Friday, January 14, 2011

Reuven's Vow III

Reuven’s father smacked his son’s right cheek, and then the left. The young man stood silently in front of his father, the shame dripping off him like lather from an overworked mule.

“Fool,” his father hissed. “This is what you get from joking… from pranks.”

The rabbi met with Reuven’s father and the elders of Safed. No one knew what to do. The corpse stood in the town square, where the chuppah had been erected, stock still. No one dared approach it. No one went to the marketplace or study house. Life in Safed ground to a halt. The elders poured over the responsa to find a precedent for the case. They could not find one. They would need to convene a rabbinical court to decide the case.

Prominent rabbis from the four sacred cities in the land of Israel, Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, and elsewhere, gathered in Safed. Seventy in all convened, and the Jews of Safed were in awe. Not since the days of the Great Sanhedrin had such an august body been assembled. The court did not meet in the synagogue, for there was not enough room to accommodate the judges and the great crowds of spectators. The large hall in the old crusader castle was used instead.

The rabbis first called Reuven’s two companions. Meekly, they told the story of what happened on that terrible day: their merriment and drinking; the finger jutting out of the ground; the dare that Reuven ben Sosa should place his wedding ring upon it and his compliance; and finally, the horrifying flight from the mad, pursuing corpse. Most of the rabbis on the court, aged men who had heard many strange cases, shook their heads in amazement.

Reuven was then brought in and testified. He confirmed the details of the story. Several members of the court scolded him for his frivolity and arrogance. He hung his head very low.

Finally, and with great trepidation, the court called in the corpse. The clerk raised a quavering voice to summon her, and in a few moments, the body entered through the door. Her shroud trailed behind her like a flitting shadow. The people closed their eyes with their hands, moaned and wailed as the corpse entered. Several people fainted, and had to be carried out. Only with effort was order restored. The great Rabbi Simcha of Jerusalem addressed the corpse first.

“Is it true that Reuben ben Sosa placed a ring on your finger?”

“It is true,” the corpse hissed. It shifted its weight, and its bones rattled like loose stones in a sack.

“Were there two witnesses in attendance,” Rabbi Gershom of Hebron asked, waving a yellow finger aloft.

“Yes, and he recited the vow in accordance with Holy Law,” the corpse answered, and on hearing this, the people cried and moaned again. Rabbi Menachen of Tiberias held up his hand to restore order.

“You must relinquish your claim,” he yelled sternly at the corpse. “You are dead, and the defendant is living!”

“I died before I could marry, esteemed rabbi,” the corpse moaned. “I died before I had my hour of joy. I demand it now, even in my cerements. I demand that the vow be fulfilled and the marriage be consummated!”

A great uproar arose. Some of the oldest rabbis in the court fainted. People tried to revive them with smelling salts and slaps on the face. Men and women tore at their hair and ripped their clothing. That such a thing could happen, they cried, must be birth pangs of the coming of the Messiah!

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