Morning dawned, accompanied by the sound of the earliest prayers and the smell of wood smoke unadorned with roasting sacrifices. I cocked an eye down towards the end of the room with the chamber pots. Abigal’s bed lay stripped and empty. I relaxed for a moment.
Not more, though. I had a date with the slippery floors of the baths and my stretches to enjoy. And without any fear that my things would be smirched in my absence.
When I finished my stretches, I washed up at the bowls. Then I performed a full immersion sequence in the mikveh. I wanted to be certain I had become completely repurified and fit for my work.
After that, I made my morning pilgrimage to the Oregot workshop. The beginning of a new year for the working of the Parochet! I felt a thrill, though I knew I was only one more faceless, replaceable drone serving the needs of Beit haMiqdas for a minimum of expense, and maximized productivity.
At the doorway to the workshop, I saw Oregot Rivka and Dinah in close consultation, once again. Just as though this were the first time I had walked up to the table. I wondered what had them so intensely engaged this early in the annual schedule.
Without drawing attention to myself, I walked closer. I moved slowly, trying to shrink inside my own shadow. I stood as near them as I dared, and gently moved color samples from one spot in front of me to another on my right. While appearing otherwise preoccupied, I listened as hard as I could.
“Already with the budget! Like last year never happened. Do they want it to be a coin toss, whether the Parochet is done in the time allotted or not? Finally, we have the staff we need to see the work done without the horror of those last six weeks.
“This is not an unreasonable expense on the part of the Oregot. The Kohanim have sufficient staff to perform their necessary duties. Why should we be any different?” Oreget Rivka almost ranted. There were three-hundred sixty-four more days before the Parochet would be taken up again to be hanged.
“Has the Treasurer’s office ever behaved with anything other than the most purse-pinching motives? They are a flea-cracking crowd in that cellar of theirs. They see too much money, and too few of their brethren in the Tribes. The Kohanim down there would snatch the food from the mouths of those for whom they labor so avidly and unrelentingly,” Dinah contributed. It sounded to me as though she were fanning the flames rather than smothering them with her counsel.
“I will not go through another year like the last. If it weren't for Mariamne bat Halfi, I don’t know where we would be. Junior and senior Oregot, fully enrolled. And now the bursar complains that we draw too much. Fed on lentils and barley! How can they even think it? Let alone dare to address me in that fashion on the topic?” Oregot Rivka was at the top of her warp temperamentally, and the shift hadn’t started.
“We have a little time. Maybe we could ask Gamliel ben Simeon to consider the matter. He likes to play the merciful prince. No telling what he might not figure out. They won’t just put the seniors out in the Tyropoeon Valley. I don’t care what they threatened. It wouldn’t be decent,” Oreget Dinah added, as though that might be the key to changing minds at the Treasury of Beit haMiqdas.
“Was there anything you wanted me to fetch from Ezrat haNashim? Or any other errands you wanted someone to run? I don’t know what to do with myself while we aren’t having a four-shofar emergency,” I remarked, as though I hadn’t heard a word of anything.
“Hanna, there you are. Did you enjoy your day playing Metzora? Have you learned to be more careful with your things?”
I wondered what on the face of haShem’s good earth she had been told about my ‘accident’ yesterday. Then I decided I had fresher fish to fry. Better to move forward.
“I will be much more careful from now on,” I replied truthfully. “Is there anything I should be doing to start the cycle up again?” I asked frankly.
“Really, we don’t have a lot just now. There’s inventory in the wool bales to confirm. Carding and spinning are also working out how much they have on hand, dyed and undyed. There isn’t a lot of finished stock at the rope walk, but they are going over the gears and shafts, and braces and weights to make everything ready against the next round of workings.
“The dye pits are empty. The chalalah are giving the dye-baths their annual scrubbing. If it doesn’t happen, there’s a vivid growthy thing with a horridly pungent odor that happens every Tishrei, when it’s so hot.
“Upstairs, the looms are being checked for sound heddles, tight joins and smooth beams. Any maintenance they need will happen before Nisan’s moon has finished waning. By then, we will have produced enough of our linen warping ‘rope’ on the walks to set up the first round of looms halfway around the loft.
“All of this is good. As we don’t have any large deliveries of wool, or retted flax, scheduled to be received today, you may have another day off. And this one, you shall have with the liberty of Har Moriah-- as much as a young girl of good family should have, that is,” Oreget Rivka declared. Oreget Dinah either pretended I wasn’t there, or convinced herself I had already left. It was difficult to decide which, when she behaved as though I were a spirit incorporeal. It wasn’t a good omen for the year ahead.
I headed out and through the stairwell at top speed. I slowed to cross the Court of the Gentiles. The day had started in the world of the market there.
Booths flapped up and open. Birds squawked in terror, or indignation. Trestle tables assembled in the shakes of a lamb’s tail, of which there were plenty as these were a preferred sacrificial animal.
Strings of placid bullocks threaded their way through the thoroughfares of the daily faire. Their final stall was their destination, though you couldn’t tell it from their soft-eyed faces. They did not remind me of Elder Brother at Phaistos, not at all.
