My voluble guide reversed our original course, only not stopping to speak with the guards posted at the Gate Beautiful. Inside the workshop, I had seen enough, and understood enough of many parts of the workings there to be able to absorb a good deal more of Yoana’s running stream of information. As we walked in the gloomy space, I noticed a rope walk running all along the outside wall.

Although the ‘ropes’ were dainty compared to those we’d made for The Date Palm, I recognized the creels, jigs, ratchets, tension bobs and separators easily. This was work I knew. Though I was surprised to see that the twisting itself was driven by a cogged wheel, which itself was moved by further shafts and cogged wheels, and what motivated them to turn I could not see.

“How does the rope twist itself?” I asked.

“Oh, there’s water running through a sort of aqueduct under this level. It feeds the water from a spring on the other side of the city to the mikv’ot, which are below us for two levels. They make the country folk come all the way up through the Huldah Gates, to turn around and go right back down another bunch of stairs to the baths. They’re on the other side of the wall at the end of the weaving works, in fact. But one of the things the water does is turn a wheel that turns a shaft that moves these wheels and this shaft.

“Oreget Rivka told me one of the engineers from Roma Herod had hired saw the weavers walking rope and offered to speed the process for us with a few tools he could build in. The priests studied his plan backwards and forwards, and could find no flaws or uncleanliness in his proposal. They dislike our modernization, but the water is pure, and the process is simple enough that they can inspect as much of it as they like looking for some way to drive us back to the days of Zerubabbel. But they haven’t found anything yet, and they’ve been looking for more years than either of us has been alive,” Yoana smirked at the frustration of the Kohanim. From what I could tell, they weren’t too popular with the weaving corps.

“I have seen carding, dying, spinning, and rope walking so far. And lots of weavers working at anything except weaving. Where does that happen?” I asked with genuine curiosity.

“Follow me,” said my guide with a merry look.

We crossed to the farthest corner of the room and there was a wooden stairway scaffolded into the deep-shadowed corner. Up and up we went.

“There’s less dust, dirt, grit and flying dye spatters up here. It’s not as if there’s anything in the halakha about having to sit on the ground while weaving, or any such nonsense. Since we have a lot of space, we use a lot of space. It keeps the Parochet cleaner while we’re working on it. That clear space at the bottom of those stairs we use to assemble it, and then the priests take it up for hanging.

“Naturally, we work on a linen sheet we lay down, and they wrap it in the sheet to carry it to the Kodesh haKodashim. Even if some fool Abijahan should happen to drop it on the Court of the Gentiles just because he saw a bee.” She laughed at the look on my face.

“Oh, don’t worry. It takes hundreds of them to carry the Parochet. They call priests from all twenty-four divisions to help in the changing of the Parochet the new moon before Pesach. It’s an honor. Though not one that particular Abijahan will be enjoying any year soon.” When she finally stopped, I looked around at the weaving floor.

The weavers faced the wall sitting on a bench on a catwalk maybe five cubits wide going right around the workshop in an enormous rectangle. There were so many looms. I tried to count them. I lost track only three quarters of the way around.

“How many looms are there?” I asked, awed at the magnitude of the work.

“There are seventy-two. One for each section. Each one is set up the same, over and over again. The rods are designed for each of the kinds of the sections. Really the Parochet is a mirror image, so there are only eighteen weaving patterns all told.” The look on my face must have said something about the calculations I had done in my head.

“Didn’t you know? The Parochet has to be made twice each year. It wouldn’t do for haShem to see less than the best in the Kodesh haKodashim. And it wouldn’t do for his glory and honor to have anyone in the Sanctuary see less than the best of the Parochet. So we make two every year. One hangs inwards, the other faces outwards. In between the veils is the cubit of space which allows the Kohen Gadol to walk from the Sanctuary into the presence of haShem the once a year when it is permitted.”

