Hacham: Public Fasts

Public Fasts in the Judean Desert Scrolls and Associated Literature

Noah Hacham

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There is a pronounced difference between the Jewish literature composed in Palestine in the Second Temple period and the Jewish-Hellenistic literature written in the Diaspora during this period as they relate to the topic of public fasts. As I have shown in my Master's thesis on the public fast in the Second Temple period, while the public fasts occupy a marginal place in the religious life reflected in II and III Maccabees, with prayer occupying center stage in the religious experience, I Maccabees and other Palestinian sources afford public fasts a more central role in religious life.

Our discussion will focus on one corpus within the Second Temple period sources: the Qumran literature. Does it resemble the Palestinian literature, or is it similar to that composed in the Diaspora? Are public fasts a pattern of religious activity refle cted in the Qumran literature, or did the ascetic nature of the sect not include public, communal abstention from eating? We know of separatist and dissenting groups in the late Second Temple period among whom fasts were prevalent as a group characteristi c: the Therapeutae, according to Philo, on the one hand, and John the Baptist and his disciples, according to the Gospels, on the other. What, then, was the situation as depicted in the Judean Desert scrolls? This lecture has a double purpose: first, to d efine the finds in the Qumran literature; and second, the attempt to characterize them within a broader context. The lecture will accordingly be divided into two parts: in the first I will present my understanding of the finds from Qumran, and in the seco nd I will attempt to characterize them.


Fasts are mentioned very few times in the Judean Desert scrolls that have been published.
The word tzom (fast) appears in Pesher Habakkuk on Hab. 2:15, No. 1 in the handout:
- . (",11, 8-2)
This source clearly doesn t speak of any other public fast but the fast of Yom Kippur, and this passage has already been interpreted as alluding to persecution by the Priest, one of the leaders of the people, against the Righteous Teacher and his men. Thi s was on Yom Kippur according to the reckoning of the sectarians, in accordance with an independent calendar different from that of the rest of Israel.

The word "ta'anit" too (also translated as "fast") appears or is reconstructed in several texts. In the Damascus Document (6:18-19) the members of the covenantal community are requested

It would seem from the context that the reference in this instance as well is the fast of Yom Kippur, because the fast day" is supposed to conclude the series of "Sabbath and holidays," and Yom Kippur is an extremely suitable candidate.
The word "ta'anit", also appears twice in the Pesher on Psalms. The Pesher expounds on the verse (No. 3-4 in the handout):

The verses:
Are expounded:
[] [] [...] []

The phrase "moed ha-ta'anit [the season of fast]" has been extensively discussed in the scholarly literature. The accepted interpretation of these passages links them to events to which Pesher Habakkuk alludes: the persecution by the priest, of the sect m embers, who possess a special calendar, on the day the latter maintain to be Yom Kippur. Therefore, the "fast" in these passages too is to be identified with Yom Kippur. According to this understanding, none of the published Judean Desert scrolls speak of a nonfixed public fast, and all the public tzomot and ta'aniyot are to be identified with Yom Kippur.

Flusser, however, suggests to explain those passages from the Pesher on Psalms as relating to public fast which was established because of the famine in Herods days. He states that its impossible to explain the sources about the fast [Taanit] as relating to Yom Kipur, because we havent found that the appellation Taanit refers anywhere to Yom Kipur.

Flusser and others who studied this issue did not relate to the appearances of the word "ta'anit" in two additional collections of Qumran documents No. 5-9 in the handout. The texts containing the first two passages were defined as Festival Prayers, and the other passages are from texts classified as Songs of the Sage. The quotations and the completions in brackets are from the publication in DJD 7:
[...] [...] [...] ...[]

[] [] [] [] [ ]

It is clearly evident that most of these instances are fragmentary and are difficult to interpret. The first verse, however, is undoubtedly connected with the passages from the Psalms Pesher cited above, because it mentions "the season of the fast," and this link bears further examination.

Passage 1 is part of the prayer for the season of the fast. It contains an appeal to the Lord to remember the season of His mercy; this time is apparently depicted as the season of the fast that was established "for us" as a law (it most probably is to b e completed as "an eternal law"). The prayer then mentions that the Lord knows hidden things and seemingly also that witch is revealed, and He knows our urge and our lying down. The statement that "You have established it for us as a season of fast..." is suited to Yom Kippur. It can hardly be assumed that any other season of fast and mercy that is not written in the Torah would be defined as a "law" that the Lord established "for us". It should be recalled that Yom Kippur is indeed defined in the Torah a s "a law for all time, throughout the ages" (Lev. 23:31) or "a law for all time" (ibidem 16:31). Falk additionally notes the connection between "the season of Your mercy" appearing in this passage and the presumed conclusion of the prayer for Yom Kippur c ontaining the formulation "who had mercy on us." Whether we accept Baillet's suggested reconstruction for passage 1, which connects it with the Yom Kippur prayer published in DJD 1, or whether we prefer - as would seem to be correct - Falk's different rec onstruction, it would appear that, for these reasons, the "season of the fast" in this passage is the fast of Yom Kippur.

