The central square of Bethlehem was filled to capacity on the early summer morning. Muted browns of farmer’s garments and animals were flecked with explosions of purples, greens and reds from the spring harvest. The sight of so many Temple pilgrims walking to Jerusalem frightened Nahum. The noise was overwhelming. The braying of dozens of animals and the even louder discussions of hundreds of pilgrims set Nahum’s teeth on edge.
Nahum was accustomed to the quiet of his father’s farm in the south. Though man-size, in his eighteen years Nahum had never gotten used to crowds. Donkeys, bulls, horses, goats, sheep and even some camels were penned on the western side of the plaza. With animals he was comfortable; with people less so.
Nahum was accompanied by his uncle, his cousins, his second cousins and most able-bodied members of his Simeon clan. They were all descendents of the notorious Shlemiel, though they did not discuss it publicly. Nahum’s father, the leader of their clan, rode on horseback. Nahum walked close enough to his father to be called upon, but not close enough for conversation. Hundreds of Judeans and Simeons prepared in Bethlehem for the half-day journey to Jerusalem. To Solomon’s Temple.
“Nahum,” a young brown-haired woman waved at him as he approached the main well. Nahum tripped over a pebble at her unexpected gesture. He regained his balance, almost knocking over a wicker basket brimming with grapes. What’s her name? Nahum thought. I don’t remember her name.
“Hello,” Nahum murmured and looked at his feet.
“It is good to see you again,” the young woman said. “You’ve grown since the last time we met. You’ve just arrived?”
“Yes.” Nahum spoke into his semi-clenched fist.
“We’re about to leave,” the woman said, gesturing at a caravan leaving for Jerusalem, “but I would like to see you again.”
Nahum’s eyes shone and he glanced at the young woman for a moment. Talia? Is that her name? A tight smile spread over his face. “That would be nice,” he said.
“Meet me at noon at the southeast corner outside the Temple,” she smiled. “Don’t be late.”
The young woman joined the procession of farmers heading north to Jerusalem.
“Who was that pretty girl?” asked Eldad, Nahum’s uncle, from behind.
“She’s a girl I know that I keep meeting on our pilgrimages. I think she’s Judean, from Tekoa.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t remember. I never asked.”
“Nahum! You’re truly a descendent of Shlemiel. How can you not ask her name? How are you going to find her or find out about her?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think about it.”
“I’ll find her. We agreed on a meeting place.”
“Where?” Eldad asked.
“The southeast corner outside the Temple.”
“Because only serious couples meet there.”
“What does that mean?”
“Men and women meet there for serious discussions. The north side is for the frolickers.”
“How do you know all this?” Nahum asked, eyes widening.
“Some matters,” Eldad coughed into his hand, “are better left unsaid. In any case, you’ve been sheltered too long and now you’re of marriageable age. You must consider your prospects wisely.”
“Isn’t that for father to decide?”
“Typically. But if you bring forward a suitable girl that you like, then everyone is better off. Anyway, stop standing around like a buffoon and start watering the animals. The day is not getting any younger and the crowd is not getting any thinner.”
Nahum obediently watered their clan’s half dozen animals: two donkeys, the stallion that his father rode, a goat, a young lamb and a large bull. He lined them up facing northward out of Bethlehem.
The road to Jerusalem was congested. Caravans of clans from all over Judea and Simeon traveled northward. Nahum started to sweat as people walked closer to him. He was thankful that at least everyone was traveling in the same direction. It would have been impossible to move if anyone had tried to travel south.
The convoy of pilgrims moved at an easy pace. The elderly rode on donkeys or rickety carts. Richly dressed pilgrims rode horses. Children ran around the slow-moving procession snatching grapes from the open baskets and throwing ripe figs at each other. The more talented children were rewarded with a satisfying ‘splat’ with fig seeds oozing down their friends’ faces. Parents yelled at them for abusing the First fruits.
Nahum tried to figure out the girl’s name. Mali? Did I hear someone call her that? Maybe it was Elia? How am I going to call her? How can I ask what her name is after all this time? What did Uncle mean about meeting on the northern side? That sounds like it could be fun.
The long line of pilgrims oscillated up and down the Judean hills. On either side of the dusty road were green vineyards surrounded by rows of stout olive trees.
