The Dead Sea Scrolls before being unraveled.

One of the most celebrated Israeli discoveries of the past century was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in the ancient city of Qumran, near the Dead Sea, in Judea. Among the manuscripts discovered in the caves at Qumran were the second-oldest surviving manuscripts of works that were later included in the Tanach (Bible) canon. These manuscripts have served as proof of the great level of precision with which the Hebrew Bible has been preserved for thousands of years. In addition to a large number of ancient manuscripts of the canonized bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls also contain manuscripts of other Bible-related literature and second-temple period Jewish customs. At least some of the manuscripts have been attributed to a Judean Desert sect of Judaism that had varying customs for practicing Judaism.

For many years, archaeologists and researchers have worked to piece together the manuscripts and artifacts found in the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, from 1946 to 1956 across 11 caves. Most of the manuscripts had been translated and deciphered, except for 2, which remained undeciphered. Dr. Eshbal Ratson and Prof. Jonathan Ben-Dov of the Department of Bible Studies at the University of Haifa recently managed to decipher and restore one of the last two Qumran Scrolls that remain unpublished, out of some 900 scrolls uncovered at the site.

Researchers at the Department of Bible Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel spent more than a year carefully reassembling more than 60 tiny sections written in secret code on parchment. They decrypted the ancient code through annotations in the margins written by a second scribe correcting the errors made by the author*.

The decipher included mentions of previously known customs adhered to by the Judean Desert, in addition to new discoveries regarding their different customs. Among the unique mentions and discoveries to come from the parchment were:

  • A unique 364-day calendar used by the members of the Judean Desert sect. including the discovery for the first time of the name given by the sect to the special days marking the transitions between the four seasons. The Qumran calendar is unchanging, and appears to have embodied the beliefs of the members of this community regarding perfection and holiness,” the researchers explain. This calendar was involved in one of the fiercest debates between different groups during the late Second Temple period, according to the researchers. Canonized Jewish law does not recognize this calendar as being authentic as the accepted Jewish practice follows a calendar based on the lunar cycle.
  • Two special occasions celebrated by the Judean Desert sect and not mentioned in the Bible, but which are already known from the Temple Scroll of Qumran: the festivals of New Wine and New Oil. These dates constituted an extension of the festival of Shavuot as we know it today, which celebrates the New Wheat. According to this calendar, the festival of New Wheat falls 50 days after the first Sabbath following Passover; the festival of New Wine comes 50 days later; and after a further interval of 50 days, the festival of New Oil is celebrated.
  • A special day for each of the four changes of season that was observed by the Judean Desert sect. These 4 days were called by the name “Tekufah”. The word “Tekufah” translates into the word “period” in Mishnaic (the period of the first Holy Temple) Hebrew as well as modern Hebrew.

“This scroll includes numerous words and expressions that we find later in the Mishna (the first book of codified Jewish law). This shows once again that many of the subjects discussed by the Scribes several centuries later had origins that predated the Second Temple period,” the researchers concluded. The researchers are now turning their attention to the last remaining scroll that has yet to be deciphered.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently located at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The scrolls can be seen on display at the museum today, but due to the the fragility of the scrolls, a system of rotation is used, whereby select scrolls are exhibited for 3–6 months and then replaced with a different scroll, so as to maintain the scrolls.

Information gathered on the official website of the University of Haifa contributed to this article.