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SBL e-journal

Molly M. Zahn





What Is “Torah” in Second Temple Texts?





APA e-journal

Molly M. Zahn





What Is “Torah” in Second Temple Texts?








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What Is “Torah” in Second Temple Texts?

In the Second Temple Period the idea of “Torah” was not limited to the Five Books of Moses.


What Is “Torah” in Second Temple Texts?

Portion of the Temple Scroll, 11Q19, 2nd century B.C.E. Source:  Israel Museum's 'Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, Wikipedia

The Textualization of Torah

The festival of Shavuot, originally a harvest festival, has been known since Second Temple times as a commemoration of the giving of the Torah.[1] What, however, did these ancient sources mean by “Torah”?[2]

Torah as Instruction

The basic meaning of the Hebrew word torah is “teaching” or “instruction.” It is used in this sense in the Hebrew Bible, with reference to specific regulations (e.g., Lev 6:2 זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה “this is the rule [torah] of the burnt offering”) or to teaching in general (e.g., Prov 3:1 בְּנִי תּוֹרָתִי אַל־תִּשְׁכָּח “My son, do not forget my teaching [torah]”).

Alongside this general usage to denote a body of instruction, torah also came to refer specifically to divinely revealed teachings recorded in written form.

Torah as the Deuteronomic Collection

This “textualization of torah[3] can be seen clearly in the book of Deuteronomy, which uses the term torah self-referentially, for example:

דברים ל:י כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה.
Deut 30:10 If you obey YHWH your God so as to observe his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the torah...

Here, Deuteronomy designates its own law collection as “this book of the torah.[4] These laws are described as having been revealed to Moses at Horeb, Deuteronomy’s equivalent of Sinai, and taught to the people on the plains of Moab.[5] The related phrase “torah of Moses” in the Former Prophets (e.g., Josh 8:31; 23:6; 2 Kings 14:6; 23:25 cf. 22:8), further attests to the image of Deuteronomy’s law collection as the torah that YHWH revealed to Moses.

Torah as Law of Moses

While these pre-exilic or early post-exilic texts connect “torah of Moses” specifically with Deuteronomic law, by the time of Ezra-Nehemiah, “Torah” had already come to denote the laws of Moses more generally. Ezra 7:6 calls Ezra סֹפֵר מָהִיר בְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר־נָתַן יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל “a scribe skilled in the Torah of Moses which YHWH the God of Israel gave” (Ezr 7:6), and Ezra-Nehemiah refers to various laws that we now know from the Pentateuch outside of Deuteronomy (e.g., the regulations for sacrifice referenced in Ezra 3:2–5, and the stipulations for Sukkot referred to in Nehemiah 8:14).[6] Nevertheless, we cannot assume, as is often done, that the term torah in Ezra-Nehemiah refers to the laws of the Pentateuch.[7]

Expanding Torat Moshe

Ezra-Nehemiah refers to certain laws as torah that are not found in versions of the Pentateuch that we are familiar with. For example, Nehemiah 10:35 mentions a wood offering:

נחמיה י:לה וְהַגּוֹרָלוֹת הִפַּלְנוּ עַל־קֻרְבַּן הָעֵצִים הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְהָעָם לְהָבִיא לְבֵית אֱלֹהֵינוּ לְבֵית־אֲבֹתֵינוּ לְעִתִּים מְזֻמָּנִים שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה לְבַעֵר עַל־מִזְבַּח יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כַּכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה.
Neh 10:35 “We have cast lots [among] the priests, the Levites, and the people, to bring the wood offering to the House of our God by clans annually at set times in order to provide fuel for the altar of YHWH our God, as is written in the Torah.

It is possible that the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah knew a version of the Pentateuch that did contain these laws.[8] But it is also possible that the authors are attributing the laws to Torah as a way of indicating (or claiming for them) a certain level of authority.[9] In other words, they have a broader idea of “Torah of Moses” than what was contained in the written Pentateuch. The latter interpretation is likely in light of a number of Second Temple period texts that present themselves as Sinaitic Torah. Two premier examples are the book of Jubilees and the Temple Scroll.

