Ritual Density in Qumran Practice: Ablutions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad

Michael A. Daise, W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research/

College of William and Mary


Ritual Density and Sectarian Texts


            The issue I will address in this paper is “ritual density” in Qumran sectarian practice.  “Ritual density” is a term borrowed from Catharine Bell, Sinologist and theorist at Santa Clara University.  Bell defines ritual density as “why some societies or historical periods have more ritual than others” (1997:173).  But it connotes more.  It is aware of a distinction that exists between a group’s ritual activity and the other components in which its life consists; and, on that awareness, represents the measure of one in relation to the other at any given point in that group’s history.  Ritual density, it can be said, is the degree to which ritual plays a role in the life/piety of any given society; otherwise put--the ratio of ritual to other aspects of life in the day-to-day operations of a community.  To be sure, conclusions about such a ratio will much depend on how broadly or narrowly one defines “ritual” over against “non-ritual” activity.  But, leaving that ambiguity aside for the moment, it is not overstated to say that the objective in view is worth considering.  To broach ritual density is to seek the degree to which ritual played a role at any given juncture in the all round life of a community; and this can only be of benefit--to Qumran studies, as well as to many other fields.

            Measuring ritual density in sectarian practice faces a number of difficulties, especially when one seeks to do it through that group’s texts.  Not least of these, of course, is hazarding reconstructions from the relatively meager amount of texts preserved (or preserved intact enough to offer meaningful data).  But other problems obtain, as well: determining what amount of the rites prescribed in a document were actually performed; judging whether a document (and its halakhah) was sectarian or not--and, if so, whether it would have been currently in use, antiquated (thus obsolete), eschatological (thus anticipated) or schematic (thus theoretical); tracing halakhic changes through redactional strata; and, as Ithamar Gruenwald has recently observed (2003:140-141), uncovering ritual details behind literary glosses and commentary.

            A further problem--and the one I will engage here--is the reticence texts sometimes have about ritual.  Halakhic documents, even the most forthcoming of them, often assume as much as they state when prescribing rites; and so, where, in some cases, not all the ritual stated was actually performed, in this case, not all the ritual performed may have been stated.  Reasons could be several: an oral tradition working in tandem with the written one; an “in-house” audience, expected to be familiar with fundamental customs; genres, such as “rules,” which, by definition, are less exhaustive compilations than they are suggestive digests.   But the result is the same; namely, that even the richest and best preserved of sectarian writings may rehearse less ritual in their directives than was practiced by the sect.

            A way forward on this issue may be found by considering further the approach Jacob Milgrom has taken to Leviticus (1991; 2000; 2001).  Milgrom’s method has already been applied to Qumran studies, as a way of understanding the way the sect read Torah.  Here I will press this further, suggesting it can be applied to the way we read sectarian halakhah.  In what follows, I will (1) articulate the aspect of Milgrom’s approach that forms my point of departure, (2) apply that aspect to one rite in one sectarian document (ablutions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad) then (3) caveat both (the aspect and the application) with counterexamples, along with an alternate application to the same issue (ablutions) in the Serekh Ha-Yachad. 


Jacob Milgrom and Leviticus


            For Milgrom, Levitical ritual is gestured theology.  The components and choreography of Levitical rites, he is persuaded, do not so much effect otherworldly transactions as they do symbolize tacit beliefs.  “Theology is what Leviticus is all about,” Milgrom writes in his Introduction to Volume 1:


                        It pervades every chapter and almost every verse. 

                        It is not expressed in pronouncements but embedded in rituals. 

                        Indeed, every act, whether movement, manipulation, or gesticulation,

                        is pregnant with meaning;


Then, quoting Victor Turner:


                        “at their deepest level rituals reveal values which are sociological facts.”

