- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Yerushalayim
We started directly for the workshop when we heard the earliest set of morning prayers commence. These were said at the altar in the Court of Ysrael, with the first slaughtered lamb of the day. The smoke from the altar smelled like a holiday dinner so early in the day.
Later in the day, the miasma of blood, offal, and burnt hair underlined with the rank fear of the murdered animals would overtake the seared and roasted meat aromas. All the better that we spent our days at the far southern end of Har Moriah toiling in the bowels of the Sanhedrin. Well, not the bowels exactly. That was where all the portable mikvot had been set for the thousands upon thousands of devout who came to receive the blessings of haShem in person, as it was their duty to do.
At the workshop, Rivka led me up the stairs in the main stairwell, all the way to the top. To our right, a much columned aisle stretched both tall and long, running farther than I could see from my vantage point. To our left were the dye works. These were made of large, glazed tiles, so that they couldn’t soak up the dye. Each of the pits came with awnings, and heavy leaves laid on cross bars quartering the pits to form light-tight lids.
Both of the colors derived from the snails, the argaman that I had known in Tzor as phoenos, and the classic tekhelet of the Tribes, would only reveal themselves if their fermentations, dilutions, and mordants were also combined with the correct amount of sunlight. Not only did the sun steam away some of the liquid in the pit, concentrating the color, but its powerful rays alone could turn the original off-green to deep blue and the medium lavender to wine-dark purple.
I smelled the ammonia and sea-rot characteristic of the dye-pits at Tzor, and knew that the Oregot followed the old ways, and haShem allowed the forbidden ingredients and practices here where He could keep them under His eye. I saw that the person stirring and stirring the sodden fibers in the farthest dye-pit, wore the garments of the chalalah.
“We do the measuring and they do stirring, draining and wringing?” I asked.
“Oh no, the chalalah also see the fibers spread onto the drying racks. Look down the battlement, there. She is spreading the wool and using our method of binding it loosely, so that it may not blow away while the sun finishes it for us. Once the colors are fully dried, then and only then do we wash them until the water runs clear. For that, we have a room with pipes leading to one of the aqueducts running just beneath the plaza. We tie the fibers, and leave them to sluice clean for a day and a night. Then they come back up to the roof for their final drying. After that, we send the fibers to the spinners.
“Our spinners are composed of seniors and juniors both. It is good work for those whose eyesight has gone, since the quality of the yarn is easily told with the fingers. They tell the old, old midrashim of the Oregot. The weavers of the Tribes have been at their labors since the day after Moishe came down from his conference with haShem bearing the tablets, and instructions for how to build a tabernacle worthy of housing the One on High. Our tales go as far and farther back into the history of our craft and practice,” Rivka concluded with some pride.
Though Our Lady Rolling had been venerated at Tzor for as long, and longer than haShem ever had guided or embroiled the Tribes, she had some claim to the glorious history of her corps. They had served when the Tribes had no home, and they had served when Shlomo built the first home for haShem on Har Moriah, and they had learned and broadened their craft during the Babilimic Exile. This was not to be confused with the craft Ysrael’s women had learned and assimilated during the Exile in Misr, with which they had started providing Parochet to shield haShem from the profane, and vice versa.
I had learned some of this from Marmar herself, my grandmother Haha’s aunt. She had served in the corps when Beit haMiqdas as I knew it was not even a faint ambition in the liver of Herod, though it might have already lodged in that of Rabban Hillel. She had been proud of the quality of work the Oregot produced, though they had not had many of the advantages of the present system and layout of the workshop.
“I have not picked up a spindle for years, though I am confident I could soon manage to juggle with as many as five of them. I doubt the Oregot will want me where so many are already skilled beyond any possible range of my learning. I know some of the tales told there from my Marmar, but I would rather be useful than enriched if by doing so I may better serve haShem,” I spoke with downcast eyes, and what I hoped would be taken for the piety they all valued so much.
“We have a full complement of spinners, this is so. With the senior Oregot supplemented by chalalah who have passed the dangerous years,” Rivka began.
“Dangerous years?” I interrupted full of curiosity to hear more.
