident that the Tannaitic reworking represents a halakhic reform of a preceding layer. By way of an example, an early tradition prohibited leaving a corpse unburied in a town beyond a certain minimal amount of time and prohibited burying the dead within the town limits; Tannaitic halakhah reduced this formal injunction to a specific list of walled cities (“ערי חומה”) and Levitical cities. We find a very similar tactic used in a different case: Scripture teaches that water, specifically water, causes foods to become susceptible to impurity (“all food therein which may be eaten, upon which water comes, shall be unclean, and all drink in every such vessel that may be drunk shall be unclean” Lev. 11:34, מִכָּל הָאֹכֶל אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל אֲשֶׁר יָבוֹא עָלָיו מַיִם יִטְמָא וְכָל מַשְׁקֶה אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׁתֶה בְּכָל כְּלִי יִטְמָא). But it is evident from Qumranic law that an ancient interpretation took the scriptural phrase “all drink” (כל משקה), removed it from its context (“and all drink in every such vessel”) and generalized the ability to generate susceptibility to impurity in other foods, (in the spirit of the first part of the verse, “all food therein which may be eaten, upon which water comes, shall be
unclean”). That is why the sect held that all liquids generate susceptibility to impurity (4Q284a 1:1–4). An identical expansion appears in Tannaitic halakhah, but here it underwent a secondary reduction to a restricted list of seven liquids.
Another factor in the Tannaitic model of the laws of corpse impurity is the overall approach to the relationship between everyday life and purity. The Bible itself reflects two opposing conceptions of the boundaries of ritual impurity. A restrictive tendency limits the requirement of purity to the sacred sphere; a different, expansive tendency, seeks to introduce purity requirements into the secular sphere as well. Elsewhere I have argued that rabbinic exegesis divorced from their plain meaning all the biblical verses that deal with impurity in the secular arena and applied their restrictions exclusively to the sanctuary and the sacred domain. The dissociation of the obligation of purification from the secular sphere limited the prohibition of impurity, including its very meaning and definition, to the realm of the sacred, thus opening up a secular realm in the everyday life of the individual and the group in which impurity is permissible and present.
Divorcing the requirement of purification from the secular sphere operates first in the spatial divide between the sacred and the secular. Whereas the Bible categorically insists that certain types of impurity be kept out of the everyday secular realm as well (the “camp” and the “cities,” as we also find in Qumranic law and even in Josephus), the rabbis equate this protected secular sphere with Jerusalem, which according to them is analogous to “the camp of the Israelites” (מחנה ישראל). Thus, outside Jerusalem, impure persons were not subject to expulsion from populated areas. As a result, the entire arena of everyday Jewish life was divorced from any requirement of purification.
In this case it is clear that limiting the precincts from which impure persons must be expelled is a secondary halakhic reform, because vestiges of a different, more stringent stance, similar to the one reflected in Qumranic legislation, are still evident in the Tannaitic sources themselves. The directive of expelling lepers from all walled cities, not only from Jerusalem, survives in some of the sources. It seems that the employment of this rarely used, archaic category of “walled city” reflects the first stage in an attempt to delimit the biblical directive. Thus, initially, the regulation was narrowed to apply to a restricted list of cities possessing a special status, and only later was the regulation confined to the area of Jerusalem alone.
At a later stage, a truly astonishing revolution took place in Tannaitic halakhah—the corpse itself was permitted entry even to the Temple Mount (t. Kel. Bava Kamma 1:8). The late, revolutionary quality of this dispensation is clearly evident from its very boldness as well as from earlier Tannaitic dicta and “scales of impurity” that expressly contradict it.
I have already noted the surprising tradition in the Temple Scroll concerning the contents of a vessel with a “covering close-bound upon it” (צמיד פתיל עליו). In Tannaitic halakhah this stringency remained in effect only with regard to the most sacred of contents—the “water of purification” and sacrifices, which are ruled impure when they are under the same overhang with a corpse, even if they are placed in a (tightly sealed) earthen vessel.
Scholarly research has identified another trend characteristic of rabbinic halakhah—a proclivity for sophistication and abstraction. The primary example of this phenomenon in our area of research is the far-reaching halakhic development of the scriptural term “tent.” Whereas the Temple Scroll confined itself to extending the application of the scriptural command from tent and wilderness, predictably, to house and city, Tannaitic halakhah broadens the biblical
“tent containing a corpse” to the point of an absolute halakhic abstraction. It divorces “tent” from its definition as a dwelling place, whether movable or stationary, and transforms it from a noun to the description of a state, “overshadowing,” which, depending on circumstances, may apply to people, animals, vegetation, or inanimate objects that project over a corpse. The implications of this conceptual expansion are far–reaching, and the extent of the innovation involved can be gauged only by comparing it with the Qumranic legislation.
