Early bedtime seemed to be the rule in their devout community. We climbed the stairs after nodding and murmuring a final thanks to those of our hosts who were nearby. The peaceful silences of the commune had already seeped into our own habits. Even ‘Kobos giggled more softly, and ran without roaring at the same time. I noticed that Mariamne and I were moving more deliberately. We smiled more and spoke less, in lower tones.
The Osey haTorah way of life was a contagion. It spread peace, thoughtfulness, kind acts, and simplicity. The no-touching and constant bathing were obstacles too deep for my tastes to overcome, but the essence of their way of life seemed immanently reasonable.
“Why did you want me to be here for Shabbat?” I asked my aunt, “You made a point of our travelling through the night from Ashdod so that we could be here in time for the whole of the day. Was I meant to learn something here before going on to the Temple?”
“You have been apart from the worship of your father’s people for a long while. I felt you needed to reaccustom yourself to the confinement of halakha, without having it thrust upon you in its most noxious form. The Osey haTorah follow the way of haShem with a point of view I thought you would find less distasteful and foreign to your own experiences and understanding. There is much to dismay which occurs within the precincts of Beit haMiqdas.
“My advice to you is stick to the corps of weavers, the Oregot. Stay well away from the priests. Don’t speak up regarding what you see; if possible try not see what would cause you to speak up.
“Narrow your vision to the work which is in front of you to be done. You are yet young, but no one believes you to be stupid. Bet Maryam has reasons for sending you here at this stage in your education.
“We all hope that you will adapt better than did your Aunt Mimi when it was her turn to serve. I hope you take the opportunity to learn as much from your circumstances as your wisdom allows. This, Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit, is not a punishment. It is a chance for you to learn from within this system of beliefs.
“What you learn is up to you. Whether you learn is up to you. The house of your foremothers has great hopes of you, Hanna of Migdala. The Matroi at Tzor have long spoken of you with the Hecatoi. And the Hecatoi have questioned Bet Maryam closely. When the Lady in Her Cart wheels around to the place of optimal choice, you will leave,” Mariamne advised.
“When? When will that be?” I could not restrain the question which bubbled out from between my lips.
“We shall have to see what we can see. There are reasons and causes, and possibly great forces in play. For now, learn and stay well while you serve haShem at this, the apex of his earthly celebrations.”
I could see I would get no more information than this from my aunt. I flounced to my pallet and slipped between the cool linen sheeting. I wanted to sulk. More than that, I wanted to be remembered well by the member of my family most likely to be sent for me when my reprieve finally came around.
“I don’t understand, but I suppose I’m not meant to. Thank you for coming to get me, and letting me come with you to fetch ‘Kobos. When do I have to go?”
“We will leave ‘Kobos here and the two of us will walk over before the first hour has fully passed in the morning. They like to have plenty of time to get the new girls situated. You will have less trouble than most of the corps: many of them have never been beyond the village of their birth when they are brought to serve at Beit haMiqdas.”
So saying, she turned to a bit of hand knotting she worked from the yarn that had been her project on the road from Ashdod. I lay on my pallet and thought over what she had said, and what she had not said. Were there really deep reasons to send me into service at the Temple, or were Bet Maryam making excuses for an obligation to the Kohanic side of the family which couldn’t be avoided?
I fell asleep while the lamp glowed behind Mariamne’s busy fingers. But I didn’t sleep well. Dark dreams, the kind that dissolve on waking, but make sleeping unrestful, chased me through the long, broken hours of the night.
When I opened my eyes to the gloaming grey of pre-dawn, Mariamne sat on her pallet working a comb through her hair with help from a little jar of rosemary oil I could smell where I lay. My sheeting was twisted and lumped around me. I had fought the pillow all the way off my mattress.
“When I finish, you can take a turn with the comb and oil. You’ll be done when you can work that swallow’s nest you call hair into plaits. If I take you to the Temple looking like that, they will send you to the Nazarite barbers to have your head shaved lest you should bring lice into the sacred precincts of the Court of Women-- and Lepers and Nazarites, of course,” she informed me.
