FOLLOWING closely upon the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greek armies and their Jewish proteges, there began a dispute over the interpretation of the commandments of the Pentateuch concerning which many of the scholars held varying opinions. These disputes were frequently so serious that they constituted a threat to the existence of the nation.
Out of these disputes there emerged three main tendencies which eventually crystallized into three different parties: the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes.
In general it is impossible to grasp the spirit of the Talmud and to understand clearly the teachings of its authors if one does not previously acquaint himself with the tendencies of these parties. It is also necessary to know that nearly all of the authors of the Talmud were Pharisees and that their spirit impressed its stamp on the Talmud, although it also contains numerous aphorisms by people who frequently joked at the expense of the Pharisees.
It is worth noting that the Pharisees were active in establishing regulations over the conduct of Judaism that would serve as a defensive wall about the Torah. To this end many laws of the Torah were made more severe and others assumed a form which to the casual observer seemed to deviate from the original text. These interpretations were generally based on traditions which in turn had to be substantiated by the Torah. These different opinions were sharply disputed until the people were divided into the above mentioned three parties which afterward attacked each other.
Many of the Pharisees practiced such extreme piety that they renounced all earthly pleasures and by their actions and customs they set themselves apart from the rest of the population. On the other hand, there were many people who refused to recognize any interpretation of the law which, to them, seemed to be in disagreement with its literal meaning. These people particularly objected to the restrictions of the “oral law”. They allied themselves with those who fought against the laws that were based on tradition. The opponents of the Pharisees argued that the devotion of the Pharisees to the interpretations goes to such extremes of unreasoning belief that were their leaders to tell them that right is left and vice versa, they would unquestioningly obey the advice of their teachers.
The opponents of the Pharisees numbered in their midst the rich and politically influential Jews who felt that their attempts to attain closer spiritual relations with the neighboring peoples were hindered by the activities of the Pharisees. They particularly opposed the Pharisees because of the latter’s devotion to faith and because of their lack of concern for the other problems of life. The Pharisees, on the other hand, held these views because of their conviction that man can achieve nothing without God’s consent and that every attempt which runs counter to God’s will is doomed to fail.
Separated from all other people by their manner of observing the Jewish customs, the Pharisees considered the other Jews as idol worshippers with whom no pious man should have any contact. Their very name indicated that they were a class apart in their behavior. (The Hebrew word פּרושים means people separated or isolated.) They were especially severe in their observance of the laws pertaining to cleanliness and the paying of the tithe to the Priests and Levites. They believed that forbidden foods as well as grains from which no tithe was given to the priests were impure. The Pharisees were also careful to observe all the dietary rules of cleanliness even when they ate ordinary food and not that of sacrifices.
As a pious precaution, many Pharisees abstained from dealing with the so-called “Ame Aratzim” (people of the soil). A Pharisee would not eat at the same table with an “Am Ha’Aretz” out of suspicion that the latter may not have contributed his share to the Priests and Levites. Neither would a Pharisee buy from or sell to an “Am Ha’Aretz”, nor invite one to his house, nor go visiting into the house of an “Am Ha’Aretz”.
The name “Am Ha’Aretz” was at that time applied primarily to tillers of the soil. Although agricultural work, as such, was highly regarded by the scholars, many of them openly confessed their dislike for the “Am Ha’Aretz”, the man of the soil. Certain historians try to interpret this attitude as an indication that the tillers of the soil were not racially pure and freely inter-married with their gentile neighbors. In the Talmud there are widely diverging opinions as to which people should be classified as “Am Ha’Aretz”. Some would have it that an “Am Ha’Aretz” is a person who does not contribute the tithe from the fruit of his land. Rabbi Eliezer held that an “Am Ha’Aretz” is one who does not recite the prayer “Shema” morning and evening. Rabbi Joshua said an “Am Ha’Aretz” is one who does not wear Phylacteries. Ben Azai said it is one who does not wear fringes. Rabbi Nathan said it is one who has no Mezuzah on his door; Rabbi Nathan, the son of Joseph, said it is one who does not raise his children in the knowledge of the Torah. Others contended that even if a person studied much himself but did not serve other scholars, he deserves to be called an “Am Ha’Aretz.”1)ברכות מ״ז ב׳.