“If any part of the making of the Parochet should be conducted by someone in a state of uncleanness in the eyes of haShem and by the laws of halakha, then the whole of the Parochet is unclean and must be remade, after the workshop is wholly stripped and purified. A woman’s flowers may start when she does not expect them, and this specifically is the uncleanness from which we must protect the workings at all costs. Even the chalalah at the dye-pits take that rotation only once they have made the sin offering and for the week that follows. This is an unbreakable rule, and we have rarely regretted it. Otherwise, the chalalah are not even allowed into the workshop to clean. That is done by senior Oregot who have joined from the chalalah once they are eligible. Oreget Dinah directs the cleaning crews. They come twice a week, excepting when any of the holy days interrupts their cycle. And of course, none of us in Beit haMiqdas works on Shabbat.” Rivka finished.
“Of course,” I echoed. My head spun. Truly haShem worked His will with little regard for the lives crushed under the weight of His word and His law.
I followed Oreget Rivka as she received bales and bales of field-fresh fleece. I stood beside her as she checked the bales on an enormous hanging scale, directing the men who had delivered the goods to hang each bale just so from the hardwood hook. I saw her direct a team of junior and senior Oregot, each with their own low, flat wagon, to use levers to roll the bales onto the cargo drays and haul them to the washing pools, or into storage against the walls there-- tagged with knotted, colored cords to tell their place of origin, scaled weight and the date of their arrival.
“All the fleeces I have seen today are white. Is this always so with the tithes which come to Beit haMiqdas?” I asked Oreget Rivka.
“Oh no, but it is those which are brought here for us to work into the Parochet. The other colors of wool: black, red, grey, dun, spotted, those go to a branch of the senior Oregot who make the garments we wear, and those of the chalalah. Yet another branch of the senior Oregot make most of the priestly vestments when the flax comes to us in the summer and again after Hoshana Rabbah, in just another month.
We take the flax retted for both the Parochet and the vestments, but it is not even scutched, let alone heckled when it arrives. And we have a small team of senior Oregot, drawn from the girls who choose to retire to us when they become eligible, who weave and embroider the garments of the Kohen Gadol himself. Where was I?” Rivka had lost her train of thought.
“You had told me why all the fleeces we have seen at the workshop are white, and what happens to the others. And then, though I did not know to ask, what the other corps in the Oregot do to keep staff and priests alike clothed.” I supplied.
“Indeed. It is a great deal of work, but the women of the Levites are much in the chalalah, and both the junior and senior corps of Oregot. They come to us in their hundreds, when all are tallied and tared. And we put each and every one of them to work, for the glory of haShem and the timeliness of days according to our priests who keep the count.”
This sounded like standard temple twaddle to me. The Hecatoi at Tzor also worked with sayings and slogans to minimize ill feeling and irritation with unreasonable budgets, short staffing and compressed timelines. Often these were bolstered by scriptural quotes or bastioned about with ‘tradition’. Such things meant more fuss for the people at the bottom of the temple pecking order as a rule. We heard a lot of platitudes while we were put to squeezing the snails for their dye-making juices.
“Now we have the weight of the fleeces, and we know where they come from. Do you remember how we calculate the length of finished yarn these fleeces will yield?” Oreget Rivka asked me to redirect our conversation to something immediately useful.
“Yes. We check the records for the incoming weight versus the finished length from other seasons. We take the current average, and adjust our total for the negative gimel factor-- which is likelier to be larger if the fleeces are here for a longer rather than a shorter amount of time. I never stole a pastry that went from the oven to the table while it was still on the baking tray.
“The more time the thing not being used sits around, the more opportunities there are for people to think out how to walk off with what they believe won’t be noticed. Is there somewhere locked or guarded you could put those supplies and materials which disappear the most? I don’t know my way around, but this is such a very big facility compared to any I have yet seen. There must be somewhere secure no one has a use for somewhere in the courts.”
Rivka looked much struck by my thoughts on how to reduce pilfering. As with any vermin, so my Aunt Mimi said, one might not keep all of it from the filthy despoilers, but the obvious protections were obvious for a reason-- they worked to keep the loss down to acceptable levels.
