The Wedding Night

My translation from Ruth Calderon’s
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

In the West [that is, in Israel] when a man married a woman, everyone would then ask him: “Found or find?” He in turn would respond with one of two words, both taken from verses in the Bible: “Find” as in the verse, “I find a bitterness worse than death in women,” or “found” as in the verse, “One who found a woman found goodness.” (B. Brachot 8a)

A warm clay candle rests in my palm, the weight of the oil passing from the front to the back of my hand with a quick flick of the wrist. In the evening the oil was congealed, with a small warm puddle of liquid gathered just around the flame. Now the entire candle is warm oil — the flax wick is light and floating and the flame appears as if suspended in midair.

The room is cold and the man standing across from me has his head buried in a notebook. The pages are tied together haphazardly. He reads while half-asleep. Occasionally the chant of his learning breaks forth from his throat; then he plunges back into quietness like a whale diving back into the ocean. It is the second watch of the night. This man is my new husband. This is not how I imagined my wedding night; this is not what the women told me to expect when they stood over me to remove the hair from my body with oils and lime. Why did they bother? What is the use of my soft skin, my plucked eyebrows, my colorful nightgown? Outside cats and beggars devour the remains of the wedding feast. If only everyone knew the real reason I went under the wedding canopy. I am a pillar of fire, not a bride.

And my mother, what would she say? At the beginning of the evening, I was so happy. My wedding dress was tight against my waist, a veil hung from my head, and a circle of candles illuminated the courtyard like stars fallen down to earth. Under the wedding canopy, under the dome of the sky, I was enveloped in the happiness of everyone around me and in the display of honor towards the family I was joining. I did not feel homesick. I was excited as if I had found a lost object by the roadside. Familiar expressions of blessing fell upon my ears, and during the wedding benedictions I mustered the courage to look at my bridegroom. I had not seen his face since our engagement. I found him attractive. Then there was dancing, and when he danced with the men his eyes shone. He captured my heart with his awkward steps.

The groomsmen accompanied us until our rooms, and for a while we could still hear them singing the familiar wedding song: “With neither eye make-up nor blush nor braids in her hair, she radiates grace.” I thought that he had chosen to remain silent until we could no longer hear the voices of the merrymakers outside. I also remained silent. After the voices had faded off into the distance, I sat on the bed in my wedding dress. I was secretly grateful that he was not too close to me, and I was pleased that he did not seize upon me suddenly. But then I grew flustered, unsure what to do. Beside the wall, between the shadows, I took off my dress, folded it carefully, and rested it beside the bed. I climbed into bed and covered myself with a sheet. I knew the reason a bride enters under the wedding canopy. I lay on my back and waited for a sign. He took off his clothes slowly, and folded them in a neat pile under the bed. The light of the candles illuminated the two of us between the shadows. I unfastened the barette in my hair and peeked out from between the sheets. The smell of jasmine filled the room. “Bring a candle so I have light,” he said evenly. Was I supposed to get up?

While I was lying there, my nakedness was covered and enveloped. My body disappeared in the bed and only my face was visible. If I stood up, I would bare my flesh; he would see me from all sides. He waited. His prayer shawl functioned for him as a sort of nightgown. Its whiteness was soft and pleasant against the dark night. I heard once that in the Torah scroll belonging to Rabbi Meir, it was written in Genesis that God dressed Adam and Eve in “garments of light” instead of “garments of leather.” Now I saw a dim light from the whiteness of the candle. As in a dream, I stood on my feet and took the candle from the column in the wall. I approached him, the candle in my hand. The candle defined a small circle of light in which we could see: Cheeks, lips, eyes. He extended a strong but gentle arm and positioned me as he wanted me, facing him. I took the candle and stood before him. He picked up his book and continued learning.

The hours passed. I lost track of time. I stood with the candle in my hand, my mind wandering back to our wedding earlier that night. All evening, my eyes had been drawn to his mother. When I sat with the women, covered in a veil, I saw her making her way uncomfortably through the wave of well-wishers and guests which rose up around her. Her beauty was still pronounced, her eyes bright. She carried herself proudly. The toughness and anger from her long days of loneliness did not disappear when her husband returned home and she became, once again, the wife of the great rabbi, his footstool. She did not exude warmth like my mother, but I thought I could grow to love her nonetheless.

