Dr. Adiel Schremer
Dept. of Jewish History,
"[T]he[y] Did Not Read in the Book": Qumran and the Emergence of Torah Study
in Ancient Judaism
In his paper, "The Drasha as a Source for the Halakha and the Problem of the Sofrim," the late Prof. E. E. Urbach has pointed out the lack of scriptural prooftexts in halakhic rulings attributed to ancient authorities of the Second Temple Period. Accordi
ng to Urbach, the earliest figures who are associated with any kind of explication of the biblical text (that is, midrash) are Shema'aya and Avtalion, Hillel and Shammai's masters, who flourished around the mid-first century BCE and who are characterized
in a tradition found in b. Pes. 57b as "Darshanim Gedolim" (great explicators). Prior to that time, no halakhic ruling mentioned in rabbinic literature refers to Scripture as its source. In many cases these ancient halakhic rulings are not justified at al
l; in cases where arguments are presented, they are usually from the simple sense of the matter and its possible consequences, not from what is written in Scripture.
This state of affairs gives the impression that until the end of the 1st century BCE, Scripture did not play any role in halakhic decision-making. However surprising, this assumption is corroborated by the claim made by the author of the Damascus Documen
t, according to which the book of the Torah "was not opened in Israel since the day of the death of Eleazar and Joshua and the elders ... until Zadok arose" (CD 5:3-5). I presume that during the entire period, justifications for halakhic norms were drawn
mainly from tradition.
The writings of the Qumran sect, the bibliocentricity of which is recognized as one of its major characteristics, display a shift in that norm. This shift reflects a new mode of religiosity in which the written text of the Torah is seen as the prime sour
ce for halakhic knowledge and instruction. The appeal to Scripture inevitably challenges the living tradition which, in many cases, is remote from the written biblical text or has no roots in it at all. It is argued that this challenge posed to "tradition
al Judaism" by the "Qumranic revolution" of appealing to the written Torah was a catalyst in the development of Torah study in Pharisaic circles in the late Second Temple era.