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The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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by Aharon Shemesh

In Brief

Whether or not women were a part of the Essenes’ Qumran settlement, they do appear in Qumran literature. However, women in the halakhic writing, a significant part of which comes from the Damascus Covenant, are only discussed when there are explicit rulings about women’s issues. Concerning marriage, the Qumran halakhah is more liberal that its rabbinic counterpart, but the literature also shows that women were excluded from all facets of public life. But a few narratives show women in positions of power. The halakhah is also very strict when it comes to traditions surrounding ritual purity, which especially impact women.

Presence of Women in Qumran

Any discussion of women in Qumran must needs open with the question of whether there were any. A significant trend in research claims that there were none. The basis for this claim is the generally accepted hypothesis concerning the identity of the people at Qumran. This hypothesis connects three factors: the site at Hirbet Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, the scrolls discovered in the nearby caves, and the Essenes, whom we know from the descriptions of three historians—Pliny the Elder, Flavius Josephus, and Philo of Alexandria.

All three historians describe the Essenes as a group of ascetics. Pliny even notes that their dwelling place is on the western shore of the Dead Sea, north of Ein Gedi, “and they live there in splendid isolation with neither property nor women.” Pliny the Elder’s description constituted one of the most important elements in the identification of the Qumran site as the Essenes’ dwelling, and both the material and archaeological artifacts were interpreted according to this theory.

Most of the structures discovered in Qumran are identifiable: an assembly room that apparently also served as a dining room; an adjacent storage room in which about a thousand eating utensils were found; a kitchen, workshops, and more. Yet living quarters were noticeably lacking at the site. All this is in accord with the supposition that the site served the needs of a cooperative, ascetic, single-sex community. Accordingly, women were not part of the community and did not live in Qumran. A large cemetery was found near the site containing about eleven hundred graves, with another hundred graves along its margins. The cemetery was only partially excavated. In the central area only male skeletons were found, but the graves along the margins also held skeletons of women and children.

Researchers are divided in their interpretations of the finds and the difficulties they raise regarding the theory that there were no women or families in Qumran. A recently published essay claims that the graves of the women and children are not from the Second Temple era but Bedouin graves from recent generations. If that is so, then there is no reason not to maintain the Essene-ascete theory expounded above.

A more severe problem concerns the contents of the scrolls found in the caves near the site. Nearly all the scrolls which in some way describe the social group in which they were created, explicitly assume that it is a society in which there are women, family life, and children. This applies to the Damascus Covenant, the Rule of the Congregation, the Temple Scroll and Miqsat Ma’asse Ha- Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah  (The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.Halakhic Letter). The only exception is the Rule of the Community which does not mention women at all. Some researchers therefore believe that the community described in this scroll is the “Yahad” community that lived in Qumran, while the other scrolls describe sister groups that resembled it in most things but did not have a cooperative, monastic lifestyle.

One of the texts that supports the theory that the Essene movement included several subgroups is the following instruction from the Damascus Covenant (7, 9–6): “But if they live (in) camps according to the rule of the land, and take wives and beget children, then they shall walk according to the Torah and the precept established according to the rule of the Torah as he said‘between a man and his wife, and between a father and his son.’” From the language of this instruction, we can deduce that celibacy is the preferred way of life, but that the writer grants legitimacy to family life as long as it is conducted according to Torah. This is the reason the writer feels the need to justify the dispensation and to find support in the scriptural quotation “As it is said: Between man and wife and between a father and his son.”

We shall therefore deal with women in the Qumran literature and not with women in Qumran itself.

Women's Status in the Qumran Literature

The most informative sources concerning women’s status in Essene society are those that deal with halakhah, which can give us an outline of the desired norms in the society, even if such norms were not necessarily always practiced. Perusal of the halakhic texts and the sect’s rules concerning women is an important tool for gaining considerable knowledge about the writers’ perceptions of women, their characteristics and their desired place in society. Because Qumran halakhah, like that of other Jewish sects in the Second Temple era, is based mostly on the commandments of the Torah, we will deal especially with the laws and instructions that deviate markedly from the simple meaning in the Torah. In order to gather what is unique in Essene thought, we shall also compare it with rabbinic halakhah in those places where we have pertinent information.