Huh. I had come to make a whole lot of curtain. No wonder the Oregot were frantic to acquire more girls. I began to feel their anxiety as I tried to quantify all the steps between a pile of fleece and a richly colored, highly detailed, hand’s thickness of a rug large enough to serve in the massive, gleaming cube of Herod’s improved Beit haMiqdas.

 Although they were behind the master schedule, there were no looms occupied near where we stood. Further down the catwalk, I heard the clacking-thunk-thunk universal to looms. In the sharper light of the weaving level, I saw clearly down the way.

There were three girls to each loom. The rope made on the lower level served as the warp for the working. Bright, thick spun woolen yarns formed the weft for the Parochets underway. The girls on either side of the weaver’s bench helped shift heddles, trim yarn, switch shuttles and even wrap one yarn around another for a more dimensional effect.

The pieces they worked weren’t wide, but they were long. The beams drew them up cubit upon cubit, and then they doubled back down, all weft. The finished cloth rolled onto a bolt at the back of the loom, passing over the foot pedals and under everything else. I noticed the wefts were marked, probably with chalk. I assumed those were the pattern roughs, with the actual patterning guide hanging at eye level on a stiffened sheet of parchment rather longer than it was wide.

One thought took me. I hoped, with all my liver, that the Oregot would let me do anything else, everything else even, rather than plop me down to serve as the attendant to these machines. I had never been good at sitting, or standing, still. I had been too active since my earliest days, and too varied in my activities, to learn or derive much from stillness.

The dying stank. Carding abraded the skin from hands. Spinning made callouses like warts. Fleece washing was cold, raw, chilblain-making labor. Rope walking caused dizziness as one followed the twist, and irritability with it. And still I preferred any of that to becoming a slave to the looms.

Now I joined the Oregot in prayer for Mariamne’s success in recruiting half a college of girls into the corps. Many hands would allow some flexibility of assignment. Surely, however long Bet Maryam kept me in service to haShem, I wouldn’t be obliged to learn every piece of the working.

The knack of dying counted at Tzor as a profession unto itself. The mordants, the dilutions, the sunlight-- or its lack, the fixatives, and then the colorants themselves. If I found joy in the work, perhaps… But first, there was the matter of getting from the first day through the first week and then the first revolution of the Lady’s Cart Rolling.

“Do we bother the weavers in order to see the looms, or may we say I’ve seen the sights? My eyes are full of the things I have already seen. And I can’t imagine they would start me up here, since I have no background in this work. Or very little since I joined the novitiate at the temple at Tzor when I was seven,” I nearly pleaded with Yoana.

“Oh don’t worry too hard about the looms. Stringing the warp is the dangerous work to it. Otherwise, it’s easy and safe, and it reeks a lot less than it does down on the workshop floor,” she reassured me, mistaking my worries.

“Why is stringing the warp dangerous?” Maybe there was something here for a person who had danced with the Perfected One after all.

“It’s horrible. They mount ladders, if you look up, that’s where they hook them to the wall. Then someone has to be up there to draw up the warp and send it down the other side of the beam so that the heddles can be properly threaded.

“They only made me try one time. I nearly fainted once I was up there. Everything went all swimmy and grey. I had to shut my eyes and climb down that way. Not even Oreget Dinah could force me to do that a second time.” Yoana shuddered.

I eyeballed the rings for the ladder hooks. Not even half as far up as the fish towers at Migdala. This warping of the looms I could do, and do happily and safely. I could offer to do something everyone else hated in return for escaping the work detail the rest of the corps favored.

I needed the Oreget to hear me, and they needed to be able to allow me some degree of choice. I dared not hope that if Mariamne were successful I would receive special treatment. Dinah did not have that look in her shrewd gaze, nor had any whisper of such a thing been in the agreement my aunt had made with them.

Just then, a blare of horns sounded throughout the Temple complex. Yoana looked up to the windows.

“So late. That is the midmorning they’re calling. We will have to hurry. Come on.” With that, she clattered featly down the stairs we had so recently climbed. Behind me, I heard silence fall on the looms and footsteps as the workers on the weaving floor came to join our exodus.

