In arguing that the Qumran sectarians were Sadducees, at least in their origins, Lawrence Schiffman relies on a comparison of four laws discussed both in a Qumran sectarian documents known as MMT and in a rabbinic text from about 200 C.E. called the Mishnah. The passage in the Mishnah (Yadayim 4.6–7) records a dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees regarding the law on four rather obscure points. According to Schiffman, MMT defends the views that are ascribed to the Sadducees in the Mishnah.

The passage from the Mishnah reads as follows:

“The Sadducees say, We cry out against you, O you Pharisees, for you say, ‘The Holy Scriptures render the hands unclean,’ [and] ‘The writings of Hamiram [Homer?] do not render the hands unclean.’

“Rabban Yohanan b.a Zakkai [himself a Pharisee] said [perhaps mockingly], ‘Have we nothing else against the Pharisees except this? For lo, [the Pharisees] say, The bones of an ass are [ritually] clean [so cooking implements can be made from them], and the bones of Yohanan the High Priest are unclean.’

“They [the Pharisees] said to him, ‘As is our love for them so is their [the bones’] uncleanness [they cannot be made into cooking implements]—that no man may make spoons of the bones of his father or mother.’

“He [Yohanan] said to them [the Sadducees], ‘Even so the Holy Scriptures: as is our love for them so is their uncleanness; [whereas] the writings of Hamiram which are held in no account do not render the hands unclean.’

“The Sadducees say, ‘We cry out against you, O you Pharisees, for you declare clean and unbroken stream of liquid’ [that is poured into something ritually unclean; according to the Pharisees, the vessel from which the liquid is poured is not rendered unclean by the unbroken stream of liquid’ that touches the unclean vessel]. The Pharisees say, ‘We cry out against you, O you Sadducees, for you declare clean a channel of water that flows from a burial ground.’”1

Four legal issues are involved here.

The first is whether the books of Hamiram (Homer?)2 defile the hands. Schiffman relates this to the fact that the leaves of books are made from parchment, that is, animal skins; whether the animal skin is pure or not may depend on where the animal was slaughtered. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, believed that all books, including Hamiram’s, defiled the hands. Books were made from animal skins; if the animals from which the parchment was made had been slaughtered outside the Temple, as was probably the case with Hamiram’s books, the books were unclean, rendering unclean the hands of those who touched them. At least this was the Sadducean view, as expounded by Schiffman. A damaged section of MMT does discuss animal skins and indicates that the skins of animals made unclean the person who carried them. But whether this is in fact what lies behind this first dispute is more of an assumption than a fact.

The next issue deals with the ritual purity of bones. The Pharisaic view as expressed in the Mishnah is that bones even of an unkosher animal such as an ass can be used to fashion a spoon—or at least the Sadducees accuse the Pharisees of this view.

The Sadducees would declare all bones of unclean animals impure. Just as they would not make spoons from the bones of their parents, so they would not make spoons from the bones of an animal.

Yohanan then catches the Sadducees in an inconsistency (although an inconsistency which is irrelevant for our purposes): If, as the Sadducees, claim, their high regard (or love) for the bones of their parents (and of animals) renders the bones unclean, and their love for Holy Scripture renders these books unclean, how is it that the books of Hamiram (probably Homer), which the text tells us are worthless and therefore certainly unloved, defile the hands?

Putting aside this inconsistency, it is true that in MMT there is a reasonable inference from the preserved words that making handles out of bones and skins for use on containers is prohibited;3 animal bones like human bones, render one unclean upon contact. In MMT, the bones of unclean animals are considered unclean. The same position, incidentally is enunciated in the Temple Scroll. The Mishnah passage implies through the words of Rabban Yohanan. b. Zakkai, that the sadducees embraced this position.4 Thus Schiffman has a point in his favor in the second dispute.

The third issue relates to whether a stream of liquid can convey impurity. Imagine a stream of pure (that is, ritually clean) water poured from a pure container into an impure container. On contact with the impure container, the water in the impure container of course becomes impure. But what of the water still in the pure container and the container itself? Does the impurity that attaches to the water when it touches the impure container travel back up the stream of water to contaminate the remaining water and the previously pure container? The Sadducees say the impurity does attach to the stream of liquid, rendering impure both the water in the previously pure container and the container itself. The Pharisees are more liberal and are of the opposite view.

Here MMT clearly agrees with the Sadducees. The form of the word for a stream of liquid is not exactly the same in the two texts, but the legal stance is.5

The fourth issue is really a counterexample of the third issue. Despite the strictness of the Sadducean view, they do not stick to it regarding running water which has flowed through a burial ground and which should be, according to a sadducean logic, impure. In short, the Pharisees argue that the Sadducees are being inconsistent because, in the case of a stream of water that comes from a burial ground, the Sadducees seem not to have applied their principle, enunciated in the previous Case, that a liquid stream conveys impurity.

MMT probably agrees with the Sadducean position, as reflected in the Mishnah, in two (numbers 2 and 3) of pure the four cases while in the last case it is claimed that the MMT/Sadducean principle is not practiced.

But, as the accompanying article suggests, this comparison has little significance in identifying the Qumran sectarians as Sadducean. It does, however, allow the reader to appreciate how difficult it is to read and understand the logic in an important and compressed rabbinic text like the Mishnah.