Elijah stood with Nathan in the doorway of Professor Hashabiah’s study.
Zim bounced in. “Good morning, Professor. I brought my friends, Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah.”
The professor rose and put his hands on Zim’s shoulders, but he spoke to Neetz. “Is anyone in the house besides family?”
“I’ll make sure.” Neetz disappeared into the hall.
Zim stood on tip-toe. “They brought us lots and lots of flour.”
The professor smiled at Elijah and Nathan.
Zim sank back on his heels. “And oil, too. Lots of oil.”
The professor raised a hand, and Zim rose on his toes. “Mr. Nathan can show your grapes how to grow.”
The professor scowled. “Zim.”
“You wanna hear about their tree house, Professor?”
“Zim, what I want is for you to make me a promise.” His scowl deepened. “Promise me you will never, never mention these men to anyone outside this house. Ever.”
Zim snapped his little frame straight and wagged his head twice. “Oh, never, Professor. I promise. They’re my friends, and Mother says I have to keep them away from crying eyes because their elbows stick out. But you should hear what Mr. Nathan says about your vines, Professor.”
The professor’s eyes twinkled. “Thank you, Zim.” He gripped the forearm of Nathan, then Elijah. “Welcome to Zarephath and to my home. Please come in.”
Elijah rubbed his nose, hiding a smile. The professor resembled a younger version of his father.
“Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah are from Tishbe, Professor.”
“Tishbe near Jabesh?”
Elijah stepped closer to Nathan. “Yes. Our father’s name is Zadok. Perhaps you’ve heard of Tishbe wine?”
“I’ve not had that pleasure. But, ‘Zadok’? Then you recognize Hashabiah as a clan of the Levites.” He pointed to seats. Elijah and Nathan sat, and Zim stood beside Nathan.
“We settled in Hebron, and when King Solomon sent part of us north to teach his men who sailed with Hiram, we put down roots.”
“I see.” Elijah and his father had speculated about these cousins who took up residence in foreign parts. “But how do you — I mean, in this city, there can’t be many parents who —”
“Who send their sons to tutor with the local Levite?” The professor paused and looked at Nathan. “You might be surprised at what we do, son. Like your father, I cultivate vines.”
He leaned back, reached up, and laced his fingers together behind his head. “Nathan, I dare say you can list several fields in which Levites are known for expertise.” Elijah stared open-mouthed. The professor saw Nathan’s reticence but encouraged him to speak.
Nathan scowled at Elijah. He glanced around the room and then focused on the pointer lying on its cloth cover on the Torah stand. He let out a slow breath. “Your pointer, Professor. I couldn’t help but notice the design.”
“From Safed in Naphtali by way of my great-great-grandfather. Thank you for noticing.”
Elijah held his breath. The professor would need patience while Nathan collected his words.
Nathan glanced at the professor but then fixed his gaze on the pointer. He used precise words. “I have heard of Levite expertise in legal matters — both Greek and Hebrew — medicine, music — both vocal and instrumental — publishing and cataloging, architecture and building. In some places we are even the magistrate.”
While Elijah’s eyes filled with tears, the professor smiled. “Thank you, Nathan.”
Zim shifted his feet. “Mr. Nathan told me about the memuzah.”
“That’d be great, Professor. Come on, Mr. Nathan.”
“I’ll keep Nathan here with me. But ask Neetz to show you the baby carrots from her garden. She’s proud of those carrots.”
Zim lowered his head but gave a reluctant nod and scooted out of the room.
The professor leaned back. “My young scholar has given us much to discuss. First, the prying eyes. You heard what my daughter said about talk in the minyan.”
Elijah and Nathan and their father belonged to a minyan on their end of Tishbe, and these ten men often strayed from their formal prayers to discuss crops and weather. “I told King Ahab he would have neither dew nor rain, so his guards and the queen’s black tunics are searching for us. Zim’s mother has convinced him not to talk about us, but he trusts you.”
The professor pursed his lips and released a long breath. “News of your announcement to the king did come to our little Zarephath circle, and I see what Zim means about your elbows. I’ll do my part to keep him silent, and you’re in good hands with Zim’s mother. She is an honest woman. But your parents—do they know where you boys are?”
“No, sir. If we went near, the danger to them—”
“I understand. So, why is Zim talking about a mezuzah?”
Elijah frowned. “That’s my doing, Professor. I mentioned the one in our tree house back home. Is there a rule against a mezuzah in a tree house?”
“Oh, I’m sure someone, somewhere, has dreamed up such a rule, but let’s not search for it.”
“Well then, could we prevail on you to write the scripture for us? We’re not good at writing. If you would put the words on a tiny parchment, we can show Zim how to carve the box.”
“As long as this mezuzah goes on the door of the tree house, but never on a door of the widow’s house. Can you understand the danger if the neighbors think Zim’s mother is my convert?”
Elijah glanced at Nathan. “We understand. We’ll make sure it stays on the tree house.”
“I’ll let you know when I find the proper parchment.”
Elijah cleared his throat. “If I may, Professor, Zim’s mother told us you’re the best tutor in the city, and his studies seem important to her. But I don’t understand how she pays for his lessons.”
“Oh, she doesn’t pay. After her husband died, she didn’t have the money, but Zim is such a faithful student I couldn’t bear for him to break off his studies, and I canceled her fees. And I gather from Zim that she follows each lesson right along with him.”
Elijah chuckled. “So, one Levite teaches Hebrew scriptures to two Sidonians—at no charge.”
The professor focused on Nathan. “Zim says you can show my grapes how to grow.”
Nathan sat up straight, took a deep breath, and stared at the Torah pointer. “Yes. A passing farmer said your man traveled north.”
“And what would vinedressers from Tishbe in Gilead do for my long-neglected vines?”
“The vines need water. We would search the hills for water. We can carry some water in buckets on poles, but to save even more vines, we would need donkeys and water skins to carry water. If we can keep the vines alive, then the starters need to be transplanted. In Tishbe we move them as sprouts. But those we saw are almost full adult vines, so they’ll need shade and water for several days.”
“Exactly what I think. Let me see your work for one month. I’ll pay you each the same rate as my former vinedresser— three shekels a week. If I like your work, then we’ll talk about future months.”
Elijah put his hand on his brother’s arm. “But, Nate, can we stay out of sight? Our knees and elbows. Our Gilead accent.”
The professor frowned. “The vines do grow next to the garden plots.”
Nathan shifted his gaze to the professor. “We might work in the center, where no one can see our elbows or hear our accent.”
The professor shrugged. “I would rather save the center vines than none at all. And as the psalm1 says, the Lord gives you counsel while he keeps his eye on you. Perhaps the Lord will watch your work and show you how to save the vines which grow in public view.”
Nathan stood. “At first we’ll need bucket and poles.”
Neetz stuck her head in the study door. “A man selling pomegranates was in the back, but Mother sent him on his way and locked the gate.”
Zim ducked through the opening beside her. “I saw the carrots, Professor.”
Professor Hashabiah stood. “No lesson today, Zim, but we’ll pick up at Jethro again next week.” He winked at Nathan. “Zim and I know how to stretch a Torah portion. So, Nathan, you and your brother will start with the vines tomorrow?”
“Neetz, I need you to show Nathan and Elijah our supply of buckets. Poles if we have them. They’ll be carrying water to the vines.”
He led them to his front door. “Neetz will take you around to the shed and give you the best of our buckets and poles. I’ll inspect your work on an irregular basis, but I’d like you to come by each week and tell me your progress. By the way, that was very thoughtful of you to bring flour and oil to Zim’s mother. She’s on a short budget these days.”
1 Psalm 32:8