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entries tagged with: Dead Sea Scrolls


Congregation gives members ‘Food for Thought’ about Dead Sea Scrolls and more

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been invaluable in helping scholars understand the Bible. Yet for each question they answer, they raise many others, says Shalom Paul, professor emeritus in the Department of Bible at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Answers to each question “would comprise a lecture in and of itself,” said Paul, who on Nov. 15 will speak on the topic at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff.

Thanks to the scrolls — the first of which was found in 1947 and the last, “so far,” in 1956 — “a whole new Jewish literature came to light which sheds light on a period that was similar to a dark age in our history and our literature.”

“It opened up entirely new vistas on the understanding of Judaism and Christianity,” said Paul, the first speaker in the Wyckoff congregation’s second annual Food for Thought distinguished speaker series, sponsored by the Fred Emert Memorial Adult Education Fund.

Shalom Paul

A trustee of the Albright Institute of Archaeology and chair of the Dead Sea Scroll Foundation, the speaker received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and received a doctorate in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

“We always knew that early Christianity was [affected] by Judaism, but we did not have the sources available to prove it,” said Paul, adding that the scrolls have been helpful in this regard.

In his talk, he will deal with such questions as: When were they discovered? How? How many were found? What languages were they written in? What materials are they written on? He will also address literary genres in the documents and “why there was such difficulty initially publishing them and how a drastic change took place after the 1967 war with the reunification of Jerusalem and the scrolls being totally within our hands.”

Paul said he will also explore different versions of the Bible and show that the scrolls represent “an intermediate stage in the development of the Bible.”

“Who are these people who produced these scrolls?” asked Paul. “Who are they, living at Kumran, by the Dead Sea, who produced these scrolls [and] composed a Judaism that heretofore was unknown to us? What was their social organization, the rules of their community?”

Paul described his most recent book, “A Study Guide to the Bible,” as a “popular book” on “how [the Bible] came to be, history, literary genres, poetry — everything you ever wanted to know about the Bible.” He said he agreed to the project because he realized that such a book was not available, with existing texts “either highly technical or else not written by competent scholars.” He will sign copies of his book at the Nov. 15 presentation.

Also scheduled to speak at the Wyckoff synagogue is Rabbi Michael Chernick, Deutsch Professor of Jewish Jurisprudence & Social Justice at Hebrew Union College (May 14) and Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News (May 2).

Sharon Weiss, chair of the shul’s adult education committee, explained that the idea of a three-part lecture series was developed to accommodate the congregation’s diverse membership.

The scholar-in-residence program “got a little challenging,” she said, noting that the shul chose to discontinue that approach last year. “We relooked at the model and decided to vary the offerings.”

Now, rather than commit to an entire weekend highlighting one speaker, congregants — and members of the public — can choose among different speakers, talking on different themes.

“We did a little survey of what would interest people and gathered some topics,” said Weiss, noting that Paul is a scholar while the other two speakers will address current events and issues specific to the Jewish community.

“We put a lot of thought into it,” she said, pointing out that the series is dubbed “‘distinguished speakers’ rather than ‘distinguished scholars’ to avoid intimidating anyone.” The series name, Food for Thought, was also consciously selected to indicate that the Sunday morning lectures will be preceded by breakfast.

“Our intention is to make this a time to come together socially as well as for Jewish learning,” she said. “The whole concept in reinventing and growing the model is for more people to be exposed to Jewish learning,” she added. “We’ve got about 460 family units including people from traditional Conservative to Reform and interfaith couples. What we’re trying to do is develop the educational component of synagogue life and be known as a center for lifelong learning.”

For additional information, call (201) 891-4466 or visit


From Qumran to Teaneck

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Scenes from a tragicomedy

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery and fate — and how fragments ended up in Teaneck — “is enormously interesting,” said Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The author of several books on the scrolls, he was instrumental in widening scholars’ access to them. (And that is a story in itself.)

The story “goes back to 1947,” he said in a telephone interview from Rehovoth Beach, Del., “when the first scrolls were found by the Bedouin” in a cave in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. More than 900 were eventually discovered in the Judean desert, in 15,000 fragments.