Alongside this expansion of the instrumental concept of “tent” as that which conveys impurity, we have seen above that the sages significantly limited the definition of a “tent” with regard to its ability to contract impurity (in the biblical framework the tent-cloth may itself become contaminated). Within the Tannaitic framework, all permanent structures came to be categorized not as artificial constructions (“tents”), but rather as elements of nature, continuous with the earth, which does not acquire impurity. Thus, the Tannaitic “tent” is the product of two separate and revolutionary conceptual developments—a stringent one, which broadens the category of objects that can function as “tents” and generate impurity; and a lenient one, which restricts the class of structures that can acquire impurity. Both of these acts of halakhic sorcery display a bold, analytic, rabbinic approach which, with the single stroke of a daring definition, abolishes the accustomed nature of familiar objects. It transforms a bird, a rock, or a man into a “tent,” and a house—into dust.
Another intrsicate evolvement in Tannaitic halakhah pertains to the chain of contaminating contacts. The sages “lengthened” the chain of contamination–by–touch to three and four links beyond the corpse itself. This Tannaitic sophistication, which vastly extends the impact of corpse impurity, is foreign to the scriptural text. It is therefore not surprising that it is t
otally absent from Second Temple literature.
Speculations and Conclusions
The phenomena described above—the deliberate divorcing of the obligation of purification from the secular sphere, the curtailing of the array of substances that transmit impurity or that are susceptible to impurity, the far-reaching processes of abstraction and (re)conceptualization, and the intentional reworking of early halakhic traditions, in effect combined to produce a legal and theological earthquake. The majority of the cases reviewed here show clear evidence that rabbinic purity halakhah underwent a secondary stage of change and revolution, in comparison to the parallel Qumranic legislation. This conclusion is based on several factors: (a) Qumranic law exhibits simplicity, in contrast to the complexity of Tannaitic halakhah. (b) A comparison of the two halakhic approaches with their scriptural foundation demonstrates that Qumranic law derives more naturally from the plain meaning or outlook of the biblical text, whereas rabbinic law is often surprising and bold. Rabbinic halakhah incorporates extreme abstractions, leniencies that have no grounding in scripture, and the invention of new categories. (c) There are instances in Tannaitic literature where an earlier halakhic layer was preserved, testifying to the secondary nature and relatively later development of prevailing Tannaitic halakhah. (d) In general, Qumranic scriptural exegesis appears to have preceded the interpretation imbedded in the Tannaitic sources, both in terms of its simplicity and also in terms of the forced, polemical nature of the opposing Tannaitic exposition. (e) It goes without saying that Tannaitic halakhah is immeasurably broader in scope than the Qumranic corpus.
Theoretically, this should lead to the simple conclusion that the Tannaitic halakhah
concerning purity represents a stage of development that is later than Qumranic law, and that Qumranic legislation reflects the foundation upon which the rabbinic revolution took place. This conclusion would be consistent with the fact that the material embedded in Tannaitic literature derives mostly from a much later period and it also was redacted hundreds of years later. But this explanation does not suffice here, nor does it suffice in the field of halakhah in general, for several reasons:
(a) Both corpora suggest a primary layer of basic halakhic premises which, while lacking an obvious scriptural source, are deeply rooted in a long history of traditional practice that shapes both the sectarian and the Tannaitic outlooks. In this case, the differences between the two methods represent secondary developments atop this ancient layer, and they differ only in the details. The identical existence in both the Qumranic and Tannaitic corpora of halakhic traditions that are divorced from, and sometimes even contrary to, the scriptural text, points to an ancient stratum of common inherited material. This hidden, ancient stratum preceded the split between the sects. In effect, this explanation is simply a modern formulation of what Josephus calls παράδοσις τῶν πατέρων—“ancestral traditions”—and which the rabbis defined using terms such as “halakhah,” “shemuʿah,” “the law handed down to Moses at Sinai,” and so on.
(b) As seen above, Qumranic literature does not reflect only what emerges from Scripture and early traditions, with the addition of exegesis and necessary expansions, but also displays some deliberate departures from scriptural regulations in keeping with the community’s religious orientation.
