The cell to which Sarah directed me turned out to be the one to which I had seen Yoana, only a week ago. She was definitely gone, then. I sighed. We hadn’t been close, too much separated us. But I didn’t know any of the other junior Oregot as well, on account of having worked as an assistant to Rivka and not on the regular teams.
My part of the porch allowed the sun in during the afternoon. I basked in its still weak rays. Maybe I dozed a little. I woke to a shadow blocking the light.
“Would you like to play naughts and crosses? I have enough pomegranate left from our feast to dye the board markings. With a few pebbles, we could be in business,” Ruth announced cheerfully, oblivious to her interruption of my solitary sun bath.
The pebbles, a seeming constant in Yerushalayim more notable by their absence than their presence, were quickly found. Only the Oregot workshop and the holdings of the Osey haTorah community had been unpebbled in my experience. Maybe the Tabernacle and the Kodesh haKodashim were likewise pebble-free. I would never know, merely by dint of being born into a female body.
My afternoon flew by. Asking a question here, and another there, I learned more about Ruth’s life as a chalalah at Beit haMiqdas. She felt grateful to have a place in the Tribes, given her non-halakic circumstances of birth. I grew more and more cross to hear of the workload apportioned to the corps of the chalalah to offset the expense of their support by the Temple Treasury. They swept, mopped, laundered, cooked, washed, scrubbed, set out, cleared away, prepared for influxes of hundreds, hid away the evidence of those visits, removed ordure wherever it appeared throughout the precincts of Har Moriah, drew water, mended and generally did every little thing which needed doing save the spreading of blood everywhere by dint of sacrificial practices.
Like the Oregot, the chalalah never saw flesh at board save the one shared shank at Pesach for the seder. They slept in dormitories. These tainted women worked from first light to last light six days of every seven. On the seventh, they were ‘allowed’ to do nothing, unless there were dishes which needed to be washed so that dinner could be served.
And, as they were in their reproductive years, almost a quarter of them were off duty on any given day of the month. Ruth said it was weighted towards the full and the dark of the moon. So they had one week plus three days off every month. Which sounds like quite a bit until one thinks of the rest of the days: spent in unending drudgery.
“Ruth, it isn’t fair that you all should have to be the ones to clear up after everybody at Beit haMiqdas. It isn’t right that you may never marry, never have children, and spend your days counting yourselves fortunate to have a place to live indoors.
“And all because your fathers were not following in the tracings of their forebears when they made you. Don’t you get angry? Don’t all the chalalah get angry?” I asked in honest outrage for her tribulations.
“No-oo. No, I don’t think we do. Mostly, we are glad not to be outcasts, or keeping house for our brothers or fathers. It wouldn’t be any different than what we do here, except that there isn’t any company. Most families don’t produce more than one chalalah before the adjudicators decide that the union is unfitting,” Ruth added prosaically.
“So you never think of maybe one day not reporting for your duties? Staying in bed instead? Or going for a walk out to see the Pool of Siloam, or the Pool of Ysrael, or the gardens of the Kidron valley, or the artistic presentations of the Theatron up on Har Zion? None of you has even considered this?” I pressed her.
“Why would we? They offer us decent, regular food and clean beds here. Those of us with conduct live at Beit haMiqdas unmolested. Those without conduct are glad enough of the negotiated molestations they arrange in secret. If we lay abed, what reason would the Bursar’s office have for providing us with food?”
She had a point. It wouldn’t take many missed meals to break any spirit of revolution in the corps of the chalalah.
“Within a day, the chalalah could bring the Kohanim to their knees, ready to answer any demands you made. You could save a little from meals the days before, so that you wouldn’t have to fast. But those priests don’t want to swab down the refectories, dormitories, mikv’ot, and side courts of Beit haMiqdas. Not only do they not know how, but they are too holy, on account of whatever other vows they may have taken, or their duties at the Tabernacle. Every last one of them is petrified of being found unclean. They are prissier even than the male priestesses on Kriti, and they were a piece of work.
“You could make changes in where you sleep, what you eat, how long you work, a retirement dowry so that you wouldn’t have to transfer over to the senior Oregot by default. You could have your own lives, on your own terms. Don’t you want that?” I demanded.
“Hanna, we don’t want much. All of us know we could have been cast out. All of us know that only the compassionate provision of haShem at Beit haMiqdas keeps us safe and fed, year in and year out. All of us feel gratitude for our position. We are honoured to continue our labor with the Oregot when we become able to join,” Ruth chided.
“You are worth more. You should have more. Who you are is not your fault, and it is against the law of haShem Himself to visit the sins of the fathers on the children,” I added for emphasis.
“It is. That is why they make a place for us here where we can be clothed, and fed, and surrounded by the glory of the presence of haShem and all His Kohanim and Levites. We, who are outside the bounds of the Law, are given a home at the very heart of the Law. We are honored to be here, and honored to serve. We lack nothing, knowing our place and being respected in it,” Ruth repeated with pious intonation. She must have heard that bit of propaganda fairly often to have it down so patly.
“Ruth, you’re wonderful. The chalalah are the best thing that ever happened to Beit haMiqdas. The Kohanim are a bunch of god-ridden panty-waists. They do all this, with the Parochet, with the shewbread, with the incense, the mincha, the oil and menorah, the wine and the sacrifices-- all of it, without haShem himself anymore. Yahya is right. This place promises a wedding, but the bride is missing, and apparently unclothed with it,” I concluded grandly.
“I don’t know what you mean about any bride. They don’t marry in the Tabernacle, since women aren’t allowed even as far as the Nicanor Gate. If you were to start to climb the steps to that gate, the guards would be on you in a moment. But we do our best, and we are proud to be asked to do it.” There was nothing more to be said on the subject after that.
“Look, there’s Sarah. It is already time for the evening meal? How quickly the day has gone!” Ruth exclaimed.
“One of you will have to fetch your own meal up. It was brought separately from the food for the rest of the Metzoraim. Or you might have it with that naughty Yahya. He is supposed to have a share of it, after all. Isn’t that what Rabban Shammai decreed?” Sarah asked. The man’s least utterances were transformed, by mere jars of time, into decrees. Av Bet Din of the Sanhedrin swung a lot of weight in the courts of Beit haMiqdas.
We took the stairs, and let ourselves through the grille. There were a number of men, milling around as they had heard the beginning noises of dinner being dished out. In time, their share would arrive. Until then, they wandered around the fountain and clustered by the grille. None of them tried to leave. I didn’t see any horrifying disfigurements among them. But the Metzoraim here came because they thought their blemishes were transitory-- not terminal.
After the meal came a prayer service, led by delegates from the Mach’lakhah on rotation. Rabban Shammai was not one of them. The Metzoraim stood in front of their cells, and the hazzan lifted his voice so that he could be heard even on the top tier.
With the service completed, a number of us were free to go: to our mikv’ot, to our homes if we had them, on to the rest of our lives. Ruth and I left then.
We went to the baths first, sponging off with a pitcher and a bowl of water first, then into the mikv’ot to immerse ourselves as we recited our prayers and blessings. We separated to our own dormitories with a simple, heartfelt hug. The chalalah dorms were on the other side of the Ezrat haNashim, though on the same floor as the junior Oreget.