Blog  The Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots

The Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots

Last week we went to the Israel Museum to learn about Roman Period, which began in 63 BCE. During the later period of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) Dynasty, two brothers struggled for control of the throne. The weaker brother, Hyrcanus II, actually allied himself with Rome and invited the Romans into Israel to strengthen his legitimacy. However, this led to the Romans taking control of Israel. From 63-6 BCE, the Romans appointed puppet kings in Israel, who had the appearance of sovereignty but actually just did the Romans’ bidding.

The Romans did bring new technology, architecture, and infrastructure to Jerusalem, such as arches, aqueducts, roads, and a grid city system. However, they instated harsh taxes on the Jews and put up their own statues in the Beit Hamikdash. The Romans still let the Jews go to the Temple, but they built a fortress right outside, so the Romans had an eye on everything that went on.

We got to see an extraordinary model of Jerusalem during the Roman period, featuring the Beit Hamikdash, the Roman fortress, and all the homes of the people who lived in Jerusalem. In the model of the Beit Hamikdash, we saw the huge staircases that the Jews would climb up to enter the Beit Hamikdash to celebrate the three pilgrimage holidays: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. We could also see the outside of the Holy of Holies, the area where only the Cohen Hagadol (the high priest) could go in once a year. Throughout the model, we were able to see the divisions between the different Jewish sects based on the different types of homes. The richer Jews had plenty of space between their homes, with fountains and courtyards, while the poorer Jews lived in smaller houses all cramped on top of each other. We learned that there were actually four different Jewish sects: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots (aka the Sikarim). These different sects developed because (of course, typical Jews) people disagreed on how to practice Judaism and how to live as Jews in the Roman-controlled city.

The Pharisees were rabbis who believed the Temple was unnecessary and Torah was the most important aspect of Jewish life. They worshipped in synagogues, interpreted the Torah, and most notably, believed in the importance of oral law (Torah she’bal peh). This group believed that God gave us instructions orally at Mt. Sinai, and those laws were just as important as the laws written in the Torah. The Pharisees were the lower class citizens and lived in the worst conditions in Jerusalem. Finally, the Pharisees didn’t really like living under Roman rule. The Pharisees’ Judaism is what we practice today, as we can’t make sacrifices at the Temple and instead we worship in synagogues.

The Sadducees were the wealthy upper class, who were involved with the priesthood. They completely rejected oral law, and unlike the Pharisees, their lives revolved around the Temple. The Sadducees’ job was to make sacrifices and maintain the Temple’s purity. Although the Sadducees were the most involved with the Temple, they were also the most Hellenized Jews, and respected Greco-Roman civilization and rule.
The Pharisees and Sadducees made up the Sanhedrin, a council of seventy men who made all the decisions for the Jews. The tie-breaker was the high priest, who was called the nasee. In modern Hebrew, nasee means president.

The third sect, the Essenes, actually left Jerusalem to live in a kibbutz-like compound in Qumran (near the Dead Sea). Their secluded desert community was dedicated to prayer and study in preparation for the return of the Messiah. They were obsessed with purifying themselves for the Messiah, and constantly went in the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath. We were able to see the Dead Sea Scrolls which were used by the Essenes. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Qumran and are the oldest copies of the Tanakh ever discovered. It was so cool to see how far back our traditions go, and to be able to pick out the familiar letters on the scrolls.

Finally, the Sikarim were zealots who completely opposed Roman rule. The Sikarim were ready to kill all the Romans and any Jews who didn’t help them overthrow the Romans. The word “sikarim” actually means “little dagger”; this group was named for the daggers that they would use to kill people.

Personally, I most identify with the Pharisees. I like that they didn’t rely on the Temple to structure their Jewish practice and I feel the most connected to them because their practice resembles the Judaism I follow today. I like that they used the Torah to build their own interpretations for Judaism. I also identify with the Sikarim. Although I one hundred percent don’t believe in the violence that the Sikarim supported, I can understand their feelings of frustration over living in a political climate they didn’t agree with and their desire to change the climate.

Eliora Goodman is a junior from Lexington, Massachusetts. She belongs to Congregation Beth El and was a member of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!.