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Sect of pious, ascetic Jews during the time of the Second Temple. Evidence of the existence of the sect dates from the Hasmonean period. The members of the group dedicated themselves to a life of simplicity and purity. They lived close to nature and shared in common their worldly possessions. The Essenes settled in isolated areas in the Judean desert and in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. They eked out a modest living by cultivating the land and through their craftsmanship. Trade was prohibited for they considered it dishonest. Similarly, they refused to produce instruments of death and destruction.

The Essenes were known for their strict observance of the ritual of daily immersion in cold water. Purity of the soul was made conditional upon purity of body. The whole community ate together. Their meals, consisting of bread and vegetables, represented a solemn ritual. Keeping absolute silence throughout their meals, they resembled priests performing their rites during the sacred services in the Temple. New members who wished to join the sect had to go through rigorous tests and initiation rites in order to prove their worthiness. Patience, perseverance, modesty, righteousness, purity of character, and above all, love of truth and readiness to aid the poor and downtrodden were the qualities required of every candidate.

The Essenes’ closeness to nature led them to recognize medicinal herbs, and they acquired a reputation as healers and soothsayers. The Essenes refused to divulge their secrets, rules, or knowledge even under threat of death. Although opposed to war, they hated oppression and many joined the fight against the Romans. In recent years, scrolls found in caves near the Dead Sea revealed a rich and valuable literature of sects similar to the Essenes.

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