Then Oreget Dinah rang the heddle rod to call the Oregot to their morning meal, back at the refectory. The cycle of the days began to take on a familiarity as one fell after another. Each much alike, each punctuated by calls to prayers, meals, and work. I hadn’t yet been given a formal work detail, but Oreget Rivka completed more of the tasks on her endless lists of things to do when I stood by her. By Shabbat, I felt as though I had already been at Beit haMiqdas for longer than one week.
I woke at my usual time, and looked around the room. Every occupied bed still held a sleeper. The junior Oregot were not expected to hear the morning service. They were enjoined to hear the early afternoon service, and the late one in which Shabbat was bidden farewell until the following week. I could not forego the moment.
I stretched and warmed up quietly, and as swiftly as I dared. Before long, I practiced turning cartwheels and throwing standing somersaults down the long aisle between the beds on each side of the room. I walked on my hands, and walked over from backbends and handstands. I jumped lightly, into the full splits-- both kinds, as well as piking, rounding off, and generally turning myself upside down as much as I could without making any noise or banging into any of the cot frames. The rush of air against my tumbling limbs felt like freedom. I recalled the glory of pitting myself against Elder Brother, every skill of mine against every instinct of his. I missed the challenge and exhilaration of Bull Dancing with the Cranes.
“Hsst. Stop that. We do not labor, nor do we create, nor do we play games on Shabbat. And more especially so in the Beit haMiqdas of haShem Himself,” the bossy one who slept near the chamber pots fussed at me.
“I wasn’t working, writing, mimicking work or even creating. This is just my warm-ups, so that I can be comfortable in my body. And what better way to receive the special blessings of Shabbat than in a body as toned to take them in as the house is cleaned for a sign of respect. You might have to labor to do what I just did, but that was nothing to me, only a bit of bend, stretch, and hop to see all well.'' I flashed the dyspeptic shrew a bright smile and threw a standing back-flip which I used to bounce into a forward thrown somersault, finishing on the floor in a full splits, arms raised in all praise to the Lady in Her Cart who made me to go.
“You, you wanton zonah! You profaner of Beit haMiqdas, and on Shabbat, no less. Wait right there,” she commanded, headed for the Oreget on guard duty in the hallway outside our dormitory.
I ignored the shrew and made use of the chamber pots behind the curtain. Then I drew on my grey tunic, belted it and added my head wrap, tucking in the ends neatly in the manner Dahzi had taught me while we sat vigil at Phaistos. I had done no wrong. I had not stepped outside the halakhic limitations on the day. And I would challenge anyone who tried to draw a different conclusion. The tattling shrew returned with the senior Oreget on duty.
“Here. This one, the new girl. Hanna Somebody. She was spreading her legs and turning upside down without any regard for modesty or the sanctity of the day. Surely such is not permitted to the Oregot on any day-- and the more so for it being Shabbat,” she shrilled.
The Oreget, probably a former chalalah judging by the knotted joints and ancient calluses on her hands and fingers, looked me up and down sourly. She walked around me once, then quick as a snake she reached up and snatched my head covering off. She stepped away from me, quick as an adder, holding the limp, grey cloth behind her back. She stared at me from yellowing, blood-shot eyes. I stared back, hot with fury and uncertain of the extent of her authority over me. No one had explained, exactly, where the top of the social pyramid was for the Oregot, and how the hierarchy went about identifying and punishing transgressors.
“Well, it wasn’t a game-- and some games are permitted. And it wasn’t work, as she didn’t do anything, you say, but turn around and around? Work accomplishes tasks. Nothing I can think of was accomplished by her foolishness. It wasn’t tidying, sorting, squeezing or any form of forbidden housekeeping. It wasn’t grooming, her hair looks more like uncarded fleece than anything else. I agree with you A`bigal, wholeheartedly, that she is little more than a zonah slipped into our midst, due to lax standards and overreliance on the old girls network. This Asherah-worshipping demon may cause greater heads to roll before all is finished. I wish we had a scholar of the Beit Shammai to adjudicate your charge.
“If they find against her, the charges may be formally written and entered tomorrow. But nothing in the halakha forbids the judgement in itself. Fetch someone from the Ehad-Esre Mach’lakah, it is they who are in service today,” the hag directed Abigal as she dragged me down the room and towards her seat at the doorway.