March 24, 2024

The Wife in Galilee

By Alice Hoffman

"Bridal Bouquet" by Donna Gordon

In the green sloping hills of my city, the dead and the living walked side by side. Safed was the highest point in the holy land of Israel, a place where we felt that heaven was within reach. Ours was a city of stones and cobbled streets, where the dead outnumbered the living, with 20,000 graves set within a grove of cypress trees. It was there that the doves nested and where angels sat among the stones. On those rare occasions when it snowed, children came to play upon the graves and caught snowflakes on their tongues. 

Our people came from Seville and Aragon, Calabria and Cordova. Many of us could still see the blood that flowed in the streets during the Inquisition when we closed our eyes. Some had been conversos who brought their Catholic teachings with them even though they were allowed to be Jews and practice their original faith in Safed. Their convictions were formed by both beliefs, and they were certain that life persisted after death and that the wicked would suffer in the World to Come even if they had not suffered on earth. Souls on earth could be controlled by evil spirits, and those who became possessed had been known to tear their clothes off and bleat like sheep. They climbed fences in the moonlight and howled into the wind, forgetting they were men and women and becoming beasts in the mountains, speaking dead men’s thoughts in languages they didn’t know. In Spain, there had been nuns who had been taken over by devils until demonologists exorcized the evil spirits, and here too in Safed, there were exorcists who had learned how to rid people of such spirits and ghosts. Those they saved often slept naked in the fresh grass once they were healed, remembering the peace of the earth and the beauty of our days, even as we walked toward death. 

We lived in a world of magic, even though we had ordinary lives; we went to the river to wash our laundry and cooked over hot stones. We toiled and studied and marked off each day in the world we walked through. We believed in shedim, demons, and we understood that there were malevolent spirits that attached themselves to children after they were born. In Spain, women were accused of being witches who stole children and souls, while our own people were said to carry evil within us. We were thought to be devils. It was said that we mixed the blood of Catholics into our bread, and many of us who had been forced to convert fled as soon as we could. We wanted a city in the mountains where evil would disappear into the cold, blue air, where the prayers of the righteous would be heard, where men could follow the way of light.

The year when my life changed was 1573. My father’s small stone house stood behind the cemetery where the scholars were buried, including the great Isaac Luria, who spoke to angels and whose followers called him the Ari, the Lion, for he was a lion to his people, a great scholar of Kabbalah, the study of sacred texts that illuminated the mystery of the Divine. These holy men who brought light to our world, and the many scholars and rabbis whose lives had ended here had their graves painted azure blue, the color of heaven, and we all painted our windows and doors blue as well, to remind ourselves that our world was but a portal to the World to Come. 

More and more of us came here from Ottoman lands, Portugal, and Spain, where we had lived our lives in secret, in cellars and attics, or in churches where we were made to convert. My father had been a Catholic, but his father was a Jew, and now we were Jews once again here in Safed, our sacred and beautiful city. It was said that Jerusalem was fire, Tiberias was water, Hebron was earth, and Safed was air. In Safed, we floated above the rest of the world where people spoke many languages, and ghosts could be found wandering on the winding cobbled streets. I was only a daughter, nothing more, but I studied in secret and read the words of the great Kabbalists, the men who spoke to God and searched for Ein Sof, God’s infinite essence. I understood that just as there was the left hand and the right hand, there was the night and the day. I understood that good walked beside evil, and that they existed side by side, like the dead and the living. 

My mother died when I was born and my father worried about what my future would be. If I were a boy, I might have been a scholar, but my life was made up of chores and fear, and the hours when I ventured beyond the house were few. Women were thought to be easily tempted and must not go out on their own. They needed to be watched over carefully. Blessed art thou, Lord of the Universe, who has not made me a woman, the men would pray every morning. In the eyes of the rabbis, women were considered to be like birds, sitting in the trees, chirping. We were not allowed to come close to the divine through Torah or communal prayer, but men could speak to God directly and they could be protected from evil, even after death.  At the hour when the world requires mercy, the living go and inform the souls of the righteous and cry on their graves, and are worthy of rousing them. They make it their will to cling to them soul to soul.

But what was a woman’s life worth? From the time I was a girl that was the single question I wished to have answered. I often went to the grave of my mother to ask for protection. I went after dark, when no one could see me, and I dug a trench beside the place where she was buried. I lay there, my head aligned with the very spot where I thought her head would be. 