“Lepers? You’re sending me to live with lepers?” I wore the invincibility of youth as all young, whole things did. But I had seen lepers in Ushu and Eskanderejai. I feared to become as they were.
“Don’t be foolish, child. Part of Ezrat haNashim is set aside for those who come to the Temple to have their blemishes adjudged. If they are not incurable occurrences, to have their imperfections purified by time, ritual and sacrifice. Persons who truly believe they have contracted leprosy mostly find themselves a doctor trained by the Aesculapians, or priests of Sekhmet. If there’s hope for a leper, it may be found under their care or nowhere,” she corrected me.
I unsnarled my long, tangled curls. I longed for the priestess attendants at Phaistos who had made such light work of a dread task. Mariamne woke and dressed ‘Kobos. I repacked my one bag, carried from Tzor to Phaistos and from there to Eskanderejai, now from Ashdod to Yerushalayim.
I strapped the long bundle holding my practice sword and the lancets I had brought from Phaistos to the side of my pack. All that was left for me to do was to walk across the honey-silted city and present myself to my new instructresses. I trembled inside, but resolved to show none of my trepidation outwardly.
I was a consecrated, victorious Perfected One of the Phaistaieon. I had overcome greater fear than that of entering Temple service. I had met and matched Elder Brother in the bull ring under the aegis of the Daburinthoio Potniai.
I repeated these facts to myself as Mariamne and I crossed the Har Zion neighborhood, behind the Theatron and then down the broad new way and across the great arch running over the Tyropoeon Valley. The Coponius Gate on the southern end of the Temple Mount’s western side, named by the pandering Herodians for the first procurator from Roma Imperia sent to rule Yudah, came all too quickly.
“What seek ye in the Temple, woman?” One of the guards asked bruskly.
“I come with a virgin in good standing of the Tribes of Ysrael. This is Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah. Her father is of the Naphtali and her mother’s mother’s people hail from Asher. Each of her mother’s generations has sent a virgin to weave the Parochet. From the days of Zerubbabel onwards the women of our house have served here at the Temple of haShem,” Mariamne answered in what sounded to me like a part of some liturgy.
“Welcome to the Temple, Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah,” the Temple guard intoned solemnly in response. He stood aside to allow us passage through the towering wall and into the Court of the Gentiles, within the Temple precincts, but far from holiness.
So early in the day, the money-changers and the animal brokers still worked to finish setting their bartering tables, scales, coffers and staff into readiness for the day’s business. Only the shekels minted in nearby Tzor, which disallowed the images that would eliminate them from usefulness in the great Temple, could be used to buy the materials for offerings made to haShem. So jealous was the One on High, that monies depicting other gods or their totemic emblems were not valid currency for buying so much as a tenth of a tenth of a deal of fine ground meal for the minchah.
There was a smell of animals confined, and fearful. There was the smell of metal warming in the morning sun. There were people everywhere, and voices babbling in tongue upon tongue. But Mariamne knew the way to where we must go next to finish my entry into service at the Temple.
Expertly, we wove through the growing crowds, cutting a diagonal across the great plaza to the south eastern corner. We ducked into the looming colonnaded portico which ran right around the circumference of the great walls of the Temple. Mariamne headed for a gloomy doorway just to our right. Together we descended a smooth milled stone stairway. At the second landing, we left the stairs for a cavernous hall.
Just inside the doorway, we saw a large table. It was littered with charts, twists of richly dyed yarn, half empty cups, a stylus and several long sticks with heads like oversized needles bearing many-eyed apertures. Two women sat close by the table on tall stools. They were arguing, or certainly disagreeing with vigor.
“Either we extend the work-day, or we ask some of the widows and chalalah to lend a hand. We haven’t any choice,” said the one with her back to us in a voice rich with age and tight with worry.
“We could send out another call to the Tribes. There must be more girls they might send if they would. We might ask the Kohen Gadol to arrange a bounty for each weaver found for Beit haMiqdas. Money works when so much else does not in these benighted times,” said the other. She sat in profile to us, but there was little of her to be seen beyond her deep swathed robes of indeterminate grey.
