The Sources of Knowledge in Qumran and in Rabbinic Literature: A Study of the Evolution of a Metaphor

Paul Mandel

Jewish Theological Seminary

Not long ago I arrived in the land of my birth, the United States, after an absence of some seven years. Being someone who spends a good amount of time studying words, I was struck by the number of words used in idioms in totally different ways than those which I was used to: Idioms such as "stressed out", "awesome", and "pre-used" have supplanted earlier forms which I was wont to use, or which I had heard when I was younger. While I am not going to do so here, it would be quite instructive to follow the changes in the use of these quite normal English words in colloquial speech, and map the differences in style and approach which they reflect. Certainly the metamorphosis of the childrens' idiom "awesome" from such other by-now ancient terms such as "neat", "cool" and "groovy" reflect differing outlooks and approaches of the casual speaker in America from the 50s through the 90s. Similarly, the historical changes in the uses of one word in various idioms in a particular society reflect changing point s of view.

Today I would like to present to you the conclusions of a study of the uses of one such term; not, of course, in the varying dialects of contemporary American society, but in the recorded literary Hebrew of successive generations, from the Bible thro ugh the recorded literature of the Rabbinic period. This word is the very simple Hebrew, "to open." What I shall be interested in here is not the simple, physical use of this term, such as the opening of a door, a gate, or a sack, but its figurative, meta phorical uses. Now, with regard to these figurative uses, it should be noted that there are many idioms which are used figuratively, but in which this term is used in a literal sense: Opening ones mouth may connote readiness to speak, or providing a perso n with the ability to plead or argue. Opening the ears, eyes, hands, or womb are similar tropes, which are common in the Bible, but which do not actually use the verb figuratively. In only two biblical passages is a true figurative use found; I shall retu rn to these shortly. The same holds true for the book most closely connected with the biblical canon by the Rabbis, Ben Sira: Metaphoric uses of exist there only in idioms which themselves use the word literally; such as opening the hand to denote recepti on of money, or opening the throat to denote eating.

In the Hebrew of the Qumran texts, however, there exists a set of common tropes, each employing the word in different degrees of metaphorical usage. I have listed these on the first page of the hand-out before you. Let us look first at the examples b rought under the letter A.


What we find is the frequent occurrence of the word xtp in conjunction with the word = source, or = spring. While the opening of a spring or source of water is, in itself, certainly still a non-figurative use of the word, what is striking is that this idiom clearly has become a trope for the acquisition of wisdom. As Seeligman pointed out, the word rw), light, is a common figure in this literature for wisdom; similarly , the figure of water - and especially the water flowing from underground springs - connotes, in these texts as well as in other Wisdom literature, the well of wisdom and knowledge. What is unique to these Qumran texts is the outlook that this well is pos sessed by God, who opens His everlasting well of knowledge and wisdom to the wise man. This becomes even more elliptical in the Sapiental text, where knowledge is being opened directly into the human being - without any mention of a well or source.

A very similar use of is found in these texts when the object of the opening is the heart, as can be seen in the texts under the letter B.


Nowhere in the Bible can one find such a use of the verb xtp; apparently, in biblical Hebrew such an idiom, where something was not being physically opened, was impossible. The meaning of this metaphor becomes cl ear in the light of the other examples we have seen: The heart, for the ancients the seat of discernment and knowledge, is opened to the very well or source of knowledge. Indeed, it is exactly during this time period in which we find the first use of the idiom which will become very common in Hebrew prayer: The phrase - May God open your hearts to His Torah - is found in the opening prayer of II Macabees 1:4, in the letter sent by the Jews of the Land of Israel to the Jews of Egypt; this no doubt reflec ts the Hebrew idiom of opening the heart.

In the final examples on the first page, under the letter C, we come across the first fully figurative use of the verb xtp.


The things being opened here are completely intangible: They are obscure matters, which, when opened, become revealed, disclosed. The verb xtp in these and other passages reflects a meaning which i s found at one time or another in the evolution of the cognate verb in almost all languages which I have studied, and that is: the disclosure of something previously secret, or obscure. Thus, the Greek verb anoigw is used by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and othe r ancients to denote the revelation of some secret occurrence or knowledge. In the Latin of Cicero, Quintilian and Tacitus, the verb aperio is used in similar fashion. And, of course, such usage is apparent in all of the English words which I have been using: reveal, unveil, discover - and the very word obscure - all these hark back to the very physical idea of opening or taking the cover off of some closed, unseen thing.

In fact, this usage of xtp appears already in the Bible, in the two passages to which I made reference earlier. They are in Psalm 49, 5: , and in Psalm 119, 130:
(which the Qumran Psalm Scroll quotes slightly differently). In both these places, the verb xtp is used to denote the figurative opening of some riddle or obscure matter. But it is no coincidence that these two vers es appear in what are commonly considered to be very late Psalms; and so they probably reflect, as do the Qumran texts, a later development of the word.

If we now look at the figurative uses of the word xtp in Rabbinic literature, we find that in the Tannaitic sources the very same trope occurs, where the verb is used to denote an obscure, unknown thing.


The Mishna in Shekalim uses the verb xtp in much the same figurative sense as we have seen: The official named Petahiah is so-called, we learn, because he was particularly adept at solving riddles, such kn owledge being important for the Temple activities. (The Mishna also states that Petahiah knew seventy languages - an equally desirable property of a riddle-solver!) But it is very instructive to see what other things have become objects of this ver b; which objects are being disclosed: The obscure objects are: a verse of Scripture which can be obscure or clear - in this context meaning attested or not; and the very basic knowledge of Torah, of laws, and of reasons for the se laws. For the authors of these texts, these are the riddles which are in need of clarification, of the removal of their obscurity. And, indeed , it is just these specific items which take the place of the Wisdom of the earlier texts - a point to which we shall return shortly.