                                                                        (1991:42; quoting The Forest of Symbols [1967])


            Further for Milgrom, these symbolized beliefs are coherent.  That is, the undergirding theological tenets, as well as the rituals in which they are embedded, relate to one another with a certain logical consistency.  Less so for rites of exchange: Milgrom concedes that “no single theory embraces the entire complex of sacrifices”; and, though he claims to have deduced “comprehensive rationales” for the well-being, purification and reparation offerings, he admits that similar rationales for the burnt and cereal offerings “still elude us” (1991:49-50).   But, that said, logical consistency is certainly the case, Milgrom believes, for purity rites.  He argues that the three sources of Levitical impurity--the corpse/carcass, scale disease and genital discharge--carry connotations that can be traced to a common denominator--death: for corpse/carcass, that connection is self-evident; for scale disease, it comes through its suggestion of approaching death; and for genital discharge, through its implication of lost fecundity.  Since death’s opposite is life, reasons Milgrom, the state of holiness (which is the opposite of impurity) indicates the same.  Purity rites, with their ebb and flow between defilement and holiness, reflect a cogent theology of what constitutes death, life and the passage from one to the other.  As such, Milgrom concludes, purity rituals cohere with a certain cogency into a single, homogeneous, symbolic system (1991:45-48).

            I cannot go so far as to embrace Milgrom’s idea that Leviticus is all about theology.  The view that rites function as symbols for theological tenets reduces ritual to being the mere kinesthetic servant to belief and, thereby, minimizes the role ritual plays as a religious act vital in and of itself.  Gruenwald, similarly, observes that “from a theological point of view, rituals play a subservient role in religion.”  And though he, perhaps, runs farther in the other direction than I am comfortable doing when he contends rituals are “an autonomous expression of the human mind,” he conveys my own reservations about this part of Milgrom’s thesis when he further declares, “in principle, rituals function beyond and apart from theology and other ideational components and, at times, in spite of them” (2003:143; italics his).


            My point of departure from Milgrom, rather, is a more marginal implication, drawn from his assumption that Levitical rites cohere as a system.  Since rites explicitly prescribed in Leviticus relate to one another systemically, he reasons, the principles on which they turn can be distilled from those passages and applied to less forthcoming ones, so as to infer rites where they are otherwise unstated.  A salient example--and the one most cited--is the matter of ablutions and laundering for the menstruant in Leviticus 15.  In that chapter, one or both of these rites are explicitly prescribed for purification from other defilements: a man with a flow (15:13/both), a man with a seminal emission (15:16/ablutions) and a woman who contacts semen in sexual relations (15:18/ablutions).  For the menstruant, however, a seven-day passage of time is prescribed (15:19) but no directive is given to wash, either her body or her clothes.  A cursory reading of the text might lead one to conclude that ablutions and laundering were, therefore, not required for purification of a menstruant.  But, according to Milgrom, an array of principles distilled from other loci in Leviticus suggests, in fact, they were (1991:667-668, 746, 934-935):

            (1) Purification after eating the carcass of a clean animal at Lev 11:39-40 does not explicitly prescribe ablutions (though it does require laundering); but rubrics for that same impurity at Lev 17:15 (cf. 22:6) show explicitly that ablutions were, in fact, required. 

            (2) Regulations for corpse contamination (Num 19:14-19; cf. Lev 14:1-9; 15:13), which similarly lasted seven days, require those days to culminate with ablutions and laundering; if such was the case for them, so, deduces Milgrom, “it must also be assumed for the menstruant” (1991:935). 

            (3) Purification laws for carrying a carcass at Lev 11:25, 28, 40 similarly make no mention of ablutions; they do, however, include a commensurate requirement for laundering that can only imply washing of the body, as well--showing, again, that ablutions are to be inferred when absent from the text.

            (4) And--perhaps most importantly--since ablutions or laundering were necessary for the lesser issue of an impure vessel (Lev 11:32) and for the lesser impurity of a seminal discharge (Lev 15:16; Harrington [1993:14] and Klawans [2003:20] add contact with the bedding of a menstruant [Lev 15:21]), a minori ad maius they had to have been considered necessary for the menstruant, as well. 