The Book of Jubilees

The book of Jubilees (2nd cent. B.C.E.) was originally composed in Hebrew by authors with certain ideological connections to the slightly later Qumran community, especially as regards the calendar. It consists of a retelling of Israel’s history from creation through Sinai, cast as the words of an angel dictating to Moses from the Heavenly Tablets on Mount Sinai.

In this sense, Jubilees positions itself as torah mi-Sinai. This revelation contained in Jubilees does not displace the Pentateuch: Jubilees refers explicitly at one point to “the book of the first law” (6:22), which in context can only mean the Pentateuch. But torah for Jubilees does not simply denote these written texts. Instead, torah in Jubilees is primordial; the “law and the testimony” (torah and teʿudah[10]) were inscribed on the Heavenly Tablets prior to Creation:

The Angel of the Presence, who was going along in front of the Israelite camp, took the tablets (that told) of the divisions of the years from the time the law and the testimony [torah we-teʿudah] were created… (Jub 1:29, translation by J. C. VanderKam)

The Sinai covenant is, therefore, the renewal of YHWH’s eternal covenant with Israel, which has existed for all time.[11] Indeed, Jubilees stresses that Israel’s primeval ancestors observed various festivals and prescriptions from earliest times.[12] For Jubilees, then, both the Pentateuch and the book of Jubilees itself are Torah, but both are presented as deriving from a primordial heavenly Torah.

The Temple Scroll

The Temple Scroll (מגילת המקדש) is the longest extant text discovered among the Qumran scrolls, but like Jubilees seems to date from the 2nd century B.C.E. and to have been composed by forerunners to the Qumran community rather than by the community itself. In the Scroll, YHWH speaks directly to Moses at Sinai, revealing the instructions for a monumental temple complex, accompanied by a series of laws for life in the land. YHWH speaks in the first person throughout the Scroll, even in places where it is reusing text from Deuteronomy, which has Moses as the speaker (and thus refers to God in the 3rd person).

The Temple Scroll makes clear that its divinely revealed laws are spoken at Sinai by reusing Exodus 34 in its first preserved column. This chapter of Exodus, of course, describes Moses’ second ascent of Sinai after the incident with the Golden Calf. The Scroll also alludes elsewhere to Sinai as the locus of its revelation (11Q19 51:6–8):

ולוא יטמאו בהמה אשר אני מגיד לכה בהר הזה ולוא יטמאו כי אני יהוה שוכן בתוך בני ישראל
They shall not become impure by those things that I am telling you on this mountain; they shall not become impure. For I, YHWH, dwell amidst the children of Israel.

As if presenting the direct speech of YHWH from Mt. Sinai were not enough to indicate that the Temple Scroll positions itself as Torah, at a couple of points the Scroll explicitly refers to itself as Torah, much as Deuteronomy does. Perhaps most notable is the self-referential use of the term torah in the Scroll’s description of the exile and devastation that will result from future covenant disobedience, after which will come the return (11Q19 59:9–11):

ישובו אלי בכול לבבםה[13] ובכול נפשמה ככול דברי התורה הזואת והושעתים מיד אויביהמה...
They will return to me with all their heart and with all their soul, according to all the words of this Torah, and I will save them from the hand of their enemies…

The phrase in bold is almost identical to that found in Deut 17:19, according to which the king must continually read his copy of the Torah in order to observe אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת “all the words of this torah.”[14] Just as Deuteronomy refers to itself as Torah, so the authors of the Temple Scroll reuse the phrase from Deuteronomy to claim Torah status for their own new text.

The examples of Jubilees and the Temple Scroll show that in the late Second Temple period, although Torah had come to be identified with YHWH’s revelation to Moses at Sinai, the contents of that revelation were not seen as limited to one particular set of texts.

The Yaḥad’s Torah

Many of the scrolls preserved at Qumran contain the texts of a separatist community calling itself the yaḥad, which likely resided at Qumran (among other sites).[15] The yaḥad’s idea of what constituted Torah differs from that of the texts discussed above.

