I must temporarily stop the narrative and devote one segment to the Essenes, since they are going to be important to this book. Most of what is known about the Essenes is taken from the works of the historian Josephus, who was their contemporary. Unfortunately, a raging feud had developed in recent years among distinguished historians and archaeologists regarding the possibility that not only the Essenes did not write the Dead Sea Scrolls, as the common assumption used to be, but that they did not even exist! I side with the group who maintains that Josephus knew his contemporaries well enough, and had no reason to invent the Essenes, which I believe had influenced both Hillel the Elder and Jesus Christ.
As discussed in a previous segment, the Jews of that time were not all of one mind; well, Jews never are of one mind, and everyone knows the old joke that says that if you put three Jews into a room, they will have six opinions no matter what the subject of discussion happens to be. But at that time there was a clear separation into three groups. The feuds between the Sadducees and the Pharisees have been described. However, Josephus maintains that the third group, the Essenes, had just as much influence.
Most of the Essenes belonged to ascetic groups of celibate males who lived simply, chastely, and communally. Many of them dwelt in various cities and towns, other lived in the desert, in caves or simple buildings They strove to conquer human pleasures and passions, and cultivate kindness and piety. Their level of communal living was complete. When a man joined the order, he officially transferred all his assets to the order. Every object, even personal clothes, were shared and given as needed, there were never any sales among them. They neither suffered from the excess and glut of riches, nor from the pain of poverty. In each settlement, elected curators took care of the communal affairs of the group, freeing the others from bothering about it.
Since they had a presence in every city and town, a traveling Essene did not even need to take any baggage – as soon as he came to the communal house in any town, or in the wilderness, he received a change of clothes, sandals, food – anything he needed. An appointed steward in each settlement was assigned to accommodate such visitors. For a journey, therefore, they only took weapons to defend themselves from bandits, should they bother to attack them. They needed very little, anyway. They wore simple white clothes and plain sandals, and kept them until they became rags. They did not even use olive oil for their bodies, as most people did, since they considered it a sinful luxury.
The Essenes were extremely pious; their religion was the core of any activity and their reason for being. In the morning, they put on their working clothes, and prayed, never discussing any mundane matters. After prayers, they dispersed to their various occupations, worked diligently for five hours, and then prepared themselves for the first meal of the day. Wrapping themselves with white linen covers around their waists, they bathed in cold water which in winter could be really frigid, and after being purified, walked into their private dining hall where they sat silently. The bakers handed them loaves of bread, and the cooks placed a dish of simple, single type of food in front of each man. They offered prayers before starting to eat and after the meal was finished, and then laid aside the white clothes, put on their working clothes, and returned to work. In the evening, they assembled again for the same kind of bathing, white linen clothes, and a simple dinner, and after dinner spent the rest of the evening in a pleasant, always calm and respectful conversation, paying particular attention to the comfort of visitors, if they had any. Some of them spent the time studying. In their studies, they were very fond of the ancient traditions and compositions, and had a particular interest in works regarding the benefit of the body and soul. They studied diseases and their cures, such as herbs, stones, and amulets. Josephus does not give much detail about the nature of their studies, but it is clear that they were mystics and had engaged in occult knowledge and esoteric philosophy in addition to the science, medicine, and religion. They never swore or took oaths, considering it a degradation after the life-changing oaths they had to take when entering the order.
An important quotation from Josephus says: “Neither yelling nor disorder pollutes the house at any time, but they yield conversation to one another in order.” I will return to this quotation when I later tell one of Hillel’s legends, regarding his expectation for peace at his own home, since it shows that the Essenes’ habit of civilized behavior meant a lot to him. Josephus felt that the reason for their amazing ability to maintain silence and peace was due to their lifestyle. He wrote: “And to those from outside, the silence of those inside appears as a kind of shiver-inducing mystery. The reason for this is their continuous sobriety and the rationing of food and drink among them—to the point of fullness.”
Their obedience to their curators was complete, but two things were left to their discretion. They could always render assistance to anyone they thought needed it, and could always show mercy to anyone who was suffering. They were not permitted to aid relatives, though, without clearing it with the curators – another precaution to preserve ethics and integrity.
