Ritual Purity and Impurity and the Admission Process

Qumran BowlsIt is a commonplace that the nature of close-knit religious groups may often be understood by investigating the conditions for admission or initiation rites that are operative in them. In the case of the Qumran sectarians, it will be worthwhile to survey their initiation rites in order to understand the manner in which they are built upon underlying concepts of ritual purity and impurity. These principles, we will see, were actually common to the Qumran sectarians and the later rabbis, enabling us to understand them thoroughly. It may even be that these specific rules or practices were followed by the members of the havurah.

The first step towards entry into the sect was examination by the paqid be-rosh ha-rabbim, the “official at the head of the community.” If this official approved the candidate, the novice took his admission oath and was then taught the sectarian regulations.  Only then did the moshav ha-rabbim, the sectarian assembly, render a decision on him, presumably based upon his performance to date.  If he passed this examination, he attained a partial status.  Accordingly, 1QS 6:16-17 states:

And when he draws near to the council of the community he shall not come in contact with the pure food of the community until they investigate him regarding his spirit and his deeds, until he completes one full year.

The novice, after a year in which he may not touch the pure food, is again examined by the moshav ha-rabbim. He is then elevated to a higher status in which his property is temporarily admitted into communal use.  His property is registered officially, although full title remains his.  Nonetheless, he is still not a full member, as 1QS 6:20-21 provides:

Let him not come into contact with the liquid food of the community until he completes a second year among the members of the community.

After this second year he is again examined, a third time, by the moshav ha-rabbim, the sectarian assembly. If he again passes (1QS 6:22):

They shall register him in the appropriate place in the list among his brothers, for Torah, judgment, and purity….

At this point he is finally a full member of the sect; his property is subject to communal use; and he takes his place in the sectarian assembly.

The stages of initiation regarding ritual purity may be summarized as follows: the recruit, even after his examination by the paqid, instruction in some sectarian teachings, and reexamination by the community, was considered ritually impure and was not permitted to come into contact with any of the sect’s victuals.  After his second public examination, he was allowed to touch only solid food for a year. Apparently, even after being permitted to come into contact with solid foods he was still not considered entirely free of the danger of ritual impurity until he passed a final examination before the sectarian assembly.  After this final examination a year later, he was allowed to touch even the liquid foods of the community.  Only then was he a full member regarding tohorah, ritual purity.

The attempt by some scholars to understand ṭohorah as the purification ritual of the sect must be rejected.  Indeed, the waters of purification, what the rabbis called the miqveh, are explicitly mentioned in 1QS 3:4-5 where they are termed mey niddah or mey rahaṣ. There the text says that an unrepentant transgressor cannot attain ritual purity by immersion, emphasizing the close connection between sin and impurity.  That these are technical terms in the sect’s biblicizing ritual and legal vocabulary can be shown beyond a doubt. CD 10:12-13 contains two occurrences of the expression mey keli, which is likewise a technical term referring to water unfit for ritual purification. Separation from the ṭohorah, therefore, is not separation from purification in the ritual bath, but is, in fact, separation from the pure food of the sect.

The claim that ṭohorah refers to purification has been conditioned by the description of the Essenes given by Josephus, according to which upon completing the initial period of probation, the Essene novice is allowed “to share the purer kind of holy water.”   While it is indeed possible to take this phrase as referring to the admission of the novice to the ritual bath and attendant purification, it is also possible to take this “water” as similar to the mashqeh, the liquid food or drink of the Rule of the Community. Josephus would have mistaken the order and therefore placed the liquid before the solid food in describing the Essene initiation process. If, on the other hand, the passage is taken as referring to purificatory rituals, it cannot be used to interpret mashqeh at Qumran. Indeed, the “water” of Josephus is opened to the novice at the beginning of his initiation, whereas mashqeh at Qumran is the last stage. Even if Josephus’s “water” is the purificatory bath, the mashqeh of the sect remains the liquid food. As to when new members of the Qumran sect were admitted to the ritual bath we cannot say. It can be surmised that after the initial oaths, purificatory facilities were made available to the novices, even if these baths were perhaps separate from those of the full-fledged members.

