“Yoana, let Havah take lead for a time. I have a new girl here, Maryam…” Dinah looked furious when I cut her off.
“They call me for my Haha, Rivka’s friend. I am Hanna, so they don’t confuse me with my other aunt,” I stated politely and with downcast eyes.
“Then call her Hanna, Yoana, certainly. We all shall. I don’t believe we have more than eight or so this year. Oreget Rivka will continue to see all the girls of one name split between the different work crews. If we discover any true aptitude in you for the workings, you will leave the rotation and study with the appropriate Oreget. For now, though, Yoana will make sure you know your way from here to your bed and back again.
“Yoana, don’t forget the baths, the stools and the laundry supply. When you finish in the Ezrat haNashim, bring her back so that she may see the works from end to end.
“And further, be very clear with her where she may go and where she may not. As well as what she may and may not do, and how to comport herself in accordance with the solemn office which she is here to fulfill.” Oreget Dinah raised one minatory eyebrow as she finished.
The hapless Yoana widened her already enormous brown eyes as though frightened by the implicit threat. Then she turned to me and crossed those same eyes, as her back was to the Oreget. I had trained to good purpose with the liturgical Matroi, and held my own face in the same blank expectancy it had worn when she turned.
“Come with me. We will take the portico as far as the Shushan Gate, and then we won’t have far to go to be in the Ezrat haNashim-- your new home away from wherever it is you call home. But don’t think of it as your home,” she lowered her saucy and somewhat carrying voice, “think of it as the home of haShem, in whose house you are always a guest. If you get comfortable, you will surely do that which you ought not and then the Oregot will see that woe betides us all.
“What tribe are you from? My people are of Reuben. The land makes us brown and small and merry. Or it did me, and that’s what my mother always says about us. My dowry will be quite large after my service here, and we already have some likely grooms sorted out. Will you marry right away when you leave, or does your family still need you at home?”
“Naphtali,” I offered hastily, in case she found another spate of words. “My mother says they’re stubborn and backwards and hard-working. Both my parents have red hair, but my mother is of the people of Asher, who are more known for their oil colored eyes.”
“Like yours. My mother comes from the same tribe as my father, but she also says that the men of Reuben are stubborn. Maybe it’s the men of all the Tribes,” Yoana considered.
“Or maybe it’s all the men everywhere. Though I didn’t really know any of the ones on Kriti. And I didn’t meet any who didn’t live in the Nome Yudaica in Eskanderejai. And I didn’t know the guards well at Tzor. They were almost all the men there were on the regular staff at the temple of Our Lady’s Cart Rolling.” I hoped this child of Reuben recognised enough of the words I had just used to give me the honor I felt was due my worldly experiences.
“All those places and you haven’t met any men? What was your mother thinking?” Yoana giggled.
“She wasn’t there. I may not marry for a long time, if I ever do. I will apprentice to a trade at my temple when I return. When I am grown, I will make the money I spend and control the money I earn. Whether I choose to share my life with a man or no, I will always be the captain of my soul and choose my own choices,” I announced.
“Really? You’d rather farm or cut wood than have babies and your own kitchen?” Her eyes grew wider than when she had looked meek for Oreget Dinah.
“I can always have my own kitchen. And no, I hadn’t thought of farming or wood-cutting, or even oil pressing for a living. I want to travel and trade like my aunt, who goes everywhere and knows everyone and can accomplish anything. Better than trailing around behind a smelly old fisherman and his thousands of sons all my days like my poor mother.”
I only knew the truth of my words as I spoke them. I wanted to honor the Lady Rolling with a life on the roads. Commerce and gossip, people and customs, languages and luxuries. All these would be my goal and my gift to Her that kept us rolling through all the days of our lives.
“Look, we’re at the Shushan Gate already. And there’s the Gate Beautiful. That’s the entrance to the Ezrat haNashim the Oregot say we have to use. And really, since the Nazirites use the other gate into the court, and who wants to get so close to smelly old shaggy-haired vow-makers?
“See, it’s not even crowded yet. But wait til after midday. And if it’s not Shabbat, then the market runs until they run out of customers, or things to sell them,” Yoana informed me.
I did not know what to make of this strange girl who had set her sights no higher than becoming a housekeeper and child-bearer. She wasn’t simple, as my half-sister Rahel was said to be. And she was physically whole and sound. I could see no reason for her to aim so low in her desires.
My mother had never encouraged me in hopes of this sort. At the temple, which had no law against marriage but set no premium on the state of matrimony, little to none were the volumes of time and thought devoted to the topic of conjugal bliss.
My strange guide darted into the cross traffic between the tympanum of the Shushan Gate and that of the Gate Beautiful. We negotiated: a string of bullocks, a clot of freshly mikveh-ed yokels headed to one of the gates on the north side of Bet haMiqdas, a gang of workmen returning to their eternally recurring repairs of the vast enclosure and its many structures, a set of Levite guards and two coveys of priests in their tekhelet-woven tallits, white linen robes, and tall turbans. We arrived at the Gate Beautiful, which was more crowded than anywhere else I had yet seen in the Bet haMiqdas.
