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Within My Walls: Chapter 6    

The words are hidden now, but the answer is clear: Moneylending to those of the Christian faith is permissible


When he has finished eating the barley that Eliyahu has prepared, the old man — he has introduced himself as Yannai — struggles to his feet. He is smaller than he looked on the grass, more bent over. On the grass he looked ageless despite the white beard, but now he looks old. His eyes are set deeply in his face, so it is hard to read them, but they are still bright — now with curiosity and now with pain.

“Come, Harav Yannai, I will help you on your way. You are coming from Tzefat, is that true? You have wandered far to end up in this forgotten place.”

Yannai grips his arm, his hand trembling. “Oh, I do not believe I got lost. Well, I did not know my way, certainly. But I was led here, from above. Though I am no rav, and I would thank you to call me by my name.”

“You lost your way,” Eliyahu repeats firmly.

“Do you not pray? Do you not say the blessing, who prepares the footsteps of man?”

Eliyahu looks upward. The sun catches his face and warms it. “When I say those words, I think of the footsteps that brought me here, to the Holy Land.”

“Where from?”


“And before?”

He waves his hands. “Too many steps to count.”

Yannai nods. “Like many of us.”

“But now, let us have you stepping toward home.”

Eliyahu picks up his stick and hands it to the old man. With Eliyahu’s arm around him, Yannai takes a slow, shaky step forward. His eyes close in pain.

Eliyahu pauses. Across the meadow they will come to a steep decline. They will both need two arms and two legs to scramble down the rocky slope. “You said that nothing hurt you.”

Sheker. I said that everything hurt me.”

“But look at your leg…”

Yannai leans against an olive tree, and Eliyahu kneels down and examines his right leg. It is bruised and badly swollen. It could be broken or fractured. Really, Yannai should stay and rest with him, while he recovers.

The thought fills him with unease. If only he had a donkey. He would gladly sacrifice it to get Yannai home safely. But he has only six sheep and two hens. No help at all.

Perhaps if he binds it.

Eliyahu picks a handful of tall grass and braids it into a wide bandage, which he wraps around Yannai’s leg. The old man winces as the bandage touches his wound.

“Come, Yannai. I’ll see you on your way, and you will make it home easily.”

They take two more steps. Yannai leans heavily on him, his breathing shallow, his face squeezed in the effort. Yannai lifts his hand.

“Stop.” He sits down on the ground. “It hurts.”

Eliyahu nods. “I will brew you something. I have herbs and plants that will stop the pain. You will drink it down, and I will give you some extra for your journey.”

Yannai shakes his head. “I will drink it, somehow, and it will ease the pain so I can walk, but then the sun will begin to set and you will wave goodbye, asking me to reassure you that all will be well so that you can sleep easily. But I will not do so, for I will be stuck in the dark and the wild, and there are wolves here at night, and I do not want my bones picked at by vultures.”

He says it almost gleefully, as if this is a game.

Perhaps it can spread from person to person, this weakness. Eliyahu feels his legs grow heavy and a great weary slowness spread through his limbs.

“What do you want?”

“I want you to take me home until I return to good health.”

“But…” He closes his eyes. “My food has no salt. And I have no honey.”

Yannai reaches up and pats him on the arm.

“Why so afraid, young man? I will teach you to find some for me.”

Leonora blinks once, twice. The plans she is studying — bringing in Merino sheep for their superior wool and establishing a wool factory, powered by the spring water — are good, yet need correction. But her eyes. They keep filling and blurring, and suddenly, she is in Spain again.

There is a knock at her door. A manservant informs her that there is an emissary here, from the rabbis of the town, regarding the profits from her moneylending.

It is not one emissary, but three. They are seated at the dining room table with Yishai and Amram beside them. She takes her place at the end, and they drop their heads modestly.

On the table in front of them is a scroll. Good. Yishai must have found the responsa.

One of the men speaks. “Your sons”—he points in particular to Yishai, and that is as it should be—“have shown us the responsa that you received.”

Yishai reads aloud: The holy flock of Israel, the first fruits of His harvest, who are dispersed among the nations but whose souls long for the house of the L-rd feel the yoke of the nations and must constantly propitiate them with pieces of silver.

He continues, and in her mind, Leonora reads it along with him, so familiar is she with the words.

It was thus decided that a few designated people may fulfill the commandment, “you may deduct interest from loans to those who are strangers to you.” So that they may support themselves, their families, and their communities.

Yishai releases the scroll and it rolls together. The words are hidden now, but the answer is clear: Moneylending to those of the Christian faith is permissible.

The men begin speaking among themselves. There was a takanah, one says. But there are different opinions. And this woman is using the money for tzedakah.

Leonora looks from one to the other. If this halachic opinion is not good enough for them, she will find someone even more eminent. She will send messengers to the greatest of Egypt, to the esteemed beit din of Salonika…

The men fall quiet, and one of them looks down at his fingers, splayed on the table. “We can accept this ruling.”

She nods, relief filling her.

“But there is another question here. Why have the people turned away from you when you have just arrived? Why have they reacted in this way?”