Among the Qumran scrolls are multiple copies of pentateuchal books, and the yaḥad’s compositions explicitly cite pentateuchal texts. It is thus virtually certain that they would have included the texts of the Pentateuch, in one form or another, in their definition of Torah. Jubilees and the Temple Scroll, however, were also both preserved in multiple copies at Qumran. Moreover, Jubilees is cited as a scriptural authority in one important yaḥad text, the Damascus Document (CD 16:3–4):

ופרוש קציהם לעורון ישראל מכל אלה הנה הוא מדוקדק על ספר מחלקות העתים ליובליהם ובשבועותיהם
But the specification of the times of Israel’s blindness to all these [rules] is detailed in ‘The Book of the Divisions of the Times by their Jubilees and in their Weeks.’ (translation from the Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library, with modifications)

These factors together suggest that the yaḥad likely accepted these texts’ internal claims to represent part of Mosaic Torah.

In addition, the yaḥad also composed their own prestigious texts, such as the Community Rule (סרך היחד) and the aforementioned Damascus Document (ברית דמשק), each of which was preserved in multiple copies at Qumran.[16] Each of these “Rule” texts contains a mix of exhortation, descriptions of community rituals, and prescriptions regulating the behavior of members.

Unlike Jubilees and the Temple Scroll, however, the yaḥad’s texts do not claim to be revealed directly from Sinai. Nevertheless, they too seem to position themselves as representing or containing Torah.[17] First, they refer repeatedly to a revelation of laws known to the yaḥad alone. Second, they imply – without ever saying so directly – that these texts contain parts of this special revelation.

Torah in the Yaḥad

Both the Community Rule and the Damascus Document describe God’s will for Israel as including hidden revelation of laws accessible to the yaḥad alone. For example, in the Damascus Document we read (CD 3:12–15):

ובמחזיקים במצות אל אשר נותרו מהם הקים אל את בריתו לישראל עד עולם לגלות להם נסתרות אשר תעו בם כל ישראל שבתות קדשו ומועדי כבודו עידות צדקו ודרכי אמתו וחפצי רצונו...
But among those who held fast to the commandments of God, who were left of them, God instituted his covenant for Israel forever, so as to reveal to them hidden things through which all Israel had erred: his holy Sabbaths and his glorious festivals; his righteous statutes and his true ways and the pleasures of his will…

According to this, fidelity to the commandments results in additional revelation containing God’s “righteous statutes and true ways.” That is, the “commandments of God” revealed to all Israel (surely corresponding at least in part to the laws of the Pentateuch) are not a complete and sufficient revelation of God’s will. Only the yaḥad, because of the covenant loyalty of its founders, has been granted full knowledge of what pleases God.

The Community Rule contains similar statements implying that the yaḥad had access to a special kind of Torah. For instance, each new initiate into the yaḥad is required to swear an oath to return to the “torah of Moses” (1QS 5:8–9):

ויקם על נפשו בשבועת אסר לשוב אל תורת מושה ככול אשר צוה בכול לב ובכול נפש לכול הנגלה ממנה לבני צדוק הכוהנים שומרי הברית ודורשי רצונו ולרוב אנשי בריתם
He is to take upon himself with a binding oath to return to the torah of Moses according to all that he commanded, with all his heart and with all his mind, regarding all that has been revealed from it to the sons of Zadok, the priests who keep the covenant and who seek out his will, and to the majority of the men of their covenant.

The “torah of Moses” here clearly contains material available only to the yaḥad (“regarding all that has been revealed from it to the sons of Zadok” [a reference to a priestly group within the yaḥad])—it is not identical to the laws associated with Sinai in the Five Books of Moses. The exact status of this special material is not clarified.

The formulation “all that has been revealed from it” (i.e., from the Torah of Moses) suggests that the special material made known to the yaḥad has always been part of Torah. This might mean that the yaḥad’s distinctive rules were derived from, or believed to derive from, interpretation of existing forms of Torah, such as the Pentateuch.

This would make the yaḥad’s concept somewhat similar to the rabbinic idea of Oral Torah. Where the yaḥad differs strongly from the later rabbis, however, is in their assertion that this special material was revealed by God in the recent past, to them and them alone. Though it may always have been part of Torah, it was not accessible to humans until the time of the formation of the yaḥad community.

The sources adduced above indicate that both the Damascus Document and the Community Rule imagine a body of revelation, of Torah, that is available to the yaḥad alone. These documents do not explicitly claim to actually contain this revelation in the way Jubilees and the Temple Scroll do. Nevertheless, both strongly insinuate that they represent, at least in part, the hidden revelation that God has made available to the yaḥad. They do this by consistently making a connection between the precepts they contain and the revealed will of God.

