The Hebrew Bible provides ten commandments about fundamental moral issues and more than 600 laws about almost every aspect of Jewish religious practice, from what may be eaten to caring for the poor.
But that long list of rules has a curious omission, says Penn State scholar Daniel Falk.
“There is not a single law about prayer,” he says. “No law governing what time you should pray or what you should pray.”
A few hundred years B.C., communal prayer was not part of regular Jewish observance. It’s not that people didn’t pray, says Falk. They prayed often, both alone and in groups, but mainly in response to specific situations. They cried out to God for help in times of distress and they offered prayers of thanksgiving in times of great joy. But to gather every day for prayer, as a regular practice, was probably not done. It was certainly not required by religious laws.
By around A.D. 200, when the compilation of Jewish law known as the Mishnah appeared, that had changed. The first line of the Mishnah asks, “From what time in the evening must one recite the Shema?”
“It begins with a law about prayer!” says Falk. “Not only that you should pray, but that you should pray at a certain time and you should pray a certain prayer. If you jumped straight from the Hebrew Bible to that, you would wonder, ‘I didn’t even know I was required to pray.’ ”
The duty to pray fell on communities as well as on individuals. Sabbath services, which in earlier times featured prayers by religious leaders, now involved specific prayers by the entire congregation. No special circumstances were required: The community prayed together weekly and even daily as a matter of course, regardless of outside events.
“The obligation on the people—not on officials—but that the people as a whole have an obligation to honor God and to bring the community needs before God in a disciplined fashion, is really quite remarkable,” says Falk. “There’s been some massive religious revolution, and we know almost nothing about how or when that came about.”
Fragile findsFalk, a professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies, looks for insights into the development of Jewish prayer in the collection of ancient documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written over a span of more than two hundred years, gathered and protected by a small community in a desert outpost in the kingdom of Judea, the scrolls are a window onto what was happening in the larger society at the time. They contain the earliest-known versions of many of the texts that later became standard parts of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament). They also contain hymns, commentaries, and hundreds of prayers.
The scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s in caves near the ruins of a settlement called Qumran, along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Scholars estimate the total number of scrolls to be over 900, of which about 90 percent are parchment made of animal skins. The rest are made of papyrus. The scrolls range in size from about four inches high and a couple of feet long to what Falk calls “deluxe versions” about 18 inches high and 30 feet long.
"The bat excrement and urine and insects did a real number on them."
Photographs and paintings of the caves often show tall ceramic jars that were used to store the precious documents. Unfortunately, only about one percent of the scrolls were found, relatively intact, inside jars.
“The vast majority were just in tatters on the floors of the caves,” says Falk. “So they were in caves, which protected them, but some caves protected them better than others. There were bats in there, and wild animals, and the bat excrement and urine and insects and all this did a real number on them.”
By the time of their discovery, many of the scrolls had fallen apart. Many of those made of papyrus had disintegrated into fragments no bigger than a thumbnail. Tens of thousands of fragments were removed from the caves, mostly by resourceful Bedouin, and somehow survived their convoluted paths to museums and private collections. Today, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls reside at the Shrine of the Book, a museum and study center in Jerusalem.
Falk began studying the scrolls as a graduate student at Cambridge University in the early 1990s—just the right time, it turns out. In the decades since their discovery, access to the scrolls had been tightly controlled by a small committee of experts.
“There were scholars who had gone their whole career working on the scrolls, and never actually got to see them,” he says. By the late ’80s, pressure from academics and from a public fascinated with the ancient texts had begun to pry open the gates, giving access to a whole new generation of researchers.