Two years and eight months later - Feast of Tabernacles – 94 AD
Earlier than necessary on this sixth day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Elizabeth was wide awake. Habit was hard to break. Each day, as normal, she had awakened as she would have done at home, ready to rise and start preparing food for the family. Today, she had no need to fret that she should be doing something, and she was at peace. Her niece Kyla was to help her mother with the preparations for the first meal of the day. So this morning Elizabeth sighed and luxuriated. Turning on her back, she laid there imagining she was a wealthy woman with no responsibilities. It was still dark, and out here on the farm, there were no city lights to distract from the light of the stars. Ephesus was a long journey away, and she enjoyed the peace of the farm.
The booth, on the roof of the guest quarters, had been built for two, herself and Meshua. A benefit to the fact that her husband had not arrived as he had promised, was that she had more than ample room on the pallet. It was still cramped though. Temporary shelters… that was all these booths were.
Gazing up through the withering branches of the roof of her booth, she saw glimpses of the stars and chuckled at the sight. As the state of the branches testified, the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles was almost over. Then the booth would be dismantled, the branches cast aside for burning, and she and her girls move into the guest accommodation for the Eighth-Day Holy Day.
Outside, it was still and cloudless, and, with a soft smile, she lay staring at the awesome night sky. As it became a lighter shade, Elizabeth was aware the night was ending and it would soon be dawn. Deciding she might as well rise, she sat up before carefully standing up. Although there was not much room in the booth, she had mastered the art of dressing in a small space many years ago. Booths were made only to sleep or change clothing in.
Reaching for her neatly folded clothes, Elizabeth quickly put on a clean tunic and pulled her outer garment over it. Stepping outside, she bent down and picked up her sandals by the ties. She would carry them until she was down the outside stairs. The thick leather soles would clatter on the flat stone roof, and she did not want to disturb her daughters who were sleeping in the adjoining booth. She would come back later and roll up the pallet when there was enough light to see properly.
Pausing in the pre-dawn light, she smiled. The stone was cold under her bare feet, but the sight of the first rays of the sun lighting the sky thrilled her. For the rest of the year, she would be up and working at her outdoor kitchen by now, with no time to pause and enjoy seeing the heavens painted by God’s glory. She cherished these times at the Feast when she was awake early, with no responsibility, with time to appreciate the sky painted in reds, golds, and orange. It stirred something within her.
When her son Timon had been learning to read, she remembered how much he loved one of the psalms penned by King David, and she thought of it now. “The heavens declare the glory of JHWH.”
She sighed; it was all she knew. Women did not study the scriptures; they learned to be wives and mothers, a thought that brought her out of her reverie. She quietly made her way over to her daughters’ booth, and carefully peered in. Esther was sleeping on her back, relaxed and breathing normally. There had been no breathing attacks since that old man, a heretic according to her husband and the Jewish community, had prayed for her. That had happened after Meshua had left. ‘Is it necessary to tell him,’ she wondered. Her forehead creased as she considered the possible consequences of both alternatives.
He would want to know why his daughter was now well; she supposed he would notice. She left the thought. It was too worrying.
For now she would enjoy the peace of the day and her treasured daughters. A tender smile on her face, she looked at her older daughter lying beside her sister. Rachel lay on her side, her long, dark hair fanned out behind her head. Both were sound asleep.
A soft baby’s cry sounded. Elizabeth glanced over at the roof of the main farm building, where Joanna and Levi, their unmarried daughter Kyla, Chanan and Aminta with the children, and Sara and Micah had their booths. All was quiet again. Not even Joanna stirred from her booth, and Elizabeth was pleased. Joanna had helped with the clearing up after the festivities ended late the previous evening, and it would be good for her to have a rest.
With one last glance at her sister’s booth she sighed. Life had finally improved for Joanna and her husband. Chanan’s marriage had been hurriedly arranged to provide heirs for the farm, but his first child was a daughter. Until the birth of Jacob three months ago, her sister continued to be tense and anxious. Now, after the birth of the boy, Joanna and Levi were more hopeful about the future, and it showed,
Enjoying the opportunity for a ‘quiet’ time, she rested on the low buttress at the edge of the flat roof above the guest rooms at the farm. She and her daughters were the only ones to have booths on this much smaller roof of the guest house.
It was peaceful as the sun started to peep over the horizon, and the sky really did proclaim the gift of a new day. Now there was enough light for her to be able to see over the boundary wall of the farm. She could make out the dark shapes of the booths of the people from neighboring farms and nearby village, who celebrated with the ben Nathan family. Faint sounds carried over the still morning air, and Elizabeth stood up and tiptoed toward the stairs. Soon everyone would be awake and the bustle of the day would start.