            As mentioned in the introduction, this method is not new to Qumran studies.  It was the thesis of Milgrom’s student, Hannah K. Harrington, that the Qumran sect, itself, (as well as the Rabbis) read Torah this way (1993:47-67, esp. 58-63).   And, though I do not want to presume as direct an influence by Milgrom as has been the case with Harrington, Martha Himmelfarb has more recently worked out this same idea in further detail--particularly with regard to 4QD (2001:13-29).   Here I am suggesting that, in the service of reconstructing ritual density in sectarian practice, this method can yet be taken a step further.  “Gap filling,” as it has been called (see Harrington 1993:27, 27n75), can provide a template, not only for the way the sectarians read Leviticus, but also for the way we read sectarian texts.  That is to say, on the assumption that sectarian, no less than Levitical, rites cohered into a system, we can employ the same technique for teasing out tacit rites in the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, as Milgrom and the writers of those Scrolls have done for teasing out tacit rites in Leviticus.


Ablutions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad: Two Scenarios


            As an example of the yield this approach can have for ritual density, I will treat a well-trodden area in Qumran studies: ritual immersion in the Serekh Ha-Yachad (for this paper I only cite 1QS; translations are mine from Martone 1995).  On its face, the Serekh Ha-Yachad gives ritual immersion scant attention.  1QS 5:13 forbids the men of wickedness (1QS 5:10) from “enter(ing) the waters to touch the purity (tohorah) of the men of holiness.”  And 1QS 3:4-6 declares that the person who refuses to enter the covenant (1QS 2:25-26) will not be cleansed by “purification waters (mey niddah),” “seas and rivers“ or “all the waters of ablution.”  (Purity language does figure elsewhere in the document [eg, 1QS 4:20-22;11:14-15; cf. 9:15]; but, if not altogether metaphorical, eschatological or both, it offers relatively little about the rite of ablution as it was then being practiced within the sect; and, so, it lies outside the scope of interest here.)  Much more can be gleaned about ritual immersion, however, if certain systemic principles couched in these passages are distilled, then applied, to related matters at other places in the document.  A sufficient illustration can be made from the first passage, 1QS 5:13; and so, this paper will limit itself to it.

            One way of proceeding is simply to “do the math”; that is, determine whether ablutions relate to other rites in the passage in question, then infer those ablutions, more or less mechanically, into other loci where the other rites (to which they are related) obtain.  The datum at 1QS 5:13 makes such a connection between ablutions and tohorah.  In the text it is stated negatively, against anyone from “the men of wickedness”: “Let him not enter the waters to touch the purity (tohorah) of the men of holiness.”  But when recast into its positive obverse, it betrays a rapport between ablutions and tohorah that was likely systemic.  That someone outside the community was buffered from tohorah by being kept, first, from ablutions, implies that ablutions likely brokered access to tohorah as part of standard communal protocol--if not to safeguard the integrity of tohorah, then to lift those who took the ablutions to a condition suitable to receive it.  With such a systemic connection in hand, then, passages referencing access to tohorah elsewhere in the Serekh Ha-Yachad become data for ablutions, as well--even though the latter are not mentioned in them.  Such passages can be read as assuming a prior participation in ablutions, allowing ritual immersion to be inferred at any or all of those junctures.

            Tohorah, of course, appears at two other places in the document: the initiation process at column 6, where it is granted a candidate for membership after one year of successful probation (1QS 6:16-21); and the penal code (1QS 6:24-7:25; 8:16-9:2).  Several penalties listed in that code proscribe tohorah from members under discipline over periods of one (6:25; 7:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; possibly 6:27 [see Schiffman 1983:160, 177n38; following Brownlee 1951:28n59]) or two years (8:24-9:2): in such cases, the access to tohorah that was suspended during these periods would have been reinstated at their conclusion, presumably in a manner similar to the way it was first granted in the initiation process.  And so, the act of gaining access to tohorah, which was spelled out in the initiation process at column 6, is further implied in the penal process at columns 6-9.  If ablutions typically preceded such points of access, as 1QS 5:13 suggests, they can, thereby, be inferred to have been performed at all these junctures, as well: on a candidate for membership after his first successful year of probation; and on disciplined members, at various times when their one or two year bans from tohorah would have been lifted.  As such, a certain “density” in the practice of ablutions begins to emerge from the Serekh Ha-Yachad that was not apparent at first blush.