The Character of Qumran Halakhic Literature

The halakhic literature of Qumran, like the Torah and Hebrew language in general, is masculine in that it is written in the masculine gender and thus appears to be addressed to men. The text mentions women explicitly only when it deals with subjects of concern only to them, as in the laws concerning the menstruant, discharge from the reproductive organs, and childbirth. Thus, the Rabbis’ tendency was to read the Torah as directed to men only and in those places where they felt that the text was directed to women, they sought and found hints in the verse that enabled it to include women as well.

It is possible that Qumran halakhah took the opposite approach. In the Damascus Covenant, the writer accuses his opponents of the sin of harlotry since “they marry their brothers’ daughters and their sisters’ daughters,” an act he considered forbidden. The writer’s reason for this is especially interesting: “But Moses said: ‘To your mother’s sister you may not draw near, for she is your mother’s near relation.’ Now the precept of incest is written from the point of view of males, but the same (law) applies to women, so if a brother’s daughter uncovers the nakedness of the brother of her father, she is a (forbidden) close relationship” (5:8–11). The writer’s meaning here is that since the Torah forbade a man to marry his aunt, whether she is his father’s or his mother’s sister (Leviticus 18:13, 20:19), the commandment must be read as applying also to women.

Therefore, a woman is forbidden to marry her uncle, for whom she is the daughter of his brother or his sister. It is thus clear that the author of the Damascus Covenant is aware that the laws of forbidden relationships (and, like them, most of the Torah’s commandments) are formulated in the masculine. Yet in his opinion they must be read as applying equally to women. The prohibition against marrying a brother’s or sister’s daughter appears in the Judean Desert scrolls in two further places. One is at the end of the Temple Scroll, where the scroll lists forbidden sexual relationships, including the prohibition: “Let no man marry his brother’s daughter or his sister’s daughter, for it is an abomination” (65:16–17).

The second appearance is even more interesting. In the scroll 4Qhalakha there is also a list of forbidden sexual relationships, including the following prohibition: “[A woman should not wed the brother] of her father or the brother of her mother.” Here the same halakhah is directed to the woman. The Qumran writer is committed to the principle set forth in the Damascus Covenant, and accordingly he here formulated the rule as addressed to the woman. It is hard to know whether this exegetical principle was also implemented in other subjects of the law or whether it was restricted to laws governing sexual relationships. In any case, it is an example of a certain aspect in which Qumran halakhah grants greater equality to men and women than does the halakhah of the Rabbis.


The institution of marriage and family life has a strong and direct influence on women’s lives. Marriage as shown in the sect’s literature is unique both in comparison with scripture on the one hand and with rabbinical halakhah on the other. Several places prove that Qumran halakhah prohibited bigamy. The writer of the Damascus Covenant attacks his opponents because they are “taking two wives in their lives, while the foundation of Creation is ‘male and female He created them’ And those who entered (Noah’s) ark went two by two into the ark. And of the prince it is written, ‘Let him not multiply for himself’” (Damascus Covenant 4:20–5:2). From the term “taking two wives in their lives” it emerges that Qumran halakhah forbade not only bigamy but also second marriage during the previous spouse’s lifetime.

As proof, the author of the Damascus Covenant cites Deuteronomy 17:17 concerning the king: “Yet he should not take many wives.” This verse is similarly interpreted in the Temple Scroll: “He shall not take a wife from the women of the other nations, but he shall take a wife from his father’s house, his father’s family; and he shall not take another wife beside her since she only shall be with him all the days of her life. And if she should die, he shall marry another woman of his father’s house and his father’s family” (Temple Scroll 57: 15–19).

Qumran halakhah acknowledges the possibility of divorce, but its practical significance is greatly restricted. Thus, for example, the Temple Scroll (54: 4–5), following the Torah (Numbers 30:10), rules that a divorced woman is exclusively responsible for her vows, unlike a married woman whose husband may annul them under certain conditions. Thus, divorce was only the official separation of a couple, who were not allowed to remarry. All of this applied, as previously stated, as long as the previous spouse was alive, but after his or her death, remarriage was permitted. This law apparently stems from the perception of marriage not as a legal act but as the expression of the couple’s physiological union.

As we can see from the Damascus Covenant’s citation of “male and female He created them,” the Qumranic perception of marriage is based on the account of creation in the book of Genesis, which continues thus: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and they shall become one flesh.” Hence the conclusion that the essence of marriage is the physical act of union between husband and wife, which can never be broken. This conception later found its way into Christian belief. The New Testament cites Jesus as saying: “What God has joined together let no person put asunder.” (Mark 10, 6–9). We may even posit that according to the sect’s perception all sexual relations between an unmarried couple create a marital bond between them even if this was not their intention. This view emerges from the way the Temple Scroll treats cases of rape and seduction.

