- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Yerushalayim
I took two steps into the room, and towards the work table. The materials on it drew my gaze. I stepped closer, and began to tease understanding from some of the charts. There were charts showing how to warp the looms. These used a different notation than the parchment charts depicting the weaving pattern, by color of weft and heddle elevations. I had seen things like these at Tzor, in Cousin Sobe’s room.
The patterns and symbol sets for the different charts were fascinating. I decided which ones were heddle instructions, and which were for the various shuttles. It felt like trying to listen to two different songs, sung in different keys with different time signatures, at once.
“Ah, Hanna. Oreget Dinah told me to look for you here. I see you have found the warping and weaving pattern charts. We used to have them on polished cedar lathes, but they were awkward to carry up the ladders Darkened with age, they were hard for the weavers to read, even with all the light they have up on the floor. So we switched to parchment, which costs the earth but it rolls up neatly and lasts a good long while though it may not last until the Mashiach comes as cedar would have done. Though I expect those old pattern lathes are stored somewhere. We don’t get rid of things on Har Moriah so much as we turn them to other use and profit thereby.” I didn’t think Oreget Rivka still addressed me by the end of her chatter.
“Yes, I know a little how to read a loom pattern. I guessed these others might be for warping and threading the heddles for each of the looms. I didn’t recognize any of it at first, but I can see how there are groupings, and repetitions in the symbols, sometimes only partial, but I do think I can pick out the pattern,” I shared.
“Then tell me now. We have a few heddle rods here and some shuttles over in that basket, there at the corner. Let’s see what you have guessed and what deduced, and I will know more about how you solve problems when we are done.
“I also have some fleece into yarn, and required volumes of dye problems over at the other end of the table. For that, you may use chalk on the table, and as many abacuses as you can keep busy. I will let you have a full jar of time for that project. It is only one tiny element in all the calculations we undertake. We have many known quantities, but we have many unknown variables.
“Not to mention a small, constant graft leak which I call negative gimel, where gimel is equal to the crucially discovered not-in-stock volume of missing flax, or tekhelet dye, or unprocessed shani-- never even unbaled. It’s never much that goes missing, but it’s always enough to throw us off schedule if I don’t intercalate a day for unforeseen disaster about every thirty-two days, though those are work days. With Shabbats included, it’s only one every five and a half weeks or so.
“It makes Dinah wild that I have these days in the work calendar where I show exactly no progress in any department. Better she should go mad alone than that we fall behind an achievable mapped plan. My goal is that I should not have to say when someone asks, ‘will it be done on time?’, ‘haShem alone only knows’. He knows all, so he knows as well. But I make a point of knowing and planning against that knowledge.”
Rivka seemed effusive and a little scattered, but her approach to planning for something as implacably timed as a two new Parochet a year made deep sense to me. I could see her valuing the pieces of the intermeshed logistics of the workings. She pitted time, access to materials, and hands available against the calendar.
Each new moon must have rung a knell in her heart. The Parochet was always due to be hung at the new moon of Nisan, in order to be fresh for the arrival of Pesach within the week. It had a place in marking the beginning of the liturgical year for the people of the Tribes. And the tradition was dictated by most ancient Midrash and not the Torah, much to the disgust of the Sedukhim.
Those fancy priests were all for saving money by ending the Oregot. They might also save their pride by eliminating any of the non-Torahic practices which had seeped into Beit haMiqdas. The Kohanim were steeped in these Pharisaic traditions, and the Sedukhim were determined to erase them from haShem’s all-knowing regard. Thus Rivka’s worry over the budget and the graft eking away any margin for error.
Together we sorted the charts on the table. I used chalk, heddle rods, and arm waving to demonstrate my scanty understanding. While I fought with the weaving diagrams, old memories of watching my mother at her loom returned in snatches. Some of these helped with the symbology, some only slowed me.