Not everyone could join their society, which they also referred to as a school. The applicant received all he needed, but was not allowed to live inside. Slowly and gradually he would prove his worth for a year. If deemed worthy, he spent two more years before being allowed to join the communal life, by swearing the dreadful oaths mentioned above. He swore that he would observe piety toward God, maintain just actions toward humanity, harm no one on his own or by command, associate only with the just, and remain faithful to those in control since they were chosen by God. If ever chosen to be a figure of authority, he swore he would never abuse it in any way, and neither outshine his subordinates or adopt a form of extravagance. He had to swear that he would always love the truth, never commit a crime, and be willing to submit to torture rather than betray his fellows. Interestingly, he was also required to swear
that he would never reveal the names of the angels written in the school books – a proof of their esoteric knowledge.
If convicted of serious errors, a member could be expelled from the order. This meant death since because of his former oaths he could not take food from other people, and would starve. Therefore, the criminal was often reinstated when near death, out of mercy. Certain people were condemned to death for the reason of insulting any of the lawgivers. Their trials were just and precise, basing judgment on the opinion and discourse of at least a hundred people. Generally, they submitted to the elders, and to the opinion of the majority.
Their piety included a great reverence of the Sabbath, the day of rest. They were even more strict about it than the rest of the Jews. The laws regarding the Sabbath were so elaborate that they included instruction of how to handle eating, carrying of vessels, and even the proper way to relieve themselves. A truly strange result of such reverence was that they could not relieve themselves in the usual manner, since that might cause the forbidden moving of a container. Therefore, each of them had a small hatchet which was given to him when he was still a neophyte. With these hatchets they prepared small holes in the ground, in deserted spots, leaving the excavated earth near the hole. When they needed to relieve themselves, they wrapped themselves securely with their cloaks, so as not to offend what they called “The Rays of God,” and relieved themselves into the hole, then piled the excavated earth into the hole. Each time, they had to wash themselves for purification purposes as if polluted, even though elimination was considered a natural act.
The Essenes were divided into four classes, based on the duration of their training. These divisions were taken very seriously, to the point of being careful that the higher class individual was not to touch the less pure, newer person.
The celibate Essenes kept their numbers by adopting young children who needed a home, and raising them in their ways. However, some Essenes split into a sub-order that accepted all the tenets except the opinion about marriage. They felt that not being married cut them off from an important part of life, and that the issue of succession was threatened. However, the brides were carefully chosen, and only those willing to undergo the three-year training were permitted to marry into the order. The women had to be purified three times, bathing in the same manner as the men, that is, wrapped in white linen clothes. Once married, they were to stop having intercourse during each pregnancy, since marriage was undertaken not for pleasure but for the sake of having children. It seems the women were full participants in the way of life of the order, and probably joined becbut less is known about them than about the men. This is a common situation in antiquity, when a woman’s name and identity was protected.
According to Josephus, they were extremely long lived; many passed one hundred years. Josephus, knowing that future generations would not believe such a statement without an explanation, gave his opinion that this was so because of the simplicity of their regimen and their orderliness. But while they expected to live a long life, they had no fear of death, and accepted with complete composure even the harshest ways of dying, such as from torture in the hands of their enemy. Their torturers were often shocked to see them smile in the midst of their agony. They did so because they believed that their souls
could be cheerfully dismissed, since they would get them back again. This was a core belief among the Essenes. They were convinced that while their bodies were perishable, their souls endured forever, entirely deathless. Each soul emanated from refined ether, but was drawn, and entangled with, the prisons that are the bodies. At the moment of death, the soul felt released from the restrains of the flesh, as if freed from a long period of slavery, and rejoiced in its freedom. They expected reward for the good, and punishment for the bad, in the afterlife. Many Jews, and even Greeks, were greatly intrigued by their theology. Some believed that the Essenes could foretell the future, due to their training in holy books and their purification, in addition to the concise saying of their prophets. It seems their prophecies often came true. There is much we do not know, but it is clear that this fascinating group were influential in all the later Jewish and Christian, thought and belief.