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Stringency in Qumran: A Reassessment

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The attribution of stringency to the Qumranites is prevalent in scholarly research. Indeed it is indisputable that the Sect generally adopts stringent positions, compared to rabbinic halakah. However, closer examination indicates that Qumranic law reflects simple, necessary inferences from Scripture itself, whereas the Tannaitic leniency represents a surprisingly revolutionary divergence from the plain meaning of Scripture.

The paper surveys several cases in which the bold and exceptional nature of Tannaitic legislation cannot serve as a criterion for evaluating the stringency of Sectarian law. It goes on to review other instances, where the very same traditions formed the basis of Qumranic as well as rabbinic regulation, except that the latter restricted their scope.

The third group of examples shows that it was precisely the unrefined, simple character of Qumranic law, in comparison with the conceptual sophistication of Tannaitic halakah, that occasionally led to the opposite result, in which the Tannaitic halakah was strict, and the Sectarian law lenient.

In sum, the strictness of Qumranic law is not “objective” but relative. The understanding that sectarian law reflects a series of inductions not altogether removed from the simple sense of Scripture facilitates a more accurate appreciation of the depth of Tannaitic halakah's groundbreaking leniency.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Hebrew Culture Studies, Tel Aviv University, PO Box 39040, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel;, Email:


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