Jewish Sects

In the Second Temple period.

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The small size of these groups is attested by the fact that even during Herod's rule [37-4 BCE] the Pharisees numbered only some six thousand, and in the first century there were approximately four thousand Essenes. The Essene communal site at Qumran, specifically its dining area, could accommodate perhaps as many as two hundred members at any one time and roughly indicates the sect's size. The Sadducees, for their part, were even fewer in number, if a comment by Josephus regarding the first century C.E. may be considered relevant to the Hasmonean era.

Identity, Purity, and Boundaries

In choosing to belong to one particular sect, individuals were establishing their personal and collective identity vis-à-vis others. Thus each sect meticulously erect­ed walls around itself to separate its members from other sects, ordinary Jews, and non‑Jews. This social separation was rigorously mandated and articulated in a variety of ways.

The Essenes residing in Qumran expressed this tendency in the extreme. The guidelines for entry into this sect, as well as the harsh punishment meted out to those who failed to keep its rules, indicate the determination to maintain communal standards at all costs. The Pharisees as well tended to separate them selves from the masses in certain crucial areas. The laws dealing with the havurah [community] with its stringent rules of both membership and separation from 'am ha‑aret (the ordinary Jew), are a case in point. For both the Qumran Essenes and the Pharisees, one of the crucial means of maintaining this separation was through the strict observance of purity rules.

The need for constant purification was always present, as the miqva'ot (ritu­al baths) of Qumran and the attestations of Josephus and the scrolls repeatedly emphasize. Part of the daily ritual of the Essenes in general, and particularly at Qumran, was immersion before the communal meal and the liturgy that accom­panied it. These purity regulations, which differed in many aspects from one sect to the other, probably served to restrict any kind of social contact with those outside one's group.

Law and Study

With the publication of several halakhic [legal] scrolls and fragments, we have become more aware of late of the degree to which Jewish law was a pivotal factor in the self‑definition of the sects, as reflected in rabbinic literature. This has helped refocus attention on the importance of legal matters--and not only theological issues--in defining and distinguishing these groups.

Another common feature of the sects, at least regarding those for which we have information, is the centrality of Torah study. The Pharisaic emphasis on this activity is reflected in both the statements found in Mishnah Avot and the repeated claim made by Josephus that this group excelled in its precise knowledge of the Law. At Qumran, study was an ongoing activity throughout the day and night.

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Lee I. Levine

Lee I. Levine is a professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.