I waited patiently with the Oreget on duty. I stood next to her and furtively teased enough yarn from the frayed hem of my tunic to have a quiet round of cat’s cradle with myself. It was not a game where one tallied a score, or imitated labor, or created anything. Therefore, I could not find that it fell outside the limitations of halakha. And I didn’t care at all what the Oreget who had taken me in charge thought of what I did, though I made very certain I stood just where she would have to turn her head to be able to keep me in view.
We Oregot had no assigned duties in the morning, on Shabbat, save making our beds and waiting quietly for the mid-morning meal. I didn’t mind the wasting of my time. I would have been hard pressed to find something better or more useful to do with it on a day where doing nothing reverently was the only chore.
Abigal returned after a longish while; I had had to mend breaks in my cat’s cradle string twice. She walked a half step behind one of the priests kitted out in his turban, beard, belt and tunic. The tzitzit of his tallit swung merrily, emphasizing the hasty gait of my persecutress as she conducted him to us.
I looked again, as they approached. It wasn’t just any priest she had brought us, but Gamliel ben Simeon himself. Was he likely to view my stretching favorably, or unfavorably? Would he consider my case differently because he knew me?
“Oreget Orpah, I have heard quite a bit from Abigal. Now I would like to know what seems to be the matter in your estimation? Is this our miscreant, here?” Gamliel asked, eyes atwinkle.
“Yes, thank you Kohen. This hussy, this zonah, is new to our ranks. She came only this week. She has begun making a regular display of herself in the dormitory. She turns somersaults! She,” and here Oreget Orpah lowered her voice, “she spread her legs.”
“And the specific prohibition under consideration would be which, in your understanding?” He asked her gravely.
“Well,” she fumbled, “well, Rabban Hillel himself decreed that the Oregot should conduct themselves as soberly and piously as priests. This conduct of hers is neither sober nor is it inspired by any piety I may conceive of.”
“Rabban Hillel did indeed make such a consideration known. You are well versed in the Midrashim regarding the corps of the Oregot,” here he paused significantly.
“Oh. Oh, thank you Kohen,” she mumbled with a visible blush.
“But we must take into account that the Kohanim, themselves, dance on Shabbat. Before they do so, they must engage in a certain amount of stretching. Some of our bones and joints are on the far side of elderly, and that practice keeps us fit for dancing into the years of sagacity. Therefore, I do not quite see that this Oreget has contravened halakha here in Beit haMiqdas. Or perhaps I should say, hasn’t contravened halakha that we have witnessed.”
“But... but... but her legs!” Oreget Orpah spluttered.
“Yes, well that certainly falls under the purview of stretching, wouldn’t you say?” Gamliel smiled blandly. “Perhaps we may arrange for her to stretch somewhere less actively occupied by all the world. Oreget, would you consent to practice your stretching in the baths, say, where there are fewer persons and all of them acquainted with the idea that less clothing is necessary for some essential activities?” Gamliel’s eyes still twinkled. I chose to believe they twinkled for me, and my near brush with contravention of the halakha, literally the sacred laws of all the Tribes.
“I would be pleased to practice my stretching in the baths downstairs. Shall I be let to go when there are guards at the door?” I asked, pert as ever.
“Those guards are to keep people out, not especially to prevent the persons who have primary use of the space from leaving it,” Gamliel firmly informed me. In part, it was a warning for the senior Oreget on hand. “We choose to presume that people under haShem’s roof act with the knowledge that His eyes are upon us, in our waking and our sleeping, in our rising in the morning, and even in our stretching of the wonderful bodies with which He has provided us the better to worship and praise Him.”
“Thank you, kind Kohen for your wise guidance. I am so glad you were able to make all clear to us, mere humble women,” I grovelled impishly.
“Yes. Well, indeed. I am at the service of all who serve the One on High. This is my charge when my Mach’lakah is detailed to our week’s duties. But never fail to find a priest, if you have a question regarding how halakha may apply. Whether it is myself who comes to assist you, or another, we are all His servants, and all have taken vows to do their utmost in His house.” With this reassurance, Gamliel made to depart.
“So the stretching is allowed, even on Shabbat?” Abigal persisted.
“Yes, as I said, the priests in the Ezrat haNashim stretch before dancing, even on Shabbat. Should this harmless act be made criminal for those who also have a need to stretch? I cannot see it, little Oreget, though we thank you for your care for the reputation of your corps.” And then he did turn and, tzitzit swinging, made his way down the long-windowed corridor. Oreget Orpah turned on me fiercely.