In the Torah, there are two similar sections—Exodus 22:15–17 and Deuteronomy 22:28–29. The first text states: “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall pay her dowry and marry her. If her father refuses to marry her to him, he shall pay a virgin’s dowry.” The second instance reads: “If a man seizes an unbetrothed virgin and lies with her and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty in silver and she shall become his wife since he made her suffer; he may not divorce her for the rest of his life.”

The author of the Temple Scroll combined these two instances into one halakhah: “If a man seduces an unbetrothed virgin and she is fit for him by law, if he lay with her and was discovered, he shall pay her father fifty in silver and she shall become his wife; he may not divorce her for the rest of his life” (T.S 66:8–11). In this halakhah the writer deleted the proviso in Exodus that the father may refuse to marry off his daughter to the rapist. The reason appears to be that according to his perception, there is no longer any possibility of separating the two after they have had sexual relations and become “one flesh.” What emerges from all this is that, somewhat paradoxically, Qumran halakhah is more egalitarian than rabbinic halakhah in that women’s status in marriage and sexual relations is equal to that of men’s.

In all descriptions of marriage, Qumran halakhah uses the Biblical formula “If a man takes a woman.” In this, it is similar to the rabbinic perception that the man is the active party who takes a wife, who is passive and is usually given in marriage by her father. Yet like other activities in the community, marriage was also supervised by the ‘Overseer.’ Thus, we read in the Damascus Covenant, 13: 15–17 (according to Elisha Qimron’s reading and emendations): “let no man do anything involving buying and selling without telling the Overseer of the camp, that he may do it with good counsel and not err. And so with all who take a wife and the … advice, and so with divorce.” This order indicates that the men were not completely free to marry anyone they wished.

It is possible that we should connect the Overseer’s role here with another command found in one of the Damascus Covenant scrolls found in Cave 4: “And also let him not give her to one unfit [hukhan] for her.” The verb hakhen means weighing, measuring or estimating, and in the Qumran literature, as Menahem Kister explained, human beings and their estimates are largely dependent upon astrological knowledge. It seems that in this case such knowledge can determine whether the proposed match is suitable or not. Therefore, it is possible that the Overseer was responsible for approving marriages since he had the appropriate knowledge of the field.

Another characteristic of the marriage institution in Qumran halakhah which also appears to be based on the creation of humankind in Genesis, “The foundation of Creation,” is the view that the sole purpose of sexual relations is procreation. This is expressed in the prohibition against sexual relations with a pregnant woman. In a list of transgressors in the Damascus Covenant from Cave 4 (4Q270, 2), the following is also mentioned: “Or one who lies with a pregnant woman.” This halakhah is in accord with Josephus’s description of the Essenes.

In The Wars of the Jews (161:2), he says that there are Essenes who are separated from their fellows because they have wives: “However, they check their betrothed for three years, and after they know, according to three purifications, that they are capable of having children, do they take them as wives and do not approach them during pregnancy to show that they did not marry to satisfy their lust, but only to populate the earth with living seed.”

Women's Social Status

Qumran literature tells us little about women’s social status beyond their roles as wives and mothers. It appears that they were excluded from all public activities, community assemblies, Torah study, prayer or war. In several places, we find the Qumran authors including women with children and people who have defects as unworthy of being present at certain events or in certain places. The Temple Scroll describes the structure of the Temple and its courtyards. At one point, the Scroll dictates: “All the congregation, [the community of Israel and the converts born within it] to the fourth generation, of twenty years of age and over shall come to the courtyard to bow down before all the children of Israel; no woman or child shall come until he completes his portion of sheaves [and gives his personal redemption price] to God: a half-sheqel as a memorial in their settlements, twenty gerah per sheqel” (T.S. 39:7–14).

As we know from other places in the Qumran literature, twenty was the age of maturity, when a young man passed from the status of a child or youth to that of adult. As set forth in the Community Rule, this was the age at which it was permitted to take a wife: “He shall not approach to a woman to lie with her until he passes the age of twenty years when he knows good and evil” (Rule of the Congregation 1:9–10).

The comparison of women with little children is also the basis for the following halakhah in 4Q265: “No young boy and woman shall eat from the Paschal sacrifice.” This halakhah is also found in the Book of Jubilees, where it is written explicitly that twenty is the age of maturity: “Any man who has come of age, that is twenty years and more, shall eat it in the Temple of your God, before God” (Jubilees 49:17). There appears to be no doubt that “man” here does not include women. The exclusion of women from ritual thus finds expression in two ways: they are not permitted to enter the Temple beyond a certain point, though men may do so; and they may not eat from the Paschal sacrifice.

