Sadducees and Essene found it difficult to change


People find it hard to change despite change being a necessary part of natural law and despite it being obvious that change in many instances is beneficial. Many men, for example, are unable to change and adapt when they marry, and this causes many marital breakups. Women have an easy time altering their behavior when they marry because they were taught that, being women, they will need to change when they marry (a teaching that needs to change).   

Essene and Sadducee Jews, among many other groups found it hard to change. When the Hasmoneans made themselves kings and high priests during the second century BCE, a group of Jews, later called Essenes, objected to the change. Many scholars believe the name Essene was Hasidim, “righteous ones,” in Hebrew. The Essene insisted on continuing the tradition that only members of King David’s family could serve as king over Jews and only descendants of the High Priest Zadok could fill the office of High Priest. The Hasmoneans were neither.  In protest, they left the cities and settled in caves near Israel’s Dead Sea. In the mid-twentieth century many Essene documents were found in Qumran where they settled. These include books of the Bible and original books and fragments of books written by the Essenes. These writings are still being studied by scholars. There are many possible implications that can result from these studies including a better understanding of Judaism during the pre-Christian era and whether Jesus and John the Baptist came in contact with the group, were members, and absorbed some of their ideas.

Scholars understand that the Sadducees were following the ancient practices and were therefore called Sadducees, Tzedukim in Hebrew, meaning “righteous ones.” When the Pharisees began to change Judaism[1] because of changed circumstances since the time the Torah was composed,[2] probably beginning in the fourth or third century BCE, the Sadducees objected to the changes. The Pharisees insisted that they were not making changes; they were implementing the Oral Law that God gave to Moses when God revealed the Torah. For example, while the Torah states “an eye for an eye,” the Oral Torah taught that God told Moses, this should be understood as monetary compensation. The Sadducees objected saying this notion of an Oral Torah is itself an invention; we never heard of it in prior years.[3]

I have my own interpretation about a dispute between the Sadducees and Pharisees, which I think is true, but I could be wrong. The Pharisees introduced a temple practice which is not mentioned in the Torah and seems to be contrary to the spirit of the sacrifices that were only of the best foods, such as pure non-processed wine and animals with no blemishes.[4] In two or three centuries BCE, they introduced the practice to pour water on the temple altar during the fall holiday of Sukkot. The Sadducees objected strongly against this innovation, but the people backed the Pharisees, who won out. The Pharisees then expanded the practice to make it into a joyous festival with dancing and torches which they called Simchat beit Hashoeva, “The joy of the (water) drawing,” and exclaimed “Whoever had not seen the joy of Simchat beit Hashoeva hasn’t seen real joy.

There are several things to note about this event. It occurred during the fall, at the onset of the rainy season in Israel when people wanted it to rain. The altar was thought to be an instrument of communication with God. The people wanted water to be poured on the altar. The turning of the practice of pouring water into a huge celebration is a classic case of “You are protesting too much.”

Once this is recognized, it seems clear to me that the Pharisees went along with the notion of the masses that they can increase the chances of rain if they pour water on the altar. This is not only because the pouring was a communication or petition to God for the water. It was also sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is when people do something on earth that magically prompts something on high. American Indians used sympathetic magic in their rain dances. So, too, the ancient Judeans did so in their Simchat beit Hashoeva.[5]

There is another Sukkot practice: banging the hoshanas, “willows,” on the ground at the end of the Sukkot holiday, on 21 Tishrei, on a day given the inflated name “Hoshana Rabba,” the Great Hoshana. Willows are plants that grow by the water. It is possible that the practice of the up and down movement of the willows began as sympathetic magic to cause water (rain) to fall.[6]



[1] The Pharisees preceded the rabbis; the institution of rabbis began around 70 CE when the temple was destroyed. Both instituted changes in Judaism. And both were preceded by leaders who also altered Torah laws.

[2] The prototypical alteration is that the Torah states that debts are whipped out when the sabbatical year begins, every seventh year. This affected commerce as well as placing a harsh burden on the poor. Accordingly, the sage Hillel, at the beginning of the Common Era, instituted a practice, called pruzbal, that allowed the debt to continue if a court was notified of its existence.

[3] Since Torah Judaism was based in large part upon sacrifices and since the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Sadducees ceased to exist soon after 70 CE.

[4] In ancient times, the rule was developed not to drink wine prepared by pagans because it may have been prepared for idols. It was called yayin nesech. Later, when most people ceased worshiping idols, many Orthodox Jews decided to continue the practice and not drink any wine prepared by non-Jews, called yayin akum, unless it was changed by being pasteurized, as well as no bread or milk prepared by non-Jews. Very few Orthodox Jews today still insist on “Jewish bread” and “Jewish milk,” but the custom of not drinking unpasteurized yayin akum is still prevalent. Interestingly, the late highly respected Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1909-1999) advised Orthodox Jews to drink Jewish unpasteurized wine for the Kiddush blessing on the Shabbat because this was the kind of wine that was offered on the temple altar (since the notion to drink only pasteurized yayin akum did not exist when the temple stood.

[5] It should surprise no one that many Jewish practices are based on superstition and mystical notions. I gave many examples in my three Maimonides books. One example is Tashlic, the belief that going to the water during the holiday of Rosh Hashana can cleans a person of sins. The rabbis at first berated fellow Jews for this notion but later accepted it. It is one of many cases of the tale leading the head.

[6] Later mystics reinterpreted the practice and gave it mystical significance.