Let's Talk About Sects

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes on law.

Print this page Print this page

Moreover, how the Pharisees had defined the relationship between the Written and Oral Laws is beyond the scope of the sources at hand; later on, the Mishnah clearly differentiates between various categories of law in this respect:

The rules about release from vows (i.e. rabbinic law) hover in the air and have nothing to support them; the rules about the Sabbath, festivals, and instances of misusing objects dedicated to the Temple are as mountains which hang by a hair, for Scripture is scanty and halakhot many; the rules concerning civil cases, the temple service, determining what is clean and unclean and forbidden relationships, they have many (biblical sources to) support them, and they are the essentials of the Torah. [Hagigah 1,8.]

The Sadducees and Nonbiblical Rules

It is commonly assumed that the Sadducees believed only in the Torah or Pentateuch as God's word and rejected any oral tradition, particularly that of the Pharisees. This assumption is not entirely mistaken, but requires some revision and fine‑tuning. True, the Sadducees did not accept the Pharisaic Oral Law, but this does not mean that they did not have their own non-biblical rules. The dif­ference may have been that for the Sadducees everything had to be derived exegetically from the Torah, whereas for the Pharisees the Oral Law could be independent of Scriptures.

Three considerations would seem to bolster this assumption:

(1) No one can apply Scripture without some degree of interpretation. Once one relates a spec­ific case or issue to a particular verse and then reaches some sort of conclusion, interpretation or midrash has taken place; this, then, is an instance of a non-writt­en (i.e., oral) exegesis.

(2) We know that the Sadducees derived many of their regulations and halakhah [law] from midrash; rabbinic literature has preserved many instances of the Sadducees interpreting a biblical verse in one way and the Pharisees in another. The case of the daily sacrifice is classic in that it also clear­ly reflects the socioeconomic status of each sect. The Sadducees claimed that the daily sacrifice should be paid for by individual donors; the Pharisees, that it should come from the Temple coffers to which all Jews contributed, each side quoting a verse in support of its position. There is no reason to doubt that such exchanges on a variety of issues did, in fact, take place before 70 B.C.E. 

(3)We read of a Book of Decrees that belonged to the Sadducees and liste­d their halakhicdecisions. Thus they, too, clearly possessed such decisions over and above that which existed in the Torah.

A second, and related, fundamental difference between the Sadducees and Pharisees was that the latter considered their Oral Tradition as completely bind­ing, having derived from Sinai no less than the Written Law. The Sadducees, however, considered only the Torah as authoritative and that their exegetically derived traditions were ad hoc decisions commanding no authoritative value over and above their original intent and context.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Lee I. Levine

Lee I. Levine is a professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.