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Sects and Separatism During the Second Jewish Commonwealth

By Leah Leah Bronner


The origin of the phenomenon of religious separatism, whether between a Jew and a non-Jew, or between a Jew and his co-religionist, must be sought for in the history of the first Jewish Commonwealth.

From the beginning of Jewish history, from the days of Abraham down to Moses and athe Exodus and beyond, one meets the idea of Israel being separate from other nations and consecrated to the service of God. This doctrine of "election" of Israel by God, pervades the history and prophesy of the Old Testament. This "call" detached Israel from her heathen surroundings and impressed upon her and her descendants the ineffaceable stamp of separateness. This concept is encountered numerous times in the Bible, but for the moment it will suffice to quote the verse which may be regarded as the locus classicus for the doctrine of chosenness which has as its natural corollary ñ separatism:

If you will hearken unto my voice indeed and keep my covenant then ye shall be mine own treasure from among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex.19:5-6).

These verses prove that the election was dependent upon obedience to the covenant, and that adherence to Mosaism was the factor that separated Israel from everything impure and defiling. It is extremely interesting to note, after close investigation, that the Hebrew verb "to be holy" implies "to be separate" as well. The original meaning of this Hebrew word is uncertain and seems as present indiscoverable (Smith, Religion of the Semites, p. 140). Following a suggestion by Dillman, Kohler in his lexicon, refers to the Accadian qadasu, "to shine;" the etymology, once popular among scholars, that the root qds originally had the meaning "to separate," "to cut off," was bassed on the observation that roots which have a palatal as a first and a dental as a second radical often have the meaning of "to cut" (See Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, and Jastrow, Dictionary of the Talmud and Targumim). This, however, is rather a speculative way of etymologizing. Nevertheless it is remarkable that the Hebrew verb qds, "to be holy," implies "to be separate," as well. The rabbis paraphrase the verse "sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy," with the words, "as I am separate so be ye separated" (Lev.11:44, paraphrased in Sifra). Thus, the word, qds, will be written henceforth kadosh, and refers to the separation or reservation of a person, thing or place, for divine use and service. All persons separated from the rest of mankind to serve God, or serve in the sanctuary of God, are called kadosh, or kedoshim, in the Bible. The priest is holy unto God, as it is written:

Holy shall they be unto their God and they shall not profane the name of their God, for the fire offering of the Lord, the bread of their God do they offer, they shall therefore be holy (Lev.21:6).

Aaron, being separated from the rest of the priests, is called: Holy of Holies (1 Chron.23:13). Also, the Nazirite is called, "holy," as it is written: "All the days of his abstinence is he holy unto the Lord" (Num.6:8).

The word kadosh as already stated above, is often used in the Pentateuch to designate and describe the special mission of Israel in the world. For the idea of holiness was a keystone of Mosaic Law. God brought Israel out of Egypt to be a chosen people, a holy people, a people apart and distinguished from all others by certain rites and rituals. Their laws and customs, their outward consecration was symbolically to express their inner sanctity. That Israel was regarded as holy unto the Lord can be proven from numerous passages in the Bible.

Thou art a holy people to the Lord thy God, for the Lord thy God has chosen thee to be his own treasure out of all the peoples on the face of the earth (Deut.7:6).

The classical example to prove our point has already been mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Many other passages in the Bible can be easily found (Deut.14:2, 26:19, 28:9; Jer.2:5). In Psalms, for instance, Israel is referred to as "his holy dominion," and likewise in the later books of the Bible, such as Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezra (Ps.114:1; Is.63:8; Dan.12:7; Ezr.9:12).

In order to achieve the exalted state of kedusha, Israel had to keep aloof and withdraw from things impure and defiling. The Jewish people, in order to attain the state of kedusha, were commanded to abstain from unclean food, from intermarriage with idolatrous nations, as well as from immoral behavior. That the rudiments of holiness can be attained by the fulfillment of the above three commandments, namely, abstinence from impure food, forbidden marriages and immoral sexual relations, is obvious from the fact that when the Torah speaks about "the people being holy," the subject matter that follows this clause, deals frequently with forbidden food or carnality. The commandment "ye shall be holy, for I am holy," serves usually as a preamble or postscript to prohibitions connected with sexual life or with eating.

