The week before they would hang the new Parochet, which commenced the series of rituals to clean and freshen the Tabernacle and the Kodesh haKodashim, Yoana came to the work table before we had been called for the morning meal.
“Oreget Dinah, I stopped as soon as I suspected myself. I don’t know what to do now,” she confessed, all misery and confusion. Oreget Dinah glowered at her young former co-worker.
“Go get the stool you were sitting on, it will have to be washed carefully. Touch nothing, coming or going. Hanna will lead you to the Court of the Metzoraim. There you may spend the next seven days. At the end of that time, following the appropriate sacrifices, you will be free to return home.
“In fact, Hanna, take parchment and ink so that Yoana may dictate a letter to you. Make sure she touches nothing until she is safe in her cell. And don’t let her help with her letter home, or it will become unclean, and so will you. As we still have use for you, it would be inconvenient in the extreme if you were careless or disobeyed me. Is that clear, Hanna?” Oreget Dinah demanded.
“Yes, Oreget. I am to take writing materials and Yoana to the Court of the Metzoraim. There, I see her installed in a cell and take a letter according to her dictation, without letting her touch it or me,” I answered, confused myself. What emergency had just occurred? Dinah had understood immediately what Yoana had implied. And I had missed the whole of it.
I gathered up a writing kit, and folded it into a larger piece of leather I could use as a writing surface once we had got where we were going. Yoana returned, her face ablaze, and her stool clasped to her chest almost like a shield. She kept her eyes on the floor as she came up to us. I took the lead, and she trailed behind like a toy duck on a string.
I stuck to the columned porch, it kept the sun off in summer and the weather off in the winter. The guards at the Gate Beautiful gave us no trouble. Instead of turning to the left to take the stairs up to the baths or the dormitory, we turned to the right and stayed under the portico as we walked two sides of the court’s great square plaza. The plaza itself was again filled with priests. They rehearsed the psalms, sung prayers, and holy dances which were performed at every Pesach. The whole eight days would be filled with services and the sacrifice of thousands upon thousands of lambs. The ‘inwards’ and one leg offered to haShem, the rest consumed that day at the seder meal-- at least one of which was held by every household of the Tribes during the holy week. The noise and crowding in preparation for the festivities made the portico our only possible route, as Yoana was forbidden to touch anyone.
On our journey around the Court of the Gentiles, I had gradually decided that her flowers had come upon her for the first time. This would explain the taboos, the stool, and the need for a letter home.
What rot. An ordinary function of the body turned into a sinful state. By Our Lady Rolling, I would never accustom myself to the stupidities of the Tribes.
We passed the huge bronze trumpets, too heavy for even five men to lift, which served to collect the shekels for each of the kinds of offerings etched into the metal in large Yvrit letters. I read them without thinking as we passed: guilt, sin, peace, heave, waive, vows, uncleanesses, first born, tithe of the tithe, didrachmon-- paid by every adult male of the Tribes annually for the upkeep of the Temple itself. Then there was only the door.
The heavy wooden doors, strapped with bronze, were twice as tall as a tall man. Each leaf measured wide enough to let three people walk through it abreast. A heavy metal ring hung just above my eye level in the center of each of the doors. I reached up, but Yoana cleared her throat conspicuously.
“Don’t. You don’t know who touched it last. They’re supposed to let guards do it, but a lot of the bumpkins don’t know and knock themselves. Let me. I’m already unclean and the knocker can’t make me any worse,” she choked out around her embarrassment. Then she stepped up to the ring and let it fall against the strike plate. The noise was pitifully small. She tried again, with enough force that we heard an echo ringing back from the other side of the door.
“You don’t look any different to me, you know,” I told her, “And you don’t seem any different as a person, except for how upset you are. You’ve been hoping for your flowers, since this means Beit haMiqdas has to send you home with a dowry.”
“Now you can marry to advantage and get started on filling a home with children and your husband’s liver with pride. This isn’t the end of your life, this is the real beginning. So please stop looking like you peed on yourself in front of the Kohen Gadol.” I spoke quickly, wanting to finish before someone answered our knock and made her feel like pustulous vermin all over again.
My instinct told me true. A chalalah answered the door. She was on the older side, or had worn badly. In the shapeless, colorless gown it was hard to see much of a person to judge one way or the other.
“This is the Court of the Metzoraim. Did you knock here for a purpose, or have you mistaken your way? ‘Ware for you stand at the threshold of the Court of the Metzoraim,'' our gatekeeper intoned.
The words were portentous. They were clearly ritual as well. The chalalah had rattled them off without inflection or interest.
“Until this hour, I served in the junior Oregot. Now my service here is finished. I was told to come to this place and stay here for seven days, and make an offering before leaving,” Yoana replied in a small voice.
“Ah. Follow me, Oreget. And you, do you have any business here in the Court of the Metzoraim? ‘Ware for you stand on the threshold…”
“Yes, I must write a letter for Oreget Yoana so that her people will know to make arrangements for her return home. I will leave when the letter is dry,” I responded confidently.
“Watch that you touch nothing of this place while you are in this place. If you do, you yourself will be unclean until the evening, and that only if you are able to clean your clothes separately and provide for a sacrifice before the priests stop at sundown,” the chalalah informed me with indifference.
