The Dead Sea Scrolls in Los Angeles


Yehudis Litvak.

For the next few months, Los Angeles residents will have a unique opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and other artifacts from both the First and the Second Temple periods.  Previously hosted by Discovery Times Square in New York City, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and several other U. S. locations, this display of the largest Dead Sea Scrolls collection outside of Israel is now hosted by the California Science Center.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, were discovered in 1947 in a cave in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. A young Bedouin shepherd was following a stray goat when he saw an opening leading to a cave. He threw a rock inside and was surprised to hear the sounds of pottery shattering. On entering the cave he saw several large earthenware vessels full of scroll fragments. He took some scrolls with him and sold them to an antiquities dealer, who urged him to get more. The first scrolls were sold to the Syrian Orthodox Monastery in Jerusalem. Soon other antiquities dealers became involved, and the word spread. When Professor Eliezer Lipa Sukenik of the Hebrew University heard about the scrolls, he was determined to investigate their significance, despite the ongoing political tensions at the time. He secretly met with an Armenian dealer in a British military zone, and later traveled with the dealer to Bethlehem to see the scrolls for himself. Holding the two-thousand-year-old parchment fragments proved to be a profound experience. Professor Sukenik wrote in his diary, “My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them. I read a few sentences. It was written in beautiful biblical Hebrew. The language was like that of the Psalms, but the text was unknown to me. I looked and looked, and I suddenly had the feeling that I was privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew Scroll which had not been read for more than 2,000 years.”

Soon both Bedouin treasure hunters and professional archeologists set out to explore the Qumran caves in search of additional scrolls. Eventually, eleven caves containing scroll fragments were found. In total, the caves contained close to 900 scrolls, written between 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority. Most of the scrolls are written on parchment, some on papyrus, and one on metal. Most are written in Hebrew, in a script similar to the one we use today. Several scrolls are written in paleo-Hebrew, an ancient Hebrew script used in the First Temple period. About 15% of the scrolls are in Aramaic, and several are in Greek. The scrolls contain both Biblical and non-Biblical texts. The Biblical texts include every book of the Tanach, except for Megillas Esther (though other documents found contain references to Megillas Esther). The scrolls also include Tefillin and mezuzos. Some of the Aramaic and Greek texts are translations of parts of the Tanach. The non-Biblical texts include: apocrypha – religious texts not included in the Tanach, such the books of Ben Sirah and Tobit; calendrical texts that contain precise calculations of Jewish holidays and the schedule of Temple services; midrash-like commentaries on Tanach and halacha and retelling of stories found in Tanach.  There are historical texts; prayers and poetry; works that offer practical advice about daily life as well as legal matters and “sectarian texts” – rules and regulations that governed the community where these texts were originally written and used. The scrolls also contain letters and legal documents, such as marriage contracts, land deeds, and bills of sale.

For the next forty years after the scrolls’ discovery a small international team of scholars studied the scroll fragments, assembling them a little at a time, like a puzzle. Publication of the scrolls was a slow and drawn out process, and the scrolls’ content was accessible only to the select few. In the early 1990s, the Israel Antiquities Authority took steps to expedite the publication and today all the scrolls are available to the public and may be viewed, in high resolution, at the website maintained by the Israel Antiquities Authority,

Over the years, the Dead Sea Scrolls triggered many heated debates among scholars. The main question, of who wrote the scrolls, remains a controversy. Still now, archeologists are hard at work in Qumran, discovering new evidence that could shed light on the connection between the scrolls and the people who lived in that region two thousand years ago. “Some argue there is no connection,” says Dr. David Bibas, a curator at the California Science Center. The scrolls might have been hidden in the caves by refugees from Jerusalem escaping Roman persecution. Some scholars believe that the scrolls, written by many different people, were collected in a library over a period of several centuries.

Others believe that the scrolls were written and hidden in caves by the Essenes, a Jewish sect living in Qumran towards the end of the Second Temple period. Rabbi Avraham Lieberman, a historian and Head of YULA Girls’ School, describes the Essenes as pious and learned. They were strict in matters of halacha, and especially in matters of ritual purity. Many Essenes did not get married, choosing to dedicate themselves to Torah study instead. They lived in a commune, sharing their possessions. Women had their own commune. They went to the mikva every day, davened three times a day, and spent much of their time learning. They were also sofrim who copied Torah texts. It is not clear whether they had to do other work to support themselves.