The woman and the young boy also appear together in another list, which this time also includes people with defects. In the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, it is written: “And no young man or woman will go to their camps when they leave Jerusalem to go to war until they return. And every lame, blind or limping person, or anyone with a defect or impurity in his flesh: all these shall not go to war with them; All these shall be volunteers for war perfect in spirit and in body, and prepared for the day of vengeance. And every man who is impure at his source (=suffered a nocturnal emissionon the day of war shall not go down with them, since holy angels are with their armies (7:3–6).” From the latter source we can see that the reason for women’s exclusion in all these cases is the godly presence there. The presence of people with defects, women and minors harms this holiness and must therefore be prevented.

In the Rule of the Congregation there is a similar list of people who are not permitted to enter the community: “And anyone with an impurity in his flesh, lacking feet or hands, lame, blind or deaf or mute or with a visible defect in his flesh, or an elderly, infirm man who cannot hold himself upright shall not enter into the community. They shall not come to stand within the community of God, for there are holy angels in their community. And if one of them has anything to say to the holy council, they shall go to him to hear it; the man is not to come to the community, since he has defiled” (Rule of the Congregation 2: 5–10). From the context it can be seen that this paragraph speaks of the community as assembled either to discuss community affairs or to study Torah or for a communal meal.

It is difficult to determine why women are not mentioned in the list. Perhaps it is because they were actually permitted to take part in the assembly or because, on the contrary, the writer did not consider it necessary to mention them specifically in the list of those forbidden to attend the assembly since it was so clear that they did not participate in such events. The second possibility seems more plausible. The section that deals with the community assembly opens with the heading: “These are the people who are called to the assembly: the sages of the community, men of understanding and knowledge, pure in their ways, men of valor together with the heads of tribes and all their magistrates and officials and the chief of hundreds and fifties and tens” (1:27–29). This list is composed in the quasi-military structure characteristic of the community. The men of valor are those who have reached the age of military service and can do the work of the community. Therefore, it is clear that the children are not included among those who attend the assembly. It appears that the women are also not included in those who attend and the writer feels no need to say so.

Nevertheless, women and children did participate in one event. The Rule of the Congregation begins as follows: “And this is the rule of all the congregation of Israel in the end of days […] when they all come and congregate, children and women, and all the laws of the covenant are read to them that they may understand their laws, lest they fall into error” (The Rule of the Congregation 1:5–1). It is not clear whether the term “end of days” means some eschatological future date or the present time at which the scroll was written, which the community members saw as “the end of days.” In any case, here is a description of a public assembly in which everyone takes part, including “children and women.” This description is taken from a commandment in Deuteronomy 31:10–12: “And Moses commanded them, saying: Every seven years, during the jubilee year on the festival of Lit. "booths." A seven-day festival (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei to commemorate the sukkot in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40-year sojourn in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt; Tabernacles; "Festival of the Harvest."Sukkot, when all Israel comes to greet the Lord your God in the place He chooses, read this Torah before all Israel, that they may hear it. Gather the people: men, women and babes, and the stranger within your gates, so that they may hear and learn and revere the Lord God and keep all the commandments of this Torah.” Note that the Qumran author replaced the scriptural “that they may hear” with “that they may understand all its laws.” This section shows that even if the women did not participate in the regular community assemblies to study Torah and were not part of the active negotiations that created the community’s laws, they were expected to know the laws of the Torah and the community rules.

It is thus clear that the women were not full members of the community and evidently were not active participants in most of its religious events and activities. Nevertheless, we find evidence in the Damascus Covenant that some women had significant status in the community. In the Qumran documents there are three variants but similar versions of the Manual of Discipline which list various sins and their penalties. In a version of the Damascus Covenant found in Cave 4, we find the following lines: “Whoever complains about the fathers shall be expelled from the community and never return. And if he complains about the mothers, he shall be punished for ten days, because the mothers have no roqmah within the community.”

The Manual of Discipline mentions the fathers here on the one hand and the mothers on the other. It is not totally clear what these terms mean, but there is no doubt that “fathers’ is a term meaning the important men while “mothers” refers to significant women. Their status is such that any complaint against them is considered a sin deserving of punishment. The reader will see right away that there is a most significant distinction between the status of the fathers and that of the mothers. One who complains about the former suffers the most severe punishment possible, complete and final expulsion from the community, while one who complains about the mothers is punished for only ten days.

