The Dead Sea Scrolls testify to the regular practice of communal meals in the Qumran community. Facilities for dining have also been identified among the Qumran remains. The importance of the communal meal at Qumran is indicated in this summary statement from the Rule of the Community from Cave 1 regarding community life. “They shall eat in common and bless in common and deliberate in common” (hereafter, 1QRule of the Community, 1QS vi.2–3). Descriptions of Essene meal practices in Philo and Josephus coordinate with what we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls and lend weight to the theory that the inhabitants of Qumran were Essenes.
Although the scrolls do not indicate how often the communal meals were held, Josephus notes that the Essene meals took place twice a day, once in the late morning, when they took a break from their morning labors, and once in the late afternoon, when they finished their labors for the day (The Jewish War 2.129–132). Before each meal, Josephus writes, they would purify themselves with a bath and put on special garments. The scrolls also connect purificatory ablutions with entrance to the “pure meal” of the community (1QS v.13–14).
The Rule of the Community from Cave 1 describes the common meal as follows:
"Wherever there are ten men of the council of the community there shall not lack a priest among them. And they shall all sit before him according to their rank and shall be asked their counsel in all things in that order. And when the table has been prepared for eating, and the new wine for drinking, the priest shall be the first to stretch out his hand to bless the first fruits of the bread and new wine. (1QS vi.3–6)"
Like other gatherings of the community, the common meal required at least ten men and the presence of a priest. No mention is made of women participating in the meal, a point also made by Josephus (The Jewish War 2.120–121). When they arrived in the dining room, the men were to sit “according to rank,” which corresponds to Josephus's note that they were served “in order” (The Jewish War 2.130). The meal began with a benediction by the priest, also emphasized by Josephus, who adds: “none may partake until after the prayer” (The Jewish War 2.131). Josephus also mentions a prayer by the priest at the end of the meal, a practice not referred to in the scrolls.
The Rule of the Community specifies prayers over both the bread and the “new wine.” This does not mean that only bread was eaten; rather, the prayer over the bread would be intended to cover all the food. According to Josephus the menu included bread and an unspecified common dish that was served to each participant (The Jewish War 2.130). The reference in the Rule of the Community to “new wine” is unusual since it is not the normal term for wine but rather refers either to lightly fermented new wine or simply to grape juice. Though later rabbinic usage connects the term with grape juice, the Temple Scrolla (11Q19) connects it with the feast of new wine. In either case, the limited alcoholic content of their wine correlates with the sobriety of the community.
One component of their cuisine appears to have been meat. At various locations at the Qumran site, burials of animal bones encased in pottery vessels have been found. The bones appear clearly to be the remains of meals since they derive from edible animals (goats, sheep, oxen) and have been separated and cleaned of flesh. Why the remains of meals were buried so carefully continues to be a mystery. It has been suggested that they were remains of sacrificial meals, but no signs of sacrifice have been found at the site, and burial of sacrificial remains in this manner is unprecedented, so this interpretation is problematic.
Two separate rooms among the archaeological remains at Qumran have been proposed as dining halls. Roland de Vaux identified a large rectangular room, 22 meters by 4.5 meters wide (72 feet by 15 feet), as the community dining hall because an adjacent room contained a cache of some one thousand serving vessels. He also noted that the room was designed so that it could be washed with water and drained, consistent with its proposed use for dining. There is no indication as to what the furnishings of the room might have been.
A reexamination of the excavation data by Pauline Donceel-Voûte has resulted in a new theory that the collapsed second floor of locus 30, previously identified as the scriptorium, was instead used as a dining room. The plastered furnishings found in the debris from the room, originally identified by de Vaux as a bench and writing table (1973, pp. 29–33, pl. XXIa), would in this reconstruction be identified as a low platform placed along the wall on which the couches (formerly identified as “writing tables”) would rest. Donceel-Voûte argues that this reconstruction better fits the form of the remains and, furthermore, corresponds more accurately to a known architectural pattern in the ancient world, since there are many examples of dining rooms being designed in this way, whereas the proposed bench and writing table are unprecedented architecturally (as acknowledged by de Vaux). Donceel-Voûte's reconstruction of the arrangement of the furnishings suggests that the room could have held at least nine and possibly more reclining diners. While it was common for diners to recline at ancient banquets, it must be noted that the scrolls describe diners at the community meal as sitting (1QS vi.3–5).
