Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Book of Esther is the only book not found in the caves at Qumran. Not only have no fragments from the book been found, there are also no quotes from it in any of the approximately 800 manuscripts found. (The non-Biblical texts at Qumran often quote from Biblical books.)

Nevertheless, there are ways to show that the book was known at Qumran. Scholars find vocabulary in books at Qumran that suggest awareness of the book. (This approach only works in texts that seem to have been authored in the Qumran community.) I will give two examples. The words “she’eilati” and “u-vakashati” are found next to each other in a Dead Sea text (although one ends a phrase and the other begins a new phrase); “she’eilati u-vakashati” appears in Tanach only at Esther (5:7). Also, the phrase “yevakshu lishloach yad” appears in a Dead Sea text; the phrase “lishloach yad,” an idiom for harming a person, appears in Tanach only at Esther 2:21 and 6:2.

But the best example is a Dead Sea text known as 4Q267. Here it seems (based on a reasonable conjecture regarding some missing words) that the scribe wrote “mi-yom le-yom u-mei-chodesh le-chodesh” instead of merely “mi-yom le-yom,” as he was supposed to. The phrase he wrote is from Esther 3:7. The scribe’s acquaintance with the book of Esther was so great that words from its text were in his mind while copying a different text!

Based on the above evidence and more, it seems that some in the Qumran community knew of the book. (Talmon, cited below, finds eight passages that are similar to passages in Esther.) But Aaron Koller, in his “Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought” (2014), writes: “[T]he book was certainly not considered authoritative within the Qumran community. The festival of Purim, explicitly ordained in Esther 9, was not on the Qumran calendar.”

I do not think this is as certain as Koller puts it. We do not have a complete “Qumran holiday calendar” like we have a “Jewish holiday calendar” today! (Although we do have some fragmentary calendrical texts.) Scholars just make reasonable educated guesses as to what holidays the Qumran community observed, based on the limited evidence we have.

Scholars have observed that according to the Qumran 364-day calendar (divisible by seven), the 14th of Adar would have fallen on the Sabbath every year. This might suggest that the calendar was constructed in a way that deliberately chose to ignore the holiday, as the Qumran sect was very strict about Sabbath observance. But the reality was that in order to make the Torah’s holidays not fall on the Sabbath (except for week-long holidays where this could not be avoided), the sect was forced to have a calendar in which Purim fell on the Sabbath.

The way Koller puts the issue, the question is not why the book of Esther is not found at Qumran, but why the Qumran community did not consider the book authoritative. Many suggestions have been offered: 1) the lack of mention of God (although this is true of Shir Ha-Shirim as well); 2) the lack of mention of the Temple; and 3) the book’s condoning intermarriage with the king.

Also, the book implicitly refers to the Jews not observing Passover. The decree to destroy the Jews was issued on the 13th of Nissan (3:12). At verses 4:16-17, we are told that Esther requested that Mordechai instruct the Jews of Shushan to fast (night and day) for three consecutive days. It would seem that the Jews in Shushan fasted either on the 13th, 14th and 15th, or on the 14th, 15th, and 16th. Either way, this would mean that they did not keep Passover properly that year.

Koller summarizes a literal reading of the book as follows: it is an “apparently secular book, which attributes salvation to flawed religious figures operating with no God and no providence, violating Passover and the ban on intermarriage explicitly and probably all the other laws implicitly… It is no wonder that the book was not found at Qumran. It is a wonder that it is found anywhere at all.” (He is obviously exaggerating. He later goes on to explain how the Sages improved the book and made it more consistent with the other Biblical books. For example, they found allusions to God, and they linked Haman “Ha-Agagi” to Agag, king of Amalek at the time of Saul. In this way the book of Esther could be viewed as a continuation of the Israelite battle against Amalek.)

A different approach to the lack of the book at Qumran is taken by S. Talmon in his article in Dead Sea Discoveries, II (1995). He thinks the simplest approach is to assume that the book of Esther was not yet in the canon at the time the sect came to Qumran, perhaps in the mid second century B.C.E. (There is other evidence that the book was a late addition to the canon. Ben Sira chapter 49 refers to a variety of Biblical heroes, and it is usually believed that he was referring indirectly to the heroes of the Biblical books in his canon. The significant heroes he omitted are Mordechai, Esther and Daniel. Ben Sira dates to around 200 B.C.E.) Even if Esther later became part of the canon of the Sages, this does not mean that it became part of the canon at Qumran. (But the book of Daniel did.)

It is certainly possible that the reason no copies of Esther survived at Qumran is just fortuitous and that perhaps the holiday was observed at Qumran. We do not have dozens of copies of each Biblical book at Qumran. Here is the number of texts of each Nach book found: Joshua, 2; Judges, 3; Samuel, 5; Kings, 3; Jeremiah, 5; Ezekiel, 6; Proverbs, 2; Ruth, 4; Shir Ha-Shirim 4; Kohelet, 2; Eichah, 4; Job, 3; Ezra, 1; and Chronicles, 1. (I did not include Isaiah, Psalms, and Daniel; for all of these, many texts were found. I also did not include Trei Asar.) The texts I referred to above are all fragmentary texts.

The book of Nechemiah is also not found at Qumran. But since Ezra and Nechemiah were viewed as one book in ancient times, the lack of Nechemiah is usually not mentioned. (A few years ago there was an announcement of a discovery of a text of Nechemiah from Qumran. But after investigation, it seems to have been a forgery.)

For a while there was something on Wikipedia that stated that fragments from the book of Esther were found at Qumran. How did this get into Wikipedia? At Purim-time of 2018, the site thetorah.com published an article “Newly Deciphered Qumran Scroll Revealed to be Megillat Esther.” Anyone who read the article with any degree of attention would have realized that it was just a spoof. But someone who did not read it carefully put this “new find” on Wikipedia! Eventually, it was removed.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He has learned not to write any humorous-false articles on Purim. On the internet, they can easily be erroneously viewed as true. Instead, he incorporates his humor into his articles throughout the year.