Sunday 26 February 2023

419) Priestly politics, Calendar wars and early Jewish mysticism


The Dead Sea Scrolls from around the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE


The Hebrew Calendar that we use today has undergone some dramatic transformation over time. What is most interesting is it seems that control over the calendars was often directly related to control over mysticism. In this article, based extensively on the research by Professor Rachel Lior,[1] we examine some of the fascinating developments of the Hebrew Calendar. Much of this information has only come to light in relatively recent times. It must be emphasised that these are Elior's views and not everyone necessarily agrees with the position she takes. Nonetheless, her observations are of great interest.


In the 1940s, Gershom Scholem[2] dated the earliest Jewish mystical texts, known as Heichalot and Merkavah literature, from the early centuries of the Common Era. In other words, from around the Mishnaic or early Talmudic period.

Later, in 1965, Scholem[3] noted that in light of the then-recent discoveries in 1947 and 1956 of what was to become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, his original dating had to be revised to an earlier period because previously unknown Merkavah texts had been found amongst the Scrolls.[4] Now, decades later, we have an even greater perspective of that earlier, pre-Common Era mystical phase, that was hitherto unknown. The early forms of mysticism are conceptualised as tracing a connection between the Temple service performed by the Cohanim (priests) and the parallel service performed within the angelic realms.

The focus period 

Elior (2006:4) points to an important but little-known priestly period just before the Common Era, which was very concerned with “angelic priests, angelic liturgy and heavenly sanctuaries, divine chariot and ritual calendar.” This interest in angelology did not arise in a vacuum, because, Elior contends, there would have been deep political reasons to frame certain priestly positions as extensions of long legitimate claims to the priesthood going back to biblical times. If angels and heavenly spheres can be adduced to support priestly positions of power, then any contested claims by rival priests can be eradicated. Elior writes: 

“I will argue that the mystical priestly literature before the Common Era was written as part of a bitter dispute concerning the legitimate priestly hierarchy and the conduct of the Temple service that took place in the second century BCE in the period of the Hellenized High Priests Jason, Menelaus and Alkimos (175-159 BCE) and throughout the Hasmonean period (152-37 BCE).” 

Priestly politics inform the future of Jewish mysticism

With this, Elior introduces a fascinating element of possible priestly politics that may have gone on to inform the future of Jewish mysticism. The priestly house of Tzadok, which had served exclusively from the earliest time all the way up to 175 BCE, was suddenly deposed. They were replaced by the illegitimate and Hellenised Hasmonean dynasty of priests. This coup or overthrow of the classical Cohanim (priests) of the Temple was to become: 

“of primal importance among the factors that generated the writing of the Merkabah literature that was found in Qumran” (Elior 2006:4). 

The deposed Zadokite priests (i.e., from the house of Tzadok) began to write a mysticism that endorsed and enhanced their claim to the priesthood. This Merkavah literature is well represented in the 950 scrolls of the Qumran library, and amazingly, these important mystical documents which formed the origins of future mystical literature remained largely unknown until 1947. The subject matter of this vital mystical material related to a vast world containing hierarchies of eternal angelic orders, which operated according to a “ritual calendar and concentrated on eternal time cycles preserved by angelic liturgy.” Mysticism was thus directly related to the calendar. And it was this mystical literature, produced in the last two centuries before the Common Era, that: 

“affected later stages of early Jewish mysticism that became known as the tradition of Heikhalot and Merkabah…” (Elior 2006:4). 

The priestly calendar

The early, pre-Common Era mystical Merkavah texts demonstrate a great concern for the calendar. Their calendar was a solar calendar and was mathematically very simple. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain 13 Shabbat Songs (Serek Shirot Olat haShabat) that were to be sung on each of the 13 Sabbaths of each of the four seasons within the established priestly solar annual calendar of 52 Sabbaths (13x4=52). The year had 364 days and each of the four seasons had 91 days each (91x4=364; 13x7x4=364; 364÷7=52). These seasons are known as Merkavot haShamayim (heavenly chariots). The earthly calendar is presented as a reflection of the heavenly spheres and times. 

Why the fixation on the calendar?

