“The Dead Sea Scrolls — Life and Faith in Biblical Times,” an exhibit at the Discovery Times Square exhibition center [1], will conclude on April 15th, 2012.

On 12/30/11, I posted a review of my visit there a couple of days previously (see:

 https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/12-30-11-the-dead-sea-scrolls-exhibit-in-nyc/). 

Being a vacation week during holiday season, the place was beyond packed. What I saw of the exhibit fascinated me, but it just wasn’t possible to spend the time it would have taken to see it all. 

Certain changes in the fragments being displayed having been made, I was invited back to review the exhibit a second time. This time, I was able to go on a weekday during a non-holiday period. I had a far different experience. There was a reasonable number of people, but nowhere near what could be called a “crowd.” So — first recommendation: If you plan to see this exhibit, try to do so on a weekday that’s also not a holiday! Trust me — you’ll enjoy it much more.

The scrolls are extremely delicate, as can be imagined. Recently, changes were made in the pieces being displayed. The “10 Commandments” fragment — the oldest extant parchment version — has been removed. As explained to me, the parchment can’t support its own weight indefinitely. In its place is a photographic reproduction. 10 other fragments were replaced, as well. 

The “Daily Life…” part of the exhibit remains the same. I bypassed it this time, but still recommend it as valuable for learning about aspects of Jewish history with which most of us have little, if any, familiarity. It wonderfully supplements what might be being taught in Jewish Day School and Hebrew School history classes. 

This time, though, I focused on the scroll fragments themselves. The main exhibit is in a round, glass-enclosed case on the lower level of the site. I was more than surprised to find that these famous scrolls were written not only in Hebrew, but in Greek, too. One was even written in “paleo-Hebrew” — the Hebrew script used during the First Temple period which, to my surprise, actually continued in use until the Destruction of the Second Temple. (My short post on paleo-Hebrew can be read at:

https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/1-2-12-hebrew-history/.)

In two fragments — one Greek, the other Hebrew — the Tetragrammaton (4-letter Divine Name) was written in the same paleo-Hebrew.

(Reading from right-to-left, the second and fourth letters are both “hei” — the 5th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Notice how the paleo-Hebrew form resembles “E” — the fifth letter of the alphabet we use today!)

The Tetragrammaton wasn’t uniformly written this way throughout the scrolls. One wonders why it was done in some and not in others. Was it simply left up to the scribe? (The Talmud disallows this practice altogether).

One of the fragments was written completely in paleo-Hebrew. This could not have happened if at least some members of the community weren’t literate in that form. Likewise the Greek fragments: some people must have spoken and read Greek as their “first language.”

This should immediately alter any assumption of this community as having been rigidly uniform. These were Jews from widely varying economic and educational backgrounds. 

In other ways, too, the actual writing on the fragments wasn’t as “uniform” as we find today in the writing on a Sefer Torah, tefillin, mezuzah, or Megillah. In some of the fragments, I could clearly see the horizontal lines with the letters hanging from them — much as a trained “sofer” (scribe) would use today — to keep the lines straight and the letters consistently sized and placed. Other copyists seemed to have worked “free-hand,” with the line curving rather than straight — as we might expect from a non-professional doing scribal work.

The legibility and size of the writing varied as well.

I also saw certain variations in Hebrew spelling that wouldn’t be seen in the “Masoretic” tradition from which our contemporary scribal work derives. For example, “Lo” is usually written “lamed/alef,” with the dot above and between them (called “kholam khasehr”) to indicate the “oh” vowel.

In at least one fragment, I saw it written as “lamed/vav/alef” (called “kholam maleh”), the middle “vav” manifesting the same “oh” vowel in its full form.

Several times, I also saw a “yud” 

written with such a long vertical stroke that it was hard to distinguish it from a “vav.”

  
Therefore, scribal rules for writing Hebrew texts and letters (or Hebrew calligraphy) don’t seem to have been in force at Qumran.

The exhibit is presented in varied formats and learning modalities. Some displays can be accompanied by a recorded, self-guided tour (separate fee). Some are more “interactive.” There are also short films and, of course, the recreation of a section of the “Kotel” (Western Wall). Seeing the exhibit requires a lot of walking around. This can be good for children and teens. Older viewers might need to take periodic “rests.”

A “learn to write Hebrew” station — digital or pen/pencil/crayon and paper — might have fit in nicely. A station giving a chance to write with a quill similar to those used by the copyists and scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls might also have been a welcome feature. Perhaps a chance also to touch and feel the kind of parchment that the copyists used would have further added to the educational value of a visit.

I’d suggest that any school group visiting the exhibit prepare by reading something about paleo-Hebrew, as well as about the Qumran community. It might also be useful and interesting to go over some of the  Jewish laws (“halachot”) related to writing Torahs, etc. It could add immeasurably to the sense of wonder created by the ancient examples before us. Seeing the varying styles also helps us understand why such laws were created in the interests of consistency and uniformity.

While at the exhibit, I also had the good fortune to meet a volunteer docent named Shmuel ben Eliezer, who had himself lived in Israel for 15 years and worked on the scrolls there. He was able to expand greatly on what was already in the exhibit. I had the feeling that I was only scratching the surface of what he could tell me. Talking to another docent, I could see that he was the “docents’ docent,” sharing his knowledge happily and freely with them and with the general public. He’s a great resource, and a valuable presence there.

I again highly recommend this exhibit. 

Just use a little “sehchel” (common sense) in choosing when to go see it!

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[1] 226 W. 44th St. (between 7th and 8th Aves; a short walk from Port Authority Bus station).
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