Although Jewish tradition has no direct cultural association with Hallowe’en, there are plenty of spooky and sometimes funny tales to make your hair stand on end and foster a wee suspicion about the existence of demons. Like this one, called The Bride’s Finger. I adapted it from a sixteenth century Palestinian folktale* for my Visual Fiction series of stories, published between 1993-1997 in Focus Magazine, which was then a Sunday supplement in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The bright orange moon illuminated three young men as they walked in the forest surrounding the city of Safed in ancient Israel. Raphael, the oldest, was being teased by his friends, for this was the eve of his wedding. Raphael considered himself a fortunate fellow because Shira, the woman to whom he was promised, was the clever, beautiful daughter of the city’s wealthiest merchant.
Soon, they reached the edge of a river and sat down to rest. Their spirits were so high that at first, no one noticed the strange object protruding from the earth at their feet. Then, Tobias, the youngest man, grew quiet and leaned over to examine it, assuming that it was some sort of root. Pointing at the object, he nudged his friends, “Raphi, Gideon; doesn’t this thing look like a finger?” he whispered.
Still laughing, Raphael and Gideon teased their friend. “Sure, Tobi, it’s telling you to watch your step!” Tobias shrugged, then smiled slyly at Raphael. “Just like your clever bride will make you watch your step? Not to be outdone, Raphael announced smugly, ” I will put a ring on that ‘finger’ just to show it who’s the master around here!” He took off his ring and slipped it ceremoniously onto the protruding object.
“Now, Raphi, say your vows!” the others urged him, snickering loudly. With mock solemnity, the bridegroom-to-be pronounced the Hebrew words which were required to seal a marriage. This he did three times, according to Jewish law. But as the last word slipped past his lips, he felt an odd chill slither down his spine…
Suddenly, the ‘finger’ began to emit an eerie, greenish glow, twitching and wriggling convulsively. The three young men jumped back, gasping in amazement, as the earth shuddered beneath them. Frozen in shock, they gazed horrified at the black chasm which opened at their feet. The greenish glow surrounding the ‘finger’ expanded at once, revealing a woman’s form wrapped in a ragged shroud, rising up out of the abyss! Her arms opened as if to embrace a lover.
“MY BRIDEGROOM!” she shrieked in a terrible voice staring straight at Raphael with lifeless eyes. Recovering their wits, the three friends screamed hysterically and ran for their lives, pursued relentlessly by her unearthly wailing. When they managed to reach their homes, they bolted every door and window, shuddering with relief at their narrow escape.
In the morning, still trembling with fear, the young men met at Raphael’s house to discuss the consequences of their irreverent behavior. Deeply ashamed, they vowed to keep their horrible adventure a secret. Then, they parted soberly for Raphael’s ‘real’ wedding.
That evening, a delicious aroma of exotic foods accompanied the sounds of merriment and music flowing from the palatial home of the bride’s family. Many distinguished guests had gathered to witness this wedding that would unite the two wealthiest and most influential families in Safed.
Suddenly, as the rabbi cleared his throat to begin the ceremony, a spine-tingling shriek issued from the marbled entrance. Screams of panic followed as the crowd rushed madly for the doors, leaving only the rabbi, the bride and groom and their immediate families gaping in horror at the apparition, who was clad only in her vermin-infested shroud.
The rabbi was the first to regain his composure. Shrewdly, he appraised the corpse, taking in her filthy, waist-length hair and curving, claw-like toenails. Then, he pointed accusingly at her. “Why have you left your grave and come to befoul our joyous celebration?” he thundered.
With a moan that was terrifying and desperate at once, the corpse pointed at Raphael and Shira, his bride-to-be, who cowered behind the rabbi. “I have come to claim what is mine!” she announced shrilly. “Why do you allow him to marry another when he is betrothed to ME?” She raised her hand to display the finger on which Raphael had foolishly placed his ring.
Wide-eyed in amazement, the rabbi turned to Raphael. “Is this true?” he demanded. Panic-stricken, the groom revealed the tale of the previous evening. With a worried expression, the rabbi pulled at his beard and asked the groom if he had pledged the sacred vow three times before two witnesses. Raphael nodded fearfully.