The following verses will suffice to prove the above enunciated statement:

And ye shall be holy unto me, therefore ye shall not eat any flesh that is torn of the beast in the field, ye shall cast it to the dog (Ex.22:30).

The chapter in Leviticus which lists the animals that may be consumed as food, and those that are forbidden, concludes:

Ye shall, therefore, be holy for I am holy. This is the law of the best and of the fowl (Lev.11:45, 46).

Likewise in chapter 10 of Leviticus, we find the verse, "you shall be holy," is followed by a long list of unclean and forbidden animals (Lev.10:25,26). In the same manner, the section in the book of Deuteronomy, relating to forbidden food, also ends with the words, "for thou are a holy people unto the Lord thy God (Deut.14:21).

Similarly, the chapter treating of forbidden sexual relations ends with the words: "Therefore shall ye keep my charge that ye do not any of these abominable customs which were done, before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein. I am the Lord your God," and immediately following this, comes, "ye shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev.19:2).

When in the book of Leviticus the priest is forbidden to marry a harlot or a divorcee, the verse stating this injunction, concludes by stating that this is prohibited to him, because "holy is he unto God" (Lev.21:6,7). Here again the word, kadosh, is encountered following a prohibition against illicit relations. Finally, the section in the book of Deuteronomy that prohibits intermarriage with the heathen nations, concludes with "for thou are a holy people unto the Lord thy God" (Deut.7:2-6).

According to the above quoted biblical verses, it becomes apparent that the state of kedusha can be maintained by eating ritually clean food, and by abstaining from prohibited marriages, and illicit sexual relations.

It is worthwhile remembering, that the laws relating to food and sexual behavior, which serve as a preamble to kedusha, have this in common, that they intend to control the two strongest, most potent instincts to be found in man. However, holiness imposes many more obligations upon the individual or the nation desirous of attaining this exalted state in its entirety. This is apparent from the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, which is the most significant section of what is usually referred to as the Holiness Code. Here are enumerated those commandments, ritual as well as ethical, which are to serve as the basis for creating "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." This chapter includes the whole gamut of human life, "revering father and mother," turning away from idols, prohibiting "the reaping of the corners of the field or gleaning the vineyard" but in "leaving them for the poor." Holiness is incompatible with theft, falsehood and perjury; it cannot be found side by side with oppression of oneís neighbor or withholding the wages of the hired servant. Holiness vanishes with cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind. The state of kedusha on a national level demands justice in the courts, equality of rich and poor before the law. On an individual plane, it demands partaking only of ritually clean food, control of sexual desires, as well as acting justly in all spheres of social and commercial life; it culminates in the commandment "thou shall thy neighbor as thyself."

Holiness in Judaism was conceived as a summation of all ritual, moral and ethical values. It may be mentioned at this early stage, that the laws dealing with the consumption of ritual clean food, and restraint n sexual matters, played a very important and significant role in the religious life of the various sects during the Second Temple. In fact, one may state that in their zealous quest for kedusha and hasidut, a state of holiness even superior to that of kedusha, their starting point was rigid discipline in matters appertaining to eating and copulation. They not only endeavored to fulfill the Pentateuchal legislation concerning the attainment of kedusha, but often went beyond the requirements of the Mosaic law. Many aspired to obtain the status of holiness prescribed for priests, and therefore ate their food in the state of levitical purity. Some sects, as shall later be shown, even introduced innovations, which went not only beyond biblical legislation, but even beyond rabbinical interpretation of the Law of Moses; celibacy might be one example. But control and restraint in their eating and copulatory habits, were the starting points, which placed man upon the path of holiness, enabling him to attain the state of sacredness which led to communion with God.