If so, we have a precedent for calling Yom Kippur by an appellation that includes the word "fast"[]; consequently, it is possible and reasonable to also interpret the "day of fasting" in the Damascus Document as Yom Kippur. The "season of fast" also appe ars in the Pesher on Psalms, and it may reasonably be assumed that the identical terminology is also indicative of identical meaning. There is no reason to assume that its meaning in the Pesher on Psalms is different from its sense in the Yom Kippur praye r. Even if we were to accept Flusser's hypothesis and identify the disasters described in the Pesharim with the famine in the time of Herod, there is no reason to infuse the familiar phrase "the season of the fast" with the new meaning of an unknown fast. "All who did not go out [...] to be with the Congregation of his Elect"[2nd Pesher on Psalms above] may definitely refer to the well-known disagreement concerning the calendar and the date of Yom Kippur. And those who accepted the season of the fast in a ccordance with the reckoning of the sect received a good reward, were saved from the snares of Belial, and survived the famine. This interpretive direction is supported by the three passages in which the word "moed [season of]" appears together with "ta'a nit [fast]," by the Damascus Document, and by Pesher Habakkuk, in which the word mo'ed adjoins the phrase "the resting of Yom Kippur," and is immediately followed by the word "tzom." All this therefore alludes to the centrality of the timing of the fast, or to its being a fixed holiday date.

An additional allusion to the dispute concerning Yom Kippur may possibly be found in passage 7. Of the three quotations from the Songs of the Sage, the first, which mentions ta'anit twice, is the least fragmentary. As is his practice in the other sources , Baillet interprets the word "ta'anit" with a meaning other than "fast", for example humiliation. We have not found, however, any other certain meaning for the word ta'anit in the ancient Jewish sources besides "fast," and in the absence of a clear proof it is preferable to understand it with its regular meaning in this instance as well. The passage seemingly contrasts the fasts of the sons of light with sinful fasts, that is, fasts that are not desirable. It also draws a parallel between '... ' [=the a ppoointed times& of the sons of light] and [=the ages of those smitten by iniquity], along with emphasizing a designated and allotted time. These details once again are reminiscent of the calendar dispute between the sect members and the Wicked Priest, and we may reasonably conclude that this instance as well refers to Yom Kippur. The interpretations of the other, more fragmentary, passages are likely to be consistent with this understanding. The mention of the time of Yom Kippur within a song of disas ters is reasonable, because the sudden trauma of the Yom Kippur on which the Wicked Priest persecuted the Righteous Teacher remained a fresh memory in the consciousness of the sect - as is pronounced in Pesher Habakkuk - and therefore also in the prayers or incantations of the sect.

Our conclusion, in contrast with Flusser, is therefore that "yom ha-ta'anit [the day of fasting]" and "moed ha-ta'anit [the season of the fast]" are appellations for Yom Kippur, such as the other occurrences of the word "ta'anit" in the scrolls also refe r to this day.

Besides the sources discussed above, we know of no public fasts in the Qumran scrolls. Public fasts do not appear in the War Scroll, nor in other depictions of war in the Judean Desert scrolls, in marked contrast to other contemporary sources concerned w ith wars, such as I Maccabees or Josephus. Nor do public fasts appear in other contexts.

This silence appears to speak volumes. One would have expected other occurrences of public fasts in the sectarian literature, since the sect's nature was ascetic and centralized: that is to say, this public would logically accept upon itself communal fas ts, or denote them in some form. Additionally, Palestinian sources, such as I Maccabees, Judith, the Assumption of Moses, Baruch, the Syrian Baruch, the Apocalypse of Ezra, and Josephus - who also is of Palestinian origin - which are from the same period or proximate to it, mention public fasts instituted for various reasons: war, mourning, and other purposes. The Qumran literature, in contrast, completely ignores this phenomenon. This distinct and unexpected disregard of public fasts would not seem to be incidental, but rather is an intentional consequence of a position regarding public fasts, one that, with the exception of Yom Kippur, negates them.


What is the meaning of this position? Why does the literature of the Judean Desert sect ignore the religious-communal phenomenon of public fasts? There are a number of resolutions. However in the following section I will raise one of them.