Glancing back. Elizabeth checked for any sign that her daughters had woken, but all was quiet. There had been dancing in the large barn and the young girls had danced in the courtyard. Even when her daughters had been persuaded to go to bed, the music and laughter from the celebration had gone on for a long time. Smiling, she thought most people would be fatigued this morning.
The shadows of two men made their way out of a side gate, catching Elizabeth’s attention. She peered, wondering who they were and what they were doing. It was when they made their way to the temporary outbuilding over the trenches that she realized who they were.
They collected their digging tools and went into the structure. ‘They must have slept late,’ Elizabeth pondered. She knew the service had been provided but had never before seen the men at work. She hoped none of the guests would either.
Carefully, in the still pale light, Elizabeth started down the rough stone stairs, carrying her sandals. Stopping at the bottom of the stairs, she sat down to tie them on. Then, lost in her thoughts, a soft smile on her lips, she made her way to the well to draw some water.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, then raised her hand to her mouth cover the sound.
“You bumped into me,” came the annoyed voice of her sister, Sara.
“I am sorry, Sara. I did not see you there in the half-dark. Are you alright?”
Pulling her shawl tightly around her, Sara replied, “I am fine. You gave me a fright that is all.”
“You are still in your sleeping robe,” Elizabeth observed.
“And you were not looking where you were going,” Sara responded.
“Have you been unable to sleep again?”
“I am too old to sleep on a pallet, but we are commanded to do it. Sometimes I wish only the men had to live in booths. Oh dear, forget I said that.”
“We taught our children… we live in booths because our G-d said, ‘so that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’. The children loved it.” Elizabeth smiled, taking a deep breath of the country air.
Sara looked at her younger sister, “Why are you up so early, Elizabeth? You are not needed for the meal preparation.”
“I wake as I always do. This morning I came for some water and to enjoy the peace of the morning. Why are you up?”
“I went indoors for some of the pain mixture that Rhea made for me. It will work soon and I will be able to do what is necessary today. Go fetch your drink and let us sit and talk on that bench near the well. It is so long since we have had a chance to speak to each other… apart from when we are working in the kitchen, and then there are others around.”
Making her way to the well Elizabeth drew some water to drink, took the metal cup, and sat with Sara on the bench under the tree. “It is strange to think that the Feast is almost over,” she said as she sat down.
“Your husband is not here,” Sara remarked.
“At his father’s urging, Meshua went to seek more supplies for the shop, while waiting for the seas to be safe. It will be a long time before the regular shipments from ‘young Simon’ in Egypt start again.” Elizabeth took a long drink, then confided, “His father is angry though, Meshua has been gone too long…” Pushing down thoughts that would only make her angry, Elizabeth stopped abruptly.
Sara said, “Rachel must be about fifteen years old. That is old for a girl to be unmarried. Aminta is only a year older and she has two children.”
Sighing, Elizabeth confessed, “It is a source of annoyance to Meshua, that he cannot arrange a match for her. She has shown no sign of womanhood yet. Rachel has shown no concern about it this last year.’ Elizabeth knew her older daughter’s opinion of the young men Meshua was considering. Seeing her sister’s unconvinced stare, she added, “Rachel enjoys helping her Saba in the shop, but I will have to talk to the healing woman again.”
“I am surprised you have delayed. Did you not tell me last year the woman said that if Rachel did not show signs by the fifteenth anniversary of her birth, she would make Rachel an herbal mixture?”
“I am afraid that Rachel’s lack of signs has been largely forgotten. I have been distracted because Esther’s sickness became much worse in this last year. She has been the one the healing woman regularly attended.”
“I noticed Esther seems well. She has worked in the kitchen, and I have seen her dance in the courtyard with the other young girls in the evenings.”
“Yes, I have been watching her carefully, wondering if the malady would return. There has been no sign of it, although it beset her all her life.”
“Your healing woman must have found the correct combination of herbs,” Sara said.
Elizabeth smiled; it was not herbs, or anything the healing woman had done. Esther had improved from the time the old heretic had prayed for her. Although she kept her thoughts to herself the questions lingered. Why had his prayer worked? Could it be that God had listened to him? It was dangerous to have such thoughts. Pushing them away she said, “Our sister seems much more at peace.”
