Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Whore of Babylon (Kidushin 81b)

My translation from Ruth Calderon's Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi lies on the stone floor, spreadeagled. He is praying.

There is no one else at home. It is market day, and his wife is out. He enjoys being alone in an empty house. Only this way does he find peace. It is strange, since the whole world lies open to him: the study house, the courtroom, the inn where he sometimes sleeps on fair days. She, his wife, is quiet and earnest, always in her corner between the stove and the stove, in a kerchief and gown. Twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, she goes out to the market.

"May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse!" This is a prayer he utters frequently. His body lies close to the foundation stone of the house, his limbs still sprawled out around him. His face is to the ground. He seeks to ward off untoward thoughts. He prays with great fervor and concentration, until his heart pulses to the rhythm of his prayers.

One day she came home by chance. In the morning she had prepared bread as was her custom each day, and as it was Monday, she set out for the market. When she left home he was standing in prayer, wrapped in his Tefillin. Shortly thereafter, she realized she had forgotten the basket of fish, and came back to retrieve it. The basket was not particularly important; she could have easily put the fish somewhere else. But it would contain the smell of the fish, which would otherwise stink up the fresh fruit. In any case, she returned at that very moment when he did not intend for anyone to see him. He thought he had the house all to himself when he cried: "May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse! May the Merrrcifful One saaaave meeee from the eeeevil impulsse!"

She was shocked to see her husband looking like a different man entirely. His body lay naked on the floor. He was without his usual pride and glory, without his characteristically even tone off voice. "And to think," she mused, "For several years he has not slept with me. What evil impulse could he possibly be so afraid of?" A sense of insult flared up inside her. Was there another woman?

She crept out of the room quietly and retreated to a side room. She stood in front of the mirror, passing her hand over the lines of her face. Her reflection was like the face of an elderly woman. Her kerchief was drawn tightly over her forehead, concealing her hair. Her eyes were sunken. Deep wrinkles lined both sides of her nose. She tried to smile, but her cheeks were like stones. Each Friday evening she would hope for him to approach her bed, which was carved into the wall, but each Friday evening she was once again disappointed.

"Bless you for reaching this point, for not clucking at one another like chickens," said the rabbi when she came to him somewhat embarrassed. She wanted to know whether they were still obligated in the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply," and whether her husband was still obligated to satisfy her sexually. The rabbi set her mind at ease or at least got rid of the pain, like dirt swept hastily into the corner of the room. But now the dirt was visible again.

She fled outside, without the accursed basket. She walked distraught nearly all the way to the market. The color fled from her pale cheeks and her heart beat rapidly. She thought only of her pain and shame.

When she returned back home her face was restored to its natural color. She set a pot to boil on the stove, rinsed fruits and vegetables, preserved the leftover quinces, sliced cucumbers for pickling. All the while, she concocted a plan.

On Thursday she left the house for market as usual, early in the morning. But instead of turning towards the western part of the market, where her fellow housewives made their way among the stalls, she continued on, as if in a daze. She headed in the direction of the caravans, towards the foreign vendors whose stalls lay beyond the purview of a proper woman. These vendors came from far off and sold clothes, spices, and jewelry to simple, ordinary women. Bangles jingled on their ankles. She approached, and with clenched hands she counted out her coins. She handed over half the money reserved for fruit and all the money set aside for fish, as well as the small sum she saved from week to week to buy a new cloth for the Sabbath table. As if in a dream, she selected a dress, jewels, sandals, and a belt, as well as a bundle of myrrh. She unfolded her sack and placed everything inside, and then left without saying a word.

At an earlier hour than usual she set her steps towards home. Nothing felt normal. The world was awry. "The honor of the king's daughter is within" (Psalms 45:14), she hummed to herself until she came to the alley that led to their house. In a secluded corner she put on the revealing dress, fastened the belt, freed her long hair from her kerchief, tied a dangling jewel around her wrist and a bangle around her ankle. The bangle set a new rhythm to her stride and her temples pulsed. "How lovely are your feet in shoes" (Song of Songs 7:2). She tied the bundle of myrrh around her neck so that it swayed between her breasts. After she finished getting dressed, she applied eye shadow to her eyelids with an unpracticed hand. When she approached the water cistern in the yard, she saw the face of a different woman entirely reflected in the water: the face of Libertina, she who instilled fear in all married women. "I am Libertina, the great whore of Babylon" she whispered. "May the Merciful One save you."