She keeps her voice low and controlled. “It is simple. They do not like me feeding their children. My philanthropy shows all the things that they do not have.”

The emissary pulls on his beard. “Do you think so? For they do not react this way to everyone who tries to help their children. There is a physician who comes here from Jerusalem once every two months. He treats all of the children for no cost, but sends a list of his expenses to a wealthy man in Alexandria, who remits his expenses.”

He pauses. “He puts ointment into eyes that are almost blind and bandages wounds and constructs splints for broken legs. The men do not pelt him with soft oranges. They do not gather at his rest place and threaten him.”

“What is Kevod Harav trying to say?”

“People do not like change. And the feeling is that you have come to this town not necessarily to be part of it, but to make it part of you. To change it, transform it, perhaps into your little kingdom. The people do not like this.”

She should have asked Ines to be here with her. Ines is the only one who will support her. Even if she were just dusting the wooden chest or polishing the candlesticks. Yishai and Amram can do nothing for her.

The second emissary speaks up. He is younger than the first, his voice is clipped. “Why have you come here, Donna Leonora? This is a question the leaders of this place have been discussing. For you could have settled comfortably in Salonika or Istanbul or Damascus. But you have come to our little place. What do we have for you? There is a little commerce, but not much. There are many stones, there are harsh winds and cruel rain.”

“That is not all there is.” Her voice is an undertone.

“True, there is a scent of lavender and the sound of the Torah being studied day and night. There are those here who live with their feet on the cobblestones and their heads above the clouds. They look at the world and they do not see water, a clay vessel, a mountain. They see the goodness of the Almighty. They see the sparks of holiness, vibrating, waiting to be released so that they can spread some more light into this world.”

She hesitates. What would it be like to tell over all her plans? But she does not yet know whom she can trust. And they have come here in suspicion.

“There are changes taking place in the world. Rectification.” Dare she say it? “The shiverings of redemption. And that will start here, in the holy land.”

The first emissary speaks up. “You can fix the world in anger or you can fix the world in love. Which one you choose will make a difference to the way that you react when you fail, as we all will fail, as the rectification of the world is not something for one man or woman alone, but for all of us, in all of our different ways, a great mosaic of both gray and green, burgundy and dun, all of what those colors mean and symbolize to all of us.

“It is easy to dismiss these people who came against you. But they are only doing something that the others do not dare. They sense that you bring change, and they want to know if it is holy change — or something different.” He bows his head and chooses his words slowly.

“We have been through difficult travails, Donna Leonora. Events have been confusing. There has been a hester Panim that we have never known before. The church has spread its pollution in many ways.”

Anger rises, filling her, warming her, giving strength to her voice. She stares at him, hoping that he will feel the force of her gaze and look up to meet it. “In 1492, my parents were not among those who were saved by uttering falsehoods. They left their homes and all they knew and traveled to Portugal along with the rest of the righteous.”

“And in Portugal?”

“When the decree came that all had to convert, my parents left on a shipping boat. In the middle of the night, in the storms of winter, they put their lives in the hands of the Almighty and traveled away, so as not to compromise their faith in Him.”

The man nods. She can feel Yishai and Amram’s gaze.

“And you traveled with them, Donna Leonora?”

Leonora swallows. “No.” She folds her fingers together, clutching them until it hurts. “No. I was left behind.”

Outside, an owl calls, and the wind rustles through the trees.


Bilhah rises from her sleeping mat and carefully wends her way to the entrance of the sleeping hall, far from where she has a place. The girls are all asleep; eyes closed, chests moving gently up and down.

She must choose carefully and wisely and pray that her fingers are nimble and her breath quiet.

She kneels down next to a girl in the first row. Her blanket has been thrown off, and her purse, tied around her waist with a ribbon, winks at Bilhah. There could not be a finer invitation.

She does not talk, but in her mind, declares: “Forgive me, I beg. I do so only because I value my life.”

She makes her fingers as still as the night air and when she moves, carries the stillness with her. Slowly, her fingers untie the knot at the top of the purse. The girl stirs. Bilhah holds her breathe. The girl stretches and rolls over. The purse disappears underneath her.

Bilhah moves on. The next girl’s purse is covered by a blanket, but she wears a loose gold bracelet, hung with charms. It would not be hard to simply tug the bracelet off the girl’s wrist. She looks carefully at her face. Who is she? Bilhah may be mistaken but this girl works in the laundry. She will be a deep sleeper.

But… Bilhah stares at the bracelet. It would be instantly identified.

Everyone would know it had been stolen.

Bilhah hesitates for a moment, and then, with nimble fingers, she slips the bracelet off the girl’s wrist. She does not even stir. Quickly, Bilhah pulls off a charm and returns it, so it lies draped over the girl’s arm.

She looks at the charm: a gold cat with a tiny diamond eye. It must be worth something.

She moves on, becoming swifter as she pulls coins out of pockets — just one or two from each, nothing that would ever be missed. Apart from the cat, of course.

And then Bilhah places the money in the small silken purse tied around her own waist and lies down on her sleeping mat.

It is enough. It should be enough to pay for a girl to teach her Arabic. And she might even be able to keep the tiny cat for herself.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 794)

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