Through the long workshop we all trailed out, using only that one door. I wondered if the others, especially the big bronze set, paired nearer the Huldah Gates end of the work space, were ever used. Maybe in case of fire or war, maybe not ever.

Beit haMiqdas seemed big on impressive elements which largely served the function of being impressive. But then, lots of places had that. Mariamne had told me about the enormous pyramids upriver in Misr. One day, I would go to see them. But no one had ever found that they had a purpose within memory or written record.

Fifty-some virgins in good standing dressed in the dinge-colored, undyed woolen robes provided by the Temple, and me in my Osey haTorah white linens skittered along under Shlomo’s Porch, the way Yoana had brought me for my tour of this new home. As one, we turned at the Shushan Gate and made a line of fearfulness and modesty from there to the Gate Beautiful. We streamed in without any fuss from the guards, who no doubt recognized us in a bunch whether we were identifiable individually or not.

Then we marched up the flight of stairs and down the long, many windowed corridor to the dining hall. We junior Oregot sat at the back of the room. The nearer the entry to the room, the more senior the weaver. At that far end, they all dressed in darker robes than we wore, and each of the weavers carefully wrapped her head in a swathe of linen-- to keep the likely vanished glory of her hair from bedazzling the eyes and inflaming the senses of the many priests.

There. That bothered me. There were junior weavers, Viragoi all. And there were senior weavers, Hecatoi all. But our ranks contained none who seemed to be in the company of the Matroi.

“Hsst, Yoana, where are all the Matroi?” I asked low, afraid the echoing space would pick up my naive question and amplify it to the whole company.

“Hush. We have prayers, and then we each wash our hands-- see the pitchers at the wall? Then we eat in reverent silence.” A shadow fell across us from behind as Yoana explained. She hastily shut her mouth and rolled her eyes expressively. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes cast down at the simple pottery bowl in front of me on the table. To its credit, the table at which we sat was smoothed by use and frequent cleaning over what must have been years and years.

The room continued to fill as the prayers were intoned by a priest deputed for the duty. I watched, as well as I could, without raising my head or obviously opening my eyes. These were women who might be Matroi. Why weren’t they working with the rest of the weaving corps? Were there parts of the process going on at other locations here on Har Moriah? Maybe they had been tinkering with the aqueducts which fed the rope walking cogs and shafts. Maybe they had been unpacking unprocessed fleeces.

When the praying ended, and we were allowed to take up our spoons, I looked more closely at these possible Matroi. But no. They couldn’t be. They were dressed as we girls in the corps were, and they had the wrapped heads like our senior Orechot, but there was something in their carriage which didn’t mesh with the status I had assigned them. They acted like servants allowed to eat with the priestesses.

I saw something beyond the modesty of comportment favored by the juniors. They seemed hunched and tentative. Like mice looking to see if the cat has left the room.

I ate the lentils and barley bread down quickly. They were fairly bland, but there were some pickles on the table to help the taste along. I waited with my hands in my lap until Yoana grabbed my arm. She directed me to bring my bowl along. We placed our used dishes on a long side table-- probably nearest the washing up area. Then we waited for all the Hecatoi and all the not-Matroi to leave before it was our turn to file out and return to the workshop.

“Who were those other women? Where are all the Matroi of the corps?” I hardly waited until we were in the corridor to ask my all-knowing guide.

“Those are the chalalah. They are daughters of priests, but not through lawful congress. Or with a divorcee. Or a wife too closely related. They’re unclean from birth. So they can’t be married in the Tribes. However, haShem provides for them by allowing them to serve here in the Beit haMiqdas. That way, they aren’t destitute and don’t become, you know….” Yoana blushed as she trailed off.