(c) Qumranic literature is engaged in a polemic against laws that are similar to rabbinic law. It also abolishes some traditions known to us from later rabbinic literature (for example,
the polemic embedded in the Temple Scroll concerning the impurity of a limb torn from a living body). Thus, Qumranic halakhah may reflect rebellion against and censure of ancient traditions. This polemic also demonstrates that many fully–developed conceptions with which we are familiar from the Tannaitic world were already in existence during the time period of the Qumran sect.
(d) Tannaitic halakhah, too, reflects and sometimes explicitly testifies to a polemic against opposing halakhic positions from the Second Temple era. Therefore, the rabbinic laws that are involved in this polemic must have originated in prerabbinic culture, like the sectarian laws against which they fought.
(e) Rabbinic literature contains ancient materials, which are recognizable by their literary characteristics, their contexts, and the names of the sages involved. Later halakhic clusters, as well, often developed from an early kernel. It is surprising to discover how early are some of the reforms in the area under study. The sophisticated abstraction that divorces the “tent” from its plain meaning was an established principle in the days of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, who differed only with regard to the size of the overhanging object that is defined halakhically as a “tent.” The lenient definitions of camp and sanctuary found in the Tannaitic literature apparently preceded the writing of MMT, which engages in a polemic against its opponents’ definition of “camp.” Restricting the precincts which require the expelling of impure persons from the camp is also documented in the early lists at the beginning of m. Kelim.
Limiting to seven the liquids that cause susceptibility to impurity preceded the Yavneh generation; R. Eliezer argues against this limit, and R. Joshua defines it as an accepted ruling of the sages. The charged disputes over the impurity of liquids are attributed to the time of Yose
ben Yoezer, who flourished in the early Maccabean era, and continued on into the period of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai.
The leniency with regard to the ability of a bone to convey tent impurity was recognized as early as the time of Shammai the Elder, and sparked a polemic in MMT. The early stringency with regard to beit haperas, a field suspected of being defiled by bones, of which there is no trace in Qumran law or other Second Temple-era literature, preceded Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The extension of the chain of contaminating contact, that is, the “lengthening” of the chain of contamination-by-touch to three and four links beyond the corpse, apparently preceded the coining of the terms אב טומאה and וולד טומאה, “generative cause of impurity” and “offspring of impurity,” which are known to us from other areas of purity and impurity. The lengthening of the chain is perhaps alluded to in one of the three earliest halakhot in rabbinic literature, which are reported in the name of Yose ben Yoezer.
Thus we see that, alongside early traditions that served as the foundation for both halakhic systems, these two systems also display originality and innovation, and both testify to the existence of a lively halakhic debate in the Second Temple period, which preceded and fueled them. Nonetheless, the later Tannaitic halakhah clearly reflects a far-reaching revolution in its own right. How can we reconcile these facts? The conclusion, in my opinion, is that the initial source of the upheaval that is evident in Tannaitic halakhah lies in a Pharisaic revolution that took place in Temple times. Qumranic halakhah should not be identified with the early foundation of this revolution. It is conceivable, however, that certain parts of Qumranic legislation came into being in reaction to this Pharisaic revolution. This reaction would thus h
ave been a protest that manifested itself in a return to the Pentateuchal sources and to ancient halakhic traditions, along with the formulation of a body of new laws. On the other hand, we have also found far-reaching Pharisaic determinations whose existence is explained specifically against the backdrop of dissenting opinions (e.g., permitting the entry of a corpse onto the Temple Mount). Both sectarian legislation and certain concepts reflected in later rabbinic halakhah represent discrete paths of creativity and exegesis that shaped disparate religious outlooks and ways of life over the course of the last two centuries b.c.e. Both streams developed closed and distinct religious cultures, but inevitable contact also created influence and conflict. Both systems were based on a common foundation of tradition and exegesis. One group of tradents expanded upon this foundation to a relatively moderate degree carefully followed the plain meaning of Scripture, unified separate categories wherever possible, and strove to make the holiness of the sacred sphere a part of human life. The other group used this common foundation as a point of departure for developing a totally new culture that restricted the sacred sphere and its demands and reinforced the secular precinct. In addition, this new framework fostered sophistication, conceptualization, and abstraction. This interpretive task required bold construals and far-reaching reworkings of early traditions, alongside the development of new terminology and the creation of new halakhic corpora of mighty proportions. It is difficult to determine which aspects of these phenomena developed in Second Temple times, and which represent later developments. The impression obtained from the limited material that I have reviewed is that the direction of the “Tannaitic revolution” was charted, its methods set up, and its principles established, at a surprisingly early stage, before the destruction of the Second Temple, and thus at the same time that the Qumran literature was created.