The reason why there was such surprising priestly interest in the calendar, was because: 

“The calendar is probably the single most important component of the priestly tradition that was endangered and threatened after 175 BCE; and it was the central issue of dispute that caused all this literature to be dismissed and censured by later generations who changed the solar calendar into a lunar calendar and challenged the priestly order” (Elior 2006:7). 

The original Zadokite priests held that their calendar was sacred and entrusted to them by the angels and, therefore, could not be changed by humans. The Zadokite priests claimed that their calendar was taught to Moshe and: 

“[i]ts cycles were kept eternally in heaven by the angels, and were maintained on earth in the Temple by the priests and the High Priests from the tribe of Levi and the family of Zadok” (Elior 2006:8). 

Since the time of David and Solomon, Zadok (a direct descendant of Aaron), was the Cohen Gadol (High Priest), and his children, generation after generation, were described and identified as benei Zadok who served as High Priests in the Temple. 

Breaking the chain

Suddenly, this priestly line was broken in 175 BCE when Antiochus IV, the Selucian[5] (Greek) emperor, conquered the Land of Israel and imposed a new calendar on his empire, the Selucian lunar calendar. The Zadokite Cohen Gadol serving at the time, Onias III (II Mac. 3:1) refused to change the ancient solar calendar and introduce the new lunar calendar. Onias’ brother Jason, however, conceded, and: 

“deposed his brother, purchased the high priesthood from Antiochus, and instituted a new royal-priestly order…and the priestly solar calendar ceased to exist” (Elior 2006:10). 

The new priests adopted a number of different calendar models first by Hellenised priests and the Hasmonean priests. The Zadokites had been removed from the Temple precincts but they took their Temple library with them. Elior suggests that the remains of this library comprised the scrolls found at Qumran,[6] which included the literature about the angelic priests and heavenly calendar structures. The scrolls included polemic scrolls that challenged the new Hasmonean priests and their new lunar calendar. Most of this vast literature was entirely unknown until 1947. 

It is understandable why the scrolls would have been minimised then, and why they were guarded and hidden, as they were: 

“the source of threat for the new usurping group who nominated itself against the Biblical order… The deposed priests wrote legal literature that addressed the new ruling priesthood and urged the reinstitution of the old priestly order and the ancient divine calendar” (Elior 2006:10). 

The deposed Zadokite priests also continued to write mysticism. All the while, the Zadokites were opposing the new regime which they dubbed the "Sons of Darkness" as opposed to the keepers of the solar-angelic calendar, who are called "Sons of Light." Probably a reference to the lunar (dark) and solar (light) calendars. 

A third calendar is introduced by the Romans

This continued until the first of January, in the year 45 BCE, when the new Selucian lunar calendar was replaced by an even newer Roman Julian solar calendar of 365 days. 

A fourth calendar is introduced by the rabbinic sages

A short time later, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the rabbinic sages defiantly established a new calendar a lunar calendar to demonstrate their contempt for the Romans who had destroyed the Temple. This new Jewish lunar calendar differed from the pre-computations of the ‘angelic’ Zadokite solar calendar (13 Shabbat Songs, four times a year, which had 52 weeks/Sabbaths maintained by 24 priestly watches changing weekly), and it certainly differed from the Roman solar calendar: 

“This new calendar of the Sages did not relate explicitly to the number of days in a year, neither to the number of days of each month, nor to the specific day upon which a year should commence or a month should start. The calendar of the Sages was founded on human sovereignty since the calculations were based on human testimony concerning the rising of the moon and therefore not upon a predetermined division of time springing from a divine source comprised of eternal dates and seasons reckoned by angels and priests” (Elior 2006:12). 

The biblical priestly Zadokite calendar began in Nisan, as instructed by the Torah (Exodus 12:1-3), while the new rabbinic calendar began in the seventh month of Tishrei. The descendants of the deposed House of Tzadok, or the benei Tzadok, became known as Tzedokim (Sadducees) and the Sages as Perushim (Pharisees). 

Thus, the types of calendars changed from the early period which started with a solar (Zadokite) calendar, to lunar in 175 BCE from the time of Antiochus, to solar from 1 January 45 BCE, and then after the Temple period, the rabbis adopted a lunar calendar in defiance of the Romans. But the rabbis never returned to the ‘traditional biblical’ Zadokite solar calendar: 

“The Sages constrained and prohibited ‘expounding on the deeds of the chariot’ (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1; BT Hagigah 13b) without explaining the background of this ruling and its connection to ancient priestly perceptions of holy time and holy place”. 