Let us now view the figurative uses of the verb xtp in the later sources of the Rabbinic period, those from Amoraic writings such as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Aggadic midrashim.


What we find here is a further development of this term, in which the is a scholar who opens a verse of Scripture. But what is instructive is that these verses are not particularly obscure. Here the act of opening up a verse is none other than the ve ry familiar midrashic activity of finding in a verse, or drawing out from the verse, a particular lesson. For this act of darshanut, the Amoraic authors use a term which, up to that time, had been used - in its figurative sense - to denote t he unraveling of a riddle, the clearing up of an obscurity, or the teaching of a previously unknown law. Comparison with parallel passages in Tannaitic sources shows that this usage is peculilar to the Amoraic period: What was called in prior times dor esh is now called xtwp; the use of this word reveals, if you will, a new approach to the old activity of darshanut.

In comparing and following the evolution of this term, we see, then, how each culture and each generation viewed its riddles; what were the bodies of knowledge which were important for each society to uncover: For the society at Qumran, the divine kn owledge is likened to a well-spring, which is then poured into the wise man, who is appointed to pour this knowledge into his followers. This knowledge is external to any text: As the pesher to Habakuk 2:1-2 and other passages make clear, G- d has made known His secrets directly to the and to the Interpreter(s) of the Torah (doreh haTorah), and it is the reception of such secret knowledge which marks him as chosen, and empowers him to teach the secret divine Wisdom to the other members of the sect.

For the Tannaim, the knowledge which becomes the object of their search and discovery is the body of laws which must be taught by master to student. The use by this generation of Hebrew speakers of the verb xtp specifically for the halakhot and other laws of instruction shows the importance and centrality which they attached to that body of knowledge. And, finally, the use of this term by the Amoraim to denote the act of midrashic commentary on biblical ve rses is evidence of the importance to them of the actual text of the Torah as the source of their knowledge. What must needs be uncovered is not a general body of divine Wisdom, nor a body of specific laws, but the inner meaning of the verse s of scripture themselves.

The view of Scripture - or, more exactly, of scriptures - as holding a reservoir of obscure meaning which must be uncovered reminds one immediately of that earlier body of literature, the pesher commentary to the Bible. And indeed, the type of exeget ical activity which, in those texts, is denoted by the word pesher, can be found in a figurative use of the verb xtp in passages which reflect a fascinating bridge between the earlier and later uses of this verb. For this, however, we must look at a Greek text: On the third page of the handout, I have listed the uses of the cognate term in Greek, the verb dianoigw. A study of the occurrences of this verb in Greek literature shows tha t, in its figurative senses, it is a very particular Jewish term, occurring almost exclusively in Jewish (or Hebrew) Greek texts, such as the Septuagint, Philo, II Maccabees, and in the books Luke and Acts of the New Testament. The distribution of this term indicates that it was used by the Jewish Greek speakers to translate the Hebrew term in its figurative sense, as we have outlined here (the more literal sense of opening being denoted by the Greek anoigw ). Let us look carefully at the two occurrences of this word in Luke/Acts:


There is no doubt (as has already been suggested by scholars) that these passages reflect the Semitic - which is used in a very specific context: The revealing of the hidden, real meaning of verses, showing (demonstrating) that the content of the ve rse is fulfilled in current events; viz., that the correspondence between the historical Jesus whom Paul is proclaiming and the characters and events mentioned in the biblical verses reveals the actual intent of these verses.

This is, of course, nothing but a pesher, the uncovering of hidden references in scriptures; note, however, that in the Greek dianoigw we find a reflection of the use of the Hebrew xtp! In later, Amoraic, times, the external, historical events which are so important to the authors of the pesharim, on the one hand, and the New Testament texts, on the other, are replaced by the vast and complex set of didactic messages and pre-historical references which the darshanim find - discover, when they open scriptures.

In the final moments of this talk, I wish to propose that the development of the figurative uses of the term xtp may be seen to parallel the significant change of view towards the Biblical text from Second Temple times to later Rabbinic times, as reflected in the earlier Jewish works - embodied in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and, to an extent, in the Qumran texts - and the later Jewish approach characterized by the midrash. Let me remind you of a sce ne in the well-known conclusion to the Fourth Book of Maccabees, when the mother of the seven child-martyrs, in her final farewell, describes to her children how their father taught you the Law and the Prophets. What follows is a select list of biblical t ales and personages, embodying the ideals of sacrifice and reward for those who remain steadfast in their faith. In the earlier First Book of Maccabees, Mattityahu similarly exhorts his children on his deathbed, invoking a list of biblical figures and the ir deeds. What these lists have in common, and, indeed, what seems to me to be characteristic of all Pseudepigraphic and Apocryphal literature, is an emphasis on biblical narrative as a source for edification and instruction. The text of the Bible is a window onto a historical or religious reality which lies outside the text itself, and which is known, as history, and is thus transmitted. But it is just this general approach which is largely missing in later rabbinic midrash: Here, th e basic unit is not the entire narrative, but the individual verse. It is the verse, or even snippets thereof, which become the source for inspection, and which become the object for discovery. The primacy of the biblical narrative for the instruction of the people is seen to give way to the primacy of the text as a source of instruction which must be uncovered, and it is at this point that rabbinic (aggadic) midrash is born.

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