My mother did not speak to me in words. I did not hear her voice, but I felt her spirit and it was still full of kindness and graciousness. I liked to be beside her, soul to soul in the darkness. I went there one last time for advice and for love on my wedding day. My father had died by then, and I had nothing, no way to survive—so I married a fisherman who had already had two wives who had passed on, both of whom came to me in my dreams. They were not angels or shedim; they were simply dead women who wept beside me. They crouched on the carpet and cried when my husband beat me or when he told me not to speak. He did things to me that were only witnessed by the dead women who had become my closest companions. They were beside me when he went to other women and came back with perfume that carried the scent of orange trees, trees we did not have in these mountains where the nights were blue and cold. The other wives told me he had always been this way, cruel and selfish, but they had loved him all the same. The dead women were kinder than I could ever be.

If I had been a murderess, I would have thought of murder. In truth, I thought of it anyway. The soul of a sinner can lodge in many places, in a black dog or in a young woman. I had a long thick braid that I pinned up, for I wished to make myself plain. Let me be invisible, I begged the angels. Let me be free. When my husband went to the sea of Galilee to fish, as he did each month during the full moon, and I knew he would not be back for days, I went into the forest. There I looked for the mushrooms that my father had pointed out to me, the sort he said you must never eat, for they could poison both donkeys and men.  I found them, but I left them there clustered among the cypress trees. The other two wives were with me that night: pale, pure ghosts who warned me what happened to a wife who didn’t obey. Instead of plotting my husband’s death, I prayed; I did so even if angels are said not to listen to women or to even hear their voices. 

And then on the outskirts of the city, I saw lights in the trees. I saw the air of the mountains turn white as if by magic. Snow began to fall, a miracle and a blessing—unusual in the hills of Galilee, but not unknown—and I was certain that the children in the city had already crept from their beds to run through the crooked streets. That was when I knew all I had to do was wait. That was when I realized that no matter what the scholars said, the angels did listen to women. They had heard my voice on this pure, white evening.

My husband disappeared in that storm, on that very night, in the sea of Galilee. The boat he rowed was never found. The marshes were searched by the grown sons he’d had with his first two wives. There were no wooden planks, no nails, no bones, no ropes, no nets. The sons prayed in the sand and waited for my husband’s body to wash ashore, but there was nothing. By then the snow had melted, and in my house, behind my closed shutters painted the color of heaven, I knelt to thank the angels that walked among us. That was when my husband’s sons returned to speak with me, bringing along some holy men to tell me that, despite my husband’s disappearance, I was not a widow, and that I would never be considered to be one until my husband’s body was found. Without proof of his death, I was considered an agunah, chained to my husband, not free to marry again or to ever have a child. The law was originally made for men who were lost in battle, those who had journeyed and never returned but could not be considered dead for there was no proof. But what of the women they left behind? Where was the law to protect them from the curse of a life alone? 

I was trapped. There were no witnesses to my husband’s death and so perhaps he was still alive and might one day return; or perhaps he really was dead and I was left abandoned. I would not be allowed to go on with my life, even if he disappeared for eighty years. He had imprisoned my soul when he was alive, and now he did so from the world beyond our own. I went so far as to hire a fisherman who claimed to be able to find any soul, living or dead. He searched the shoreline for proof that my husband’s sons might have overlooked. Something. Anything. A ring, a bone, a book, a scrap of clothing. 

“Do you want him to be found?” the fisherman asked me. He was young, and too handsome for me to look at, so I didn’t raise my eyes. He wanted to know everything about my husband, and I told him all I could. The names of his sons and his wives, the meals he liked to eat, the curses he used, the dogs he had beaten, the life he had stolen from me, the times he had nearly died at sea, every scar and each memory.

“You still didn’t answer my question,” the fisherman said when I was done. I looked at him then and I suppose he saw inside me. My spirit was trapped, a dove inside my chest.

“As I thought,” he said.

He took the money I paid him and disappeared. I closed my eyes and he was gone, like a dream, and I had no more proof of my husband’s fate than I’d had before.

Every night I went into the graveyard, where the great scholars were buried. I lay down beside the graves of the rabbis and whispered my husband’s sins into the earth. I prayed for the dead to hear me, just as the angels had listened to me. All I wanted was to be free.

