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Within My Walls: Chapter 11

“A few months ago, a sage came from Salonika. He brought his wisdom, and he also brought along this song"


When Bilhah walks into the scribes’ quarters the next morning, Yasemin hands her a small piece of parchment.

“Read it and begin to devise a response,” she orders.

Bilhah looks up at the woman. Her skin is smooth and youthful, but she has crow’s feet around her eyes. How long has she lived here? She looks down at the parchment. The text is in Arabic.

She glances up again, tries to read the expression on Yasemin’s face, but it is expressionless. The room is suddenly hot. Yasemin’s shadow lies across the parchment, and even when Bilhah looks down, she feels the woman’s presence, a warmth, the faintest sound of her breathing in and out, the rustle of her silk dress as she stands, waiting for Bilhah’s response.

Her mind works furiously. She could take a pen and pretend to begin, try to begin, but the letters, even with the lessons from Aisha — are still a jumble in her mind. She could bend over the page for a minute or two and then feign illness: a fainting fit or start clutching her stomach. She could excuse herself, slip the parchment up her wide sleeve, and run in search of Aisha.

Yasemin does not move. She stands over her, waiting.

Someone standing over her. The shadow of a person, looming up beside her, slowly congealing into leathery skin and dark eyes and wide, strong palm. The sudden smell. Papa — oil, ink, stale sweat, anger. Her own hailstorm of fear and fury, fury and fear. A spark of recklessness at the thought of defying him, running, hurling something, anything. The deadness that spread over her limbs, that stopped her from running, speaking even, until even breath was unnatural.

Bilhah grasps her hands together to stop them shaking. She swallows and looks up and gives Yasemin a wide smile. “Perhaps you can tell me some of the background of the piece, so that I can compose a response that is commensurate to the writer’s station.”

Yasemin dips her head. “Of course. That is a wise request.”

Her voice is not harsh. It is low and mellifluous. But that may be misleading.

Yasemin continues. “This was written by none other than the Sultan himself.”

“I see.”

“But as you will see, it does not concern itself with laws and military matters, or with matters of administration. It is a matter of the heart, and that is why it is here, among the women’s quarters.”

Bilhah places her finger on the parchment, moving it along the line. Right to left. Like the Holy Tongue. Sultan Suleiman the lawmaker. Suleiman the Magnificent. He is more a deity than a man.

She takes another break. Soon enough, Yasemin will leave her in peace. And then she will think of something, anything. And in the meantime, she will make as if she is reading, pausing over certain words so as to consider its meaning and nuances and associations.

Dizziness comes over her. She could, in truth, clutch at her head or pound her chest, for the pain fills her. If she fails, she may be thrown out of the palace. And for all its complications, she is safe here.

It is said that her caravan of new odalisques has already found favor with the senior women here. They are unlikely to want her to be killed or banished.

What would he have written, this great man?

Her fingers reach down to her money pouch, and she fingers the tiny charm cat. It is useless to her now, but what weapons does she have, exactly?

Yasemin does not move.

Bilhah keeps her eyes trained on the letters. The black squiggles begin to blur, and she blinks, praying that their meaning will suddenly rise up in her mind, a miracle of old to tell over to future generations. It does not happen.

Eventually, Yasemin’s hand — her long, slim fingers, with fingernails painted a pearly pink and buffed to a shine — stretches into Bilhah’s line of vision. She picks up the parchment and reads aloud:

My springtime, my daytime, my laughing leaf…

My plants, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…

My Constantinople, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia

My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan

My woman with eyes full of mischief…

I’ll sing your praises always

“A poem, composed by the Sultan himself for his wife Hurrem Sultan. He writes to her regularly from his military campaigns and prides himself on his turn of phrase as much as his deftness with a sword.”

Bilhah blinks. Yasemin has discovered that she does not know to read Arabic, after all. She will brand her a liar, and she is right.

“You are surprised, are you not?”

Oh, she is. Her heart beats. She closes her eyes and waits. For the hand to clasp around her arm and tug her, pull her, drag her out of the room. When she is outside, she will be hurled onto the ground, her head knocked against the marble. What can she do? What will she do?

“Surely you imagined the Sultan with a sword in one hand, and a map of the world in the other, eyeing his future conquests as he sat astride a white stallion. A sword and a book of poetry. But not only poetry, a poem of tenderness — for eyes full of mischief.”

She wills herself to look up and look at the woman’s face, her eyes. She raises her eyes. The woman’s face looks calm. Is that a slight quiver in her hand? Is she readying herself to strike? It does not seem so. Perhaps it is just the heat, or tiredness, or some other cause that is making her quiver.


“Or perhaps you are surprised that I discovered your secret.” The woman leans down and speaks in an undertone.

Bilhah does not answer.

“Why did you lie to me?”

Bilhah looks up at her, incredulous. “Is not lying the more obvious path? Telling the truth invites danger.”

“Sometimes. But usually, it is lying that invites danger. Imagine if I decided to punish you, now.”

“But otherwise, I would have been given work in the kitchen or the laundry, dispensable.”

“But you would have shown us your talents and skills, and we would have moved you out of there.”

The woman looks at her, and her eyes are a mystery, but they perhaps also hold some compassion, some gentleness. “There are some people you can trust here in the palace. I am one of them.”

Bilhah finds sudden tears well up. She blinks them away.

Yasemin continues. “And it is important to trust. Otherwise, we become like the precious stones that all the ladies like to wear — we are harsh and sharp and full of sharp edges, with no human heart. There is human kindness here, as well as cruelty.”