The community meal was known as a “pure meal,” indicating its function as a centerpiece for the elaborate purity rules specific to this community. Just as the community saw itself as set apart from the rest of humanity, and even the rest of Judaism, by its purity, so the meal was one in which only the pure could participate.
In many ways participation at the common table symbolized membership in the community. There was a two-year trial period for each initiate before being accepted into full membership, during which time “he shall not touch the pure meal of the congregation until one full year is completed … he shall not touch the drink of the congregation until he has completed a second year among the men of the community” (1QS vi.16–17). Josephus states: “Before he may touch the common food, he is made to swear tremendous oaths” (The Jewish War 2.139). Similarly, exclusion from the meal for a specified time, usually a year, was the primary way in which members were disciplined (1QS vi.24–25, vii.15–16, vii.18–20).
This function of the meal as a boundary marker, setting the community apart from the outside world, is a feature it shared with meals in the culture at large. Meals functioned as a central activity for groups of various kinds in the Greco-Roman world, such as clubs, funerary societies, and philosophical societies, as well as sectarian groups within Judaism, such as the Therapeutae (described in Philo's On the Contemplative Life) and the early Christians. Other features of the Qumran meals were also consistent with Greco-Roman banquets, including prayer before the meal (which for the Greeks was usually in the form of a libation), the ranking of guests at the table, and reclining, if indeed reclining was practiced at Qumran (as Donceel-Voûte argues, but the evidence is inconclusive).
Another interpretation of the meal is found in the Rule of the Congregation (1Q28a). Here the community meal is said to include not only the community, but also “the priest,” “the whole congregation of Israel,” “the sons of Aaron the Priests,” “the chiefs of the clans of Israel,” and “the Messiah of Israel.” The entire company proceeds in and sits “each in the order of his dignity.” After the priest says the benediction over the bread, “the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread, and all the congregation of the community shall utter a blessing, each man in the order of his dignity” (1Q28a ii.11–22). This text superimposes over the formula of the regular community meal a description of a banquet with the Messiah. The motif is that of the messianic or eschatological banquet, the banquet of the end time, a theme that is widely reflected in biblical and extrabiblical tradition (e.g., Is. 25.6–8, 2 Bar. 29.1–8). Based on this text, Frank Moore Cross, among others, has suggested that the Qumran community celebrated their common meals as a “liturgical anticipation of the messianic banquet.”
Comparison with Christianity and Other Sects.
Comparisons are often drawn between the Qumran meal and the Christian Lord's Supper. However, the centrality of the meal to the life of the community and the prominence of bread and wine are common features of all ancient meals. More distinctive is the eschatological focus and the idealization of the meal as a messianic banquet, which the Lord's Supper emphasizes as well in such texts as Mark 14.25 and Luke 22.15–18. But these texts contrast the Lord's Supper with the Passover meal and make no reference to the Qumran (or Essene) tradition, so it is unlikely that Christian practices were drawn directly from Qumran practices.
The Qumran meal has also been identified as a “sacred meal” in its resemblance to the Christian sacramental interpretation of the Lord's Supper. These arguments often derive from an inadequate definition of “sacred meal” and an inadequate appreciation for the widespread practice of communal meals in the ancient world. The closest one gets to such a concept is Josephus's reference to the Essenes entering the dining hall “as into some holy shrine” and practicing silence at the table so as to appear “to those outside … like some awful mystery” (The Jewish War 2.129, 2.133). Notice, however, that Josephus is not referring to the meaning of the meal per se, but rather to the effect it might have had on outside observers. It is a style of argument meant to persuade the reader that these meals were not run-of-the-mill pagan affairs but rather had a form consistent with the strict rules of purity with which they were circumscribed.
Qumran meal practices have also been compared to these of the ḥavurah (“fellowship,” “brotherhood”), a term mentioned in Dema᾽i 2.2–3. The ḥaver was one who maintained a table of ritual purity and refrained from eating with ῾am ha-᾽arets. Whether the ḥaverim were actually a sectarian group, like the Qumran community, or whether this terminology simply referred to gatherings with one's social intimates are matters of scholarly debate. But at the least the category of the ḥavurah illustrates the phenomenon of separation on the basis of laws of purity elsewhere in Judaism.
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Dennis E. Smith