Nahum spotted the Temple in the distance. The rising sun glinted off the tall structure. Other roads joined the one from Bethlehem. The road grew wider and the crowd thicker and louder. Nahum and his clan approached the walls of Jerusalem. Someone started a merry tune on a flute. A large bull at the front of the Simeon procession marched proudly. His horns were covered with a layer of beaten gold, and a wreath of olive branches adorned his head. The pilgrims organized the fruit displays, stacking the figs into neat pyramids in their baskets and laying out the grapes on large wicker trays.
Colorfully dressed merchants and townsfolk lined the outer wall of Jerusalem.
“Our brothers from Simeon,” they chanted. “Come in peace.”
Nahum and his family entered the wide gates of Jerusalem. They passed the large palace of Solomon on their right. The royal residence was three stories high made of stone and cedar. Elaborate porches hung from the sides of the palace with long purple-flowered morning-glory vines covering the face of the wall. On the other side of the street was a row of stores selling spices, ground flour, and dried fruits. Further up the road was the smithy of a blacksmith next to the stall of a scribe. The dark towering blacksmith was an odd counterpoint to the small pale scribe. Past the palace were smaller yet elegant homes. Up the road was the majestic structure of the Temple shining in the sun.
The congestion on the Jerusalem road was almost impenetrable.
“When do you need to meet the girl?” Eldad shouted at Nahum.
“You’re not going to make it.” Eldad looked up at the sun nearing its apex.
“But I can see the corner of the Temple. It is just a short distance away.”
“Nahum, it will take you as long to get from here to there as it took us to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Unless you can fly over the heads of all these pilgrims. And you would also need to take leave of your father – he may not agree.” They both looked at his father.
“I can’t be late. She told me.”
Nahum turned his head to either side. A river of people extended from the gate of Jerusalem until the entrance to the Temple. Thousands of pilgrims were on a road normally traveled by dozens of people at a time. He noticed Israelites from all the tribes. Benjaminites from north of Jerusalem with their swords on their right side. Asherites from the Galilee carrying large vessels with their distinctive oil. Even Gadites from across the Jordan with their long braided hair. They all bore their fruit offerings. He was surprised to see Egyptians in their white cotton robes and even Phoenician sailors in their short leather tunics.
Nahum did not enjoy the confluence of tribes and visitors. He felt his heart palpitating as the crowd pressed in. They moved forward an inch at a time. At this rate he would never find her. Yael? Yafa? What was her name? If I only knew her name I could get a message to her. Nahum looked up at his father riding above the crowd. He moved up to his horse and tugged lightly on his father’s robe.
“What is the matter, Nahum?”
“Father, I must go ahead.”
“I need to meet someone at the corner of the Temple at noon.”
His father looked at the crowd, at the sun, and at the distance. “You will not make it. Who are you meeting? Why have you not told me of this before?”
“I’m meeting a young woman. We arranged it in Bethlehem.”
“I see. Who is she? What is her name? Which side are you meeting on?”
“She is a girl I’ve met before on our pilgrimages. I think she is a Judean from Tekoa. I’m not sure of her name. We’re meeting on the southeastern side. Please father, I don’t want to lose her.”
“You don’t know her name?” his father looked at him in surprise. After a moment he nodded lightly. “Very well, Nahum. Go with my blessing. Good luck. Meet us by the east side of the Temple entrance when you’re done.”
Nahum attempted to force his way through the crowd. The harder he pushed, the greater the resistance. He thought he would faint from all the bodies pressing against him.
This is no good! I can’t move and I can’t see what’s ahead.
Nahum started jumping in place. With each jump he got a glance of the movement ahead. Pockets of space. Wagons moving slowly. Animals braying among the pilgrims. Merchants offering their wares to the ongoing traffic.
Space formed around him. People moved away from the strange jumping man. Nahum jumped and moved forward. Pilgrims made way for Nahum.
If I can keep this up I might make it.
A wagon stood in front of Nahum. He slipped on fig as he landed behind the wagon. He fell on his stomach and stared at empty space under the wagon. Nahum shimmied on his elbows and knees under the wagon. He continued to crawl under the legs of the horse in front, careful not to knock the hooves. The horse brayed at the sudden interloper but decided to ignore Nahum.
This is fantastic! I’m making great time crawling underneath. Dina? Bracha? I’m coming.