At that very moment, Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi was learning in the garden. A light breeze passed among the branches of the pomegranate and olive trees. The mishnah he was learning was difficult and his mind was unfocused. Suddenly he saw before him the image of a woman -- and what a woman she was! "What, who are you?" he asked, as if spellbound. "I am Libertina. I just returned," she replied indulgently, enjoying the game. She was surprised to find that she knew the rituals of courtship. She made her way towards him to the garden, at once close and distant, familiar and foreign. Her movements aroused him, quickening the pace of his heart.

He demanded that she sleep with him there on the dust among the weeds and thorns, where small rocks would cut into his flesh. He undressed like a man possessed, his body exposed to the world as if he were a dog. He scratched, he licked, he lusted; he craved the taste of her breath but she eluded his grasp again and again, until he pressed her desperately against the trunk of the tree, his hand on her nipple, and penetrated her like a sharpshooter. Then he moaned. It was different from anything he had ever known with his wife, with any woman ever. It brought him closer to the Merciful One than all of his prayers.

When he caught his breath again she asked, her expression firm, that he bring her a pomegranate from the top branch. He did not dare refuse her. His legs were covered in scratches from the tree branches, and when he climbed down the branch beneath him broke and he tumbled down after it. She took the fruit from his hand, casting a scornful glance at his open robe, his unkempt beard, the sweat on his brow.

When he limped into the house his wife was already lighting the stove. He felt as if his torn clothing and his scratches betrayed what he had done. He worried that the scent of Libertina clung to him and to his hair, which was still disheveled even after he combed through it with his fingers. His heart and soul felt undone too. There was no way to take back what he had done. He was consumed by guilt.

As if he were setting out on a long journey, he looked over at the bench beside the stove which seemed suddenly so inviting. He cast a parting glance at the carved beds, the washing corner, the good woman who had borne him his children, who had once made his spirit dance when he peered at her through the lattice from the men's section of the synagogue. The fire in the stove burned high and red, until the coals calmed to a steady blue. He entered the stove and sat inside.

With her two strong arms she pulled out his faint body, and it was as if he was being birthed from inside the stove. When he awoke, his legs were wrapped in rags soaked in oil. She asked quietly, "Why?"

For a moment he remained silent, and then he told her the whole story. The words flowed from his mouth as if he were feverish, as if he could not hide anything from her now. He had decided earlier that there was no point in confessing to her, that it would only cause her pain, that it was better to stay silent, that she would not be able to understand. She listened calmly, and when he finished she said, "It was I."

He knew that this was his opportunity for love, even redemption, but he averted his glance. "But in any case, my intention was to sin," he told her.

She raised her arm as if to object, and her wrist jingled. She unfastened the jeweled bracelet and placed it on the kitchen table.

This story is based on a sugya from Kidushin 81b, translated here:

Rabbi Chiya ben Ashi,
Whenever he would prostrate himself in prayer,
Would say: "May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse!"
One day his wife heard him.
She said: "Given that for several years he has not engaged in sexual relations with me,
Why is he saying that?"
One day he was learning in his garden.
She adorned herself, passed by, and came before him.
He said to her: "Who are you?"
She said: "I am Libertina (Cheruta). I've just returned from a day of work."
He demanded that she sleep with him.
She said to him: "Bring me that pomegranate from the top of the tree."
He jumped up and brought it to her. When he came home, his wife was lighting the stove.
He went and sat inside it.
She said, "What is this about?" He said, "Such and such happened."
She said to him: "It was I."
He said to her: "But in any case, my intention was to sin."

1 Comments:

Anonymous maggie anton said...

Ilana, I would love to chat [or at least email] with you sometime about my idea for my next novel, about Rav Hisda's daughter. I'm Maggie Anton, author of the "Rashi's Daughters" trilogy. I've been following your blog for some time, and really like your translations of Ruth Calderon's work. Please contact me thru my website, www.rashisdaughters.com.

8:41 AM  

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