She puts her hand on Bilhah’s shoulder. “Continue your lessons in Arabic. And in the meantime, there is other work to be done.”


Further. She does not like to ride at great speed, not on this rocky terrain, but she tries to go higher. The horse resists her — it does not want to step over boulders or struggle up inclines, and a brief thought flits through Leonora’s head: What of the way back? But she will dismount and struggle down by foot, rather than be lurched forward. Although the horse’s footing is steady, she knows that.

She halts for a moment and looks down. Far below, Tzfat is spread over the top of the mountain, but from here it is a tiny place — not that it is large in real life. But from here, it appears as a small cluster of houses surrounded by hills and valleys.

Is it enough? The wool factory will create 30 new jobs. Thirty new families to settle here in Tzfat, and if they each have children, then Tzfat will begin to grow. And it needs to grow — it needs to be a center of Torah study and chesed and young, pure neshamot for it to be the fitting place to introduce the Mashiach to the world.

The Redeemer will appear in the Galilee.

It is not just a prophecy that has spread, like wildfire, through Tzfat and Teveria. There are midrashim, writings, cryptic statements that are starting to make sense in the light of the expulsion. She asked Amram to find them, note them, and he duly returned, parchment in hand, covered in his cramped writing that she has been telling him to improve since he was a child. He always ignored her, and now she sits every night, puzzling over the tiny letters.

But the wool factory, for now, is beset by problems. The Merino sheep are who knows where, rocking across some ocean, and she is certain it is not the Mediterranean. She only hopes that at least some of them arrive alive.

All of these problems are normal, of course, and she should only be grateful that the soup kitchen has relocated from her home and is now providing 60 portions a day. She urges her horse up the steep incline. She should be patient and allow all the pieces to slowly fall into place. But there is a reason for this factory. Why is the Final Redemption mangled in wool and covered over in tufts of fleece?

As she reaches the summit, she catches sight of two figures, walking slowly across the other side of the hill. She stops and stares. One of the men is young, wearing ragged clothing and no shoes. The other is elderly. They appear to be deep in conversation. Where have they come from? She wonders, vaguely, if the old man will need help in returning home.

But he does not look like he is worried, although he walks with a definite limp. As she tugs the reins and turns back toward home, Leonora wonders how the elderly man ever came to be so far away from civilization.


“Come, it is the Sabbath tonight.”

Eliyahu feels the muscles in his neck tense. He does not need Yannai to tell him that Shabbat is imminent. It is the most beautiful and the most difficult day of his week. Before sundown, he lights two clay cups of oil, so very different from Tzipora’s brass candlesticks that it brings up no sorrow, only discussions from the Mishnah about piercing eggshells and filling them with oil, so that it drips into earthenware vessel, extending the light: drip, flicker, burn.

He makes Kiddush on a cup of fermented grape wine and makes challahs from barley flour. They are small and hard, but it does not matter, for when he has swallowed his bread, he begins to sing.

Before he left Tzfat, every week brought a new zemer to sing on Shabbat. Men — some scholars, some poets, and some ordinary people like him — would try their hand, and in one beit knesset, Arvit on Leil Shabbat was followed by a new zemer, taught line by line, so that the men would return home and teach it to their families. Sometimes, he and Tzipora would walk through the alleyways, and house by house, they would hear the little children singing that week’s composition.

Most of these would not stand the passage of time, he guessed then, and he knows that now, for although he sings each week, the words are mixed up in his mind, and some of the melodies have merged into one. Still, he sings, improvising here and there, for the songs talk of rest and guarding Shabbat and crowning the Almighty as King of the Universe, as the holder of the keys of peace.

He sings until the flames flicker out and the shadows lengthen and darkness falls, and it is the only time in the week that he looks to the sky and sees the endless stars and knows that, in Heaven, the Almighty lights Shabbos candles for each of His children. And once a week, it is enough.

This week, he lights the flames and recites the brachah, and turns to see Yannai’s face. There is no pain there, now, no creased forehead, just a glow in his eyes that reflects that of the Shabbat lights. He smiles, slowly. It is the first Shabbat he has spent with another human being in two years, and his heart feels suddenly lighter.

“Let us sing Lecha Dodi,” Yannai says.

“What is this?”

He usually spends the time before nightfall whispering the words of Tehillim.

“Lecha Dodi. Ah. You have not heard of it, I see.”

He shakes his head.

“A few months ago, a sage came from Salonika. He brought his wisdom, and he also brought along this song. Since he came, we all sing it to welcome Shabbat.” He tilts his head, thinking. “Quite wondrous, really, that it is sung in every beit knesset in Tzfat. They agree on a good tune, if nothing else.”

He begins to sing. “Lecha dodi, likrat kallah…”

Eliyahu watches and listens.

Yannai breaks off. “They say it was a wedding gift from the rav to his bride.”

Yannai continues to sing, and Eliyahu tries to absorb the tune, so that soon he can hum along.

“Mikdash Melech… too long have you dwelled in the valley of weeping.”

Yannai reaches out and grasps Eliyahu’s hand.

“Awake! Awake! Utter a song.”

A song. Not a mosaic of lost words. Not a cacophony of chaos and emptiness. A song, a string of notes to form a melody.

“Your G-d will rejoice over you, like a groom’s rejoicing over his bride.”

Lecha dodi. A wedding gift. From a sage to his bride.

There is something in this song. It is not only another zemer about Shabbat. As Yannai sings, Eliyahu closes his eyes and begins to hear it. The way the words are an echo of something that thrums in his heart, but he didn’t know it until now.

That there is weeping and there is desolation but there is also a bridegroom who awaits, to shelter his bride.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 799)

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