Now I followed Yoana. She would reach any obstacle of uncleanness before I did, and was in a position to move or remove it if necessary. Yoana followed the chalalah. She walked to a stairwell, and we climbed many flights up. There she led us around the covered porch overlooking the central square of this smaller court. We trailed behind her, having seen no one else since we had entered the notorious Court of the Lepers. Our guide stopped at a doorway closed by a lightly woven curtain.
“This will do for you. The top floor is all women in their flowers, or with other womanly uncleanness, the ground floor is the new mothers, the floor above that is absolved adulteresses, and any overflow from above or below. Stay well away from those grilles there, they divide the Metzoraim from the Metzora’ot. Now the lepers proper, or former lepers for the most part, are housed across from you on this top level. Beneath that are persons with suppurations and blemishes for the priests to observe. On the ground floor, we mostly have those who are unclean until sundown for one reason or another. But do be careful while you are here, and when you leave. And you, missy, someone will bring your meals to you. Anything you touch will be unclean, so you will find only the minimum in your room. Even this curtain will be washed when you leave, before we can house anyone else here. My rotation is almost done.
“Tomorrow, the chalalah in service to the Court of the Metzoraim for the next week will be Hadassah. She will do what she can for you. The baths are on the ground floor, and may not be used by anyone in her flowers. However, there are plenty of pitchers, bowls and towels there for just that reason. If you are caught in one of the baths, it will be the worse for you. Huppah’s Mach’lakhah serves in the Tabernacle this week. And Shammai himself takes the duty of adjudicator when the Shalosh-Esre Mach’lakhah are anointed.”
This warning was wholly opaque to me. From her round-eyed demeanor, I saw Yoana understood the reputation of the priestly cohort and its infamous adjudicator. She might have been shaking in fear, or merely because her body had begun to reflect the extremity of her emotional condition.
“Thank you for your help. Before I leave, I must produce a letter. And I would very much like to get the letter written, so that I may leave. How long will it be until the morning meal?” I directed in my best imitation of Oreget Dinah out of patience.
“You have half a jar until we begin to serve the meal. This floor is served last, so somewhat more than half a jar. Will that be enough time?” The chalalah asked with more deference than was due a first year junior Oreget.
“Again, I thank you. Yes. I brought scrap leather to use for a writing surface. If I find I need anything else at all, I will search you out.” The doom-toned door-knocker sounded below, summoning the lackadaisical chalalah away.
The letter itself took only a few minutes to compose. The direction Yoana gave was clear. I tied the folded parchment with a complex wrap and knot that would serve as a seal until it arrived at her father’s house.
“Here, keep the leather and the writing tools. Oreget Rivka has the days marked out down to the last jar of time. And Oreget Dinah wears herself to a thread trying to track down enough fleece to finish what we still lack-- which you know is only the lengths of dyed wool used to weave the panels together. But still, no one will miss any of this. It might help you to pass the time.” I had been delighted to think of the one thing I could do to help Yoana through her time of isolation.
“What? You think I am a trained scribe, hidden in the Oregot? Don’t be so silly, Hanna. I wouldn’t know which end of that thing to put in the ink.” She pointed at the quill.
“You would too, look for the end that has the ink stains,” I protested.
“Now is no time for me to take up writing. You reminded me that I have a dowry chest to fill and a wedding to plan. No, I misspoke. Do leave the ink and such. I can work out the heddling patterns for my bridal linens while I am here. No matter that everything will have to be burned, I will have it memorized once I have it plotted the way I want it. All the linens will be white on white, but I have learned a thing or two about brocading since I arrived at Beit haMiqdas. This will be such fun. My mother will be astonished at all I can do.
“We warp our looms very differently at home. I wonder if I will be able to use this technique on our loom, or if I will have to have one specially built? That would be lovely. I could make fine linen with any surplus we had to provide extra income for all the nice things that make a home so much more pleasant.”
“Oh. Then I will say good-bye. Would you like me to come and see how you are? I could bring you more leather, if you liked.” Suddenly, I understood Yoana was leaving Beit haMiqdas forever just as the Parochet would be hung.
“No. Don’t worry about me at all. The chalalah will see that I have anything I need. And you will be too busy this week, with the forty-times-forty last things required to fulfill the word of haShem regarding the workings of the Oregot. Believe me, this week in the calendar is always marked, ‘with love, from Gehenna’.
“Do everything you can to keep Oreget Rivka sane and Oreget Dinah on her toes and out of your way. The next time you see me, in one of the crowds of bumpkins at the High Holy Days, I will be a married woman of the Tribes. I wish I could give you a hug, but that would be stupid. So good-bye for now, Hanna. Don’t come back to the Court of the Metzoraim on my account.” Yoana scooped up the leather and writing supplies and disappeared behind her curtain.
There was nothing else for me to do but go. So go I did. First, I went to the dormitory. I packed Yoana’s personal things, and stripped her bed. The linens, robes and wraps I would take to the laundry-- they managed ritual cleansing as well as actual cleaning of the linens.
The dormitory echoed with emptiness. No Oreget stood watch during the day, when all the girls were over at the workshop. There was no one to ask what I should do with Yoana’s things. I would take them to the Court of the Metzoraim after I dropped off the laundry. The concierge would have somewhere safe to store them.