They are “the greatest manuscript discovery in the 20th century, certainly as concerns biblical studies,” he wrote in his 1992 book “Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Hershel Shanks, an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, says they are “enormously important to the Jewish people.” Courtesy Biblical Archaeology Review

This makes the fragments’ journey to a church in Teaneck, called “the Jerusalem of the West” by The New York Times, all the more fascinating.

Even how four scrolls came to “Mar Samuel,” as Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan (archbishop) of Jerusalem was called, is something of a comedy of errors — almost a tragicomedy.

As Shanks told the tale in his book, two Bedouin had arranged with Samuel to bring some of the scrolls from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It was July 1947. “The tide of violence between Jew, Arab, and Briton,” which would culminate in the War of Independence, “was swelling. Jewish terrorism, mostly directed against the British, was beginning to be heavily felt in certain Arab areas…. In this atmosphere Samuel became anxious when the Bedouin and their scrolls had not appeared by noon.”

What happened? They had been turned away by a monk who saw, in Shanks’ words, that the scrolls they brought were “[p]robably old Torahs from somewhere, but filthy and covered with pitch or something else that smelled equally bad. These he steadfastly refused to allow within the monastery walls, still less into His Grace’s presence as the bearers demanded.”

The Bedouin had gone back to Bethlehem, and it took two weeks before they and the scrolls could return to Jerusalem and Mar Samuel, who bought them, according to Shanks, for what amounted to $97.

Samuel then sought authentication and scholarly help and eventually made his way to the United States in 1949.

“He tried to sell them and couldn’t,” Shanks said. Samuel exhibited them in the Library of Congress and then advertised them in The Wall Street Journal in 1954. (The ad has achieved a certain believe-it-or-not fame. Headed “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls,” it went on to say that “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” A box number at the WSJ was provided.)

The sale of the four scrolls to archeologist Yigal Yadin for $250,000, for Israel, was arranged through a front man, Shanks said, the scholar Harry Orlinsky of Johns Hopkins University posing as “Mr. Green.”

“One of the odd things that fascinate me” about the scrolls, said Shanks, is “whether Mar Samuel knew that he was selling them to Israel. The only reason Yadin got them so cheap,” he added, “is that Jordan,” which controlled the west bank when the scrolls were discovered, “asserted a claim to them.”

The epilogue to the tragicomedy of the sale of the four scrolls is that while the proceeds were to go to Samuel’s church, the legal papers were poorly drawn and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service wound up with the lion’s share.

‘Enormously important
to the Jewish people’

The Dead Sea Scrolls are “enormously important to the Jewish people,” Shanks went on. “They contain about 200 biblical manuscripts that go back to the Second Temple period…. They include every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther and the Song of Songs.”

The scrolls also include “three books quoted in the New Testament — revealing the Jewish roots of Christianity.”

It’s particularly noteworthy that the scrolls reveal “a highly developed code by this time — 200 C.E. — materials that can tell us about the development of halacha,” Jewish law, “and its variations.”

In his 1998 book “The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Shanks wrote of the stringency of the halachic rulings in the scrolls: “Take the law regarding what I call the Backward-Jumping Impurity Up a Stream of Liquid. To understand this law, start with a pitcher of water, both the pitcher and the water being pure. Now pour some of the water into another vessel that is impure. Clearly the water in the second vessel is now impure by virtue of its contact with an impure vessel. But what about the water still in the pitcher? And what about the pitcher itself? Did the impurity of the water in the second vessel render the water remaining in the pitcher (and the pitcher itself) impure? The Qumran sectarians … said yes…. Other Jews … said no.”

Another noteworthy difference is that the Qumran Jews used a solar calendar, while the rest of us use a lunar calendar. Thus, for example, “they would be celebrating Yom Kippur on a different date and yet be Jewish.”

The scrolls, Shanks said, shine “a light onto the variations of a different Judaism of the time, of different movements. The roots of rabbinic Judaism are here.”


From Qumran to Teaneck

Yeshiva University students and professor take up the Dead Sea Scrolls challenge

“The problem with doing ancient history is that you don’t have very many sources,” said Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and part of the group convened by Bruce Zuckerman to study the Dead Sea Scroll fragments at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck. “You have to squeeze out as much as you can from everything that does exist.”