Mikva at Khirbet Qumran

Josephus spent two years with the Essenes and thought highly of them, says Rabbi Lieberman. In his writings, Josephus praises their piety and devotion to G-d. He writes, “It also deserves our admiration, how much they exceed all other men that addict themselves to virtue, and this in righteousness; and indeed to such a degree, that as it hath never appeared among any other man… it endured a long while among them. This is demonstrated by that institution of theirs which will not suffer anything to hinder them from having all things in common; so that a rich man enjoys no more of his own wealth than he who hath nothing at all. There are about four thousand men that live in this way, and neither marry wives, nor are desirous to keep servants…” (Jewish Antiquities, translated by William Whiston, Wordsworth Editions 2006, page 775).

One of the scrolls, called Manual of Discipline or Community Rule, details the rules that each potential member of the community was required to accept upon themselves in order to join. The members are enjoined, “to seek G-d; to do what is good and right before Him, as He commanded through Moses and through all His servants, the prophets; and to love everything that He has chosen, and to hate everything that He has rejected; to keep far from every evil and to cling to every good deed; and to practice truth and righteousness and justice in the land; and to walk no more in the stubbornness of a guilty heart and of lustful eyes so as to do any evil.” (English translation by William Hugh Brownlee, published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research in 1951.) The manual continues to delineate communal rules, including not speaking angrily, resolving grievances and avoiding bearing grudges, dining together, remaining awake for a third of the nights of the year to learn, avoiding improper speech and slander, and others. Overall, the community required exceptionally high levels in both piety and interpersonal conduct.

The Essenes made their home in Qumran because they wanted to separate themselves from the corruption taking place in Jerusalem and in the Beis Hamikdash. Rabbi Lieberman explains that their description of corruption is consistent with the account found in the Gemara. Chazal tell us that in those times, kehuna was bought and kohanim gedolim were far from righteous. The Essenes chose to move far enough away so that they wouldn’t be obligated to visit the Beis Hamikdash. There are a number of letters from the people of Qumran, addressed to the Kohen Gadol in Jerusalem, where they agree to return to Jerusalem on the condition that the Jerusalemites accept twenty two halachos listed in the letters. The halachos are mostly consistent with normative halacha as accepted today. Apparently, the Kohen Gadol did not accept this condition, as the Essenes never returned. The community was destroyed by the Romans prior to the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash, in 68 CE. Archeological finds show that Qumran was burnt to the ground, according to Professor Lawrence Schiffman of New York University.

The scrolls, however, carefully hidden in the caves of Qumran, escaped Roman persecution and remained untouched until the young Bedouin’s discovery in 1947. The dark caves preserved their precious cargo remarkably well. But the frequent, and often rough, handling of the scrolls once they were removed from the caves caused some damage. Some researchers used scotch tape to glue scroll fragments together, or put them under a glass pane that applied pressure to the scrolls. Even simple exposure to light was damaging to the ancient parchment.  Now that the scrolls have been deciphered and published the bulk of the current research focuses on reversing the damage and conserving the scrolls for another two thousand years, says Dr. Bibas.

California Science Center takes great care to protect the scrolls at the exhibit. They are displayed in a climate-controlled, dimly lit room, with minimal light exposure. After three months, the scrolls currently on exhibit will be put in storage for five years in Israel. They will be replaced by other scrolls from the Israeli collection. The transportation of the scrolls between Israel and Los Angles is no simple matter. They are transported in specially designed climate controlled capsules, brought into the airplane cabin, two at a time, by specially appointed couriers.

The exhibit will remain in Los Angeles for six months, through September 7th. It is off to a good start, says Dr. Bibas, attracting many visitors since its opening in March. The Science Center brings a unique scientific perspective to the Dead Sea Scrolls, illustrating the science involved in the research, such as DNA analysis of different pieces of parchment to determine which fragments came from the same animal.

Besides the scrolls, the exhibit also features many other artifacts that paint a picture of life in the times of the Beis Hamikdash. Some of them are sadly reminiscent of what we read in the Tanach, such as household altars and figurines that were popular during the first Beis Hamikdash, or the stones and arrowheads used by the Babylonians when they occupied Eretz Yisrael. Artifacts from the time of the second Beis Hamikdash are more benign, such as pottery, sandals, and other household objects. Most of them were found in Qumran or Masada. A large stone, found in the excavations at the base of the Western Wall, is on display. It is believed to have toppled during the Roman siege preceding the destruction.

Dr. Bibas encourages everyone to visit the exhibit. “It is a unique opportunity to be in the presence of two-thousand-year-old artifacts,” he says. While the exhibit is popular among all segments of Los Angeles residents, it is especially significant for us as religious Jews. “The scrolls are the greatest proofs to our mesorah,” noted Rabbi Lieberman. “Exactly what Chazal said is right there.” He explains that the scrolls found in the Qumran caves are almost identical to our text of the Tanach, with the only differences being in spelling of some of the words – malei vs. chaser. These are the oldest copies of Torah that we have, and the text stayed exactly the same throughout thousands of years.