“Indeed, there is always a way,” said the man. “My name is Menahem, by the way.”
“Menahem… he who comforts,” said Hillel, smiling. “The name fits you. I feel a lot better now, since you gave me hope. My name is Hillel.”
“So shall we meet tomorrow morning? Where do you sleep? I will fetch you since you don’t really know your way around Jerusalem. Just be up as soon as the sun rises, we start early at the workshop.”
“That will be very kind, since I will then learn my way there, if your employers would indeed give me work,”said Hillel, and described his landlord’s location. They parted in good will, and Hillel went back to his lodgings. The few coins he had left after paying his landlord afforded him a dinner of dry bread and a few olives, but what of it? Tomorrow will bring him work, he already made a friend, and most important, his way to the academy now seemed clear enough. He was very tired though, and ready to go to bed. His landlord directed him to the flat roof, where people often slept on during the hot summer nights, so Hillel climbed up there, and went to sleep quite happily.
The next morning, before the sun was up in the sky, Hillel rose from the thin pallet that served as a bed, tied his belt around his tunic and put on his sandals that miraculously survived his walk from Babylonia. He would ask Menahem about the baths… they had to have some communal free baths here; after all, so many people came to the holy city and had to perform a ritual bath before entering the Temple. How easy it was for poor people in Babylon to keep clean with all the water of the great rivers flowing everywhere. Judea was so dry by comparison. He went outside and saw Menahem approaching from the end of the narrow, squalid street, mercifully still quiet at this early hour.
“Ready?” asked Menahem. “The carpenter’s place is not too far from the academy.”
“Who is your employer?” asked Hillel, as they started walking.
“He is a Greek,” said Menahem. “Speaks broken Aramaic, but we manage.”
“I can speak Greek,” said Hillel.“We studied it in my secular school.”
“Good,” said Menahem. “He will like it. Any other languages?”
“Well, I speak Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Greek, and Babylonian, with a smattering of some other dialects,” said Hillel. “Languages are very important in our secular schools.”
“Not bad at all, my friend…” said Menahem. “As time goes by, perhaps you can put it to good use in some better paid work. What else did you study in those schools?”
“Natural history, which is all about plants and beasts, astrology, mathematics, history… the usual.”
“It’s not exactly usual here,” said Menahem. “Many of us do not get any secular studies.”
“I forgot to mention the old Sumerian language. We had to learn it so we can study the Law.”
“You studied Law as well?”
“Yes, in Babylon they teach, and still use, the Law of the old king, Hammurabi. It’s very, very similar to Moses’ Laws, but of course, not as good since Hammurabi was not of our religion. I am very interested in the Law, particularly ours.”
“You are extremely well educated,”said Menahem. “You will certainly be able to do something with it
“The secular education was fine, but my aim in coming here was to settle some of the Torah study questions… I’ll tell you all about it, but I have an important question first. Where can I bathe?”
“I can take you to the mikva, our ritual public bath. You’ll need some money, but it’s very cheap.”
“Can we go after work? I feel filthy… I’ll need to wash my tunic, too. The robbers took everything I
“Certainly. I like going to the baths after work myself,” said Menahem. “And we can purchase a second tunic for you on our way to the baths, since the clothes’ merchants sell cheap, used tunics at the market. You will be paid tonight.”
“If your employer really hires me…”said Hillel.
“Why shouldn’t he? He likes it when we bring a man we know. He can then trust you are not a thief.”
“What’s he like, other than being Greek?”
“He is not a bad man. He is a carpenter by trade, quite good at it and well respected. He keeps a side
business of wood chopping from the leftover wood that remains after he and his helpers finish the objects they work on. We chop it to bits and pieces that serve as fuel. There is quite a lot of it since he has many helpers and much work, and on the days we run out, he lets us peddle the fuel for him. I work
about three or four days a week, and the rest of the time I go to the Academy.”
“That would be just right for me,”said Hillel. “I simply can’t wait to start at the Academy. I have heard so much about Shemaya and Avtalion in Babylonia. With all our scholarship, we don’t have such Torah scholars as you have here.”
“Yes, we still have that… probably the only good thing left to us under the Romans took over. But we must not talk about the Romans in the street, I should not want to get you in trouble.”
“That’s fine,” said Hillel, and laughed. “To be honest, I have no interest whatsoever in the rulers, or the ways of kings. Public life simply does not interest me.”
“Nor me,” said Menahem. “I might as well tell you that for a long time I have lived with the Essenes. To a great extent I still believe in their ways, and for them, public life is anathema.”
“The Essenes? You must tell me more about them. I know very little about their ways, and they interest me; from what I heard about them in Babylonia, they are quite mysterious.”
“I will tell you after work. Here we are.” He opened the door to the workshop, and the clean smell of sawn wood welcomed them. The well-lit workshop had a large open door on the other side, leading to a backyard, where several people were at work on some large objects. Tools were hanging on the walls and spread on the large tables, including bow-lathes, bow-drills, saws, mallets, adzes, plummets with lines, chisels, rule sticks, planes, and squares. Hillel even noticed a compass and a marking tool, along with some knives and even a few iron nails on one of the tables, tools that would be considered highly sophisticated even in Babylon. Obviously this man was extremely skilled in not only the usual carpentry of agricultural tools, tables, and household objects, but also in extensive construction work. A short, fat man with a shaved head approached them. He wore a working man’s tunic like Menahem and Hillel, but
there was no doubt in Hillel’s mind that he was the Greek employer.
“Menahem,” the man said in broken Aramaic “large cedar we cut. Good firewood. Go chop.” He looked at Hillel.“New? Want to chop?”
Hillel smiled and answered in Greek. “Yes, Master. I am seeking work.”
“Ah!” said the employer in Greek.“You are a civilized man, since you can speak the only right and proper language. You want to work here? Why not try to look for work with the Romans? They always need translators.”
“I’d rather cut wood, Master, if you will have me. At least for a while… I am new in Judea, I come from Babylon.”
“Very well, we have plenty of work these days. The Romans are building and building... But you are not a carpenter, am I right?”
“No, Master, but I have chopped wood as a day laborer on my way from Babylon.”
“Good. We are building an entire house from cedar. The Roman brought it all the way from Lebanon, he wants the house to smell good. Very rich… so we have so much to chop. You can join Menahem, he will show you around and get you the tools.”
“Thank you, Master.”
“I pay by the end of the day. A tropaik, like I give the others.”
“I am very grateful, Master,” said Hillel, and stepped out into the backyard. A few short steps – but they were the path to his new life in Judea. Hillel was quite intent on the mundane tasks ahead of him as he balanced two or three axes to choose the one that suited his strength, but a vague, but highly satisfying thought lingered in his mind. If his aim was right, if his purpose was clear, then he would always find, or be given, the means to pursue them. There was never a real need to think about tomorrow – it would take care of itself.