The Pharisees disdained an “Am Ha’Aretz”. From other sources in the Talmud we know that the “Am Ha’Aretz” hated scholars.
Concerning the meaning of the word “Pharisees” it was noted above that it indicates people who separated themselves from all others by their behavior. Others would have it that the name derives from the fact that they devoted themselves to interpreting the law as they saw fit in order to adapt the religious commandments to the needs of the times. Since the Pharisees deeply understood the spirit of the Torah, they gave up the search for pleasure in life even as they avoided pride or any action which might seem immoral. They practiced brotherly love toward one another and each individual sought with all his might to avoid temptation.
The Pharisees were organized as a society and every member was addressed as “Friend”. This was not a closed organization and it did not limit its membership. Any person could join if he promised, in the presence of three members, to observe the rules of the organization which concentrated on cleanliness and ablutions. It is interesting to note that in accepting a new member no distinction was made between a scholar and an uneducated person. Both were considered of equal worth and any person who was willing to assume the burdens of Pharisaism could join the society.
As soon as a person became a member of the Pharisee society he undertook to serve God with his whole life. Such a person had to believe that God’s eye is all-seeing and that He observes all man’s acts in order to judge them for every injustice. Since man possesses a free will to do as he chooses he is held responsible for every act and he will have to account for his deeds before his Creator. The Pharisees also believed that God sometimes issues decrees governing nations or all of humanity and that such decrees may seem unreasonable to the victims. But such decrees are certainly just since God is just to the individual as well as to a group. If it appears that reward for good deeds or punishment for wrong doing is delayed, then one must remember that there is a reckoning after death, or later yet, when the dead will be resurrected, the deserving ones to eternal life and the evil ones to everlasting shame and suffering.
The Pharisees were very careful in their judgment of people and events. This is clearly seen from their verdicts involving physical punishment. They also treated everyone modestly; they received people kindly and tried to do good deeds to others, in so far as they could, at times even going beyond the limits of their strength. They were, therefore, deeply loved by the people and enjoyed their fullest confidence.
But what frequently happens to many high minded people also happened to the Pharisees. In spite of their good qualities, many people doubted the purity of their motives and they were suspected of doing many things in order to deceive their neighbors.
A specially strong hatred toward the Pharisees is evidenced by the New Testament. As a result of this the term “Pharisee” is today employed in world literature as a derogatory term and has become synonymous with a hypocrite. In other Christian writings the Pharisees are pictured as people who outwardly abstain from earthly pleasures but lead immoral lives. They are said to refuse to eat honey from impure bees, but do not abstain from pork. They are accused of fasting in order to atone for their sins against God even while they plan to deceive their neighbors.
It is probably true that among such a large group as the Pharisees were there must have been a number of individuals who were dishonest in their convictions. But it is also certain that the majority was honest, or they could not have maintained the leadership of the nation in those times.
It was remarked above that some of the scholars ridiculed the Pharisees. They portrayed seven different types, none of which was presented in a favorable light. The seven types are as follows: 1) One who is pious as Shechem, the son of Chamor, who was circumcised in order to obtain Dinah. 2) One who goes about with bowed head and hardly dares to raise his feet off the ground in order to display his modesty. 3) One who beats his head against a wall or goes about with closed eyes so as not to look at women. 4) One who goes about with twisted neck and head bowed like a hammer. 5) One who would persuade people that he has already done everything and challenges them to point out something he has not done yet. 6) One who does good deeds out of love for the reward which they bring. 7) One who obeys the law out of fear of the punishment which disobedience will bring.2)סוטה ב״ב ב׳.
THE SADDUCEES were the second largest party among the Jews during the creation of the Talmud and they were separated from the Pharisees by a wide spiritual gulf. It is believed that the principles which were accepted among the Sadducees originated in the misconceptions of Zadok and Boetus (pupils of Antigonos of Socho). Other historians hold a different opinion. Those claim that the Sadducees were descendants or disciples of the Zadok family which was a part of the priestly aristocracy and produced numerous high priests in the course of several centuries. When, in later years, the Hasmoneans triumphed over the Greeks, they also took over the high priests’ office. Thus ousted from power, the descendants of Zadok were forced into a status of opposition to the majority of Jewish leadership.