“Women for comfort hire, you mean?” I hoped I had understood her lack of definition correctly. Not many of these could be found in Tzor. The temple of Our Lady Rolling absorbed most of such business. It was an honor for the priestesses who trained to serve as the Lady’s avatars to take Front Service at the temple. But there always were a few free-lancers. According to the Matroi instructing us in history, this had been true for a very, very long time. Somehow, under the eyes of haShem, this ancient work had become not just secular, but fully profane. So much so that a daughter of the Tribes felt embarrassed to give the service its name. After I left Zebadyah’s house, I had become sheltered from this point of view. I now recalled how great a point of contention it had been between my parents.

“Yes, that. Those. The ones. Well, the chalalah are taken in here so that they need not become destitute. They are given honest labor to perform. In return they are housed, fed, and clothed for so long as they serve,” Yoana spouted, echoing some of the Oregot no doubt.

“And when they are too frail or gnarled with aching joints, are they still housed and fed and clothed?” I asked coolly.

“Well, no. Once they are beyond the years of their curse, they may train to serve with the Oregot. And yes, eventually, Beit haMiqdas offers hospice to them all. While they are still chalalah though, they stay in the dormitories on the opposite side of the Nicanor Gate from us. There, they are close to the Court of the Metzoraim, so that if their curse comes upon them, they can be secluded before they have had a chance to make everything around them unclean.”

“Their curse? Do they have fits? Or those headaches with the lights and smells? Why are they all cursed? Is that how it is known which ones are chalalah in the view of haShem?” I was curious. Many temple traditions took holy persons with differences to speak their oracles, or transmit for their gods, or guide through visions. “Do they prophesy when their curse is upon them?”

“What?” Yoana looked blankly, “No, they don’t prophecy. Not that I ever heard. I don’t think women can. When they have their curse, their women’s time, their ‘flowers’-- you know, ‘down there’. Then they go to the Court of the Metzoraim until they are finished and can make the offering for their uncleanliness so that they can return to their service.”

“Wait. Metzoraim, I don’t think I know that word. And that’s not a women’s word either,” I objected.

“Well, the Metzoraim are anyone with uncleanliness that they want the priests to judge or purify, if they can. And once a month, the chalalah have to stay there for the week-- or however long it is for them, since the benches are stone and can be cleansed without having to be destroyed,” Yoana believed she was making some kind of sense, I saw that.

“So when the chalalah are purging their wombs, they are unclean…” I started.

“Not just the chalalah. All women. That’s why it’s only the old and the young who work on the Parochet. If they were to start their flowers while they were working, anything they touched would have to be destroyed as the uncleanness would have been communicated right away.” She looked as though I were amazingly slow not being able to understand the underlying assumptions which guided all the staffing at Beit haMiqdas.

“And when they are done with their monthly cycles, they can join the Oregot? Is that how Rivka and Dinah became Oregot?”

“Rivka, no. She had married a Kohen. But he died, and had no brothers. So she came back to the Oregot. She served when she was like us. Dinah was chalalah. Maybe that’s why she’s so sour. Everyone knows it’s not their fault, how they are. But they still can’t ever marry, and most people think they’re unlucky enough not to wish to hire them as servants. I wouldn’t want to live with people looking at me as they do the chalalah every day,” Yoana shook her head.

“Do you look at them like that?”

“Not on purpose. But they are as they were made, and they are not considered virgins in good standing with the Tribes of Ysrael.”

This was foolishness. How were monthly cycles unclean? So unclean that when it was over you couldn’t return to work until you had made a sacrifice. And while you were having your cycle, you were housed with lepers. Why would these women put up with any of this? Why did my mother sleep apart every month on her own stone bench? And those places I had stayed on the road to Tzor with Mariamne all those years ago, were they places apart for the unclean times of the women of the Tribes? I felt like my liver was going to explode with all the confusion these rules caused.

Certainly in the temple at Tzor, there were duties that weren’t given to women in their flowers. But then, there were things the Viragoi didn’t ever do, and things the Hecatoi put aside as unseemly to their station. Still, none of that implied unalterable unacceptability in the eyes of the Lady.