This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Covenant Renewal Day*

Students of talmudic law and of Second Temple Jewish history are acutely aware of the ongoing dispute between rival Jewish movements about how to calculate the date of Shavu'ot. The Torah speaks of counting seven weeks beginning on "the morrow of the sabbath." Jews today interpret this law in accordance with the view of the ancient Pharisees, that "sabbath" here refers to the first day of Passover, causing Shavu'ot to fall fifty days later, on the sixth day of Sivan.

The Talmud relates that other Jewish groups at the time understood "sabbath" in its normal sense of Saturday. Thus, they began their fifty-day count from a Sunday during or after Passover, and invariably celebrated Shavu'ot on a Sunday seven weeks afterwards.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have enriched our knowledge of this dispute, by showing us that according to the calendar of the ancient Essene sect, the counting invariably commenced on the Sunday following the end of Passover, the 26th of Nissan, and culminated with the festival of Shavu'ot on Sunday the fifteenth of Sivan.

The respective methods of calculation gave rise to conflicting appreciations of the festival's significance. The Torah itself describes Shavu'ot only as an agricultural holiday that commemorates the grain harvest.

According to the Pharisaic-rabbinic system, however, the date of Shavu'ot coincides with that of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Only in this way does Shavu'ot acquire a historical meaning as the anniversary of that central moment in our past, when Israel entered into a covenant with God by agreeing to obey the laws of the Torah.

It would appear to follow naturally from all these premises that the advocates of the Dead Sea calendar, did not possess an annual festival to commemorate the revelation at Sinai.

This would indeed follow naturally, but it is apparently not true.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain precise guidelines for the celebration of Shavu'ot as the festival of the Renewal of the Covenant.

This holiday seems to have occupied a vital place in their religious life.

It was not a mere matter of adding special prayers or biblical readings. To all appearances, the festival ritual involved a solemn reenacting of the ceremony described in the book of Deuteronomy, when the people positioned themselves between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, while the Priests intoned the blessings in store for those who observe the covenant; and the Levites uttered the blood-curdling curses that will befall those who violate that covenant. To each declaration, the participants responded "Amen."

The Essene holiday incorporated ingredients from yet another momentous ceremony of biblical history, when the returning Babylonian exiles congregated in Jerusalem to accept upon themselves the obligations of the Torah.

Like that earlier assembly, described in the book of Nehemiah, the Essene covenant renewal included the recitation of a survey of Jewish history that highlighted God's generous providence towards his people, contrasting it with the sad record of backsliding and ingratitude that culminated in the destruction of their sanctuary and exile from their homeland.

The texts give us the impression that the participants in the ceremony were expected to line themselves up in single file and pass between the Priests and the Levites.

Other elements in the ritual included the uttering of blessings to the God of goodness, and the heaping of vigorous curses upon the evil power of Belial.

It is consistent with the sect's general outlook that good and evil are not portrayed as options between which the individual may choose. On the contrary, Essene theology held that humanity has already been pre-assigned into opposing domains of good and evil. Members of the sect have, virtually by definition, been designated to the realm of goodness and light, whereas the rest of the world are counted among the children of darkness.

Accordingly, those who take part in the covenant renewal ceremony are not declaring their personal determination to choose good over evil, but merely expressing their appreciation that the Almighty placed them under the powers of goodness, rather than the forces of Belial to which the rest of the world is subject.

Although the talmudic tradition understood that the ceremony at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim had been a one-time event performed when the Israelites first entered the Promised Land, the Essenes seemed to have perceived it as an annual holiday. To be precise, the scrolls stipulate that the ceremony must be repeated every year "throughout the days of the dominion of Belial." That is evidently another way of saying that the renewal ceremony is necessary only as long as humanity continues to inhabit an imperfect and unredeemed world.

By implication, the ritual will become obsolete after God has vanquished the forces of darkness and vindicated the small community of his faithful.

The Qumran community, like many other Jews of the time, lived in imminent anticipation of this great event.

The designers of the covenant ceremony were aware that membership in the Essene community did constitute an automatic guarantee of personal holiness or religious virtue. For this reason, apparently, reference is made in the scrolls to two classes of individuals who, in spite of their ostensible belonging to the Dead Sea community, will not benefit from the blessings that accrue to the true Children of Light.

One such group consists of people who avoid participating in the ceremony in the hope that they can thereby evade the obligations and penalties that would arise from fully accepting the conditions of the covenant.

The second group included people who went through all the outward motions of accepting the covenant, but remained insincere in their commitment.

Special curses are reserved for both these groupings. They are declared to be impure and subject to terrible divine chastisement.

The dire and fatalistic mood that radiates from the Dead Sea Scrolls strikes an extreme contrast with the joy and optimism that permeate the rabbinic celebration of Shavu'ot.

Although few of us will be induced to convert to the Essene brand of Judaism, I believe that we can still be moved by the sect's devotion to the Torah as they understood it, and by their earnest efforts to keep Jewish tradition alive and meaningful.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressMay 16 2002, pp. 4-5.
  • Bibliography:
    • Licht, Jacob, ed. The Roll Scroll: A Scroll from the Wilderness of Judea. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1965.
    • Milik, J. T. Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea. 1st English ed. Studies in Biblical Theology. London: SCM Press, 1959.
    • Vermès, Géza. Discovery in the Judean Desert. New York: Desclee, 1956.
    • ________. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. London: Penguin, 1995.