The first source of friction between the Sadducees and Pharisees was thus purely political and only at a later date did it develop into an acute religious dispute. There is also no cause to doubt the Talmudic tradition that the Sadducees were the followers of Zadok and Boetus and at the same time to accept the theory of the historians that they were the descendants of the house of Zadok who allied themselves with these followers in undermining the foundations of Jewish traditions.
But it would be incorrect to maintain that the Sadducees completely rejected the traditional interpretations of the law. They too held to numerous traditions and many of their interpretations of the religious law were substantially the same as those of the Pharisees. They had their own “Book of Decrees” (ספר הגזרות) which expounded their explanations of the commandments of the Torah and, in spite of their desire to resemble the other nations in behavior, they also observed some customs which tended to set them apart from the Gentiles.
The customs of the Sadducees, at any rate, were better adapted to the religious beliefs of the rich and the aristocracy which governed the land. But the greater the number of rich men who joined the Sadducees, the stronger became the concentration of the masses about the Pharisees and the abyss between the two grew from day to day.
The primary difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees consisted in that the Sadducees rejected the oral law which was accepted by the Pharisees. They maintained that only the written law of the Torah was binding upon men. In rejecting the traditions of the Pharisees, they refused to believe in the resurrection of the dead, which is not explicitly promised in the Torah. They ridiculed the Pharisees for the latter’s belief in the immortality of the soul and in a life after death and made fun of the notion that the souls of the pious will rest under the throne of glory. Another subject of their humor was the Pharisees’ readiness to endure suffering in the hope of being rewarded in life to come.
The development of this party proceeded favorably because of the response which its ideas found among aristocratic and government circles which usually had the power to suppress opposition by force. There is also much justification for the view that the party of the Sadducees prospered due to the discomfiture of the Hellenists after the triumph of the Maccabees.
A major source of difference was the Pharisees’ belief that even though a man may possess a free will to do either good or evil, according to his inclination, nevertheless God controls him in everything and is the ruler of his thoughts. The Sadducees maintained that God does not interfere with man’s behavior and that no reward or punishment awaits one after death. Reward or punishment, they argued, are inherent in the deed itself.
Twelve points involving disputed interpretation of ritual and law were contested by the Sadducees who claimed that: 1) The date of the Feast of Weeks should always fall upon a Sunday. 2) The daily sacrifice is to be provided by the individual and not by the community. 3) Frankincense burned on the Day of Atonement should be kindled by the High Priest before entering the Holy of Holies. 4) The ashes of the Red Heifer sacrifice should be gathered by a man who underwent purification the same day according to Numbers 19, 9. 5) The Sadducees burned only a small share of their meal offerings and ate the rest. 6) The commandment “an eye for an eye” they interpreted literally, so that if one crippled another, he himself should be crippled in like manner. 7) In the case of a false witness whose evidence causes the defendant to be punished, the false witness was to receive the same punishment. If the judgment brought about a death sentence, the false witness was not to receive his punishment until after the defendant was executed. 8) The law that only male offspring were to share the inheritance of their father was interpreted to mean that, if the heir was an only son and he died leaving only daughters, then his sisters as well as his daughters shared the inheritance. 9) The Sadducees held that a man was responsible for damage done by his slave just as he was liable for damage done by his live stock since the slave, possessing intelligence, might have caused the damage on orders of his owner. 10) They held a utensil to be unclean if from it a liquid was poured into an unclean utensil, thus making the liquid unclean. 11) They literally adhered to the procedure prescribed for a childless widow whose dead husband’s brother refused to marry her, helding it necessary that she spit in his face while the Pharisees held that she only need spit on the ground before him. 12) They also held to the literal meaning of the injunction in Deut. 22, 17, regarding disputed virginity, while the Pharisees gave it a broader interpretation.
