Inscrutable Scrolls
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Inscrutable Scrolls *

Back in the days when rabbinic Judaism upheld a strict division between written and unwritten texts, their corpus of written documents was limited almost exclusively to the books of the Bible itself. There was however a lone exception to this rule: a short and enigmatic Aramaic work known as the “Scroll of Fasts” that consisted of a list of dates in the Hebrew calendar that were designated for rejoicing—and for which reason fasting was forbidden. Some of those festive dates represented victories of the Hasmoneans against their enemies, while others commemorated achievements of the Pharisees (whose spiritual successors were the rabbis of the talmudic era) against their sectarian rivals. All this indicates that the Scroll was composed during the latter centuries of the Second Temple era; but we still possess scant solid information regarding the Scroll’s authorship, purpose and influence.

The Scroll opens, appropriately, at the beginning of the Jewish liturgical year: “From the beginning of the month of Nissan until its eighth day the Tamid (the daily offering in the Temple) was established; therefore one may not fast then.”

This brief entry confronts the reader with a number of puzzles and obscurities. What is the religious significance of this particular eight-day period, and why was it singled out for celebration in a document that is, for the most part, rooted in the realities of Second-Temple Judaism?

The Talmud and the earliest commentary (known as the “Scholion”) to the Scroll of Fasts connected those dates to a dispute between the Pharisees and their opponents who are identified variously as the Sadducees or the “Boethusians.” This was a dispute that had profound implications for the nature of Jewish communal worship.

The Torah is not specific about who had the responsibility or privilege for providing the lambs for the Tamid sacrifices. The Sadducees, who identified with the values of the aristocratic high priestly dynasty, maintained that individual donors should be allowed to sponsor the communal offerings. They found support for their position in the fact that the Torah uses a grammatically singular verb to express the command.

The Pharisaic sages, on the other hand, pointed out that the precept was being addressed to the entire nation, and that the relevant biblical passage also contained a plural verb. In order to ensure that all Jews had an equal share in the Tamid and the other collective offerings, a fund was established in which every Jew in the world was required to contribute half a shekel—no more and no less—every year, as had been the procedure when contributions were first levied for the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary in which worship was conducted by the Israelites in the desert. That contribution became so crucial to the definition of Jewish national identity that the emperor Vespasian could find no more effective form of humiliating the defeated Jews than by redirecting it to the notorious “fiscus Judaicus” tax designated for the heathen temple of Capitoline Jupiter.

According to the interpretation of the Scholion and the Talmud, the expression “the Tamid was established” in the Scroll of Fasts should be understood in the sense of “the proper [that is: the Pharisaic] procedure for financing the Tamid prevailed”—though this reading requires taking some liberties with the semantic possibilities of the text.

The philosophical and moral issues that were implicit in this dispute were spelled out eloquently by the preeminent liturgical poet Eleazar Kalir:

It is fixed equally for the rich and for the poor,

the princes and the commoners are measured equally.

Let the prince not be arrogant before the multitude

to proclaim: My wealth has delivered me from snares.

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pharisees’ insistence that responsibility for the Temple be equally shared among all Jews demonstrated that the sanctuary is not an institution whose workings can be delegated to the priests and separated from the lifestream of the nation. On the contrary, “its purpose cannot be achieved without constant and ever fresh and lively participation of the whole nation.” Though the Torah provides plenty of opportunities to express individual generosity and initiative, at the fundamental level it is not the quantity of one’s financial contribution that determines a Jew’s stature in the community. As Rabbi Hirsch put it, “the dollars of the rich weigh no more than the pennies of the poor, and the pennies of the poor are fully equal to the dollars of the rich. The rich man can do no more and the poor man shall do no less than the half of a whole shekel.”

Remarkable new light was shed on the obscure dates in the Scroll of Fasts with Yigael Yadin’s publication in 1977 of the document known as the “Temple Scroll” from the ancient library at Qumran. In its paraphrase of the Torah’s order of communal sacrifices, the Temple Scroll inserted a special sacrifice to be offered on the New Moon of Nissan. It also stated that the week-long procedure for inaugurating the priesthood and the sanctuary—which takes up a considerable chunk of the Torah’s text—was not a one-time event, but was ordained to be reenacted every year; and it is likely that during those days the normal Tamid sacrifices were not offered (as they could not have been offered that first time in the desert, prior to the inauguration of the Tabernacle).

As it happens, the Torah speaks at great length about a seven-day ritual ceremony related to the construction of the Tabernacle and the consecration of the priests. It also identifies the first day of the first month (Nissan) as the date on which the tabernacle was built. Now, the predominant understanding in rabbinic tradition is that the process culminated on the eighth day, the first of Nissan; but there are commentators such as Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra who insist that the count commenced on first of the month and concluded on the seventh day, so that from the eighth day the Tamid sacrifices could be offered on a daily basis. This interpretation could form the basis of the Scroll’s eight-day no-fasting period. However, it is not immediately clear why the document should include a reference to an event that had not been observed since the time of Moses.

In light of this information, scholars have proposed that the passage in the Scroll of Fasts might allude to a victory of the Pharisees over their rivals on this issue. The theory supposes that at some point during the Hasmonean era the priests in charge of the Jerusalem Temple were following the practice described in the Qumran Temple Scroll of suspending the Tamid offerings for the first eight days of Nissan. Eventually, the Pharisees were able to impose their own practice; and they declared that their triumph should be commemorated annually as a time of rejoicing for the “establishment” of the Tamid.

We possess no precise data to tell us how or when such a decision would have been made. Considering the extreme rancor that characterized the frictions between the Jewish religious sects in those times, it is most unlikely that the Pharisees achieved their success by means of a peaceful democratic transition. A plausible theory dates the change in the reign of the Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra who wielded her royal authority to aggressively support the Pharisees, following a prior period of Sadducee supremacy during the régime of her late husband Alexander Jannaeus.

Amidst all these questions we are reminded yet again how intricate were the origins of the Jewish religious calendar. Perhaps in time, newer scrolls will be unearthed that will fill in the many lacunae in our knowledge—but it is just as likely that they will add further to our bafflement.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, March 28, 2014, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Bickerman, E. J. “Some Observations on Megillat Taanit.” Zion 1 (1935): 351–55.
    • Erder, Yoram. “The First Date in Megillat Taʿanit in Light of the Karaite Commentary on the Tabernacle Dedication.” Jewish Quarterly Review 82, no. 3/4 (1992): 263. doi:10.2307/1454860.
    • Flusser, David. “Matthew XVII, 24-27 and the Dead Sea Sect.” Tarbiz 31, no. 2 (1961): 150–56.
    • Knohl, Israel, and Shlomoh Naeh. “Milluim Ve-Kippurim.” Tarbiz 62 (1993): 17–44.
    • Lichtenstein, Hans. “Die Fastenrolle: eine Untersuchung zur jüdisch-hellenistischen Geschichte.” Hebrew Union College Annual 8-9 (1931): 257–351.
    • Liver, J. “The Half-Shekel in the Scrolls of the Judean Desert Sect.” Tarbiz 31 (1962): 18–22.
    • ———. “The Half-Shekel Offering in Biblical and Post-Biblical Literature.” Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (1963): 173–98.
    • Noam, Vered. Megilat Taʻanit: Versions, Interpretation, History with a Critical Edition. Between Bible and Mishnah: The David and Jemima Jeselsohn Library. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Press, 2003.
    • Urbach, Efraim Elimelech. The Halakhah, Its Sources and Development. Yad La-Talmud. Ramat Gan and Jerusalem: Masadah and Yad la-Talmud, 1986.