They’re not much larger than lentils, but size doesn’t minimize the potential significance of nine newfound Dead Sea Scrolls that have lain unopened for the better part of six decades.
An Israeli scholar turned up the previously unexamined parchments, which had escaped the notice of academics and archaeologists as they focused on their other extraordinary finds in the 1950s. Once opened, the minuscule phylactery parchments from Qumran, while unlikely to yield any shattering historic, linguistic or religious breakthroughs, could shed new light on the religious practices of Second Temple Judaism.
The Israel Antiquities Authority has been tasked with unraveling and preserving the new discoveries — an acutely sensitive process and one which the IAA says it will conduct painstakingly, and only after conducting considerable preparatory research.
Phylacteries, known in Judaism by the Hebrew term tefillin, are pairs of leather cases containing biblical passages from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. One case is bound by leather thongs to the head and one to the arm during morning prayers, as prescribed by rabbinic interpretation of the Bible. The case worn on the head contains four scrolls in individual compartments, while the arm phylactery holds one scroll.
At least two dozen tefillin scroll fragments were known to have been found during excavations of the limestone caves overlooking the Dead Sea at Qumran in the 1950s (several phylactery boxes and straps were unearthed as well). They were among the world-famous cache of thousands of scrolls and scroll fragments containing biblical and sectarian texts from the Second Temple period. Since their discovery, the Qumran scrolls have been housed at the Israel Museum, and scholars have pored over the ancient documents and opened a window into ancient Jewish theology.
But these nine latest tiny scrolls had been overlooked — until now.
Dr. Yonatan Adler, a lecturer at Ariel University and a post-doctoral researcher on Qumran tefillin at Hebrew University, was searching through the Israel Antiquities Authority’s climate-controlled storerooms in the Har Hotzvim neighborhood of Jerusalem in May 2013. There he found a phylactery case from Qumran among the organic artifacts stored in climate-controlled warehouses. Suspecting the case could contain a heretofore undocumented scroll, he had it scanned by an CT at Shaare Zedek Hospital. The analysis suggested there might indeed be an unseen parchment inside.
While that analysis has yet to be confirmed, Adler was spurred on by the discovery, and in December visited the Dead Sea Scroll labs at the Israel Museum. There he found two tiny scrolls inside the compartments of a tefillin case that had been documented but then put aside some time after 1952. The scrolls were never photographed or examined, and so have remained bound inside the leather box for roughly 2,000 years.
Then, just last month, Adler told The Times of Israel he “found a number of fragments of tefillin cases from Qumran Cave 4, together with seven rolled-up tefillin slips” which had never been opened.
“Either they didn’t realize that these were also scrolls, or they didn’t know how to open them,” Pnina Shor, curator and head of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, explained.
Józef Tadeusz Milik, the most prolific publisher of the scrolls after their discovery last century, reported on the Cave 4 tefillin case finds but he “didn’t say why they didn’t open them, [and] he also didn’t say they were scrolls,” even though the parchments were identified as part of tefillin assemblage, she said.
Shor and her team have managed the painstaking task of preserving and maintaining the thousands of scroll fragments found in the Judean Desert caves, removing tehm from the glass cases in which they were entombed in the 1950s, treating them and storing them on acid-free boards in a climate-controlled vault. As part of an overall digitization project of the scrolls, each minute fragment is imaged with multi-spectral imaging. Each scroll fragment is imaged at 56 different exposures — 28 per side (as some scrolls have writing on both) — in 12 different wavelengths ranging as far as near infrared. The team will be tasked with a similar mission with the new scrolls once they’ve been opened.
Dead Sea Scroll expert Eibert Tigchelaar of the University of Leuven in Belgium said that the fact that these nine scrolls went undetected for so long should not come as a surprise, considering the scrolls’ complicated administrative history (which includes a change in sovereignty in 1967). “Things physically remained somewhere, but administratively were forgotten,” Tigchelaar said.
Moreover, “confronted with 10,000 or more fragments from Cave 4, of which the last were only published a few years ago, there was little attention [paid] to those tefillin that might not be opened at all,” he said.
None of the phylacteries has been radiocarbon dated, but the cache of scrolls and religious objects from the caves at Qumran date from the second and first centuries BCE and first century CE — a critical time in the development of Judaism and early Christianity.
Like many of the finds at Qumran, some of the tefillin slips that have previously been opened have yielded astonishing differences from the standard Rabbinic text known as the Masoretic.
“Some tefillin use a spelling very close to the traditional one, [but] there are several tefillin that use an extreme form of divergent spelling that also occurs in many other scrolls,” such as additional letters in possessive suffixes, Tigchelaar said.
Professor Lawrence Schiffman, a vice provost at Yeshiva University and expert on Second Temple Judaism, explained that some of the tefillin texts from Qumran were identical to those used today, but others have the same text with additional passages, extended to include the Ten Commandments. He also pointed out that it would be interesting to see the order in which the scrolls were placed inside the tefillin compartments — a practice debated by rabbis for centuries.
“From my point of view, the most significant thing about all of this is that they actually have tefillin from 2,100 and plus years ago,” Schiffman said of the Dead Sea Scrolls generally. The continuity of phylactery traditions — over the centuries and across the various sects that comprised Second Temple Jewry — was something he found remarkable.
“We have to be prepared for surprises,” Professor Hindy Najman of Yale University said, of the new discoveries. “On the one hand there’s tremendous continuity between what we have found among the Dead Sea Scrolls — liturgically, ritually and textually — and contemporaneous and later forms of Judaism. But there’s also tremendous possibility for variegated practices and a complex constellation of different practices, different influences, different ways of thinking about tefillin.”
Schiffman, however, said he doesn’t expect any “bombshells” emerging from the new scrolls that will “overturn the concepts that we have.”
“Given the amount of research that’s been done… important discoveries like this don’t overturn previous ideas,” he said. “We’re going to be able to augment what we know about the tefillin already.”
Tigchelaar concurred, saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls in general, and these tefillin in particular, are important not because they would shed light on one particular sect during the Second Temple Era, but because they demonstrate that rabbinic practices had deeper roots.
“Whether one wants to emphasize the continuity, or the differences, is another thing,” he said.
Shor will be in charge of the project of meticulously unraveling the newfound scrolls and ensuring their preservation.
“We’re going to do it slowly, but we’ll first consult with all of our experts about how to go about this,” she said, reluctant to say when the process would commence. “We need to do a lot of research before we start doing this.”
I’ll tell you the truth: Life here in Israel isn’t always easy. But it's full of beauty and meaning.
I'm proud to work at The Times of Israel alongside colleagues who pour their hearts into their work day in, day out, to capture the complexity of this extraordinary place.
I believe our reporting sets an important tone of honesty and decency that's essential to understand what's really happening in Israel. It takes a lot of time, commitment and hard work from our team to get this right.
Your support, through membership in The Times of Israel Community, enables us to continue our work. Would you join our Community today?
Sarah Tuttle Singer, New Media Editor
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.