There were also six traditional customs, which had no sanction in the Pentateuch, which the Pharisees observed and the Sadducees rejected: 1) The pouring of water on the altar on the night following the first day of Succoth. All night water was drawn from the river Shiloah to the accompaniment of music and singing and was poured on the altar. The Sadducees ridiculed this custom as of Greek origin, but the Pharisees were devoted to it. Once, when a Sadducee priest poured the water on his feet instead of the altar, the angered populace showered him with their ethrogim and killed him. 2) The procession round the altar with willow branches was rejected by the Sadducees. When the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles occurred on Saturday, as was then possible due to the inaccuracies of the calendar, the Sadducees held that the custom of beating the willow branches did not supersede the Sabbath, contrary to the custom of the Pharisees. 3) They were opposed to the Phariseical custom of washing the hands after reading the Bible. 4) They opposed the inclusion of the phrase “according to the law of Moses and Israel” into the divorce certificates. Since these certificates bore the name and the year of the reign of the king, the Sadducees thought it would show disrespect for Moses to have his name appear alongside that of the king. 5) They denied the validity of Nehemiah’s injunction against carrying objects from one household to another on the Sabbath. 6) They refused to recognize the new restrictions with which the Pharisees embellished the laws pertaining to purification of women.
But in spite of the oposition of the Sadducees to the teachings of the Pharisees and in spite of their having the support of the rich and the officials, they were not strong enough to withstand the pressure of the population which was mostly on the side of the Pharisees and was ready to defend its convictions with its very life.
Many customs were introduced by the Pharisees purely out of spite for the Sadducees. They endeavored to impress the people that under no circumstances must they act according to the dictates of the Sadducees even when these were nearly accurate. The Pharisees established the date of the Feast of Weeks on the sixth day of Sivan which, according to their calculations, was the date of the giving of the Torah. In the prayers to be recited on that day they included the words “the time our Torah was given” in order to strengthen the conviction that this feast was celebrated in commemoration of the giving of the Torah and not as a celebration of the bringing of the first fruits.
THE THIRD significant party in Jewish life of that time were the Essenes. This party left no permanent imprint on Jewish life and even when it was at its zenith it did not occupy a prominent place. From the Pharisees have evolved the Jews of the present day whose customs and beliefs are based on the Talmudic interpretations of the Torah. From the Sadducees in later times evolved the sect of the Karaites who represent the same mode of thinking. Of the Essenes we can only say that the early Christians conducted themselves along similar lines.
The development of the Essenes began in the early years of the Hasmoneans, and they are derived from the “Chassidim” of that time who fought against the Syrian Greeks under the banner of Judah Macabee and his brothers. They were those who would rather undergo martyrdom than do anything which might make them suspect of imitating the Greeks. However, many of them became dissatisfied with the situation even as it existed after the victory of the Maccabees. To them the behavior of the Hasmoneans was not sufficiently Jewish. They fled the cities and sought refuge in the mountains where they lived in an unusual manner apart from everyone else and awaited a change in the direction of Jewish ideas.
The meaning of the name Essenes is not entirely clear. Josephus called them Essenes; in Hebrew they are referred to as ״אסיים״. Some historians claim it means modest, others say it means shy. Another version interprets the name as “healers” because the Essenes devoted themselves to healing the sick. The Talmud refers to them as “morning baptists” due to their habit of performing long morning ablutions. They were sometimes called pious fools and the Talmud defines a pious fool as a person who would not rescue a drowning woman for fear of touching her.
The conduct of the Essenes was not always the same and in the course of time it changed although the basic principles remained constant. Their main idea was to avoid impurity of the body because of their belief that an impure body harbors an impure soul. Because of this fear of an impure soul the Essenes refused to marry. They considered woman as the source of immorality and discord. However, they later realized that by not marrying their society constantly diminishes and some of their members decided to marry in order to bring children into the world. The rest stubbornly clung to the original principle and remained unmarried till their death.
The Essenes did not follow any employment at first since they believed that all work soils the body. When they suffered a shortage of food because no outsider would provide for their needs, they refused to steal and since there were not enough fruit trees and wild grasses to subsist on, they decided that work is permissible and they engaged in agriculture.