The same school of thought that saw ṭohorah as the purificatory bath of the sect has claimed that the mashqeh is the banquet or communal meal of the sect. This claim has been based on an understanding of this meal as sacral. It must be said that the essential difference between the two roots for drinking in Hebrew, šqh and šth, is that the former is used in the context of providing or pouring water, even in terms of animals or irrigation; the latter is used for drinking at meals or at parties. Hence, mashqeh is properly understood as a liquid, whereas mishteh is used for party. This distinction is operative in both biblical and tannaitic Hebrew and should caution against the assertion that mashqeh refers to the banquet of the sect. In fact, 1QS 6:4-5 and 1QSa 2:18 use the verb šth in reference to the sectarian communal meals.

J. Licht has examined these regulations of the Rule of the Community in light of tannaitic traditions in a detailed appendix, and he has succeeded in providing a clear explanation of them. He notes that in tannaitic halakhic terminology, a mashqeh is a liquid fit for human consumption that may contract ritual impurity. Indeed, the sect used the term in the same manner. The mashqeh ha-rabbim is, therefore, any liquid used in the preparation of or served at the meals of the sect, mainly, in the view of Licht, the drinks consumed at the meals of the community.

Licht explains that according to tannaitic halakhah, purity regulations regarding the mashqim, liquids, are in some senses stricter than those regarding solid foods (’okhelim). The tannaim understood that even the smallest amount of liquid that is impure can render clothing, food and drink, or vessels impure. In the case of solid foods, there must be at least an amount the size of an egg in order to render anything impure. There is yet another stringency of liquids. Whereas solid foods are subject to a descending scale of impurity, as the impurity is passed from item to item, liquids remain in the first state, which conveys the highest level of impurity, no matter how many times the impurity is transferred from liquid to liquid.

These two stringencies regarding liquids may indicate why the sectarian entry process was stricter regarding contact with the liquid than with the solid food. In order to understand fully the process of initiation, it must be remembered that one who eats or drinks impure food will himself become impure as a result, and that the impurity he contracts will be in the same degree as the food or drink consumed.

Based on all these tannaitic regulations, Licht proposes a most attractive explanation for the process of initiation: one who is not a member is impure in the stage of ’av ha-tum’ah (the highest stage except for a dead body which is ’avi ’avot ha-tum’ah). During the first year the candidate is impure in the first degree. In his second year, he is impure in the second degree, and only once he is fully accepted, can he be presumed to be pure.

Since the ’av ha-tum’ah renders impure both solid foods and liquids, the candidate in his first year is (just like the non-member) forbidden to touch both liquid and solid food. Since in the second year he is considered to be impure only in the second degree, and can render impure only liquids, he is permitted to touch the tohorat ha-rabbim, the solid food of the community, but is still prohibited from touching the mashqeh, the liquid food. Only after becoming a full member is he assumed to be pure and is he permitted to touch both liquid and solid food.

While Licht’s theory cannot be directly proven, it has the advantage of providing a reasonable explanation for the data presented in the texts and also explains the process of removal from the pure food as a form of punishment for violations of the sectarian penal code. What emerges from Licht’s proposal is a unique relationship between the processes of what the sect regarded as repentance through the joining of its ranks and ritual purification. This ritual purification was to the sectarian no more than a symptom of a spiritual purification. Indeed, the sect believed that no amount of lustrations and ablutions would render pure anyone who was a still-unrepentant transgressor. To the sect, then, ritual purity and impurity were symbolic manifestations of the moral and religious state of the individual.

Before leaving this topic a word must be said about the Sitz-im Leben of the tannaitic laws described above. First and foremost, it is clear that the rabbis intended these laws to be binding for the eating of priestly portions (terumah) by priests and their families and of sacrificial meat by all Israelites. Considerable information is available in tannaitic sources about the ḥaverim who in late Second Temple times and perhaps later observed these laws regarding all foods they consumed and understood these laws to require separation from the `am ha-areṣ, the common people, who did not observe these stringencies. New Testament and archaeological evidence for miqva’ot, as well as some later rabbinic statements, seem to indicate that the tendency to extend Temple purity to the home and everyday life was indeed widespread among religious elites, even in the pharisaic-rabbinic community. Accordingly, we should remember that elements of the Pharisees seem to have practiced very similar regulations for admission to their inner circle to those followed by the Qumran sect. For this reason, we should not be surprised to see that the halakhic underpinnings of the sectarian organization can be explained with the help of rabbinic law.

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