Oreget Rivka showed distracted patience for my efforts. Almost absently, she would shift a chalk line or a dummy shuttle, to clear my perception or realign my approach to the problem. After a jar or more of time had passed, Rivka pulled the charts into a pile and tucked them away with a couple of shuttles acting as weights to keep them together.
Next, we moved to the calculations. Here I excelled as soon as I remembered how my mother and I had used the tally marks on her weaving room’s walls. Knowing those aided me greatly. Learning the weights of the commonly used gages of yarn, thread, and the light linen rope which served as the warping took more time. Once I had the lengths explained, and the gauge weight averages, I knew I could produce useful calculations.
The abacuses came back to me quickly. I thanked Cousin Sobe in my liver for her insistence on my familiarity with the larger problems one might set to an abacus. Both Rivka and I were startled when we heard the swelling tones of the mincha ketana. Where had the day gone? We had sunk deep in determining the finished volume of wool from a tithe out of Gad.
The wool was of good quality, but the briars and filth encrusting the fleeces from that region was legendary among the Oregot. A measurable volume of wool was lost to the scissors trimming uncombable brambles from the mother fleece. And more still lost to knotted mineral formations adhering to the under and nether parts of the sheep from whom the fleeces came. Rivka showed me her methods with the different consignments of fleece.
She compared incoming weights to finished length in the different colors: tekhelet, argaman, and shani. And she had kept year over year records. So that one could see how much variation there was from any one region. That way, one could predict conservatively, based on the lowest recorded yield. Sometimes, Rivka was even able to beat the negative gimel using this method.
I asked to see the dye formulae, and wanted to be shown the rooftop dye baths. The shani would produce the scarlet color for which it was famous so long as the dilution was correct and the mordant active. But the tekhelet and the argaman were snail-based dyes. These colors would not fully take in the fabric or reveal themselves unless they were exposed to carefully measured doses of strong sunlight. Otherwise, the finished dye might stay a medium yellowy-green; or it might get as far as lavender, but nothing like the saturated, wine-dark, night-rich colors the sun created in harmonious alchemy with the fermented snail juices.
“When we hear the late-afternoon mincha begin, that is the signal for clearing and tidying and wrapping up the looms to protect them from dust, insects and accidental contact with any unclean thing, also we must return to the Ezrat haNashim in good time so that we may eat, and then attend our evening prayers. HaShem requires that even women should pray once a day. Like men, we do so to remind ourselves of His goodness, and our call to perfect ourselves and our understanding in honor of all that He promised in His covenants with our forefathers. So let us hurry and clear our work table.
“I will roll up the charts. You match the color of the ties to the ones on the baskets on those shelves. That is my filing system. You say you have no fear of the ladder. I say, then climb and get these sorted. Learn where they come from as you tidy them away, so that you may fetch them yourself in future.”
I helped to clear the table. So I learned where the stray tools, broken shuttles, and fragile heddle rods went when they were put away. I stored the chalks in their lidded box, and used an old linen swatch to wipe the table down with water in order to clear away our notations, diagrams and calculations
Rivka grabbed a battered shuttle and banged it against the head of a heddle rod. It made a clanging noise which rose above the racket of the cavernous hall and caused a quiet to settle as the significance of the noise cut into the concentration of the junior Oregot and the mentoring seniors. The rustle and clatter of people putting up their work echoed through the quarter stadion-long workshop.
The grey clad juniors drifted to the table as they finished for the evening. Some sported brightly colored hands, which promised arms to match, though those were hidden in the long woolen sleeves of their tunics.
The Oregot’s costume looked heavy for the heat of the season. I would soon know for myself. Rivka had promised I would have time to change before we ate and prayed.
“Be sure to use one of the mikveh, so that you are fit to appear in prayer before the One on High. If you have stayed with the Osey haTorah, as I see you have, then you will know the way of it. Do you know the three blessings? No matter. They are carved into the walls. Just choose a mikveh facing the wall so that you can read. You can read written Ivrit, miracle child?”
