Few if any archaeological finds in the past century have elicited the interest or controversy that has surrounded the Dead Sea Scrolls. With that in mind, Jewish residents of Manchester, England, sat down to learn more about the scrolls, and what they can and cannot tell researchers, from one of the world’s leading scholars on the topic, New York University professor Lawrence H. Schiffman.

Schiffman, who serves as chair of NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and is a member of the university’s Centers for Ancient and Near Eastern Studies, began his pre-Shavuot address at the Beis Menachem Community Centre – a Chabad-Lubavitch educational institution in Manchester – by referring to what he called the “mystique” of the scrolls.

The story of how one cache of some of the world’s most priceless manuscripts has become legendary, he said: Before the founding of the modern State of Israel, a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a cave while searching for a lost sheep. He knew immediately from the sound made as the stone landed that something was in there.

Still, reminded the professor, details of the story may or may not be true. It persists, however, and tends to distract people from the importance of what the scrolls contain, a unique glimpse into Second Temple-era Jewish history and the development of Jewish legal thought.

While the original shepherd discovered just a few scrolls and fragments, the collection referred to today as the Dead Sea Scrolls contains some 80,000 fragments grouped together into 20,000 segments. These include six complete, or nearly complete, scrolls and sections of other books.

One of the complete scrolls contains what is referred to by scholars as the Rules of the Community, a series of laws governing life in a highly-restrictive community that centered in that area of the wilderness outside Jerusalem. It outlines the community’s basic beliefs and laws of purification, and ends with a poetic description of the Shema, and the laws for reciting the central Jewish prayer.

Lawrence H. Schiffman serves as chair of NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.
Lawrence H. Schiffman serves as chair of NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.

Jewish Continuity

Speaking via telephone from his home in New York, Schiffman explained the significance of this passage with more than a little excitement.

“This is the earliest post-Biblical mention of saying the Shema, and we see from this that the community said Shema twice a day, at the time of morning prayers and afternoon prayers,” he said. “They were following the view, [in keeping with traditional Jewish law], that prayer is a service that parallels the sacrifices in the Temple, which were offered in the morning and the afternoon.”

While the professor was quick to point out that you cannot learn normative Jewish law from the scrolls, the fact that so many things which Jewish communities throughout the world find familiar are mentioned in the scrolls illustrates the continuity of Jewish tradition.

“People today, for example, might argue about different types of food preparation on Shabbat,” explained Schiffman, “not about cooking food, which is a basic prohibition, but about finer details regarding other types of food preparation, and we see the same discussions in the scrolls. They record the halacha, as we know it, and they record their opinion of the halacha, which they don’t always agree with when it comes to the finer details. But the discussion is one we can recognize.”

In his lecture, Schiffman focused on what is known as the Temple Scroll, one of the collection’s complete scrolls which contains, among other things, instructions on the building of the Temple and the order of its sacrifices.

Manchester’s L’Chaim Jewish Learning Institute, an adult-education program directed by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Levi Cohen, invited the scholar to the English city as part of a lecture series complementing the institute’s weekly one-on-one text-based study. The next lecture in the series will feature former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, who will speak on the theme “Healing Through Unity: One Man with One Heart.”

Participants in the May 21 event said that Schiffman’s lecture presented a confirmation of Jewish continuity going all the way back to the giving of the Torah 3,321 years ago, celebrated every year on Shavuot. The holiday itself begins this Thursday night.

Yosef Domnitz, an alumnus of the Lubavitch Yeshiva of Manchester who helps coordinate the L’Chaim lecture series, said the crowd of approximately 60 community members was astounded by the lecture.

“There was just so much information covered, it really blows the mind,” said Domnitz. “People kept him here until after midnight, hours after the lecture ended, asking questions.”

Andrew Senior, a 44 year old software engineer who regularly attends L’Chaim programs, cited the lecture as one of the most fascinating he’s been to.

“He is a very charismatic, passionate speaker,” said Senior. “I was amazed by the sheer volume of material the professor covered.”

Still, he added: “It left me with a lot of questions.”

That’s fine with Schiffman, who cautioned against looking for too many conclusive answers in the scrolls.

“We cannot always tell the boundary between text and commentary in the scrolls,” he said. “Whereas we are careful to keep the two separate [in Jewish legal and religious discourse], they wove commentary into the text in some cases.

“What we do have is a picture of the context in which the Mishna and Gemara were composed, and a look at the debates, both legal and theological, that existed then,” continued the professor. “And we do see proof of Jewish continuity, of the transmission of tradition – mikvah, Shabbat, etc. – they had these.”