- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Yerushalayim
Yahya paced a while. I sat on the ledge of the fountain edge and swung my feet. Idly I banged my sandals against the marbled plinth holding me up.
“Would you stop that racket? One of us is trying to think. If I recollect, you came to me for a solution. It behooves you to stay silent while I stir my thoughts!” He expostulated.
“Would you say that as servants of the priests the Oregot are entitled to a share of the tithes of first fruits, minchas and other of the fourteen gifts to the priesthood from the Tribes as prescribed in the Torah?” Yahya queried.
“I don’t know about entitled. But I do know that the Bursary cites tradition all the time when Oreget Rivka asks for a larger budget,” I answered.
“As servants of the priests, they are dependent on the gifts and the sacrifices at Beit haMiqdas for their supply?” he asked more closely.
“Yes. I said that. Didn’t I?” I complained.
“”This is good. I think I know what may be done to make this right. Fetch writing materials from chalalah Sarah. We have a letter to write.” Yahya rubbed his hands in anticipation and resumed his pacing as he considered his phrasing. I ran to the grille to fulfill my side of the requirements.
Without delay, I had written to my cousin’s dictation. We chose Aramaic-- faster, and readable by the Oregot. I returned the ink and pen to Sarah and let myself out through the main doors of the Court of the Metzoraim.
I sped around Shlomo’s portico, back to the workshop. The morning meal still hadn’t been called when I turned up breathless in the doorway. The folded letter was hot and crumpled in my fist.
“I have a letter for you. From my cousin.” I took in their looks of horror and revulsion. “Don’t worry, he never touched anything. I did all the writing, he just dictated. You should read this. He explains everything. He is very clever. You must know him, he has been in and out of Beit haMiqdas since he was tiny,” I persisted as I handed over the carefully worded parchment.
“We know Yohanan bar Zechariah. Everyone knows Yohanan bar Zechariah. There was that fuss he made some years ago, and then there was more trouble with your other cousin, that Yeshua bar Yusuf.
“His mother is a former member of our corps. We like to think the best of our girls and their families. But Bet Maryam are a piece of work all on their own,” Oreget Dinah summarized.
“So will you read what he told me to write down. Please. I think you will like what he has to say. I think it might change everything, forever. Really. Trust me,” I implored.
“We trust you child, but we were in the middle of a number of calculations and discussions, not to mention all the scheduling we are still wrangling through,” Oreget Rivka said kindly, but obviously distracted from the matter I had brought to hand.
“Wouldn’t everything be easier if there were, say, fifteen percent more budget for the workshop? At a minimum? And discretionary, so that you could use some of the extra money for the bed and board of the larger senior Oregot corps? Would that be any kind of a help?” I importuned.
“Has a rich widow died, leaving us a monstrous endowment?” Oreget Dinah asked in frank disbelief.
“Better, I think. Better because the monies are already in the Treasury. But read the note. Yahya explains everything there, in order. If you like what he says about what he knows, you could have the money you need for the Oregot to run smoothly.
“You would have adequate supplies and materials, from one end of the year to the next. You would even have plenty extra to keep the seniors in lamp oil and lentils. And this would be for all the years to come, if you can get the Treasury to hear you once,” I wheedled.
The Oregot looked at each other, then at the innocuous note I had brought them. Rivka and Dinah reached out as one to take up the folded parchment. Rivka lifted a brow to Dinah, and kept the scrap in her grasp. Unfolded, it looked surprisingly small to contain so much possible change for the weaving corps.
“...in as much as a tithe of the tithe is rightly ceded to the Oregot… and as these constitute an element of the tithe it is consonant with apportioning the goods otherwise received… therefore proposed at one-percent of the net, payable once monthly on revenues not more than sixty days old….” Rivka mumbled aloud as she read the sentences. Manifests and such were easier for her. While receiving and reviewing, her lips moved, but she didn’t have to sound out every word to take in the meaning of what she read.
“Well, will you read it fully aloud, or hand it to me? I can’t judge the miracle child’s raving until I see the argument,” Dinah voiced with asperity. She held out her hand for the note, which Rivka handed her almost absently. The senior Oreget reached for an abacus while Dinah pieced her way through the letter Yahya had composed for them. The rapid clicking of the abacus accompanied Dinah’s silence. They finished together.
“Four talents, maybe more. Four talents would make all the difference. And if it’s more, so much the better. We could retire the eldest of the senior Oregot properly. Once senility and arthritis set in, they should be able to relax and sit in the sun.”
“His point is a good one. If we are entitled to a fixed portion of the tithes, first fruits, and sacrifices; then we are so entitled right across the range of the priestly gifts. I believe there is a strong case to be made for augmenting our annual budget. Who shall we have to adjudicate?” Dinah wondered.
“If we take this to them now, the adjudicator for this week is Rabban Shammai of the Mach’lakhah of Huppah. I don’t know who serves next week,” I informed them helpfully.