All through my childhood, I heard the stories: How he betrothed her in secret, and how her father cut her off from his possessions when Rabbi Akiva traveled far away to study Torah. My mother and the other women, when they would sit together sorting lentils, used to talk about her sadness. They, too, would wait at home for Torah scholars who spent most of their days in the study house. Rabbi Akiva’s celebrated return should have compensated for the hard, lonely hours, between a crying baby and an unlit stove, with no adult company except for the neighbors.

It seemed to me that my husband was much more the son of his mother than his father. Would the son also devote himself to study like his father? Would I remain a “living widow,” raising children who would not recognize their father? Now, in the room, I steal a glance at his book. Back when we were young, my grandfather used to reward us with nuts when we could recite a chapter by heart. I was good at such recitations, before they shut me out of the study house, along with the other girls. “Rabbi Akiva says: One lights a candle from another’s flame; one gains light, and one stays the same.” How do you light one candle from another? I am embarrassed by what I am picturing in my imagination. But his eyes are in his book; he does not see me.

The candle is no more than a spoonful of oil. The wick juts out from the lamp and the smell of the burning olive oil is pleasant. Will the oil last? I do not know how much time he still needs, but it is clear to me that I am responsible for the candle. I shift my hand gently to conserve the oil as best I can.

Maybe I have forgotten something about how brides are supposed to act? Did I do the right thing in removing my gown? Am I supposed to say something? I try to remember my mother’s words. When she came to speak to me about the wedding night, I saw how embarrassed she was and had mercy on her. She averted her glance and said, “Anything a man wants to do with his wife, he may do – you be good to him, and then all will be good for you.” She went on about the subject of the mother-in-law, and spoke about pain. She instructed me to recognize that he would be preoccupied. “A groom is exempt from reciting the bedtime Shma on the first night.”

Now everything is a riddle or a big mistake. Maybe I ruined my marriage? Maybe I will not be found a virgin? My heart is pounding; such things have been known to happen. A girl may lose her virginity by means of a beating or a plank of wood. I once heard of someone who stained her clothing with the blood of a bird to redeem herself with her blood.

I look at him, his eyes glued to his page. My hand trembles. A stream of oil drips behind the candle, towards the wick, and the candle is nearly extinguished. And maybe he too does not know what to do? After all, he is still a boy. Is he waiting for a sign from me? I come closer to him, holding the candle so he can see, following his movements with the book. We sway in place, almost dancing. My nakedness through the sheet does not ruffle him. We are like two small boys who have undressed before bed. When the chanting once again escapes his lips, his voice is pleasant, on key.

Morning comes and we are still standing there. I look at him in the first light: His face is lovely. His eyes are honey-colored with flecks of green. When I pretend to fall asleep, my eyelashes flutter and he casts a cautious glance in my direction. Examining me. When I open my eyes as if I have just awoken, his eyes retreat back between the letters.

When the sun rises higher in the sky, I put down the candle. The oil has nearly run out and the wick is resting on the underbelly of the wet candle. The mouth of the candle is filthy and disgusting, encased with charcoal. My hands are also filthy, and I wipe them on the clothing that should have redeemed me with my blood. One way or another, my clothes have become stained. I sit back on the bed, and it seems I fall asleep. When I open my eyes, I do not see my husband. Through the shutters, striped rays of light penetrate the room. I hear his father’s voice: “Found or find?” I listen with intense concentration.

“Found,” says his sweet voice in the night, and his words fall softly like morning dew.

“Amen,” I murmur, and sink back to sleep.

This story is based on a passage from Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 18, translated here:

A story is told about the son of Rabbi Akiva who got married.
What did he do? When he brought his bride home,
He stayed up all night reading the Torah portion.
He said to his wife: Hold a candle and illuminate my page.
She held a candle and stood before him.
She illuminated his page until morning came.
In the morning, Rabbi Akiva approached his son.
He said to him: “Found or find?”
He said to him: “Found.”

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