This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Weddings in the Wilderness?*

Of the many practices and beliefs that set the ancient Essene sect apart from the other Jewish movements of the Second Temple era, the most extraordinary might have been their preference for celibacy, an attitude that contrasts glaringly with the normal Jewish insistence on marriage and family.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the subsequent archeological excavations in the Judean wilderness, raised new questions about the Essenes' attitudes towards marriage. Because it was generally assumed that the scrolls had been written by an Essene community, scholars were most eager to find out whether or not the literary and physical evidence from the Qumran site would bear out the previous claims about the Essenes' celibacy.

A milestone in the discussion was the publication, in 1982, of a fragmentary document to which the editor attached the title Marriage Ritual. The existence of such a document in the Qumran library invited the obvious question: If the scrolls were of Essene provenance, and the Essenes did not marry, then why were they composing liturgies for wedding ceremonies?

We must appreciate that the document in question was in a very poor state of preservation. It was hardly more than a bundle of tiny papyrus scraps, many of them too minuscule to contain readable text, and none of them complete enough to indicate how the puzzle pieces were supposed to fit together. Basically, they amounted to little more than a few disconnected Hebrew words and letters.

Nevertheless, it is not hard to understand why the editor arrived at his initial characterization of the text as a marriage ritual--the hypothesis that I will refer to henceforth as Theory #1. Several of the fragments' legible words and phrases are reminiscent of the blessings recited at a traditional Jewish wedding. For example, the scroll contains a few variations on the Hebrew root smḥ, joy, and apparent references to Adam and his wife, companions, being fruitful and young and old. One fragment seems to describe an exchange of blessings between a man and woman.

Faced with this evidence, scholars who accepted the premise of Essene celibacy were forced to conclude that the wedding ceremony in the document must have been intended for use outside the Qumran settlement. Josephus Flavius, whose writings are our main source of first-hand information about the Essenes, had indeed written that some Essenes were town-dwellers who followed more conventional life-styles than their fellows in the Judean wilderness, and were accustomed to marry.

Other scholars, however, proposed alternative interpretations of the document that had nothing to do with weddings. One analysis of the fragmentary text arrived at a novel reading of its function. Theory #2 (as we shall call it) focused on the unusual frequency of terms designating elderly men and women--not the sort of vocabulary that one normally associates with weddings.

Admittedly, some of these occurrences can be explained as parts of inclusive descriptions of the entire community (young and old), as guests who are being invited to partake in the festivities, or as references to the community elders who presided over the nuptials. But what remained of the text still seemed oddly out of place for the occasion of a marriage.

The author of Theory #2 calls our attention to the writings of the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria and his detailed description of an Essene-like group called the Therapeutae. According to Philo, the Therapeutae used to hold an annual festival at which the youths of the community would bestow honours on their elders. After a ceremonial banquet, the men and women would chant hymns and dance; and the culmination of the event came when the male and female choirs would join their voices, in a manner reminiscent of the songs of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea. This was indeed a remarkable phenomenon, since the Therapeutae normally frowned on mingling of the sexes.

Philo reports that the female members of the Therpeutae sect were in fact unmarried women who had chosen a life of spiritual contemplation instead of the pleasures of marriage and family.

Based largely on these clues, Theory #2 stated that the ritual recorded in the Qumran fragments was not intended for the marriage of a young couple, but for a celebration of the community's mature members as they reached a revered stage of seniority after surviving their youthful years in a state of celibacy. This Golden Age ceremony seems to have been celebrated annually, perhaps on Sukkot.

Seems convincing, does it not? But that is by no means the end of the scholarly grappling with our enigmatic document.

A more recent attempt at unraveling the text's mysteries approached it from yet a different perspective. Theory #3 stresses the fact that the occasion for the festivity is designated an appointed time--mo'ed in Hebrew, a word that is normally employed in connection with fixed dates on the calendar, and is therefore not a suitable term to denote a wedding ceremony, which can occur at any time of the year.

If we search carefully through the Dead Sea scrolls, we will discover that there is an occasion that is referred to as the appointed time of rejoicing, and that is the New Year festival. However, we must bear in mind that in ancient times, the main New Year holiday was not the Rosh Hashanah that we celebrate in the fall, but rather the springtime date of the first of Nissan.

This is the month that is designated in the Torah as the head of the months owing to its association with the liberation from Egypt; and indeed the Bible and Talmud always number the months commencing from Nissan. Furthermore, the beginning of this month was sanctified with the ceremonies for the inauguration of the Tabernacle. In the calendar followed by the community in the Judean wilderness, the first day of Nissan was a special memorial day for the heads of the years and the turning points of their seasons.

The disconnected words and letters of our cryptic text display a resemblance to prayers that were recited on the occasion of the spring time new year.

It is not immediately obvious why a springtime New Years celebration should contain wedding-like prayers about the rejoicing of men and women. Nevertheless, this riddle can be accounted for if recall the Jewish tradition that the world was created in Nissan. It would follow from this that the creation is a perfectly suitable theme for the holiday liturgy--and it would naturally include, or even culminate with, a description of the creation of the first human couple in the Garden of Eden, which some might see as the peak of the creation.

Therefore, the same expression that one reader might interpret as directed towards a bride and groom, can be read by others as a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve.

So there you have it: A wedding service, a Golden Age celebration, or a springtime Rosh Hashanah liturgy: Feel free to choose the theory that you find most compelling. Or perhaps you have a different, more convincing hypothesis to account for the tantalizing clues. These kinds of exasperating ambiguities are standard fare in the precarious realm of Dead Sea Scrolls research.

If the document from the wilderness of Judea really does preserve the text of a wedding ceremony after all, then I hope those marriages were built on more solid foundations than the tenuous theories that they inspired.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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