I could piece it out and learn Ivrit as quickly as I was able to grasp the use and arrangement of the alphabet. At least it was a phonetic language, though the vowels would have to come from custom and memory. Unlike ‘Elines, all the lines were read the same direction in Ivrit, instead of that maddening alternating pattern.
Migdala had had only one, permanent mikveh when I lived there. Nothing had been written on the walls of the stone bath. Though mother had written to me last spring, including the letter in a delivery of our fish to the temple, saying that Migdala had blossomed with the building of Tiberias just down the lake, past where the villa of the Children of the Sun sat on its ancient foundations. Now the village housed many servants, laborers, and craftspersons who took their employment from the resort. Maybe chiselled prayers adorned the mikv’ot in a Migdala I no longer recognized.
I had a proper bath before I took myself into the mikveh. Other women were using the baths, and the mikv’ot. I waited until someone else was walking down into the waters, and followed her prayers, using the words on the wall as a rough guide. I stumbled over the blessings more than I liked, but I immersed myself thrice and didn’t drown myself accidentally. I wondered if ever a prayer had been so spluttery.
The towel was hemp, old enough to be soft, though still coarse woven and happily absorbent. The woolen tunic, almost to the floor with sleeves past my wrists and a close tied neckline which itched from the first, was all I had dreaded. I liked the head wrap better. It was old and worn thin with washing. It prickled less where it rested on the skin of my neck than the damnable dress did.
The evening meal consisted of more barley bread, and more lentils. There were some greens and onions in with the lentils, so that was an improvement over our late breakfast. I even found bowls of fresh cheese stirred with herbs to dollop onto my mess of pottage. I wondered how often they served milk products, as they were forbidden to be served with meat of any kind. Then I pondered if the prohibition extended to birds. Or if it were forbidden to serve birds with eggs, as that would be the case of serving the kid with its mother’s milk, in a way.
The evening prayer service grew nearer while I cleared my place and itched. There was nothing to be done about the hideous woolen sack with sleeves. I would wear it, or one like it, until my mother’s house called me home.
Until I left Tzor, I had had no sense of it being home. Home had always meant the lake. But time, distance, and absence made it clear to me that the shadowed ramps of the workshops, and the wood ricks above them, were more my home than the cob plastered hut on the shore of Yam-haKinneret. I longed for my aunt’s soothingly scented and heavily flowering gardens, not my mother’s vegetable patch. I took solace in memories of accounting lessons with Sobe and knot tying with Marmar, not chasing toddlers.
The service mostly involved the priests at the front, with some call and response. There were psalms and blessings everyone else seemed to know by heart. Fine. I had a good ear for music, and a trained memory. I would ask Rivka if the ones I should know by heart were written out. One way or another I would not live illiterate in Beit haMiqdas for long.
After the service finished, we juniors were herded up to the dormitory for our religiously early bedtime. Yoana caught up to me on the stairs.
“It gets later in the summertime. They can’t start the evening service until full dark has fallen, that’s halakha. And the Law is everything around here. Mostly the work is enough we’re glad we don’t have to stay up to wash the dishes or sweep the refectory.
“The chalalah do that for the Ezrat haNashim, including the for the Nazarites and even the Metzoraim.” Clearly she had forgiven my foreign, demon-worshipping upbringing. Or maybe she had decided in favor of a fresh ear into which she might pour gossip and speculation.
“Really? Isn’t it dangerous for them? Couldn’t skin diseases and suppurations be contracted through having to clean that which is unclean?” I felt angry with the Kohanim for this system which consigned these women to grateful house servants on account of accidents of birth which were none of their doing.
“Oh, maybe. They have a system to make the Court clean without leaving the chalalah unclean. I know that each of the cells has only a stone bench long enough to lie on for furniture. That way it can be made clean again, so that when one occupant leaves the next has no fear of taint they did not bring with them. Better them than us, that’s what I say,” Yoana finished with a flare of spite born from the relief that she would never be asked to cleanse the Court of the Lepers.
“What about the Nazarites? Why do they have a place set aside for them at Beit haMiqdas? What are they to haShem? Are they a kind of priest or something?” I thought to pump for information while it was flowing.