More temple guards staffed the great gateway, stopping each person who wished to enter. The Court of the Gentiles had ended at the low, bollarded wall running around the high-walled enclosure of the precincts of the Temple itself. None who passed beneath the capstone of the Gate Beautiful were other than members of the Tribes, lest the entirety of Bet haMiqdas become unutterably defiled. So the guards were diligent and vigilant in their duty. Yoana walked right up to them.
“This is Hanna of the Naphtalim. She started today with the Oregot. Remember her well, for she is now a servant of Bet haMiqdas, as are you. She is to be let to go as she wills. As with us all, she may not enter the Court of Ysrael, whether to save her own life or that of another. This is halakha.” Yoana sounded as though she had introduced new girls to the guards often enough to be comfortable with the words.
“It is halakha. We shall remember that and the face of Hanna,” the guards mumbled, bored with the exchange.
We walked through the deep gateway, set in a wall so thick that I supposed, and found it to be true, there were rooms and corridors above us, not just a defensive structure. We burst from the chilly shade of the passage of the Gate Beautiful into a large open courtyard. In the midst of the open space, a college or more of priests were engaged in a dance lesson or rehearsal. Across the court from us, on a series of thickly tiered steps rising to an imposingly ornate gateway beyond which I could just make out the capitals of shining Jachin and Boaz standing on eternal guard at the entrance to the very sanctuary of Bet haMiqdas, the home of haShem.
Another bevy of priests congregated on the stairs. They were rehearsing, though at present it sounded like arguing about, the hymns of praise and the sung liturgy for the Yom Teruah services at the beginning next week. They were clustered by faction, rather than vocal part. Yoana pointed them out to me.
I remembered what an important festival Yom Teruah had been in Migdala. Here, it would be even more full of ancient ritual and carefully reworked traditions. No wonder they all behaved as though they were being assaulted by hornets.
Besides the sight of the dancing priests, and the sounds of the musical corps, the most notable element of the Court of the Women was the smell. I almost gagged as the scent fully caught up to me.
This was not the fermented foetor of the dye vats with their overtones of ammonia and garum-- that vile, ubiquitous condiment brought to the Mar Yam-haMariahne by the citizens and soldiers of Roma Imperia, or as Sobe and MarMar called it Wilusa-that-was.
“What is that? What smells so horrible? Why do they allow that here, at the holy site of the place of haShem?” If I were the Maker and Sustainer of all, I wouldn’t have wanted to have to smell anything so wretched and putrid. I would have struck everyone down with lightning before I allowed them to befoul my Kodesh haKodashim.
“Allow that? It is what haShem requires. That is the smell of offerings and sacrifices. Hair and flesh and blood and fat and even mincha burn from first light to last. But this is nothing. You will be here at Pesach, and then do the offerings darken the noonday sun with the smoke and stench. I am used to it,” Yoana shrugged with the lack of concern of the seasoned Oregot corps member. “I only notice anything special on the days when they also sacrifice bullocks, which is only for new moons, first fruits, and the High Holy Days of course.”
“Of course,” I echoed numbly. Gah. No wonder Aunt Mimi wanted nothing to do with Yerushalaiym and the environs. No wonder she had become a vegetarian. The smell in this place would give anyone a distaste for flesh.
I imagined the Osey haTorah lived where they did to be out of the windstream of the Temple most of the time. I hadn’t noticed the reek at all when we were coming through the city two days ago. Huh.
“They don’t always spend their days practicing. Each of the twenty-four Mach’lakah of priests has the right to rehearse here before the big holiday liturgies. They have reserved all the times from dawn to dusk until Yom Teruah. It’s usually noisy here. But this is beyond even that,” Yoana spoke with some disgust.
“Do we sleep under the colonnades?” I asked. The climate varied from baking hot to chilly and damp. But a light rug over a sheet would easily manage any evening coolness.
“No. Of course not. The senior Oregot take it in turns to watch the only doorway from our dormitory through each and every night. How else could they guarantee our condition to our parents when we return home?” Yoana asked, clearly shocked.
“Sorry. I didn’t know,” I blushed. I hadn’t noticed any particular interest in my condition from the senior Oregot I had already met.
“Well, they like to be certain of us, and our dormitory is proof of that. Come on.” She grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me off to the left and under the colonnades which encircled the courtyard.
We went only a few paces, then turned into a doorway to take a flight of stairs. We went up, but the stairs led down as well. Our sleeping quarters were all the way at the top of the stairs, so the top floor. There we walked down a lengthy corridor, lit by long, narrow windows placed more than three cubits over our heads.
No one guarded the door as we approached, but if every one of the Orechot were in the workshops below the Sanhedrin, there would be no reason to have someone watching. The room looked like an enormous infirmary. Beds lined each side of the room, which turned to the right, the beds seeming to continue. Each bed had a small chest at the foot of it, and a smaller table beside it. About one bed in ten had a lamp on the table as well, made of coarse unglazed pottery. Each pallet with an occupant was neatly made, the linen sheeting turned down just so and tucked into the foot of the bed with precision.
