Food and Ritual in the Holy Land

Aug. 08, 2013

plain, utilitarian clay dishes found at the digs at Qumran (the settlement on the banks of the Dead Sea where the scrolls were discovered).By David Levin

While the true identity of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ authors is uncertain, the texts and artifacts they left behind offer tantalizing clues to their lives and culture.  

“The scrolls’ writers lived in a community obsessed with ritual purity,” says Jamie Bryson, PhD candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis, whose research focuses broadly on the scrolls.

Yet this purity seems to have taken on many forms. In the 1950s, archaeological digs at Qumran (the settlement on the banks of the Dead Sea where the scrolls were discovered) revealed an extensive network of ancient mikva’ot, or ritual baths, as well as hundreds of plain, utilitarian clay dishes. The sheer number of these dishes, says Bryson, seems to point to ritual use.

“Scholars believe the reason they had so many plates was that they had so many rules about purity,” he says. “If a plate wasn’t pure, you had to destroy it. So they had tons of plates on hand.”    

Even meals were ritualized. Some scroll fragments spell out explicit directions for mealtimes, including instructions for blessings and an insistence that at least one community member be engaged in the study of religious law while others ate.

This widespread use of ritual at Qumran may have been due in part to the site’s distance from Jerusalem, says Bryson. The Qumran community appears to have been part of a religious sect that, for unknown reasons, broke away from the established traditions of the Temple in Jerusalem and relocated to the banks of the Dead Sea in the first century BCE.

By choosing to isolate themselves in the desert, the site’s residents had created a sort of religious conundrum. “Usually, ancient Judaism was centered around prayer and sacrifice at a specific location — the Temple in Jerusalem,” Bryson says. The community at Qumran, however, had distanced themselves from the Temple both physically and spiritually — so how might they have maintained a cohesive sense of community?

“I think community-based ritual becomes really important when the centerpiece of your religion is gone. If you can’t go to the Temple every day to express your faith and devotion to God, you have to find other ways to maintain your identity as a people,” says Bryson. “Although the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls were always looking towards an ideal future when ‘true religion’ — as they saw it — would return to the Temple, they were also coping with a new reality in the desert, and must have felt that a focus on purity and ritual was necessary for their survival.”