“What bounty would you propose for those who were able to bring more hands to the weaving corps?” Mariamne asked dryly as she pushed me forward.
“Mariamne? Mariamne bat Halfi bat Bet Maryam, is that you? And have you truly brought us another virgin in good standing? How did you know? We are desperately short-handed since the summer flux cut a swath through our numbers. And now the holidays are beginning, and there isn’t time for any of this fuss. Pesach seems far away now. But when it comes, the Parochet must be ready to hang freshly as has been done every new moon of Nisan for the last five hundred and thirty five years.” So saying, my aunt’s querent rose from her stool and came around the table to embrace her warmly.
“One new girl doesn’t resolve our dilemma, Rivka. Ten might make a dent in our problem, but one alone is worth little more than none,” the more sour of the two women stated with a grim satisfaction.
“This ‘one girl’ is probably worth several of any you have now. She has trained at Tzor and knows her way around the spiny murex and the dye vats. She has walked hemp rope on behalf of her father’s fishing boat on the Yam-haKinneret. She has spun and woven linen she herself retted, heckled and combed. She has sewing and embroidery skills, as they keep the old lake ways there at Yom Teruah,” here the sour one’s eyebrows shot up.
“Our Hanna, of the unbroken lineage of Bet Maryam, is entered in your service. Work her as you will until we, you, or the tides, decide she has finished. She will do as much as you direct, but try to treat her gently,” Mariamne used her most persuasive tones with these women. They were probably the Hecatoi of the weavers, I guessed.
“We shall do as we must. The moon waxes new every month, and Nisan draws on. Whether we have the hands we require, or not,” the sour one enunciated with bitterness and no hint of leniency.
“I travel widely. Let me turn my feet to gathering any likely young girls of the Tribes so that they may come and be trained and serve here with my niece for the glory of haShem. And to partake in the glory of the Oregot who give themselves to reproducing the desire of the One on High as we are told in the Torah and the Midrashim alike.” The formality of her words carried some special weight with the Hecatoi, as I thought of them. I did not know what else to call these plotters and logisticians.
“How many will you undertake to send to us? How quickly can we have them start?” Rivka and the other one spoke over one another.
“Dinah, Rivka, tell me clearly how many girls you need. I shall send that tally, plus a few above it so that if any of them is cack-handed or hopelessly homesick you won’t continue without a full complement. That feels more than fair to me.
“In return, don’t bloat the number you ask for, and come down fairly with this, Bet Maryam’s only girl child for a generation. We acknowledge your gratitude for our graciousness in supplying you with the heir to our house when you are in great need, and without restriction.”
Oh. Oh my. From Zebadyah’s cuckoo to the heir of the ancient line of Bet Maryam, I had travelled far in my self perception. But the Hecatoi Dinah did not look very impressed, and Rivka merely turned her head a little to look at the chart on the table nearest her hand.
“We will treat your little chick with all the tender care we extend to every child of the Tribes given to our custody and guidance,” Dinah rattled off. She spoke as though she had said these words, or some like them, many times. Mariamne did not look especially pleased by Dinah’s ‘reassurance.’
“See that you do, Oreget Dinah of Beit haMiqdas. See that you do. She is the best of her generation, scant though it be.”
Did Mariamne mean to include Yeshua and ‘Kobos too, really? And was she counting my wicked cousin Yahya? I remembered Yak and Yo as toddling brats, and had no trouble believing she held me in esteem above my baby brothers.
But Yeshua? Yeshua had cleverness and wisdom. He made people smile, although sometimes he made people shake their heads. Which I did too.
Even if I was clever and nimble, I knew I had no truck with wisdom. Mostly, wisdom was for the grown up and grown old, as far as I could see. Well, maybe Mariamne exaggerated for the sake of her audience. That I could believe.
Mariamne gave me a long, smothering hug. I sank my nose into the amber-and-sun smell of her hair. I pulled at the fine linen robe she wore courtesy of the Osey haTorah. I missed the jangle and clash of her usual assortment of beads, bells, and bracelets-- stored in her pack since her first bath at the mikveh.