“Well, my son,” said the rabbi, shaking his head. “I am afraid that a rabbinical court must be gathered to resolve this, for according to our laws, a promise is a promise, and it looks as though ‘she’ is your wife!” Raphael’s eyes rolled up out of sight as he slid to the floor in a faint. Shira clutched her veil, sobbing uncontrollably. Their families stood by helplessly, begging the rabbi to release their children from the awful curse.
For days afterward, Safed buzzed with excitement over the ‘marriage of the living and the dead’. No one had ever heard of such a phenomena! Meanwhile, the rabbi searched feverishly for legal precedents to this case, but soon concluded that one would have to be set. He then sent for three renowned rabbis, requesting their presence at the rabbinical court that would convene three days later.
The people of Safed crowded the hall of the court. When all were seated, the Safed rabbi summoned the dead ‘bride’ to appear. Placing her under oath, he instructed her to recount the events in the forest and to swear that Raphael had indeed ‘married’ her.
Rachel Bat Shimon (for that was her name), clasped her translucent hands sincerely and did as she was told. The court then asked her if she would give up her claim on Raphael. A range of emotions appeared to cross her lifeless face and then coalesce into defiance. “While I lived,” she said tightly, “I had no opportunity to marry and was denied my happiness on earth! Therefore,” her voice rose to a shriek, “this marriage must be recognized and consummated! Unless,” she hinted craftily, “this court would prove that there is no justice in life or in death!”
The hall became very still, as the rabbis mulled over this statement. After a few moments, they decided to ignore her statement and continue the proceedings because the arcane interpretations her statement provoked would confuse the issue at hand. So they called on the parents of the bride and groom, placed them under oath and requested them to verify that their children had long been pledged to each other. Almost in unison, the fathers spoke, stating that their pledge was formed even before the birth of their children!
When all the witnesses had spoken, the rabbis retreated to a private chamber to make their decision. Raphael shivered in fear, casting sideways glances at his ghastly ‘wife’. She fluttered her eyelashes and bared snaggled yellow teeth in a horrific attempt to smile at him. Soon the rabbis filed back into the court. The Safed rabbi was the first to speak.
“According to our Laws, it is indeed true that Raphael made a valid vow of marriage in the presence of Gideon and Tobias, his two witnesses.” He paused for a moment and the large hall grew thick with terror. “However,” he continued, “we cannot deny that this wedding vow would invalidate his former betrothal, since the Law states that one vow may not contradict a prior one. Also, we have considered the bridegroom’s statement that his ‘vows’ were not intentional. And finally, as there is no precedent for a union between the living and the dead, these vows are not acceptable; for the ‘bride’ is obviously dead. Therefore, we declare this ‘marriage’ annulled!” At these words, Raphael grew weak with relief as applause erupted among the living.
But Rachel Bat Shimon, knowing she was defeated, released a shriek as bloodcurdling as it was pitiful. She then fell onto the floor and embraced death once again. Those present truly felt her loss and indeed, the rabbi ordered that Rachel be buried again properly, so that this tragedy would not recur.
At last, the rabbi of Safed gathered the bride, the groom and their families together to perform the true wedding. The distinguished guests, recovered from their shock and returned to witness the joyful ceremony. One one guest was missing: Death.
*The historical source of this tale is Shivhei ha-Ari (Hebrew), compiled by Shlomo Meinsterl (Jerusalem, 1905). My source was Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of The Supernatural, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 1988)
Note: For those who have followed my illustrated posts here, you might notice a marked difference in the drawing style of The Bride’s Finger and in Moving The Immoveable Feast published a few months ago. These were executed in sumi ink on scraperboard (scratchboard) and hand-colored with watercolor. No digital enhancements, whatsoever. Other drawings in the Visual Fiction series were done in a variety of art styles that in retrospect allowed me to understand the trajectory of my artistic development. As an illustrator, it’s sometimes instructive to look back not only to see where I’ve been, but where my Muse might decide to take me next!
Tags: 16th century, ancient, bride, bridegroom, Calligraphy, death, demons, finger, folktale, ghosts, Judaism, marriage, Palestine, Pittsburgh, rabbi, Safed, scratchboard, tradition, Tribune Review, Visual Fiction, wedding