Knowing she could trust Elizabeth, Sara said, “I think it is because of little Jacob. Although a daughter may inherit under Mosaic Law, I know Joanna’s husband always fretted that his land and the prosperous farm would pass from the family if Kyla inherited.”
“Levi has a vast and prosperous farm, I can understand his concern.”
“And with Chanan his only male heir, there was much pressure on Chanan and my Aminta to provide sons. I think both Joanna and Levi were disappointed when the first child was a girl.”
“But now there is a peace about Joanna,” Elizabeth smiled.
“Yes, even at Chanan and Aminta’s wedding, Joanna was tense and imperious. It was as if she was afraid to unbend.”
Shaking her head, Elizabeth sighed. “I have some understanding, having lost my first child to the fever. I still mourn his loss, privately, but I cannot not imagine what it would be like to lose two grown sons as Joanna and Levi did.”
“Well, as you know, it seemed I was barren. Micah accepted it and has enjoyed his daughter, but it will be a child of hers who inherits his grain wholesale business.” Sara looked at her sister in the increasing light. “What about Timon and his wife, how are they? I expected to see them here as usual.”
“They are keeping the Feast in Ephesus, with her parents. She did not want to travel all the way out here.”
Sara raised a questioning eyebrow and smiled.
“Yes, she is with child, but feels sick most of the day.”
“It will make keeping the festival difficult if she still suffers,” Sara said sympathetically.
“Sometimes the body adjusts and the sickness stops.”
“I hope all goes well,” Sara said as she stood up. “I must go up to the booth and dress, the servants will soon be up and I am to help Kyla this morning.”
“It has been good to sit and have this time talking with you. You and Micah, Joanna and Levi are not too distant from each other, but in Ephesus I am too far away to visit, except at this time of year.”
Sara bent over and kissed Elizabeth’s head, “I must go.”
“I will stay a few minutes more, then go and wake my daughters.” Elizabeth watched her sister as she hurried to the steps leading to the roof of the main house. She wondered what Sara would have said if she had voiced her thoughts earlier and told her that it was not because of herbs that Esther was better. Although her questions obsessed her, even though she trusted her sister, she could never share the thoughts and questions spilling over in her mind.
Looking around the deserted courtyard as if seeking answers, Elizabeth shook her head. All it revealed to her was the empty space where the people would gather later, where families would rejoice after the men had attended the teaching of Rabbi Obed and his scholars.
Outside the gate, which servants would open when it came time to call the people whose booths were outside, were friends she had made during these years. They had noticed the improvement in the child and said she should praise JHWH and be grateful. But something was stirring inside, wanting to understand why. She wished she could hear the teaching of the man who had prayed for Esther. But to the Jews, he was a heretic. If she even voiced her thoughts, she would be ostracized and bring disgrace on her family. How could she even think about it? But the fact remained, and niggled, that Esther was better than she had ever been in her life and Elizabeth would dearly love to know why.
‘Old Simon’ had detected her interest in understanding more about the old man’s teaching. Even yet, his warning echoed in her head, “Meshua would have to put you away, or be put out of the synagogue. Then his property would be confiscated and he would lose his business in the market. Perhaps even this business of mine would be affected. Remember, we have some important contracts among the Jewish community. Your whole family would mark you as an outcast; you would lose your son and daughters.”
Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth sighed and set down her drinking cup. She would be an outcast to these sisters and their families, as well as all the people here.
A scream, quickly muffled, pierced the stillness of the early morning.
Jumping to her feet, Elizabeth’s first thought was for her girls and she looked up anxiously toward their booth. Rachel and Esther were coming out sleepily, pulling their shawls about them, clearly having heard the scream and wondering what was wrong. When they saw their mother in the courtyard, they hurried down the outside stairs and ran over to her, “What is wrong, Aima?”
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth replied, and then her attention was caught by movement on the roof of the main house.
The gatekeeper, seeing Elizabeth and the girls, thought he must have slept in and, unaware of any problem, opened the gate. Surprised, some early risers noticed.
“Why is the gate opened earlier than usual?” one asked another.
“I do not mind, I am happy to go in and draw some water from the well.”
“Me too. After all that dancing last night, the water we had in the booth was soon used, and I will be more than happy to fill up our container.”
Seeing Elizabeth and her girls staring at the roof, the first arrivals who had trickled through the passage into the courtyard, followed her example and stared at the roof, wondering what was happening.
“What’s the matter?”
“Why was the gate opened early?”
“Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the gatekeeper made a mistake,” Elizabeth whispered, keeping her gaze fixed on the family booths on the roof of the main house.
More people filtered in, wondering why the people in the courtyard were staring at the roof of the main building, and they looked, too.