“Do your best, Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit. Do your best for Bet Maryam, and for your own self. Learn everything you can, follow every instruction, and keep away from the priests. They already know your cousins better than they should. They do not need to know your name and face as well.” With this benediction and a kiss on my forehead, Mariamne turned back to the attending Hecatoi.
“What was the count of virgins in good standing of the Tribes of Israel that you lack? Let me get started. I shall speak with the Osey haTorah, as they go everywhere high and low and know people from Ophel and Lower Yerushalayim all the way to the palaces of Har Zion. I could have most of them with you inside a week, and the rest I will find along the way to Migdala and send to you in time for Yom Kippur. So many people come to the Temple then, it will be simplicity itself to arrange escorts for your newest charges,” Mariamne finished.
“What a mitzvah you are, Mariamne bat Bet Maryam. We could do with fifteen, which is ridiculous to say, let alone ask for. There aren’t that many premenstrual children of the Tribes in all Yudah,” Rivka supplied.
“Ah, you lack my means and my facility with the common people. They may not come from the wealthiest families, but I will bring you girls of shining lineage. If they can’t give me twelve good generations, I won’t even consider them.
“Think, ladies of the Temple. You are offering a craft, a dowry, and the bed and board for a hungry mouth. If you want more than the fifteen, and a few alternates, let me know where your limits are and I will bring the bodies you want. I feared you would ask for a full college of fifty.”
“You speak large words. I hope you are able to make your vow a living truth, Halfi’s child. By next Thursday, we will expect to have received some ten or more of these so-called virgins in good standing you claim are lying in the streets like stray cats, there for the taking. May your asseverations become a reality.
“Really. How they expect us to weave the Parochet with barely sixty girls in the dormitories is beyond understanding. If you were to stumble across as many as thirty girls, we could and would certainly take them. Five more than that and we would have to put them on pallets on the floor. But I wouldn’t complain, and I would explain to the treasury why they ought not to complain either. Fear not,” Oreget Dinah pronounced.
“Wonderful. Now I must go, today is a good day to collect souls to weave the workings of haShem. I shall send the city girls I find with Susa of the Osey haTorah closest to the gate. Do you know her?” Mariamne concluded as she straightened her robes from the mauling I had given her.
“We know her. She has sent us a girl from time to time. They were likely when they came, and accomplished when they left. We will give her name to the Guards,” Oreget Rivka replied.
“If I have to, I will make it the fashion once again to say of a girl in her kiddushin that she has served here and added luster to her value thereby,” my aunt stated grimly. “Har Zion will be ablaze with newfound piety and zeal before I finish here.”
“We do thank you for your time,” Rivka began.
“Ah, but I do this so that you don’t ruin my niece with overwork. This is my true motive. Well this, and I hope that you remember my efforts on your behalf should my Hecatoi be in need of quid pro quo come the day.” This baldly said.
“Don’t think we don’t know it,” Dinah replied as frankly. “We will keep this vow of yours in our memory, and reward your efforts as befits their results.” This was one who could take even as she gave. I would watch and learn from her, and stay wary.
“Then Shalom to you and those you ward here. I need to see the Tribes about their religious fads and fancies.”
“Shalom to you, worthy daughter of Bet Maryam. Tell your mother I still remember,” Rivka winked broadly. I wondered if it would be very difficult to unearth the secret between Rivka and my Haha. Rivka turned to me.
“Yoana will show you where you will eat and sleep and eliminate. She will also show you where you must go, and where you may not go ever, and those places where you ought not go unless so directed by one of the senior Oregot.
“Do as we instruct you, and no harm nor befoulment shall come to you. Do else than you are told, and we do not answer for the consequences. This your aunt knows full well. Do you hear what I am saying to you, Maryam Hanna bat Zebadyah?” Oreget Dinah demanded.
“Yes, lady, I hear your warning. I have learned and served long in the houses of the temple at Tzor. I will abide by the restrictions of the halakha while I live under the roof provided to me by the workings of haShem.” My protocol Matroi would have felt their livers flush with pride at those words.
“Well said, but actions will prove the truth beneath your words. Let us find Yoana.” Dinah took me lightly by the arm and led me from the table deeper into the cavernous space.