The earliest known written record of Yom Kippur observance can be found in the Dead Sea Scroll known as “Pesher Habakkuk,” according to archaeologist Prof. Yonatan Adler.
It is one of the original group of seven scrolls discovered in 1947, and one of the most well-known. At the time when the scrolls were written — the mid-2nd century BCE during the Hasmonean period — the Second Temple had been rebuilt but the Jewish kingdom was divided into rival sects and political groups, the most famous of these being the Sadducees and the Pharisees, who were bitter opponents.
“It tells about a wicked priest who pursued a teacher of righteousness [on Yom Kippur], who was one of the leaders of the Qumran group,” Adler, of Ariel University’s Land of Israel and Archaeology department, tells The Times of Israel just ahead of the Day of Atonement.
The Qumran group, who left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls and other artifacts, were probably Essenes, a smaller, mystical-oriented sect. Adler adds that the “wicked priest” was likely one of the Hasmonean priests or rulers, who arrived — possibly with soldiers — to admonish the desert worshipers because that group was observing the Day of Atonement on what was considered the wrong date.
“It seems, once the Torah became well-known — and ever since — people have argued how to observe it,” Adler says, thus leading to the existence of the different sects of the period. In this case, different opinions about exactly when a new lunar month began could lead to different groups celebrating holy days one or two days apart from each other.
“Imagine you have one people who have Yom Kippur on one day, and one on another,” Adler says. “There will be arguments and fights. It seems the High Priest understood that Yom Kippur was on Sunday, let’s say, and the Qumranites were on a Monday, so he came down there on their day, perhaps with troops… he wanted them to break their observance. It could have been in Qumran, but it could have been somewhere else.”
There is a similar Talmudic story about rabbis arguing about when to observe Yom Kippur, he notes. The Jewish calendar of months and holidays as we know it today was codified around 350 CE, although debates and commentaries around various calendar issues would persist for centuries.
The passage from Pesher Habakkuk, the only part of the scrolls to explicitly mention Yom Kippur, reads in translation: “Its interpretation concerns the Wicked Priest who pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to consume him with the heat of his anger in the place of his banishment. In festival time, during the rest of the day of Atonement, he appeared to them, to consume them and make them fall on the day of fasting, the Sabbath of their rest.”
Central to Adler’s research, which he explores in his book “The Origins of Judaism,” released in 2022 by Yale University Press, is his theory that Torah observance and knowledge became widespread only during the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted from around 140 BCE to 37 BCE. This period saw the Hasmonean priestly rulers of Judea gain independence from the Greek Seleucids, and then grab more territory of their own, upon which they imposed Torah law.
According to Adler, while the Torah, meaning the Five Books of Moses, was in existence before the Hasmoneans, they were probably the rulers who made it the “ideological and legal underpinning” of their Judaic kingdom. Before this, “the people are Jews… they have a temple, they have priests, they have sacrifices, they spoke Hebrew and did all this,” but perhaps in a more traditional way, without the “specificity” of the Torah.
You don’t find physical evidence linked with observance of the Torah, such as a mikveh (ritual bath) or tefillin (phylacteries), before the Hasmonean period, he notes.
In the Torah, Yom Kippur is characterized as the “Day of Affliction”; the Bible doesn’t actually mention it as a fast day and it is unclear whether the early Jews observed it as such. However, figures such as Philo of Alexander and Josephus, both writing in the 1st century CE, mention the Jewish custom of fasting on Yom Kippur, indicating that it was an accepted custom by their time.
The Pesher Habakkuk scroll, from at least several generations earlier, is the oldest reference to Yom Kippur fasting. Before this, Adler says, there are no other references, and biblical sources indicate that Yom Kippur was not always in fact observed.
Adler cites several examples of this in his book, including a passage in Chronicles 2 indicating that King Solomon celebrated a seven-day altar dedication during the seventh month (Tishrei), in the days just before Sukkot. Meaning, the celebrations would have begun on the eighth and continued through the 14th, with no mention at all of Yom Kippur on the tenth of Tishrei. Ergo, King Solomon might have “partied” through the Day of Atonement, Adler says.
The scholar, who is also a rabbi ordained through the Israeli Rabbinate, stresses that his research into the historical origins of Judaism isn’t meant to “deconstruct” the religion. Judaism is and always has been dynamic, constantly changing. He is trying to “understand what actually happened” but this, for him, has no effect on the meaningfulness of observance.
Yom Kippur “is meaningful because of what it is, it’s the ultimate ‘undo’ button,” he says. “It’s the time when we can right our wrongs, to fix the mistakes in our lives. It’s an incredible, revolutionary idea.”
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