Celebrating a Cycle Completed, Starting Anew

One Woman’s Take on the Temple Librarian, Treasurer of Texts for the People of the Book

By Angela Himsel

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
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Over drinks with a leading Bible scholar and a ketubah designer, the conversation segued seamlessly from little-known female prophets of biblical times to Temple prostitutes and then to whom we would choose to be if we could travel back into antiquity. The Bible professor said a scribe; the ketubah designer said a weaver, and I proclaimed, “The Temple librarian. If I’d been the librarian, there would be no books lost to history. Imagine: ‘Jeremiah, your book is overdue! That’s 3 shekels for the Lord!’”

My fascination with librarians goes way back (albeit not three millennia) to the librarian of my childhood. She wore short, short skirts and sported poofy, brittle-bleached blond hair and talon-like, blood-red fingernails. To a bookworm with a rainbow stash of Bonne Bell lip gloss, it was hard to think of what could be better than teetering around all day on platform sandals among rows and rows of books.

Librarians may or may not have been fashion icons in Temple times, yet I imagine their work was exhilarating and important, for it was in the Temple that the Ark of the Covenant — as well as the papyrus scrolls of the various books the Bible now comprises — was stored.

In that repository in the Temple, the scribes and priests came to pore over issues of law and tradition and maybe even snicker furtively at the sexual imagery in the Song of Songs. One such high priest, Hilkiah, is described in the second book of Kings as discovering the book of the Law while the First Temple was being renovated under King Josiah’s rule. To Hilkiah’s dismay, he found that, according to this document, the Israelites had not been keeping the law properly. Whoops! When he brought this to King Josiah’s attention, all heck broke loose. King Josiah consulted the prophet of the time, a woman named Huldah, whose husband, incidentally, was Shallum, the “keeper of the wardrobe.”

Huldah proclaimed that the kingdom would fall, but not in Josiah’s time, since it wasn’t his fault that they hadn’t been keeping the law. In my opinion, Hilkiah should have kept his mouth shut, put the scroll of Deuteronomy back on the top shelf where it belonged and left well enough alone. If God had not noticed the Israelites’ lapse, then what was the point in bringing it to His attention?

Which brings us to the books of the Bible currently in our possession. On Simchat Torah, which falls on Sunday, we celebrate having completed a yearlong cycle of reading. Each year, the debates rage on as to who wrote them, when and where. Is this the original Book, or did some Shmulik, while gluing or repairing torn papyrus texts in the Temple one day, realize that there were a number of scrolls retelling the story of Genesis, each with a slightly different twist? So why not patch them all together, Shmulik might have asked himself, and make the story more cohesive? Is it possible that, from some anonymous librarian or scribe the various holy texts were redacted together into the Book that we have today and that the original books from which this redactor worked are long gone?

With the destruction of the Second Temple, considered God’s dwelling place on earth, God’s presence was perceived as having been transferred into the portable books Jews carried with them across continents and countries. The wandering of the Jewish people is not a new concept. In fact, it harkens back to Moses and the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. Sukkot, which is almost over, not only commemorates those 40 years of exile and homelessness, but also recalls the fact that the Tabernacle, which was the portable dwelling place of God, was dedicated in the desert during this holiday. Subsequently, both the First and the Second Temples were dedicated during Sukkot. And so, while Sukkot reminds us of the temporary nature of life and of our dependence on God, it also reminds us of the continuity of our text. Words are our shelter, our tabernacle, the place where God meets man.

This year, on Simchat Torah, my hair will be somewhat lighter, and I will probably wear high heels as I dance around the Torah, surrounded by paper. Finishing the last section of Deuteronomy (thank you, Hilkiah!), and then beginning again from Genesis, it is as if we are rededicating ourselves to the books stored in the Temple.

It was not possible to protect the Temple from destruction, but somehow we have protected our texts so that the words have been passed down from one generation to another. Not the Cossacks, the Spanish Inquisitors, the Nazis or any of the other antisemites throughout the ages have managed to obliterate our books, though God knows they have tried. During the 20th century, books from the great libraries of Eastern Europe were saved by devoted Jews who sent them to America for safekeeping. Wherever we go, our books come with. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to go into space, proved that the Torah would go with us even, sadly, to our death, when he brought with him a Torah that had been smuggled out of Bergen-Belsen. I have no doubt that another Torah scroll is being recopied by a modern-day scribe to make up for that one, lost in the cosmos.

As to what happened to the original books housed in the Temple, who knows? Maybe they were burned, along with the Temple, or some Dead Sea sect carted them off to a cave. Perhaps they are still buried among the rubble, within the rocky earth of Jerusalem, and will be dug up in the future by a bulldozer creating a shopping center.

All of which kind of leads me back to the marriage contract, or ketubah, and cultic prostitution (which some cynics would say are synonymous). In temples across the Far East, “sacred prostitutes” were a part of cultic worship, and their fertility was said to ensure a good harvest, loosely speaking. In the Torah, “sacred prostitution” is roundly condemned (although there is a fuzzy incident with Tamar and Judah, but some people are sensitive about that, so we won’t talk about it). Instead, the Torah contends that one’s prayers to God will ensure that one will vanquish one’s enemies, have a bountiful harvest and win at Bingo.

Alas, these days, it is difficult to find a good temple prostitute, though in retrospect, it might have been a far more entertaining career choice for me than a librarian. Texts versus sects.

But the 2,000-year-old ketubah, written in Aramaic and originally intended to protect the wife lest her husband decide willy-nilly to divorce her, has proven enduring. It has reinvented itself in the intervening years, and today gay couples have joined heterosexual couples in insisting that a ketubah be part of their marriage ceremonies.

Thus, a scribe. Thus, a librarian. And thus, a weaver — these words, a redactor’s attempt to weave together the past and the present, history and archaeology, faith and perseverance, Bingo and Sukkot, texts and sects and, well, all of these things that make life the big jumble of wonderful and mysterious things that it is.

Angela Himsel is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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