Reasons for Sectarianism According to the Tannaim and
the Impurity of Oil Alleged by the Essenes
According to Josephus

Meir Bar-Ilan

The aim of this paper is to present Rabbinic sources to aid the understanding of the development of sectarianism according to the Rabbis and to explain one of Josephus' statements (War II,viii,3) in regard to the avoidance of oil by the Essenes.

According to the Rabbis there are few cases when in halkhic matters one doesn't agree with the rabbinic consensus: he will go astray to build his own altar and/or burn his own red heifer. This might happen, according to the Rabbis when: 1) one doesn't agree with the calander of the Rabbis; 2) one doesn't agree with the rabbinic perspective that "all" are reliable when it comes to testify to the purity of Hatat, Qodesh or Hulin (wine and oil). It is argued that these are exactly the cases where the Essenes didn't agree with the Rabbis, which in turn, explain their sectarianism.

According to the Rabbis, not all oil was always considered pure, since in the days of producing oil, all the people were considered to be pure, so the oil was pure too. However, the oil was considered as impure the whole year round. There is a special Halakha concerning the reliability of "all" to testify to the purity of oil, where the Rabbis claim that without their Halakha, people would be sectarians. According to the Rabbis "all" means people from all social strata: Proselites, Manumissioned slaves, Nethinim, Bastards and all kinds of eunuchs. "All" were reliable for the Rabbis but not for the Essenes. It is shown that the rule reflected in Josephus' description is exactly a sectarian rule (according to the Rabbis).

Rabbinic halakha shows the background of the Essenes' avoidance of oil (by itself contradicted by few verses in the Temple Scroll), but it is argued that Josephus' explanation of the phenomenon was incorrect.

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last updated: April 30, 1997 - March 3, 2002