            This density increases when one considers the relationship tohorah likely sustained to mashqeh.  There is some question as to what, precisely, is entailed in the sectarian use of the term “tohorah.”  When juxtaposed to the term “mashqeh” (drink), however, it is at least clear that any “food” aspect associated with tohorah refers only to dry solids, while mashqeh designates liquids or perhaps (by extension) moistened solids.  Following Saul Lieberman (1974:202-204 [original 1951]) and Jacob Licht (1965:297-302; cf. also 296, 296n4), the two are best understood by rough analogy to ’oklin and mashqin, respectively, in Tannaitic tradition.  By virtue of never being defiled less than the first remove from an ultimate source of impurity (t.TYom 1.6), mashqin were deemed more threatening (to purity) if polluted and more capable of polluting than ’oklin; and, as such, they were guarded more carefully than ’oklin from contaminants and contaminators.  So also for mashqeh in relation to tohorah, as represented in the Serekh Ha-Yachad.  As Licht pointed out: though Qumran documents lack the nuance and complexity that characterizes Tannaitic discussion on the issue, mashqeh was likely considered more threatening if defiled and more apt to defile than tohorah (1965:299n12).  And this most probably accounts for why it was withheld from a candidate for membership until he completed his second successful year of probation--one year after he had been granted access to (and proven trustworthy with) tohorah.

            In the Serekh Ha-Yachad, the term mashqeh appears at the same two places as does tohorah.  Once in the initiation process, where this time it is granted the candidate after his second successful year of probation.  And once (only) in the penal code.  At 1QS 7:18-20 it was taken away from a disciplined member for (at least) the second of a two year punishment; then (as was the case with tohorah) it was reinstated in a manner similar to the way it was first received in the initiation process.  But further, as Schiffman has noted, since mashqeh was guarded more carefully from impurity than tohorah, one might deduce that the aforementioned one and two year bans on tohorah (1QS 6:25; 7:2-3, 15-16; 8:24-9:2), as well as the ban on tohorah for the first of the two year discipline at 1QS 7:18-20, included mashqeh, also (Schiffman 1983:165-168; with the corrective note by Milikowsky 1986:247).  Support for this comes from the end of the initiation process at 1QS 6:21-22: though the successful candidate is clearly given access to both tohorah and mashqeh by that point (6:16-21), his final registration into the rule is described simply as being “for tohorah”--a use of the term which doubtless includes both.

            For the density of ritual immersions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad this graded relationship between tohorah and mashqeh can signal one of two things.  First, it is possible that immersion would have attended both, in their sequences.  If ablutions preceded tohorah (so as to guard its integrity or render its practitioners fit to receive it), and, if mashqeh was deemed more apt to be defiled and to defile than was tohorah, one might infer a minori ad maius that ablutions would have come before mashqeh as much as they did before tohorah.  Hence, besides occurring after access was attained to tohorah as solid food (after the first successful year of a candidate’s probation and after the first of the two year discipline at 1QS 7:18-20), ritual immersion would also have obtained after access to mashqeh: at the second successful year of a candidate’s probation (1QS 6:18-21) and, for members under the two-year discipline at 1QS 7:18-20, after the second year of their separation from mashqeh.  (For the penalties in which tohorah and mashqeh were simultaneously banned for one or two year periods, there seems no reason to speculate that they ended with two immersions: one for re-access to each.)

