My translation from Ruth Calderon’s Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)
Long-limbed Choma crossed the entrance hall of the courthouse with purposeful strides. Her thick mass of black hair stubbornly peeked out of her kerchief to see what was going on in the world. Even now, when dressed in black mourning clothes, she was enveloped in the same loveliness — as simple as fresh baked bread and just as appealing. It was impossible to mistake her gait for anyone else’s. The walls swayed like young lambs to the rhythm of her heels.
That morning the courtroom was empty. It was the height of summer, and even market day did not bring anyone to plead their case in court. Peddlers did not even bother to tip their scales before the handful of buyers who made their way through the humid heat. Lead weights carved in the shape of ducks, each one a bit larger than the next, sat still like a family of birds who had fallen asleep, their beaks tucked into their gray metal backs.
The gaming stands, which were usually noisy and crowded, were deserted. The game boards and the mosaic tiles lay at rest. The pigeon racers scattered seeds to their pigeons, who pecked aimlessly at the emptiness. No one showed up to gamble.
On a day like this, the courtroom effectively became a study house. Rava reviewed his learning on his own. If only he could learn with Abayey, his study partner, they would be able to knock off a difficult section of the Gemara from Tiberias. Rava felt Abayey’s absence like a phantom limb that continued to ache. Without Abayey, he grew more distant from the world. He missed his friend’s learnedness, the way he always looked at everything through a different lens. Rava reviewed the passage on “presumed despair,” part of the laws about returning lost objects to their rightful owners. He tried to recall Abayey’s voice, his manner of speaking, his gait.
The beadle who was nodding off by the doorway almost did not notice Choma when she entered. The beadle roused suddenly and announced: “Next case: The provision of alimony to Choma, the widow of Abayey.”
It was difficult for Rava to hear the name of his beloved friend spoken aloud. He smiled as he remembered how Abayey used to juggle eight eggs, throwing one into the air and catching another, without any of the fragile shells touching one another. How when they used to walk through the market, Abayey would shake hands with even those elders who were not Jewish. Rava sat in the judge’s seat at the front of the courtroom and recited his oath of justice. The responsibility of presiding in court weighed heavily on him. He had chosen this life in spite of the wishes of his wife, who had wanted him to go into business. She wanted wealth and he came home with empty pockets, hoping only to return in the evening as he had left in the morning: free from sin or error. He wondered to himself whether it was in fact an exaggeration to compare the fear instilled in the heart of the judge to the fear of death. Was it really as intense?
While he was still mulling it over, Choma was sitting silently, her hands folded in her lap. Rava did not know how to address her after the beadle had retired to the side room to eat, when they were left alone in the courtroom. “Rule on the alimony due to me,” the woman said. Rava knew that it was his duty to rule on the amount of money that the widow would receive from her husband’s heirs, an amount that would ensure that she could maintain the same standard of living as she had when her husband was alive. He ruled accordingly. “Rule on an additional sum due to me for wine.” For wine? He and Rava never drank wine when they were together. He grew suspicious, and looked at Choma intently. He used his friend’s nickname in an attempt to show the grounds for his claim: “I know Nachmani. He wasn’t a wine drinker…. You’re telling me that he would serve it to you?” Choma stood up. The dark fabric of her dress glided down the curves of her body and stopped at her ankles, swaying slightly. When she stood upright before him, she was taller than he remembered her. The thread of justice hung taut between them.
The woman paraded over to the judge’s bench, keeping her eyes fixed squarely upon him. He looked at her dark lips and heard her voice, low and slightly hoarse: “I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big.” As she spoke, she flung her hand above her in a deliberate motion, and the sleeve of her black dress bunched at her shoulder and revealed her arm all the way up to her elbow. For a split second, the smooth whiteness of her arm was bared. Splendor enveloped the courtroom. Rava looked at Choma. The whole world faded into a blurry background, and the arm glowed. The woman and her light attracted him with a force that was beyond his control. Somehow he managed to turn from his seat and escape from the courtroom as if chased by a demon. As he fled he muttered something unintelligible about how he was unfit to serve as a judge and about the wine that she would either receive or not. From the entrance he turned back to look at her – a dark and erect figure, her kerchief pulled back and her hair exposed, enveloped in a great light.
When he came to his home he found his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda, seated beside the stove. Rava stood behind her, and although it was not his usual way, he grabbed her and carried her off to bed. He seemed like a total stranger when, without saying a word, he took off his clothes, peeled back her garments, and ravished his wife. When he later lifted himself up and dragged himself to his room, she was arranging her dress, blushing like a young girl. There was one moment of serenity in the house. Then suddenly a shadow passed over his wife’s brow and she asked: “Who was in the courtroom just now?” He could not bring himself to lie to her. “Choma, the wife of Abayey.”
His wife’s face lost its softness. Rejecting the hand he offered, she ripped the lock off the bureau and left the house in a frenzy. The door to the courtyard slammed behind her.
Rava did not move from where he stood. He did not see how his wife chased Choma to the outskirts of Machoza, and he did not hear how she screamed, “You killed three husbands and now you’ve come to kill mine too!”
This story is based on a sugya from Ketubot 65a, translated here:
Choma, the wife of Abayey, came before Rava.
She said to him: “Rule on the food due to me in alimony.” So he did.
[She said:] “Rule on the wine due to me.”
He said to her: “I know Nachmani” (a nickname for Abayey), “He wouldn’t serve you wine.”
She said to him: “I swear, my lord, he used to serve me wine in a goblet this big.”
When she demonstrated what she meant by lifting her arm, her arm became exposed.
And a great light fell upon the courtroom.
Rava stood up and went home
He demanded sex from his wife, the daughter of Rav Chisda.
The daughter of Rav Chisda said to him: “Who was in the courtroom today?”
He said to her: “Choma, the wife of Abayey.”
She [Rava’s wife] went after her [Choma] and beat her with the lock of a chest until she was driven out of Machoza.
She [Rava’s wife] said to her [Choma]: “You killed three men, and now you’ve come to kill another?”