Fine, who also heads YU’s Center for Israel Studies, is clearly excited by the project and the doors that Zuckerman’s work have opened for students in the field.

He said that Zuckerman, a friend for some 30 years, first approached him when he was a graduate student in Jerusalem.

“I got a call saying, ‘Stop everything. Next week we’re photographing the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book.”

According to Fine, by capturing new images of old documents, Zuckerman’s reflectance transformation imaging technology “changes how you look at them.”

“The wonderful thing is that we can bring our students and our skills into this,” said YU professor Steven Fine. courtesy yeshiva university

While Fine’s expertise lies in Jewish history of the Second Temple and talmudic periods, “Zuckerman figured out in the 1980s that photography and later computer imaging could provide access to the inscriptions in ways that couldn’t be done even by real specialists in the field.”

By way of example, he cited an inscription on an abraded clay tablet, traditionally read as “cook the baby goat or kid in milk.” This was quickly cited as designating a practice condemned in the Bible, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

“Everyone loved [the interpretation],” he said, pointing out that it fit the teachings of the Rambam about Canaanite practices.

Nevertheless, after Zuckerman took a picture of the piece using the newest technology, scholars realized that “it couldn’t say that. The letters wouldn’t fit.”

Fine said imaging can be used to pull out a word and to follow the strokes of letters.

“It might seem trivial, but sometimes it matters,” he said, adding that he and his students are the “happy beneficiaries” of Zuckerman’s techniques, which, he said, are not unlike those used for star distinction by the Hubble telescope.

“The wonderful thing is that we can bring our students and our skills into this,” he added, noting that his students at YU, graduate and undergraduate, have already been involved in several projects using the technology.

Three years ago, with funding from YU’s Israel Center and the school’s Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs, a team of students from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, supervised by Fine, decoded amulets dating from the talmudic period, the fifth-sixth century CE.

“They deciphered an aggadic story on a silver amulet that we knew from other places but in a different version than we saw before,” said Fine, explaining that he sent Pinchas Roth and Eytan Zadoff to USC to learn from Zuckerman and then use his technologies to decipher the text. (The Aggadah contains stories from the Oral Law.)

“They spent endless time figuring out the letters,” ultimately reading more than 30 lines, each a millimeter tall. “Before, only true experts could read these texts,” he said. “With Bruce’s techniques, I had two graduate students who could read it.”

Since then, Roth and Zadoff have presented their research at conferences and will publish their work in a forthcoming tribute to Zuckerman.

In addition, said Fine, “I worked with a group of students on Jewish Aramaic tombstones from the fifth century from Zoar, a city on the Dead Sea in modern Jordan.”

Their findings will soon appear in an academic publication and in an article written for the Biblical Archaeology Review.

Speaking to the importance of the fragments now residing in Teaneck, Fine said “sometimes little scraps matter. You never know what will be important. The people who, historically, put scrolls together had to remember that this piece might go with that piece. Now they go to their screens and fit strokes together to make sure it’s the same sofer,” scribe.

Fine said he has also given inscriptions to students in several of his courses — from freshman writing to graduate history on both the school’s Wilf and Beren campuses — challenging them to use their Judaic and computer skills to figure out what they say.

“It’s not a big deal to use Photoshop,” he added, but combining that knowledge with students’ Judaic knowledge is a big deal.

“Our students can excel with this,” he said, noting that by providing his students with Zuckerman’s technologies, he affords them the opportunity and independence to conduct higher caliber research.

“Our students compare with any, especially in the fields of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic,” said Fine. “It is only sensible that we bring them in to share and add to the scholarly enterprise.”


From Qumran to Teaneck

Fragments of history from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Fragments from Dead Sea Scrolls from Jerusalem. courtesy yeshiva university

Throngs of Jews walk past St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck every Shabbat on their way to shul, unaware that the church is the caretaker of an ancient and precious piece of Jewish history.

When Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel arrived in New Jersey in 1949, he brought with him four scrolls and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known texts of books of the Bible. Although the scrolls were later sold to an Israeli archeologist, Samuel kept the fragments and they are to this day under the care of the Eastern Diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, headquartered in Teaneck.

“His eminence was really firm he wanted [the fragments] to stay with the church because it’s been a privilege for our church to have those fragments and to make them again available,” said the church’s Very Rev. John Meno, who served as Samuel’s secretary from 1971 until the archbishop’s death in 1995.

Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, Samuel’s successor, is the official caretaker of the fragments, but could not be reached for comment. One fragment is on loan to the Milwaukee Public Museum. (The fragments have been lent out over the years to various libraries and museums.) In 2009, researchers from the West Semitic Project photographed the fragments in Teaneck for a project based at the University of Southern California. (See page 24.)

The Milwaukee exhibit is the first time the fragments have left Teaneck since they were returned in 1995 after a 25-year exhibition at the American Bible Society in New York City. Concerned for the fragments’ security and proper care, Karim personally escorted them to Milwaukee. A number of archeological organizations have approached the church about selling the fragments, but, Meno said, Samuel had been adamant that they remain in church hands.

Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue Samuel brought fragments from Dead Sea Scrolls from Jerusalem to Teaneck. courtesy st. mark’s syrian orthodox cathedral

“I hope we’ll always be able to keep them and maintain them as they should be properly kept and that they will always be available for scholars, old and young,” he said.

The story of how the fragments ended up in Teaneck dates back to their initial discovery more than 60 years ago. In 1947, Bedouins stumbled upon a number of scrolls in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea. Unfamiliar with the language on the parchments (Hebrew), a group turned to St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem after somebody told them the writing looked Aramaic — the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Samuel, then the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan — archbishop — of Jerusalem, instantly recognized the scrolls for what they were, said Meno.

“His eminence told me a number of times, ‘As soon as I put my eyes on the pieces, I knew it was something very, very special,’” Meno recalled. “He was one of the first really, I think, to sense the value and importance of the scrolls.”

When Samuel came to the United States in 1949 to collect funds for Syrian Orthodox Christians affected by Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, he brought the scrolls with him. In 1952, the church appointed Samuel patriarchal vicar to the United States. In 1957 he was appointed the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of the United States and Canada and established St. Mark’s in Hackensack before it moved to Teaneck. Samuel died in his Lodi home on April 16, 1995, and Karim was appointed a year later.

Meno grew up hearing stories that the church housed the scrolls, but they had long been sold when he came to Teaneck in 1971. Still, as Samuel’s secretary he frequently saw the fragments.

“It’s an awesome thing to be able to hold in your hands documents of that age,” he said, “documents of the recorded word of God, documents that have played such a crucial and important role in biblical research and scholarship since they’ve been discovered. It’s a very special thing.”

The archbishop, Meno said, created a trust fund upon his arrival in the United States to ensure that the scrolls could be properly cared for.

“He hoped the scrolls would remain here in the United States in proper housing and would be made accessible to scholars and to anyone who wanted to view them,” he said.

In 1954, Samuel made what Meno said was a very difficult decision. To raise funds to restore a parish devastated by fire in Central Falls, R.I., Samuel put the scrolls up for sale. Israeli archeologist Yigal Yadin bought the four scrolls for $250,000 and they are now in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Samuel held on, however, to three fragments, which are kept in airtight containers in a bank vault when not on display.

The Very Rev. John Meno, secretary to the late Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, tells of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments’ sojourn in Teaneck. Jerry Szubin

“He really did not want to sell the scrolls but he was in a situation where the community here was in need of assistance,” Meno said. “So he prayed a lot on the matter and felt it would be best to sell them. He did it with a lot of reluctance. I know that he was always grateful that at least he held on to those few fragments.”

St. Mark’s, named for the monastery in Jerusalem built on the site where the apostle Mark is thought to have lived, plans to build a new facility in Paramus, where it owns five acres on Midland Avenue. No construction start or completion date has been set, but the proposed facility will include a section to display the fragments.

“God willing, if the center works out in Paramus, the scrolls will be on display there under proper circumstances,” Meno said.

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