            But second: the graded relationship between tohorah and mashqeh may instead suggest that, for the initiation process and the two-year successive ban from tohorah (first year) and mashqeh (second year) at 1QS 7:18-20, ablutions were taken only after both years had been completed--not when tohorah was granted or reinstated after the first year of those periods had passed.  Since the semantic range of tohorah can expand to embrace mashqeh--especially when the term tohorah is not set over against mashqeh in the text--such a range must also be allowed for the use of tohorah at 1QS 5:13.  That is to say, the tohorah which ablutions are said to precede at 1QS 5:13 may designate, not merely solids (as it does in 1QS 6:16-17), but both solids and liquids, as it does in 1QS 6:25; 7:2-3, 15-16; 8:24-9:2; and 6:21-22.  In such a case, ablutions would not attend the end of a candidate’s first year of probation; nor would they be performed after the first of the two year proscription listed at 1QS 7:18-20--at which points only solid food was (re-)gained.   Rather, they would be done at the culmination of the initiation process, as well as at the completion of the sentence prescribed at 1QS 7:18-20--when access was (re-) granted to both solids and liquids.  For the point at issue here, in both this and the previous option enough ablutions are teased from their latency to show that sectarian practice was likely far more “dense” with ritual immersion than the Serekh Ha-Yachad gives to believe on its face.


Caveat: Further on Interpreting Omissions


            But to these results, as well as the process by which they were reached, a caveat must be issued.  Inferences based on assumptions about systems ought not be made as a matter of course.  As much has been argued by Himmelfarb, with respect to the example presented in Leviticus 15.  Regarding that chapter Himmelfarb notes that, if ablutions and laundering are absent for the menstruant (and woman with an abnormal flow) because they were already stated earlier in the text for other impurities, an anomaly appears later, regarding the requirement of sacrifice for the woman with an abnormal flow.  This regulation, too, had been explicitly stated earlier in Leviticus 15, for a man with a flow (Lev 15:14-15); yet later in the chapter, where one expects it to have been assumed (and therefore omitted), it is found repeated for the woman with an abnormal flow (15:29-30)--in more or less the same language (2001:15).  The implication is that, if a prescription is repeated where required (sacrifice for the woman with an abnormal flow), it may have been omitted because it was not so required (ablutions and laundering for the menstruant and woman with an abnormal flow) and, thus, ought not be inferred at that juncture. 

            Supporting and anticipating Himmelfarb is a passage in Sifra on Lev 11:39-40 (Shemini Sherazim §4.7).  Harrington cited this passage as a Rabbinic foil for the Qumran sect’s (more) stringent rules on carcass defilement (1993:96-97).  But it also shows that halakhic texts (or, at least, their interpretation) might just as well resist logical inference as they do invite it.  At issue is whether someone who touches the carcass of a clean animal need launder.  The Levitical text prescribes laundering explicitly for anyone who eats or carries such a carcass, saying s/he will then be unclean till evening.  But for the person who touches one, it only states the latter; namely, that “the one who touches its carcass is impure until evening.” 

            Since carrying was deemed a lesser transmitter of impurity than touching, and since carrying is, itself, said to defile clothing, one might reason that touching defiled clothing, as well, and so, also, should be taken to require laundering.  This is, in fact, considered in Sifra’s discussion:


                        And is it not the case that, if “carrying,” (having) the lesser degree (of impurity),

                                    does defile clothing,

                        “touching,” (having) the greater (degree of impurity)--

                        is it not the case that it (also) defiles clothing?

                                                                                                (Venice; translation mine)


But the current of Sifra’s argument runs the other way.  It concludes that touching the carcass of a clean animal does not, in fact, defile clothing.  And, for its basis, it cites the absence of any explicit rubric for it, over against the presence of such rubrics for those who eat or carry the carcass of a clean animal.  Quoting again:


                        But it is not the case that the one who touches defiles clothing.

                        Therefore, the text is (only),

                        “The one who touches…is impure until evening” (Lev 11:39)

                        and not, “the one who touches…defiles clothing.”

                                                                                                (translation & emphases mine)


            Neither this nor Himmelfarb’s observation on Leviticus 15 contravene the idea that purity laws (or other rites) relate as a system.  Nor do they altogether forbid inferences into texts made on that assumption.  They do, however, suggest that the systems in question may be more elusive than has been supposed and, therefore, that the presence or absence of halakhic directives in a text may be as deliberate at some points as it is inadvertent at others.  Regarding Leviticus 15, Himmelfarb writes, “The assumption that P’s laws form a system by no means explains all aspects of their literary expression” (2001:15).  While some silences may beg to be filled, others may be meant as omissions.  Consequently, any systemic reading of halakhic texts ought not be done mechanically, but circumspectly.  An assumed system back of halakhot is an exegetical criterion.  And, like all exegetical criteria, it is used rightly when integrated with other exegetical criteria and weighed against the text in each individual case.