“Av Bet Din of the Sanhedrin, himself? That would be a coup for us. No one would dare to reverse his decision. If he decided for us, this proposal would make us an endowment for all time,” Oreget Rivka sighed.
“The Rabban is strict, and prone to wrathfulness. That might be all to the good if he should feel the monies were perhaps intentionally not accrued or apportioned to all who might have a claim on them. We could ask for disbursals of money from prior years, and that would fund a hospice we could populate before next Yom Teruah,” Oreget Dinah exulted.
“But would he decide for the Oregot in this contention?” Rivka fretted.
“Would the Rabban wish to speak with my cousin, who worked this out? They know each other. I heard him asking after Cousin Elisava. Yahya is very persuasive when he needs to be,” I added.
“Your cousin is legendarily persuasive when he needs to be. Fine little one. I will pen a note. You will run it to the Firstborn Gate. Do you know which one is the Firstborn Gate? On the south side, in the middle? It’s closest to the Hall of Hewn Stone, which is where the Sanhedrin meet to discuss their religious questions and rulings. One of the guards at the gate will run the note for you, here is a half shekel for his thank-money. Wait for an answer. You may see the Rabban, you may not. It depends on how busy they are.
“Here is extra money for you. Before you get to the gate, buy yourself something to eat while you’re in the Court of the Gentiles. Then you won’t have to choose between skipping your morning meal or missing a chance to get the Rabban’s earliest reply, or at least his attention.” Rivka pressed money into my hand. Then she wrote a note which she wrapped around the parchment I had brought from the Court of the Metzoraim.
“There. That should spur our adjudicator to some kind of action. May it be in our favor, is all I ask,” she said as she handed me the message.
“From your mouth to the ear of haShem Himself, supposing He has ears,” Oreget Dinah affirmed.
Shortly, I stood out of the way of the traffic at the Firstborns Gate, munching on falafels almost too hot to eat with a satisfying dollop of tahineh to accompany them. The first guard I had asked how to get a message into the Sanhedrin had pointed to the second guard at the gate. That man had grinned and been glad of the thank-money and the chance to stretch his legs.
His companion told me they took it in turns, so they both could augment their pay with the little bonuses offered to them every shift. I nodded. I liked to see things done fairly. What I was doing for the Oregot could be another opportunity to see things done more fairly at Beit haMiqdas.
When the guard returned, he didn’t come alone. Behind him, I saw the weedy, staring face of Rabban Shammai himself.
“We had come to the break in our morning session. You timed your request well. One almost feels the hand of the Presence in all this, does one not, Oreget?” he asked me, somewhat abstracted. I hoped he was considering the contents of Yahya’s argument.
“Maybe. Maybe it’s the lone voice crying in the wilderness. Which is probably just another ‘hand’ for haShem’s use, come to think of it,” I said, hoping to keep him focused on Yahya’s part in our reasoning. “Will you speak with my cousin? He worked out the what, the how, and the why of it. We mere women probably aren’t welcome in the Treasury. And we aren’t any of us legal witnesses, or interpreters of the Torah. Yahya can’t leave the Court of the Metzoraim, but he can make a clear case from right there. He knows the chapters and the verses and even what the commentary on the commentary is. I heard him,” I gushed desperately.
“No, child. I won’t speak with your cousin just now. The argument is very clearly presented, and Yohanan bar Zechariah is a credit to his tutors, though they would shudder to hear me link their names with his again,” the Rabban stated dryly. “This may be managed more quickly if I present myself at the Treasury immediately.”
“Really? You’re going to go there right now and make them give us that other money? Forever and ever?” I gasped.
“Until not one stone stands on stone here in this very place, the monies due the Oregot from the processing of first fruits and heave-offering skins will devolve to their accounts promptly. I had no idea what kind of income our Treasury saw from this trade,” the bristling priest confessed.
“Yahya says the Treasury only sees a tithe of the proceedings. He says the rest of it goes directly to the priests who are part of the shipping consortium, and they share a portion of that back out to all the priests who agree to consign the sacrificial skins with them-- which is all of them, or nearly so.
“Yahya reminded me that the priests may own the skins, but they can’t touch dead things. And the skins are almost worthless without the barrels of pee. So none of the priests complains about their share of the money from the consortium, however small-- or that’s what he said when we were working it out. But the little means so much to those who have less.” I didn’t mind tattling on the pampered, greedy Kohanim of the Treasury and the skin consortium.
“I wonder if anyone in the Treasury who is not a member of one of the shipping consortiums has bothered to work out the full value of this undertaking? I imagine they would wish to make audits, and to clarify profit streams. In order to keep better records, you see,” the Rabban conjectured. Suddenly, I saw how his frog-like face and the weakness of the chin beneath his beard might prevent people from noticing the sharpness of his gaze and the firmness of his mouth.