“There are lots of beds free. You don’t want one by the door, too busy. And you don’t want one at the el in the room, since that’s where all the night soil pots are, behind that long curtain there. And you don’t want to be at the far end of the room, where the stink gets in from the altars and lingers half the night,” Yoana informed me.
“Where do I want to be, then?” There couldn’t be many beds which weren’t too near any of the places she’d suggested I avoid.
“Up here, around the corner, but… hmm… there. The fourth one on the right should do for you. No one’s in it since Lahaliah left this summer. That will be you. Anything you brought with you can go into the chest, so long as it isn’t some kind of unclean. Bet haMiqdas will supply you with your clothing, and that will go into the chest as well.” Yoana walked me to the bed in question as she spoke.
One of the narrow windows opened above it. There were no sheets on the bed, just a coarse hempen sack tightly filled with straw ticking. The table was also bare.
“How long do I have to be here before I can have my own lamp?” I asked.
“Oh, those are for the first shift girls who get up well before sunrise to set the looms and collect the cords and the yarn and check the dye lots and ready the duty rosters. If you show reliability and responsibility, you could have a lamp by the time we’ve put away all the lulav from Chag haAsif. They really are short handed this year. It’s made them all crankier than usual, if you can believe it.”
“If you say so,” I returned neutrally.
“Oh don’t worry about me. I won’t run and tell on you. My mouth is open too often with too many words of every kind coming out. If I told on you, or anyone, it would come back to bite me within a day or less. My brothers took bets about how quickly I would be sent home on account of running my mouth when I oughtn’t,” she stated frankly.
“I don’t know how the senior Oregot ordinarily are, as I only met a couple of them for the first time this morning. So I can’t judge if they are crankier than usual, that’s all.” The protocol and logic Matroi at Tzor both would have been pleased with my excuse. “I don’t think of myself as someone who runs to the Matroi or Hecatoi to solve my problems for me. I hope I won’t be like that here.”
“You can tell me all about what Matroi and Hecatoi are while I show you the baths and our refectory. They’re one level down. During the High Holy Days, and for other important occasions, we share those with the pilgrims who come to Beit haMiqdas and have a claim to the hospitality of haShem. Those would be families of active priests, the families of retired priests, the widows of either and their unmarried daughters, as well as families of documented scions of the house of Eleazar ben Aaron who are not serving in the priesthood, as well as their widows and unmarried daughters. Which is to say, everyone and their sister stays here and they are packed in like cabbage in a pickling jar.
“Our Kohanim never say no to another few handfuls of shekels, that’s certain. You were saying about Matroi?” Yoana guided me down the stairway and into another long room with a ceiling almost lost in gloom. The space was broken and filled with long trestle tables and benches neatly stored on top of them upside down.
“The baths are through that door there, and down the stairs. If you need the laundry, or find yourself working there, it’s down one more set of stairs after the baths. It’s funny that they put the laundry in the cellar. Anyone would think they’d want you to be able to see properly if the clothes and towels are clean or not. But they didn’t plan it that way. Whether it was Zarubabbel or Herod’s father Herod, I don’t know. Though the lamps hang from the ceiling and have flat shiny reflectors around them, it’s not the same as being able to see properly. Don’t you agree?” Yoana tossed over her shoulder as we walked through the baths and towards a stairwell on our left.
“I didn’t do a lot of laundry at Tzor. I was a furnace imp when I was most junior. And I did snail diving, pearl diving and a fair amount of work in the gardens. I like to stay active. And I like being out of doors. The laundries there were on the fourth level up from the docks, so still below the crest of the city, but with access to some natural daylight, I suppose. I haven’t thought about the laundry much since I came to the temple at Tzor,” I admitted.
“You will think about it here, even if you aren’t at work with the widows in the main laundry. Everything we dye, we clear and clean ourselves. We wash the fleeces and finish the flax here at Beit haMiqdas, so that the priests are assured the only unclean things to do with the making of the Parochet are those ordained by haShem as written in the Torah,” she informed me.
“What do you mean ‘unclean things’? I don’t think I understand,” I interposed.
“Look through there, you don’t have to go in. That’s the laundry. Over here is the linens stock. We can start you with clouts, two tunics-- depending on where you get assigned, it may need to be three, one belt, and we’ll have to get you sandals. There’s a supply kept at the Great Porch, since most of the priests don’t like the idea of all that dead skin any closer to the Kodesh haKodashim than that. And some of them don’t want it even that close.
“Oh, unclean. Remember Torah says linen and wool together are an abomination. But haShem said, and Moishe wrote, that the garments of the Kohen Gadol himself must be made of both. And, like the Parochet, the cloth is dyed with dead bugs and snail squish-- both are unclean to the people of the Tribes, but the exceptions are explicit and must occur to fulfill the word of the One on High,” Yoana guided me along to another set of stairs, well down a long hallway with doors all on the one side.
“Come on, we should go back to the workshop if you’re going to see everything. Stick close to me. Once you wear the clothing of the weaving corps, you’ll be safer as you need to come and go, though I wouldn’t take it for granted.
“Some of the gentiles are a piece of work. And some members of the Tribes aren’t any better, if they aren’t a degree worse for knowing better all the same.”