Elior explains that the myth of the angelic priestly library transmitted from heaven to earth, which was written mainly in the second and first century BCE by the deposed Zadokite priests, had to do with the fact that they were being persecuted by Antiochus. That is why the literature is so mystical, describing heavenly ascents and heavenly knowledge of the times and calendar cycles. These mystical writers, the benei Tzadok, the “Sons of Light” claimed they were the true descendants of the ancient priestly line but their writing was politically motivated as it was directed against the Hellenised and Hasmonean usurpers of the priesthood, the benei Chashmonai, or the “Sons of Darkness.” 

The move to an oral means of transmission

It was from this early mystical writing of the deposed Zadokites, the benei Tzadok, that the later Merkavah and Heichalot mysticism as we know it, was born after the Second Temple period, where angels also hold a central position and which resemble some of other earlier themes as well. But there were some significant differences.

As mentioned, from 175 BCE, when the benei Tzadok were replaced by the benei Chashmonai, another interesting shift also took place. Because benei Tzadok relied heavily on the written libraries, the benei Chashmonai had to adopt a new methodology to convey their teachings. They turned to an oral means of instruction and developed an oral tradition. This oral tradition, later adopted by the rabbinic Pharisees emphatically opposed and countered the written traditions of the Zadokites (Sadducees). 

The two phases of early Jewish mysticism

Elior thus suggests that early Jewish mysticism should be divided into two phases: 

1) The first body of mystical literature, written in the two centuries before the Common Era where the solar calendar is presented as a reflection of heavenly and angelic time, marks the first phase. The first phase involved an intensely written tradition, with scrolls and libraries which ‘created’ an ancient timeline going back to the biblical period to give it authority. Here the calendar is a clean predetermined solar calendar of 364 days. 

2) The Heichalot and Merkavah literature, produced in the Talmudic period after the destruction of the Second Temple represents the second phase. This was an opposing and largely oral tradition, centred around the human personalities of R. Akiva and R. Yishmael as earthly protagonists who partner with angelic beings. Here the human component both in the oral transmission as well as the need for human witnesses to the new moon and adjudication by a human court counters the well-orchestrated angelology of the earlier phase. Here the calendar is a lunar calendar with complicated variables. 


What is most interesting, besides the historical development of four very different calendars, is the connection between calendars and mysticism. The mystics own and understand the cycles and functions of time. But sometimes this mysticism changes due to political expediency: 

“Mystical literature reflects much more than heavenly perspectives, devotional experience and transcendental spiritual yearning, it also reveals very interesting historical dimensions often biased by earthly disputes and competing human interests” (Elior 2006:17).

Different perspective

For a different perspective, see: 

I thank Eviatar Aron for pointing this out to me.

[1] Lior, R., 2006, ‘The Foundations of Early Jewish Mysticism: The Lost Calendar and the Transformed Heavenly Chariot’, Wege mystischer Gotteserfahrung. Mystical Approaches to God, De Gruyter Oldenbourg.

[2] Scholem, G., 1941, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York 1941.

[3] Scholem, G., 1965, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition, Second edition,

[4] Strugnell, J. 1959, ‘The Angelic Liturgy at Qumran-4Q Serek Sirot Olat Hassabat’, in: Congress Volume: Oxford, 1959 (Vetus Testamentum Supplements 7, Leiden 1959-60) 318-345.

[5] Pronounced as /sɪˈluːsɪd/: seleucid - Google Search.

[6] Not all the scrolls found in Qumran necessarily originated from that area, see DNA testing reveals something unexpected about mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls - ISRAEL21c. Most scholars maintain that the Essenes were a branch of the Zadokites, see Bruce, F.F., 1956, Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Paternoster Press.


  1. Quite an imagination, חשמונאי = darkness made me chuckle

  2. Elior obviously based these views on some documentation that allowed for such, albeit controversial, speculation. But still, the latest scholarship has moved away from Zadokite priests vs usurping Hasmoneans.
    What interests me more, though, in this conceptualisation, is how one explains an ancient and authenticated line of High Priests suddenly being reduced to an opposing sect of Sadducees?
    Whichever line one takes, I certainly agree in principle with the model that power and politics usually trump theology.