I dodged back to the portico at the perimeter of all the busyness going on from one end of the outer court to the other, under the very shadow of the Antonia Fortress. As ever, I slipped across the plaza and up to the Gate Beautiful from the Shushan Gate’s imposing tympanum and porch. I had never seen this gate opened.
In the Ezrat haNashim, I eeled around the lesser portico until I came to the doors of the Court of the Metzoraim. I thought hard for a moment, pausing in front of those imposing dark doors. What could I do for Sarah? Not tied to anything else, but just for her?
Sarah let me in with no questions asked and allowed me through the grille to the men’s quarters in the Court. I walked carefully down the middle of the portico, and stood outside the door I knew was Yahya’s.
“Yoo-hoo. Cooee. Come out, come out wherever you are,” I tried in a gradually rising volume. Yahya did not appear.
“Hsst. Shut up, simpleton. Let the unclean have a minute’s peace while we’re here. We won’t get any when we leave and return to our daily lives,” someone hissed down from a tier up, fully shadowed and probably not wishing to be seen in any case.
“Little cousin, what are you doing here today? Your things haven’t suffered further degradation have they?” Yahya asked around a gaping yawn, which showed off his large white teeth admirably.
“You know a lot about the priests and Beit haMiqdas, don’t you?” I demanded.
“I know some. As much as many, though less than I might,” he temporized.
“Well and good. Maybe you will know enough to help me,” I encouraged him.
“And why should I tell my goddess-blinded female cousin the secrets of the House of haShem?” Yahya asked.
“Because I need to know. Because I want to do what I can for the Oregot while I am here. Because it isn’t fair how they have to work. But if there isn’t any money for them, then I need to think out what they can do to supply themselves with some other source of income. Someone has to, or they will all go crazy and wither away on lentils and barley forever.” It fell to me. However much they had given me to do, I had more room in my head and more resolve in my liver to see things set right.
I had hope as well. They would be there, in the toils of the priests, for the rest of their lives. I had my life before me, and might leave within the year. Why shouldn’t I do the corps a lasting service. It would be no bad thing to have a debt of gratitude where it might do some good down the road. My aunt Mariamne had not spurned to put the Oregot under obligation to her.
“Enough money?” My cousin asked blankly.
“The Treasury complains at the amount required by the Oregot for their upkeep, their materials, and their cost overruns. But I think everyone, right up to the top of the Sanhedrin and the Kohen Gadol would complain if the Parochet weren’t ready to be hung on the first of Nisan. I think the noise of their complaining would redound like Joshua’s trumpet,” I opined.
“Fed on lentils and barley, housed in otherwise grand but unused spaces, performing necessary skilled labor? What is the exorbitant budget for these squandering wastrels? What does it take to keep the Kodesh haKodashim in a fresh veil each year?” Yahya asked with rich irony.
“One mina a week, as all the food comes from the heave offerings and minchas of the priestly share in the sacrifices. The Oregot are counted as the priests' servants, nevermind how many are close relatives. So they are halakically entitled to eat from that store of food.
“The workshop receives a percentage of the first fruits of the fleeces and flax tithed to Beit haMiqdas. The rest of their costs, mostly the dyes and some equipment repair and replacement comes to one talent every two weeks,” I stated. I knew these figures from working alongside Oregot Rivka.
“Twenty-six talents a year? Twenty-six talents a year to make a Parochet fit for the Kodesh haKodashim, cleaving unto the laws of halaka from harvest to hanging? That is an outrageously small sum of money to allow for Veil before the Aron Habberit-that-was. I am shocked. Shocked to learn of the grasping, self-dealing depths of my formerly fellow Kohanim. Maybe what happened in Thraki was all for the best, Hanna. Maybe being cast out of the priesthood will allow me some perspective I could never have found within the sanctity of the brotherhood.
“They make more than twenty-six talents on any one of six dozen boatloads of skins every year. And all of that, save the crew’s wages and the captain’s share, is pure profit,” he mused aloud.
“What about the skins?” I asked, perplexed as to how the by-product of all the holocausts of sacrifices of the Tribes came into an exploration of the Oregot’s annual budget.
“You don’t know, then? You haven’t heard about this from your cronies in the chalalah or one of the guards?” He established my ignorance carefully.
“I don’t know what you think I do with my time, but it involves being an extra pair of eyes, hands and legs for the senior Oregot at the workshop. I don’t have any time to stand around gossiping with the other servants of Beit haMiqdas,” I replied.
“I didn’t say you did, I only wanted not to tell you the bits you might already know. Firstly, there are public conveniences at the corners of the portico surrounding the Court of the Gentiles. You do know that, yes?”
I nodded to confirm that I did know that.
“Herod the First, father of Antipas-- our current scion of the Idumaean dynasty, used all the wisdom he could milk from Rabban Hillel to shape Har Moriah for the glory of haShem. His name will be linked with the splendour of this monument to his own vain ambition for as long as it stands. All his building projects carry that aim at the back of them.