But while the community presumably entrusted leadership, instructional and judicial functions only to men, we nevertheless find, in at least one instance, that women had a role in the judicial process. One of the scrolls of the Damascus Covenant from Cave 4 reads: “If a man spreads slander about a virgin of Israel on the day he weds her, trustworthy women shall examine her, and if he has not lied about her, she shall be put to death. But if he lied about her, he shall be fined two manim and shall never divorce her all his life.”

This rule is the sect’s interpretation of the law regarding slander in Deuteronomy 22:13–19. The innovation in the sect’s commentary is the way they understood the command: “And they shall take the girl’s tokens of virginity to the city elders at the gate … and spread the garment before the city elders.” According to the Qumran version, the girl undergoes a gynecological examination to determine whether her intimacy with her husband was her first sexual experience or whether she was not previously a virgin. “Trustworthy women” carry out the examination. We hear about these women in another section, 4Q159, which refers to the examination of a young girl who was slandered before her marriage. The women are described there as “trustworthy and knowledgeable women chosen by the word of the Overseer.” It is clear, then, that in this instance the judicial system needed the help of knowledgeable and trustworthy women who were chosen to serve in this role according to the supervisor’s guidance.

Women's Private Lives

While our knowledge of women’s daily life in Qumran society is extremely limited, it is possible to infer several areas in which there was a real difference between their way of life and that of their peers in other Jewish groups during the Second Temple era.

One of the characteristics of Qumran halakhah is its constant tendency toward strictness. This holds true in all areas but is especially prominent in the laws of ritual purity and impurity—a tendency which has a special impact on women’s lives, since they naturally become impure for significant periods of time as menstruants or following childbirth. The following halakhah demonstrates this very well: “In every city, you shall set aside places for those afflicted with leprosy and with sores and with scabies so that they do not enter your cities and defile them; and also, for those who have flux and for women in the time of their menstrual impurity or after childbirth, so that they do not defile in their midst with their menstrual impurity” (T.S 48:14–17).

This halakhah has its source in commandments in Numbers 5:2–3: “And they shall send from the camp all those who are leprous, have discharges, or have become impure from contact with the dead. Man or woman, they shall be sent outside the camp; send them out that they not cause impurity to the camp, where I dwell in their midst.” The Torah commanded that only lepers, those with discharges and those who had contact with the dead be sent outside the camp, but not women who were menstruating or who had just given birth.

The Temple Scroll, on the other hand, added them to the list of those to be sent outside the camp. In rabbinic sources too we find that menstruating women were kept away from ritually pure objects and the Codification of basic Jewish Oral Law; edited and arranged by R. Judah ha-Nasi c. 200 C.E.Mishnah even mentions “houses of impurity” for menstruating women. But as Yadin commented, the halakhah in the scroll is even stricter, expelling menstruating women and those who have given birth from the cities themselves. Leprosy or discharge are fairly rare occurrences, but impurity resulting from menstruation and childbirth occur frequently in a mature woman’s life. The practical significance of this halakhah is, therefore, that women had to leave their homes and live in these special locations for a large portion of their lives.

The strict approach to the impurity of childbearing women also finds expression in a fragmentary halakhah found in one of the Damascus Covenant scrolls from Cave 4 (4Q226, 6, 2): “[she will] give the child to a pure nurse.” The halakhah evidently means that in order for the child not to become contaminated by its mother, she must give it to a wet-nurse who will nurse him while she is impure. Incidentally, we have learned that there were women in the sect whose permanent or temporary profession was that of wet-nurse.

The restrictions that stem from the laws of the Sabbath also especially affected women. On the assumption that preparing food and caring for children were the province of women in traditional societies, it seems as though the especial burden inherent in the halakhah “Let no man eat on the Sabbath day but from prepared food” (Damascus Covenant 10:22) fell upon the women, and the law “Let no nurse carry a suckling baby in or out on the Sabbath day” (Damascus Covenant 11:12) was directed at the female nurse more than the male.

Given all the above, it is clear that, even if there were no women at Qumran, it is most plausible that other Essene communities did have families and that considerable attention was paid by the movement legislators to women’s traditional roles and duties.


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How to cite this page

Shemesh, Aharon. "Qumran." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 2, 2023) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/qumran>.