Chanan hurried from his booth and made his way to the one occupied by his parents. His young sister Kyla peeped out and watched him go to their parents’ booth. Joanna, jarred awake by the scream, had immediately reached for her shawl. “Levi, something is wrong, we need to find out what it is.”
“Aima, we need you,” Chanan whispered as he stood outside his parents’ booth.
“I am awake and coming,” she replied, quickly pulling her shawl around her head, and checking that Leah, who had spent the night with them, still slept peacefully.
“Levi...” she whispered,
“I will dress when you leave.”
Joanna hurried off with her son, listening intently to what he was telling her. Reaching his booth, she whispered to him before going inside. Nodding, he made his way over to the booth on the other side of the roof and called his mother-in-law.
At his call, Sara hurriedly finished dressing while he waited outside, and then she too rushed off with him.
Kyla, who had quickly dressed, left her booth and made her way to her brother’s booth. After a whispered conversation with her mother, she made her way down the outside stairs that led from the main roof into the courtyard. Elizabeth was only one of the many who asked what was wrong.
“I do not know, Aunt Elizabeth. Chanan called my mother to his booth. When I spoke to her, she said to come down and start work in the kitchen.”
“I am sure your father will let us know when he finds out what is wrong,” Elizabeth reassured.
“Why was the gate opened early?” Kyla asked, looking at the people in the courtyard.
“I do not know,” Elizabeth replied. “Perhaps the gatekeeper made a mistake.”
“What a day for a mistake,” Kyla responded. Taking a deep breath and drawing herself up to her full height, she looked at the people gathered before her and announced, “Our family apologizes for the disturbance and asks you to continue as normal.” At seventeen, she was now a forceful young woman; something that had deterred younger suitors but enabled her to take charge in what Elizabeth could see was some degree of family emergency.
“Shall I light the fires in the kitchen?” Elizabeth asked her.
“I am going there now, Aunt Elizabeth, your help would be appreciated,” she replied, inclining her head.
Elizabeth nodded her agreement, at the same time realizing why her niece had remained unwed for so long. Perhaps her betrothal, announced during the festival, would help her attitude to soften.
“Aima?” Esther asked timidly.
“Go and dress properly then come back and help in the kitchen,” Elizabeth told both Rachel and Esther before hurrying after her niece.
The sisters made their way back up to their booth, dressed hurriedly and rolled up their sleeping pallets. Finished first, Rachel went and rolled up her mother’s pallet, then they helped each other with their hair. If they were to work in the kitchen, it should be tied back out of the way.
“I wonder what is wrong,” Esther murmured as they made their way to the kitchen.
Rachel, lost in her own thoughts, did not hear. She could never cross this courtyard without remembering the bullying of the two friends of the former rabbi’s son. Kindly old Rabbi Solomon had succumbed after a long illness, and his wife and son had moved away. But not the son’s friends.
“What can we do?” Esther asked as she and Rachel entered the kitchen. Their mother and Kyla were cooking the barley bread for the first meal of the day.
Glancing up, Kyla recognized her young cousins, “Would you prepare the room for the rabbi and his scholars?”
Hearing the tremor in her niece’s voice, Elizabeth guessed the young woman was so curt because she was trying not to panic.
Hurrying to do as they were told, Rachel and Esther went to the meeting room, swept the floor and made sure the seat for the local rabbi was as it should be. Rabbi Obed seemed quite stern, but blessedly she had only seen him from a distance. Women and girls worked in the kitchen, only men went to the teaching, and listened as he read from the Torah and discussed the meaning. Making sure there was a table nearby, and a cleaning drinking cup, Rachel and Esther went back to the kitchen to fetch the jugs of water and wine for him.
“So what is the problem, Kyla?” Elizabeth asked when the girls had taken the jugs and gone.
“I don’t know. Chanan called Aima to come because Aminta panicked... something to do with Jacob.”
“How old is he now?”
“Almost three months.”
Just then, Sara rushed into the kitchen, “Some basins, Kyla, please.”
“What can I do to help?” Elizabeth asked her sister.
“Sorry, Elizabeth, I didn’t notice you there.” Sara apologized, shakily. “Help me fill these with water.” Taking the basins from Kyla, Sara explained, “We are going to try to cool the baby down. He has the fever and the rash.”
Elizabeth and Kyla exchanged frightened glances.
“Do what you can, Aunt Elizabeth,” Kyla urged. “I will manage. The servants will be here to help soon.”