I had been told I was beautiful, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. How could I find a husband? All the men in our city knew that if they slept with a married woman, they could be put to death. I went to the rabbis and begged to have my marriage voided  and to be considered a widow, but they told me to leave. There was nothing they could do for me. I needed proof. “Fine,” I said to the holy men. “Proof will walk right into your houses.” It sounded like a curse and perhaps it was, for that same day the rabbis made certain to repaint their doors blue so that they would be protected.

I believe it was the wives who preceded me who answered my prayers. The proof came on a windy day while I was in the graveyard. I had stopped eating by then. I wasn’t sure if life was worth living anymore. I slowly said the prayers backwards, the way witches say you must if you wish to call down vengeance. A young man appeared from the Sea of Galilee, carrying nets with him as any fisherman would. He went directly to the synagogue and called for the wise men. He said that his name was David Ben Hazan, which was impossible, for that was my husband’s name. This man from the sea was so handsome that all the women left their houses and gathered outside the synagogue to watch as the rabbis questioned him. Before I went, I braided my hair. I wore the blue dress I had been married in, blue as heaven, blue as the sea. The two ghost wives followed me, barefoot and in rags, their hands in mine. The sky was black as the sun disappeared, but the air was still fresh because we were at the top of the world. I felt something inside me, it was the dove, it was hope, a dangerous thing for a woman like me to possess. 

I stood with my neighbors, and we listened as the rabbis questioned the stranger. He was possessed, people said, and had come from the land of the dead. He had brought with him the bones of an enormous fish which he laid out before him in the shimmering light. He said he had battled the fish and won before he died in a storm, and that was why the angels had allowed him to occupy this young man’s body. He raised his sleeve and showed a wound he had once received when a fishhook pierced his skin; it was the same wound my husband was known to have. People grew quiet. He recited the names of everyone in my husband’s family and as he did my husband’s sons sank to their knees. He described his first two wives, the ones who were beside me, who both cried the pale tears of ghosts when he said he owed them an apology. He had crossed over and left the house of the dead to come to Safed because he had heard me calling to him. Our eyes met then. His higher soul, his neshamah, could not let me suffer, he told the rabbis, and so he sent the body he now inhabited to be my husband. The women around me were watching me now, so I began to cry for their sake, but crying was the last thing I felt like doing. I felt like dancing. Still, I let them embrace me and weep with me. A great scholar came to sit beside the stranger to practice yihud, a deep meditation in which a clairvoyant can be in touch with the dead. A mystical circle was drawn around them so that the truth could be contained.

The stranger who was possessed announced that my husband’s soul enclothed itself in his heart and raised the sound of his words to his mouth, so that I might have a life of my own. He admitted my husband’s sins, the affairs with women in villages near the sea, the way he tied me to the bed with a rope, the evil spirit within him that had arisen from the darkest place, a place not even God could see. 

That was when the rabbis decided that I was a widow. They had all heard my husband’s soul speaking to them from the land of the dead. If I married another man, my husband could leave Gehinnom, purgatory, and go forward into the World to Come. I would be doing him a favor. It was declared that my husband’s memory should be a blessing, and the women came with me to cleanse my house by placing salt in every corner. They were like birds, opening the windows, sending the message to heaven that I was free. The dove inside me flew away and the ghost wives disappeared. Their husband was gone, and they went to the land of the dead to be beside him.

The man from Galilee was waiting for me that night in the graveyard. I believe he was sent by the angels who sat in the cypress trees. He was not a ghost or a spirit, but a young man who helped people look for bones and wooden planks and nails when sailors disappeared into the sea. That was when I knew that I would not be lost in this broken world, that the left hand and the right hand would be joined, and that I would know love as well as I knew sorrow. I recognized this man before me for what he was: a book of light for me to open, an answer to my prayer, a man who, when he entered the cemetery, was looking for the living, not the dead.

Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including Magic Lessons: The Prequel to Practical MagicThe World That We KnewThe Rules of MagicThe Marriage of OppositesPractical Magic, The Book of Magic, The Red Garden, the Oprah’s Book Club selection Here on EarthThe Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Dovekeepers. She lives near Boston.

For further reading regarding ancient Jewish exorcisms, see: Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism, by J. H. Chajes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

The author wishes to express her gratitude to Shaul Magid for inspiration found in his class on Jewish mysticism at Harvard University.