Some call it the first Dead Sea Scroll—but it was found in Cairo and not in a cave. It was recovered in 1897 in a Genizah, a synagogue repository for worn-out copies of sacred writings. The gifted scholar who had found it, Solomon Schechter, gave it with a hoard of other ancient Hebrew manuscripts to Cambridge University, where it still remains today.
Of course no one called it the first Dead Sea Scroll in 1897. That was fifty years before the momentous discovery on the actual Dead Sea Scrolls, in 1947, in the caves of Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The manuscript Schechter received its nickname only after the Dead Sea Scroll scholars realized that it was a copy of a document that belonged to, and described, the sect whose hidden library had been discovered at Qumran.
Today, the “Damascus Document” (or “Zadokite Fragment”), as this Genizah manuscript is known to scholars, is considered to be the most important document in existence for understanding the history of the Essenes, the people who produced and subsequently hid the scrolls in the Qumran caves. And from its tattered pages, Schechter, who never dreamed of Qumran and died before its discovery, was able to give us out first recognizable portrait of the Qumran sect.
The picture he painted was a astonishing one, as was, for a long time, unexplainable. “the annals of Jewish history,” Schechter wrote, “contain no record of a Sect agreeing in all points with the one depicted … ”1