Revisiting Ablutions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad: A Third Scenario


            For ritual immersion in the Serekh Ha-Yachad, this caveat opens an option beyond the two sketched above: that the tohorah which ablutions precede at 1QS 5:13 is only dry solids and that the omission in the text of any ablutions coming before mashqeh is deliberate. 

            Were such ablutions punctiliar, as was supposed above, this alternative would be the least plausible of the three.  If a single immersion accompanied the point at which tohorah as solid food was accessed, and if a like event followed, wherein access was similarly gained to mashqeh (such as was the case in the initiation process and the penalty outlined at 1QS 7:18-20), one would be hard pressed to argue that immersion would not have come at this second point of access, also.  In such an instance, firmer ground would be found in the scenario of Michael Newton (1985:21-30, 40-49), which echoes the first scenario above and places an immersion at each event: access to tohorah and access to mashqeh.

            Were those ablutions iterative, however, a conscious omission of their observance before mashqeh makes perfect sense.  If ablutions, once begun, were to be continued at regular intervals from that moment onward, prescribing them explicitly as coming before mashqeh would have been redundant.  Someone at that level of trustworthiness would have already been observing them routinely.  Consequently, the absence of any prescription for immersion before mashqeh may not be because it was assumed (and to be inferred), but because it was moot (and therefore superfluous).  In such an arrangement, ablutions would have begun whenever tohorah was first accessed (in the initiation process) or re-instituted (in the penal process), then continued regularly in shorter (daily?) intervals throughout the remainder of candidacy, reconciliation or--for that matter--membership.  The design is not unlike Josephus’ description of the end of the first year of Essene initiation: the candidate, at that juncture, “partakes of the cleaner waters unto purity” (War 2.138: Thackeray 1927; translation mine), a clause which likely refers to the daily purification baths regularly taken (from that point on) before mid-day and evening meals (War 2.129-132). 

            In such a scenario, the density of ablutions would exceed that which was calculated for the two models rehearsed above.  Ritual immersions would not merely have been performed at annual transitions in the initiation and penal processes (first scenario), nor at the conclusion of those processes, when admittance was finally offered to mashqeh along with tohorah (second scenario).  Rather, ablutions would have been done routinely, perhaps daily, from the point tohorah (as solid food) was first accessed (in admission) or re-accessed (in discipline), through the remainder of probation and on into membership.  Even more so than those two previous reconstructions, this last suggests that, latent in the otherwise reticent Serekh Ha-Yachad is a sectarian practice rich and replete with ritual ablutions. 


Summary Conclusion


            The problem of determining ritual density in Qumran sectarian practice can be partly broached through a modified application of Jacob Milgrom’s approach to Leviticus.  Milgrom’s assumption that rites are systemically related furnishes a framework in which rituals explicitly stated in some passages can be used to deduce rituals only implied in others.  When applied to ablutions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad, such an approach yields the prospect that, though they are not mentioned as such in the document, immersions were performed in the admission and penal processes: either intermittently at key stages or once at their respective conclusions.  Such an approach, however, ought be tempered by a tandem awareness that ostensible anomalies in the text may, in fact, reflect rather than eclipse the logic of such systems.  When reapplied to ablutions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad, this tempered methodology suggests rather that, from the point at which tohorah was first attained (in admission) or re-instated (in discipline), immersion occurred routinely, at more frequent (perhaps daily) intervals in sectarian life.

            Such an implicit concentration of ritual immersions in the Serekh Ha-Yachad carries implications for measuring the ritual density of other rites, in this and in other documents.  If the results for ritual immersion seen here are replicated with other rites in other sectarian works, the proportion of ritual to other aspects of life in the day-to-day operations of the Qumran sect may prove even more stunning than has been surmised.



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