The priestly sect whose writings were found in the Judean Desert severed its ties with Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Divine rite in the latter, accompanied by severe criticism of the administration of the Temple. They regarded the worship conducted in t he Temple as invalid and impure, and applied various epithets to their rivals who officiated in the Temple. This stance was likely to lead to two opposing results: fanatical adherence to the laws of the Temple and the halakhic demand to maintain its uniqu eness and sanctity, on the one hand, and the finding of "substitutes" for the reality in the Temple for the members of the group who had been dissociated from it for so many years, on the other.

The subject of atonement is an example of the substitutes that the sect members found for the activity in the Temple. Instead of the sacrifices that followed a sin and atoned for it, the sect members set forth other options for atonement. It may also be r easonably assumed that the developed liturgy of the Qumran sect, in contrast with that of groups that did not go into seclusion in the desert, meant that the sect produced "substitutes" for the Temple, while those who remained with the Temple neither need ed nor wanted such prayers. The common feature shared by these "substitutes" is the replacement of a rite entailing occupation with flesh and blood by a Divine service conducted by means of speech and prayers, membership in the sect, and strict observance of the commandments. This may be viewed as a process of rationalization that perceived the sacrifices as a means of addressing God and as a catalyst for the correction of deeds, and therefore prayers and the commandments were likely to be a good alternat ive for the Temple offerings. This line of thought could have led in a similar manner to regard the fast as a physical act that constituted a means of addressing God and for catalyzing the correction of actions, and that it, in its turn, could be supplant ed by more appropriate spiritual means. Possibly this is why we do not find fasts, with the exception of Yom Kippur, in the Judean Desert scrolls.

The process we have described is not one of a decline in the importance of the performance of the commandments, but rather a weakening of the significance of the commandments connected with flesh, due to the distance and disengagement from the Temple, and a rise in the importance of prayers and verbal means of addressing God. The importance of the fast of Yom Kippur need not be lessened within the context of such a process, because it is one of the commandments specified in the Torah, with emphasis placed on it being "a law for all time, throughout the ages in all your settlements" (Lev. 23:31), that is, everywhere, without reference to the Temple. Moreover, the sources cited above strengthen the hypothesis - that Talmon already presented forty years ago - that Yom Kippur was charged with special significance for the sect, due to the persecution of the Righteous Teacher by the Wicked Priest; consequently, this fast day was devoutly observed by the sect.
In light of the above, I would like to examine whether this analysis is also correct for the situation reflected in II Maccabees and III Maccabees. As we have noted, public fasts occupied a marginal position in the religious life evinced by these books, w ith prayer taking center stage in the public religious experience. These two facts are strikingly similar to the developed liturgical reality of the Judean Desert sect and the lack of public fasts in its writings. Following our discussion of the Qumran se ct, we may well ask: why do public fasts occupy such a marginal place in the religious world of II and III Maccabees?

The members of the Judean Desert sect and the Jews dwelling in the Hellenist Diaspora among whom II Maccabees and III Maccabees were composed shared an additional characteristic. There was no Temple in the place of each of these groups, for whom the only Temple could be that in Jerusalem. The members of the Judean Desert sect regarded the Jerusalem Temple as a place of impurity whose sanctity was not properly maintained, while the members of the Hellenistic Diaspora revered the Temple, and these two book s of theirs discuss the severe punishment of base Gentiles who thought to harm the sanctity of the Jerusalem Temple. This, however, does not change the fact that the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and not in the places of these two groups. It is therefore pos sible that the attempts by Jews during the Second Temple period to find substitutes for the Temple did not ensue solely from the ideological break from the Temple, as was the case for the Judean Desert sect, but was also a result of the actual severance c aused by the distance from the Temple. Such a process, that was fundamentally similar to that experienced by the Judean Desert sect, also occurred in the Hellenistic Diaspora of the authors of II and III Maccabees. The lack of a Temple in the Diaspora mea nt the inability to offer sacrifices, and the Diaspora Jews therefore sought another method of addressing the Lord, namely, prayer. The entrenchment of prayer as the primary means of addressing the Lord was likely to be interpreted with the rational signi ficance of making the service of the Lord and the means of addressing Him more spiritual, thereby imparting symbolic meaning to the physical acts performed in the Temple. According to this understanding, the sacrifice does not fulfill God's needs, but is rather a means of prayer, and the ceremonies conducted in the Temple are actually various ways of addressing the Lord. It may be assumed that this process also affected the public fasts, which decreased with the wane in the practical importance of the mat erial-physical means of serving the Lord, resulting in the disregard of such fasts in these books. A prime example of this process of rationalization and allegorization is to be found in a passage in Philo on Yom Kippur (De Vita Mosis, II 23-24): this is a day on which we are not to eat or drink, so that we will not be bothered by any of the body's urges, and we will appease the Father of all with the prayers that are pleasing to Him.

It seems to me, that a similar process of spiritualization and rationalization in Qumran, may well explain the absence of public fasts from its religious life.