“Don’t get swollen up with pride, missy. That Kohen is clearly the softest in a long line of soft, soft men. Not all the Kohanim are so lenient, even with the new junior Oreget. And don’t you forget it, you hear?” she barked, her scowl etched along lines that had housed it more than not for many years.
“I wasn’t the one who insisted on having a Kohen come to put me in my supposed place, either. And I wouldn’t have cared who came, from this Mach’lakah or another. A stretch is not a violation of halakha on Shabbat, whether it be a monkey doing the stretching, or even one of the junior Oreget! Now, if you would excuse me, I want to go to the baths so that I can finish my Shabbat morning stretches before we are called to the refectory.”
I sashayed away. And I remembered the Matroi had instructed us that the hardest task of the performer was not looking back to see what the audience felt. Which I didn’t.
Yoana had slept late, through all the hissing fuss Abigal and Oreget Orpah had made. She lay far enough from the doorway to have continued sleeping right through the whole Kohanic event. This is why she made a point of sitting beside me for our barley bread and lentil porridge, not the least bit different for being served on Shabbat.
Though we couldn’t talk, she let her expressive round eyes communicate her concern for me, and her desire to learn every word that had been said, and by whom and with what effect. I affected not to understand, and passed her the water pitcher. Her eyes, and this had been what motivated me, grew even rounder. They darted more. Her lashes fluttered like a butterfly in a windstorm. Yoana had nearly perfected the art of communicating without words, or even much motion of her body. And it all took place under the narrowed, searching gazes of the senior Oregot.
When the blessing was finished over the end of the meal, Yoana made no more pretences. She grabbed my arm and dove through the throng bottlenecked at the exit from the refectory. We popped out the other side of the solid clot of crowd. We had momentum with our freedom. Yoana used her grip on my arm to swing me around against the nearest window ledge.
“What happened this morning? The junior Oreget were abuzz with it. Oreget Orpah and Abigal had their heads together until we were called to eat. I heard your name, but no one knew for certain, except Abigal-- and she wouldn’t say,” Yoana demanded.
So I told her. Of course, she remembered Gamliel ben Simeon. And she had already seen how the Oregot first responded to my stretching.
“No question, you’re in trouble now,” she pronounced with an air of wisdom when I’d finished.
“No, I’m not. That’s what he said, and he even warned her not to keep me from the baths to stretch when I wanted,” I protested.
“That’s not what I mean, stupid. Oreget Orpah has a bunch of Oregot and chalalah too who think she should have more of a position than she does. If she tells all of them to keep an eye on you, and Abigal does the same with the juniors, you will be caught in a transgression one way or another. There are so many of them, and you only just got here. Trust me, they are probably out to get you from now,” she confided with absolute certainty.
“I didn’t insist on a priest to make the judgment. I thought they were wrong, and I told them what I knew the law was. They wouldn’t listen. How is this my fault? Why should it be my problem? I was right. They were wrong,” I complained.
“Oh Hanna. That’s why it’s your problem. They wanted to see you brought down. They wanted you cowed, corrected, and repentant. You were none of those things. It’s likely you didn’t smooth down any of your abrasive ways just because that Kohen decided for you,” Yoana opined, as though she knew me well. Which it sounded like she did, since I had behaved exactly as she’d imagined.
“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” I whined.
“And that’s what you did that was wrong. You were right instead of chastised. That’s a big personal fault, right there. Ask any of the women here, they could tell you. Sometimes it’s better and easier to be wrong, even when you aren’t. I should know. I will have been here two years come the week after Hoshana Rabbah,” she consoled me. I wondered if Job’s consolers had made him feel better or worse. I hadn’t begun to feel better for all of Yoana’s help and counsel, that was certain.
The day passed slowly, with nothing to do that could be done. We could all read, but reading work related material was forbidden. So we took turns reading, and singing when someone knew the tune, psalms. There were many scrolls of the ancient poetry of the Tribes stored near the chamber pots.
When we were called to the refectory for the afternoon service, to be followed by dinner, it was a great relief. I had heard more than I wanted to about the tribulations of the Tribes and the glory of haShem no matter how ugly their lives had become and how much ruin had been visited upon the nation. At least we would be ready to sing whatever psalms tradition and the service decreed.