Way of Essenic Studies
To arrive at a better understanding of the Essenes, the start must be made from the Hasidim of the pre-Maccabean time (I Macc. ii. 42, vii. 13; II Macc. xiv. 6), of whom both the Pharisees and the Essenes are offshoots (Wellhausen, "Israelitische und Jüdische Geschichte," 1894, p. 261).
These "overrighteous ones," who would not bring voluntary sacrifices nor take an oath, are alluded to in Eccl. vii. 16, ix. 2, while the avoidance of marriage by the pious seems to be alluded to in Wisdom iii. 13-iv. 1 (comp. II Macc. xiv. 6, 25).
The avoidance of swearing became also to a certain extent a Pharisaic rule based on Ex. xx: 7 (Targ.; Ned. 8b; Yer, Ned. iii. 38a; Sotah 9b; Ber. 33a); and the rule (Matt. v. 37, R. V.) "Let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay," is also Talmudic (B. M. 49a). But the line of distinction between the Pharisees ("Perushim") and the Essenes was very clearly drawn. ("Perishut" in Abot iii. 13; Sotah iii. 4, xi. 15; Tosef., Sotah, xv. 11; Toh. iv. 12; B. B. 60b).
Thus those who claimed to be "highly favored by God" and to possess by "divine inspiration foreknowledge of things to come," and who refused to take an oath of fealty to Herod, predicting his downfall while promising children to Bagoas, the eunuch (Josephus, "Ant." xvii. 2, § 4), were scarcely different from those elsewhere called "Essenes" ("Ant." xv. 10, § 4).
The Ancient Hasidim
Little is known about the organization of the ancient Hasidim; but each initiate had to be admitted by certain rites to membership in the association ("heber" or "haburah"), receiving the name "haber" from (Dem. ii. 3; Tosef., Dem. ii. 2; Bek. 30b); those assembled, not only for worship but also for meals. (Geiger," Urschrift," pp. 122 et seq.).
A remnant of this Hasidean brotherhood seems to have been the "Nekiyye ha-Da'at" (the pure-minded) of Jerusalem, who would neither sit at the table or in court, nor sign a document, with persons not of their own circle (Git. ix. 8; Sanh. 23a). They paid special reverence to the scroll of the Law in the synagogue. (Masseket Soferim, xiv. 14).
But tradition has preserved certain peculiarities of these "ancient Hasidim" (Hasidim ha-rishonim) which cast some light on their mode of life:
(1) In order to render their prayer a real communion with God as their Father in heaven, they spent an hour in silent meditation before offering their morning prayer (Didascalia in
Jew. Encyc.iv. 593), and neither the duty of saluting the king nor imminent peril, as, for instance, from a serpent close to their heels, could cause them to interrupt their prayer (Ber. v. 1; Tosef., Ber. iii. 20; Ber. 32b).
(2) They were so scrupulous regarding the observance of the Sabbath that they refrained from sexual intercourse on all days of the week except Wednesday, lest in accordance with their singular calculation of the time of pregnancy the birth of a child might take place on a Sabbath and thereby cause the violation of the sacred day (Niddah 38a, b). Peril of life could not induce them to wage even a war of defense on the Sabbath (I Macc. ii. 38; II Macc. v. 25, xv. 4).
(3) They guarded against the very possibility of being the indirect cause of injuring their fellow men through carelessness (Tosef., B. K. ii. 6; B. K. 30a, 50b; comp. Git. 7a: "No injury is ever caused through the righteous").
(4) Their scrupulousness concerning "zizit" (Men. 40b) is probably only one instance of their strict observance of all the commandments.
(5) Through their solicitude to avoid sin (whence also their name "Yire'e Het" = "fearers of sin": Shek. vi. 6; Sotah ix. 15) they had no occasion for bringing sin-offerings, wherefore, according to R. Judah, they made Nazarite vows to enable them to bring offerings of their own; according to R. Simeon, however, they refrained from bringing such offerings, as they were understood by them to be "an atoning sacrifice for the sins committed against the soul" (Num. vi. 11, Hebr.). This Nazarite vow seems to have been the prevailing attitude, as it was shared by Simeon the Just (Sifre, Num. 22; Ned. 10a).
(6) Especially rigorous were they in regard to Levitical purity ('Eduy. viii. 4; Tosef., Oh. iv. 6, 13, where "zekenim ha-rishonim" [the ancient elders] is only another name for "Hasidim ha-rishonim"
; see Weiss, "Dor," i. 110)
(7) They were particularly careful that women of the Order in the menstrual state should keep apart from the household, perform no household duties, and avoid attractiveness in appearance (Sifra, Mezora', end; Shab. 64b; Ab. R. N. ii.; "Baraita di Masseket Niddah," in Horowitz's "Uralte Tosefta," 1890, i. 5, p. 16, iii. 2-3, pp. 24-27; "Pithe Niddah," pp. 54 et seq.).
This, however, forms only part of the general Hasidean rule, which was to observe the same degree of Levitical purity as did the priest who partook of the holy things of the Temple. ("okel hullin be-tohorat kodesh").
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