Damascus Document Contains Torah

For instance, consider the following examples from the Damascus Document. In the first example, obedience to “these rules,” i.e., the instruction of the Damascus Document itself, is presented as the key to preservation of God’s covenant (CD 7:4–6):

כל המתהלכים באלה בתמים קדש…ברית אל נאמנות להם לחיותם אלף דור
All who walk in these (rules) in perfect holiness… God’s covenant endures for them to give them life for a thousand generations.[18]

In the second case, the “ordinances” contained in the Damascus Document are identified both with torah and with the instruction of the Teacher (of Righteousness), the legendary founder of the community (CD 20:27–28 [MS B]):

וכל המחזיקים במשפטים האלה ל[צ]את ולבוא על פי התורה וישמעו לקול מורה...
All who hold fast to these ordinances, to come and go according to the Torah, and who heed the voice of the Teacher…

Finally, in the third example, the ordinances recorded in the Damascus Document are identified with the laws of the Torah (4Q266 [4QDa] 11 5–6):

וכול המואס במשפטים האלה על פי כול החוקים הנמצאים בתורת מושה. . .
Anyone who rejects these ordinances according to all the statutes found in the torah of Moses…

Community Rule Contains Torah

The Community Rule also uses self-referential language to imply that its rules are part of God’s revealed will. The clearest examples come once again from 1QS column 5. The opening sentence of the column implies that those who wish to hold fast to God’s commands will act according to this rule (5:1):

וזה הסרכ[19] לאנשי היחד המתנדבים לשוב מכול רע ולהחזיק בכול אשר צוה לרצונו
This is the rule for the men of the yaḥad who volunteer to turn away from all evil and to hold fast to all that he commanded by his good will.

Similarly, later in the column (1QS 5:20–22):

וכיא יבוא בברית לעשות ככול החוקים האלה להיחד לעדת קודש ודרשו את רוחום ביחד בין איש לרעהו לפי שכלו ומעשיו בתורה על פי בני אהרון המתנדבים ביחד להקים את בריתו ולפקוד את כול חוקיו אשר צוה לעשות ועל פי ר{י}ב[20] ישראל המתנדבים לשוב ביחד לבריתו
And when anyone enters the covenant, to act according to these statutes, to join with the congregation of holiness, they shall examine his spiritual qualities[21] together, each member taking part, regarding his understanding and deeds in torah, according to the Sons of Aaron who have volunteered together to uphold his covenant and to observe all of his statutes that he commanded be performed, and according to the majority of Israel who have volunteered to return together to his covenant.”

Here, the close association of “these statutes” with “his statutes” and “his covenant” (i.e., YHWH’s) makes clear that the yaḥad believed that the Community Rule constitutes a witness to God’s revealed Torah.

An Expansive Definition of Torah

This brief tour through some prominent Second Temple period texts illustrates that, at a number of different levels, the idea of “Torah” in this period was not limited to the Five Books of Moses. Other texts or laws, whether the wood offering of Nehemiah or the Temple Scroll’s instructions for a gigantic temple, also had a place as part of Torah.

Nor indeed was Torah narrowly connected to Sinai or Horeb. While the revelation to Moses at Sinai was likely regarded as the preeminent and prototypical instance of matan Torah, the revelation of the Torah, we see Jubilees relativize Sinai by asserting that the laws revealed there were in fact primordial in their origins, inscribed on heavenly tablets; some, it claims, had already been revealed to various significant individuals long before Sinai.

At the other end of the temporal spectrum, the documents written by the Qumran yaḥad carry the revelation of Torah forward into their own times, embodied in the special revelation made available to their own community. Thus Torah remained a flexible, fluid concept: the Five Books of Moses were certainly torah mi-sinai, Sinaitic Torah, but not exclusively so.


May 10, 2021


Last Updated

June 8, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Molly M. Zahn is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. She holds an M.Phil from the University of Oxford and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. Her publications include two monographs, Genres of Rewriting in Second Temple Judaism: Scribal Composition and Transmission (Cambridge, 2020) and Rethinking Rewritten Scripture: Composition and Exegesis in the 4QReworked Pentateuch Manuscripts (Brill, 2011), as well as two co-edited volumes and numerous articles and book chapters. She currently serves as Executive Editor of the prominent Qumran journal Dead Sea Discoveries.