“Oh no, they’re not priests. They took a vow before haShem, and Beit haMiqdas is the only place where their vow can be absolved. It’s either for a length of time, or their whole life. If they’re a lifer, then they come in to be groomed by people who know that they can’t cut any of the hair, no matter what’s in it. Unless it’s something unclean. And I don’t mean lice, but a sore or blood from an impure source. If someone still under a vow has to cut their hair, they have to start the vow all over again. Even if it’s for years and years.
“But if you’re a lifer and you have to cut your hair, you just go back to your life. And you can never eat grapes, or raisins, or use wine vinegar or drink wine. All of the grape is forbidden to Nazarites. Some of them think this means they should never drink anything that could make them tipsy. Others think it really is only the grape. They’re quite pleased to have fig brandy, mead, and beer of course.”
“Is that it? A vow and no grapes or hair cuts? What happens when the period of the vow is over? Do they cut their hair then?” Now I was curious.
“Oh yes, but it can only be done here, because then the hair has to be dedicated to haShem at the altar where the hair is burnt with some of the offerings. And there are lots of offerings at the end of a Nazarite vow,” Yoana imparted knowledge as if it were stolen sesame candy.
“So the chalalah don’t sweep up a lot of hair, then. It’s not much. But still better than immersing leper benches in running water or having to set fire to them every week,” I spoke from my liver.
“Herod-- not Antipas but his father, planned for that or maybe Kohen Gamliel’s grandfather did. There are pipes to run water through, and rims around each pallet so that the water will immerse it. Then it all flows into the drains in the middle and out by aqueduct to where it won’t taint anything. I asked Oreget Dinah, but it was Oreget Rivka who told me. She knows everything about Beit haMiqdas. She was here as a junior when they were rebuilding the Tabernacle and the Kodesh haKodashim. There was a year where the Parochet hung from naked rafters, but still they hung it on the first of Nisan. So don’t worry too much for the chalalah. Rabban Hillel kept their duties in his heart, as well as the service of the Oregot.”
I was far from satisfied with what I had learned about the life of the chalalah at Beit haMiqdas. But I had spent a long day drenched in newness and missteps and maybe a minor victory. I wanted the bed where I had stowed my pack. I knew that in the bottom of it was a grubby pocket, sewn shut with my own hands, containing that which could only offend the all-knowing haShem. I promised myself I would leave the little pocket from my first home in the bottom of my pack for as long as I remained under His roof. But I wasn’t going to throw her away or forfeit her to the priests.
The morning dawned bright, promising more of the blistering harvest weather which would finish ripening the wheat and the second barley crop while goosing the lentils to early readiness. I stretched in the bed, and then I performed the warm-ups I had been taught at Tzor to keep me limber and sprain-free. The series of movements ended with a backbend I turned into a handstand and landed as a cart-wheel. When I came right side up, every junior Oregot then awake stared at me, frozen in their morning routines.
“What was that, Hanna?” Yoana cried out across the room.
“I warmed up, as I have been taught. It keeps me fluid and nimble. Is warming up against the rules here too?” I shot back.
“Rabban Hillel suggested that the corps of Oregot conduct themselves with sobriety and piety at all times. I do not believe he would view being upside down in drawers only as an act of sobriety here in Beit haMiqdas,” an Oreget in a bed near the chamber pots spoke up.
“So ‘no’ then, there isn’t a specific prohibition. Perhaps a sense that our probity may be called to account because I turned upside down, once, this morning. Since none of us is priests, why don’t we leave it to them to decide. Then I can go back to minding my own business, as I am sure you all would wish to do, given the chance,” I closed tartly.
These women, girls, were meek as mice. I didn’t understand their fuss over a simple stretching sequence. Surely they all had some training in the dance, at least. It was allowed that the men and women of the Tribes should dance, though not together. I wouldn’t let their timidity, judgment, and half-articulated shibboleths keep me from staying supple and strong while I toiled for haShem.