Nahum crawled under four more wagons, a trio of horses and a pair of camels. He ignored the dirt, feces and squashed fruit his garment accumulated. He knew he had made a mistake when he tried to squeeze under a cow. Its udder was low. The cow wailed mournfully as Nahum pushed his way underneath. As Nahum’s back rubbed against the udder, Nahum felt warm milk soaking his already soiled clothing. Nahum held his breath until he escaped the confines of the cow and breathed the fresh air of masses of merely smelly feet around his head.
Nahum glimpsed a promising wagon a few feet away, when a shepherd dog barked madly at Nahum’s intrusion of his airspace. Nahum scrambled away from the dog and turned towards the storefronts. Remains of grapes and raisins fell off Nahum’s garment. The dog was close on Nahum’s heels. The crowd parted for the reeking man and mad dog. Nahum climbed up the side of one of the stores and found himself on a low roof. The shepherd dog continued to bark and then gave up and joined the river of pilgrims.
Nahum could see the city clearly. He was halfway to the Temple. The road approached the Temple from the western side. A large sundial stood on the plaza of the western corner outside the Temple. A few minutes to noon. Nahum walked along the roof of the store and saw it was a short jump to the next roof. He ran along jumping from one rooftop to another.
Rina. Devorah. Whatever your name is. Here I come.
The stores suddenly ended. Nahum climbed down and faced a wall of people. They were all that stood between him and his girl on the eastern side. The wall they formed was thick and strong. From a few feet away he could see that any time there was an open space, it was quickly filled with a body trying to enter the Temple gates. Nahum noticed the fresh garments and bathed skins of the pilgrims. All had made use of the ritual baths and were wearing their best holiday clothes. Nahum was shamed to even approach them in his grimy state. He had dried fig seeds on his hands.
The sundial showed two minutes to noon. Nahum, shaking like olive leaves in the wind, approached the crowd. Lo and behold, the crowd parted. Like Moses at the Sea of Reeds a wall of pilgrims formed to his right and to his left. No one wanted to be touched by Nahum. Nahum kept walking. Movement into the Temple came to a standstill. Those closest to the entrance wanted to ensure they did not come in contact with Nahum. They turned their backs to the Temple entrance until Nahum safely passed. Those to the right of Nahum formed an impenetrable wall holding back the sea of pilgrims from washing over him.
Nahum made it to the other side. There were dozens of couples talking earnestly in front of the southeast corner of the Temple. The girl from the well was standing wide eyed, staring at Nahum as he approached.
“I made it.” Nahum looked at his scratched legs.
“You’re filthy,” the young woman exclaimed.
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s just that there was such a crowd, and I didn’t think I would make it, and I didn’t know if I would find you, and I didn’t remember your name, and then there was this cow and then a dog and then the crowd again…”
“Shush. I know. I saw the whole thing from here. It was incredible. I can’t believe someone would do that to see me.”
Nahum’s cheeks turned the color of pomegranate. “Well, you told me not to be late.”
“I did. But you’re a mess now. Go to the ritual baths, bring your First offerings with your family and then we can meet again afterwards. I’ll be waiting here for you.”
“Great. I’ll go now. But I’ll be back,” Nahum mumbled. “One other thing. I… what…”
“My name is yours, silly,” the girl smiled.
“What do you mean?”
“My name is Nehama. I am the daughter of Zuriel, a clan leader in Judea, from the city of Tekoa. Hurry now, it won’t do for a perspective bridegroom to walk around so dirty.”
“Nehama,” Nahum said in a trance. “Nehama. That’s who I’ve been looking for.”
“Go on, Nahum we don’t have all day.”
Nahum turned around and walked back towards the crowd. He tripped on a pebble, fell on his knees, and picked himself right up again.
* * * * * *
“And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and dost possess it, and dwell therein; that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land that the Lord thy God giveth thee; and thou shalt put it in a basket and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. And thou shalt come unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord thy God, that I am come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us.’ And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord thy God.” Deuteronomy 26:1-4
Tractate Bikkurim Chapter 3. Provides details as to the organization and annual procession of those bringing the First fruits offering.
Shlemiel or more fully “Shlumiel” was the name of a prince of the tribe of Simeon. The sages are disparaging of him as they identify him as none other than Zimri who sinned by having relations with Kozbi and who were then summarily executed by Pinhas. In classical Yiddish, Shlemiel is a klutz, an unlucky clumsy person. A great quote differentiating between a Shlemiel and a Shlemazl: “A shlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup; a shlemazl is the person the soup lands on.”
Nahum and Nehama are male and female versions of “consolation” or “comforting”