Some customs of the Essenes remained unchanged. When a person was sworn into their society he had to promise never to take an oath again, even if it was to tell the truth and his very life depended on taking the oath. They also believed that by means of their special customs they could become imbued with the holy spirit and be able to foresee the future. They had their special books which they successfully guarded from the eyes of strangers even as they avoided coming in contact with people holding other beliefs. Some of them devoted themselves to healing the sick with various grasses and herbs; others did their healing with the aid of incantations and prayers to the angels in charge of cures whose names they knew. Instead of bringing sacrifices, the Essenes offered prayers which generally began with praise to the Creator of light who “daily repeats the miracles of Genesis.”
The Essenes never consumed food or drink which was not absolutely essential for the maintenance of life. They ate no meat and drank no wine and did not seek any pleasure in life. On the contrary, they hardened their bodies and gloried in suffering. Slavery they considered shameful because all men are brothers and as long as a man can serve himself he has no right to allow himself to be served by others. Every member of their society received what he needed free. They avoided anger and their word was sacred. They respected each other and even refrained from spitting in the presence of another person.
There were neither poor nor rich among the Essenes, for every person who joined them had to give all of his possessions to the society. Young and old, they all wore similar linen clothing which they guarded, just as carefully as they guarded their bodies, against dirt and the slightest spot, for they held cleanliness to be a decoration for a human being. Nevertheless they did not don any new garment as long as the old one could still be used.
They observed all the minutest regulations pertaining to Sabbath until it practically became a fast day for them. Since cooking was prohibited they ate nothing but dry bread, neither would they take any object into their hands and none of them even rose from their places on this day.
Many customs which the Pharisee scholars introduced into Jewish life were meant to be a protest against the Essenes. Since the Essenes did not eat meat nor drink wine and narrowly circumscribed their actions on the Sabbath, the Pharisee scholars expressly commanded that people should joyfully celebrate the Sabbath with meat and wine. Thus they also permitted the carrying of certain objects from one place to another (within the same household). When the Essenes became more strict and prohibited the lifting up of any object on the Sabbath, the scholars relented and permitted the touching of any vessel which is a bodily necessity or convenience, with the exception of tools which are used in every day labor. When the Essenes refused to marry, the Pharisees declared that any person who does not marry can be compared to a murderer who diminishes the stature of the Jewish people and drives the spirit of God out of its confines. Since the Essenes healed the sick with incantations, the Pharisees announced that whoever would attempt to perform a cure by means of an incantation would lose his share in life to come.
The Essenes customarily rose before dawn and bathed in cold water both summer and winter. They then put on newly washed clothes and, without anyone uttering a word, they began their collective praise to the Creator. When the sun rose each one went to his work which lasted five hours. After that they gathered again, removed their work clothes and bathed anew; they put on different clothes and entered their meeting house where no outsider was allowed. There they ate their bread and greens, each one maintaining silence, convinced that they were performing a necessary act in sustaining the body which God gave them and which must therefore be guarded. After the meal the oldest gave praise to God for His great mercy. They then removed the clothes which they donned when eating, put on their work garments and returned to work till nightfall. With sunset the previous procedure was repeated; they bathed and again changed clothes for the evening repast.
When a newcomer desired to join the Essenes, he was not so readily accepted. The candidate was put on probation for a year to test his self-control and his ability to observe all the regulations of the society. Then he was given a white shirt, cloak and a small ax and was put to work together with the rest. When, at the end of the year, the person proved that his conduct was consistent he was allowed to perform his ablutions together with the others. However, he still was not permitted to partake of food with the rest for an additional two years. Only if he was found worthy, at the end of that time, to join the society, was he allowed to eat with the rest and the secrets of the society were confided to him. Before the candidate had his first meal together with the other members he had to take an oath that he would love and fear God above all else and with his whole soul, that he would love other people more than himself, and that he would be kind to all creatures. He had to promise not to deceive anyone even if the greatest fortune were at stake; he promised to help the oppressed, not to be haughty toward other people, to love truth and hate falsehood with his whole heart, and above all, to divulge none of the secrets of the society to any person.
Only after he was thus sworn in did the candidate become a full-fledged member of the Essene society to whom all secrets were entrusted with the assurance that he would not desecrate his oath and reveal them to others.