“I don’t know, sir. Perhaps it hasn’t been brought to anyone’s attention in some time, if ever. Will you be reminding them of this income from the priestly gifts today?” I asked to round him back up for the task at hand.
“I shall. I am on my way to the Treasury as of now. Please tell your Oregot that they will receive twenty talents upon request, to use as they see fit, which will be counted against a five year back-tally of their due. All the other branches of the Oregot, and the chalalah, will see lump sums likewise. And all will have their share of the skin-trade in perpetuity hereafter.
“Going forward, payments will be received with the new moon allocation, based on the profits of two months prior. This allows time for the books to be kept, and the monies to be forwarded. And I believe the Treasury itself may wish to create an arm of inspection to keep a watchful eye on these priestly shipping consortiums.” When it wasn’t turned on me, I enjoyed watching the strictures of halakhic law applied to the top of their bent.
“I may individually suggest to the board of each of the consortiums that they develop charitable giving habits to support the sick, the elderly, the widows and orphans, the stranger and the dispossessed. Where haShem gives richly, it is only just to give richly in return,” he declared with no little sanctimoniousness.
“What if they don’t think they should give as much as you think would be right?” I asked, curious.
“Then I betake myself to our mutual overlords and sick the tax farmers on them. By the time Roma Imperia has copied their books six times and sent them three different places to be audited, those consortia would be pleased and proud to house the orphans in their own beds,” the Rabban averred grimly.
He didn’t look like much, but his reputation as a fierce warrior for halakhic justice wasn’t exaggerated one bit. His mildly startled expression masked the liver of a Sham-sun and the wisdom of Shlomo.
“Run along, child of Bet Maryam. It may be your cousin’s voice, but I see your hand on the parchment and perhaps moving under the grace of haShem himself in setting His house in order. We thank you for your determination and your machinations as well. Tell your seniors that I shall send them word of this through more official channels as soon as those may be achieved.” The great man re-entered the Firstborns Gate. It was quicker for him to go through the Court of Ysrael and the Nicanor Gate to get to the Treasury.
In a corner behind the Court of the Metzoraim, an unobtrusive doorway led to the ramps which funneled select traffic below the Temple. There was an entire system of caves, hewn rooms, hallways and aqueducts which Yoana had sworn riddled the undersurface of all Har Moriah. And this is where the offices, storerooms, and record halls of the Treasury and the Bursary of Beit haMiqdas were located.
I took myself first to the Court of the Metzoraim. As before, I passed the brass and iron bound doors with no trouble from Sarah. I was through the grille and yoo-hooing in no time.
“What now? Would you like me to prove the prior claims to the spoils of the Temple of the sons of Levi over those of the sons of Aaron?” Yahya asked with a pretence at ill humor.
“”No, not at all. I came to tell you something. Something you will want to hear. The Oregot sent your parchment to the Sanhedrin, for the adjudicator of this Mach’lakhah to consider. Rabban Shammai himself is taking your argument to the Treasury and the Bursary. Right. Now!” I ended in triumph.
“Truly, that and the cessation of a certain troubling leakage gives me twice the reason to celebrate,” my cousin remarked cooly.
“Congratulations, then. They won’t condemn you to join the lepers forever. And you saved the Oregot, all by yourself,” I applauded him.
“If you hadn’t goaded me, I wouldn’t have made the effort. It would never have occurred to me. If I did well, you caused me to do so. You were likely acting for haShem in all this,” he demurred.
“That’s what Rabban Shammai said. But I think I would have noticed if haShem guided me. In the stories, they always know-- even if they don’t like it, like Yona,” I added for emphasis.
“Maybe they know, or maybe that is how the scribes write the stories down years after the events they describe. It is easier to see the truth and the themes of life in hindsight, Hanna. I don’t believe that heroes always know who they are while they are being heroic. It would be too distracting, for one thing,” he opined.
“Fine. Let it be haShem if it’s too much to be the working of a twelve year old Oreget who only wanted to make things better for some people who labor too long and too hard for too little, year in and year out. But if you give it all to haShem, then you take it all from me. And it was me who made you reason it out about the skins. It was,” I insisted.
“Look, if haShem made all and is present in all things at all times, it might well be Him in you. But that doesn’t mean He didn’t choose you to be that one. And it doesn’t mean that you didn’t have free will, that you didn’t act. It only means that a greater light shines over us when we are the hand of the Shekinah, acting in highest accordance with the will of the One on High. It doesn’t take from you. HaShem can only add to you. He is an essentially creative force.” Yahya’s theology left me feeling too small and too stupid to follow his lofty logics.
“If that was haShem helping us out, I will say that the three of us make a great team. If His hand was on me, it was on you too, you know,” I added with all the assurance I had learned as an annoying little sister.
“Wisdom from the bench-cutting of Bet Maryam. Wisdom indeed!” he exclaimed.