Rachel and Esther returned to the kitchen and found that their mother was no longer there.
“Where’s Aima gone?” Rachel asked Kyla.
“She and Aunt Sara have taken some water up for Jacob.”
Before Rachel could ask why, Chanan walked in. “I’ve been sent away. It is women’s work they say.” He passed a weary hand through his hair, “He’s my son, though.”
Filling a bowl with barley bread and wine, and passing it to him, Kyla urged him to eat.
“How can I eat when my only son is dying?”
Aghast at what he said, Rachel paled, took Esther by the hand and led her quietly out of the kitchen. She needed time to take this in. Finding a space away from both the kitchen door and the well where people were congregating, Rachel and her sister waited.
“Why did you bring me out here?” Esther asked. “I should be helping in the kitchen, so should you.”
“I needed time to think.” She could see from the uncomprehending look on her younger sister’s face, that the girl had not heard her cousin.
Most of the guests at the Feast were now up, had dressed hurriedly, and had gathered in the courtyard near the kitchen doorway. Concerned looks and whispered comments were exchanged as the people anxiously waited, wondering what was happening.
“Girl, you are family. What is going on?” asked a woman who was trying to soothe a tired child.
“We don’t know yet,” Rachel replied, wondering if she should take her sister back up to their booth, and away from the crush of people.
“That’s Uncle Micah leaving,” Esther said as she spotted her Aunt Sara’s husband making his way up the passageway to the gate.
“Maybe he is going to fetch the rabbi,” Rachel speculated. “He’s not due here till after the third hour. Perhaps they want him urgently.”
She could see that Esther still did not understand the seriousness of what was happening. It must be so frightening for the family. If this male child died… three male heirs dead in a few years… people would say the family was cursed, and avoid doing business with them...
There was a stir. People turned and fixed their gazes on the roof of the family home.
Levi ben Nathan stood there. When he saw he had their attention, he said, “My grandson has the fever. Someone has gone to ask the rabbi to come early and pray for him. If any of you are worried, no one will think less of you if you choose to leave and spend these last Feast days with our people in Ephesus.”
Families huddled in consultation, then Aaron, a neighbor and father of a young son, Caleb, spoke up. “If it will make it easier for you and your family, then we will pack up and leave. But if not, then we will stay and trust JHWH for protection, and healing for your grandson.”
Most men agreed, although two, who had young families, were uncertain. They went back outside to their booths to talk it over with their wives who had not yet risen.
Joanna came out of her son’s booth looking strained, and spoke to the people in the courtyard. “I will not risk spreading the fever, I will not come down until the boy is healed,” she assured them. “My daughter will see to the meals.”
“You are right Esther, we should be helping,” Rachel said, and they scurried back to the kitchen to help Kyla.
Chanan had gone off to think and pray. Kyla, with the aid of a couple of trusted servants, had preparations underway to serve the first meal a little earlier than usual. Seeing her cousins, she called to them, “Rachel, Esther, will you help?”
The girls nodded their agreement.
“Have people bring their bowls and we will start serving,” Kyla directed.
Rachel found herself face to face with the elderly Zipporah and greeted her with a spontaneous smile. She was fond of the old servant who had watched over them during the week of Aminta and Chanan’s wedding.
Following Zipporah’s lead, the sisters organized the people into groups to ensure they all were served the simple meal. That done, Esther worked with Kyla and another servant to put the barley bread in the bowls, pour the wine mixture over the bread, sprinkle the mixture with nuts, and pour honey over it. Then it was ready to be passed back to the guests. Rachel helped Zipporah do the same.
“Terrible thing to happen,” one man was overheard saying, as if the child had already died.
“And this week, of all the weeks in the year...”
“And the daughter was betrothed this week. It should be a time of celebration.”
“This Tabernacles week is a time of celebration, or supposed to be.”
“Micah, the other grandfather, was telling me yesterday that Levi had a bumper harvest this year and he had negotiated a good sale for Levi’s grain.”
“I saw the grain barn was full.”
“Someone said Chanan had sold his herd of goats because his father wants him to be involved in the grain farm.’
“Oh... I remember, Chanan is the only male left.”
“He has a son.”
“Who is sick with the fever. You know what that means.”
“Hope his wife has another male child soon...”
Rachel and Zipporah exchanged despairing looks as they heard the comments while they filled bowls and served the meals.
“This is my cousin and his baby that people are talking about,” Rachel whispered to Zipporah. The older woman shifted on aching feet and smiled sadly at the girl, before turning to accept another bowl and pass it to be filled.
Rachel did the same.