“However, Herod used the engineers and crafting practices of Roma Imperia to further his project’s magnificence. The public conveniences have their own network of aqueducts, running beneath the Court of the Gentiles. These all feed to a single location.
“The skins of the sacrifices are one of the fourteen traditional ‘gifts to the priests.’ Those skins represent months of feeding, hours of labor, care for the parent animal that birthed them. And they cost the priests nothing. Not so much as a shaved shekel.
“Of course, the priests themselves can’t touch the skins because they are ‘dead’ things. But the guards have no such taboos on them, and take it in team rotation to load the freshly flayed skins into barrels of collected urine. The hides are loaded by type: bullocks in this one, lambskins over there, goats in these barrels. You have the picture.
“When they have enough filled barrels, they put them on wagons for Akko or Ashdod. They are transported on ships owned by the Treasury to points both near and far: Byblos for the lambskins, ash-Sham for the goats and rams, and all the way to Efesos in Lidya for the bullocks’ hides. The skins fetch top trade value all along the way. HaShem’s desire for blemish-free sacrifices is well-known in leather markets across Mar Yam-haMariahne, from north to south, and farthest west to nearest east.
“The urine matters because it cures the hides in transit. They arrive ready to be scraped, smoothed, trimmed, dyed or not, and shaped into myriad things, or left flat for writing on in the case of the lambskins.
“I am not exaggerating when I say that only one boatload of those barrels sees more clear profit than the Oregot cost Beit haMiqdas in a year, board and materials included,” he finished with a fierce frown for the iniquities the priestly caste perpetrated in the name of the One on High.
“Really? Barrels and barrels of pee?” It was the first thing out of my mouth, yes.
“Really. The miracles of plumbing as devised by the craftiest in a line of crafty rulers with the practical guidance and sturdy cement of his tax-happy overlords. Truly, Sheitan laughs when he thinks of all that ordure and filth making the Treasury of Beit haMiqdas fat and golden. It is not the Kohanim’s only racket, but it is one of the most seamlessly devised and outrageously productive of income for no effort after making the barrels and investing in the ships.” Yahya knew his topic, clearly. He had forgotten to withhold his understanding from his heathen little cousin in the heat of explaining the mechanisms by which pee and hides were commuted into gold for the sustaining glory of the One on High.
“Thank you for that primer on the hustles to which Beit haMiqdas is heiress. Now, you are the initiated one and a prodigal as well. Tell me how to turn this knowing of yours into a bigger budget, a permanently bigger budget, for the Oregot. I don’t want to get done with this year to find the Treasury is still messing Rivka and Dinah about with their niggling accounting.
“Too true, little Oreget. I should say ‘little devotee of the Lady in Her Cart Rolling.’ I can hear her wheels turning as you hunt for a long-term solution,” my cousin insisted.
“You said you were in my debt. I am too young and impatient to let my debts age, as our Mariamne does. Let me draw down on your wisdom. Help me to lighten the load of my sisters in the weaving corps. And if your solution included some relief for the chalalah, I would consider your obligations to me made even. I do hope the bag balm and teas are working as Hekat said they should?” I enquired with lashings of honey-sweet solicitude.
“Fear not, little Warrior of the Way. I see you are more like our Mariamne than I had first supposed. You bargain like you were born at the crossroads. Did Shelomit squeeze you out in a sudden squat where the path to Tyre meets the way to Bet Saida? By chance, I mean, obviously,” he added with assumed sanctimony.
“I may have Bet Maryam’s gift for seeing the directions at every crossroads. Still, I don’t remember hearing that Miryam Shelomit bat Selomo ever bore me but in a bed under the roof of her halakhic husband, Zebadyah bar Adam.” I jumped to my mother’s defense at Yahya’s goading.
“Only clarifying a point of interest, nothing more. Now to your extortionate demand,” he continued.
“Extortionate demand? My demand isn’t extortionate. My demand is just and merciful, like haShem himself is supposed to be when he isn’t smiting and evicting people from paradise, and all,” I finished haltingly.
“So, a Treasury rolling in profit, and a hard working arm of the Beit haMiqdas in constant penury. You are correct. We must rectify this wrong. And not just for a year, but for as long as this Holy House shall hold the Oregot,” he pronounced with all the conviction of a prophet in direct communication with Metatron.
“Super. How do we force this issue?” I asked, ever practical.
“They don’t like the Tribes to think too carefully on how the coffers become so fat. They don’t like Roma Imperia thinking closely about the doings of the Temple either. These are two large, and important parts of the population. Let us cogitate,” he declared.
“My fanciest school taught me how to jump a cow. Who is cogitate when she’s at home?” I asked with interest.
“Think, girl. Cogitating is thinking,” Yahya snapped.
“You might have said. I am a simple country girl from Migdala Nunnaya. I can’t be expected to understand your fancy ‘Elines words,” I sassed.
“My foot. You know as much ‘Elines as any educated child of Eskanderejai, I wager,” he snorted back at me.