From the palace of Shush

We were not citizens and had not paid the land tax, so H. invented a poll tax just for us.

By STEPHEN G. ROSENBERG
March 9, 2009 21:13
From the palace of Shush

purim kids 88. (photo credit: )

 
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By the order of the great king, king of kings, King X., a great number of us Jewish master craftsmen, masons, plasterers, brickies, chippies and metal workers were drafted to Shush for work there on the palace. We and our families resided in a special quarter of the city, and could live as Jews with prayer rooms, classes for the kids and a kosher deli. Our forefathers had come from Jerusalem with King Jehoiachin and had been billeted in Babylon. King X. was back from Greece, where he had lost the war (like his father before him), and now wanted to make Shush the finest palace in the empire to divert his people's attention from his failures. Shush was to be his great summer palace, and we craftsmen had been summoned to restore its ancient glories. We worked hard and well, and the emperor was pleased. He gave us good houses and wages, and paid our wives to make the 1,000 cushions for the palace. For the first few years, life was good, but then things changed. The people of Shush were poor. They lived in hovels and scratched a living in the bazaars. They envied our good conditions and hated us for our good luck, but what could we do? Their leader Minister H. egged them on, and they spat at us in the street, but we ignored them. THEN CAME the day for the chancellor of the empire to change. It happened every New Year at Nissanu, and that year Minister H. was chosen by the old Babylonian system of casting lots. The lot fell on H., and it was his job to collect the annual tax for the emperor. It would be difficult, but H. had a cunning plan. The people had been milked and milked again to pay for the war, so H.'s plan was to tax only us Jews. We were not citizens and had not paid the land tax, so H. invented a poll tax just for us. H. thought that the whole empire hated us, and so he could do as he liked. It meant that a few thousand of us would have to pay the whole of the empire's tax in that one year. Then H. could keep his promise to put 10,000 talents into the king's treasury. And H. had a second cunning plan. Any Jew who did not pay up would be put to death. As you know, the normal punishment for a tax debtor was to be enslaved, but now it was to be the death penalty. This was really bloody, even though we had until the middle of Addaru to pay up, as H. had to get the cash before the end of his year. But what good was 11 months to us working men, and our poor brothers in Babylon, and the poor farmers of the old country in Judah? When we heard the terrible news, we ran to our leader, Counsellor M. He was a pretty powerful guy at court, and was friendly with the queen. It's a long story, but the queen was in fact his younger cousin. She was an orphan, and during the last count of all virgins, had been whipped off to the royal harem where, because of her great beauty, she was chosen to be the king's consort at his summer palace in Shush, for he had a babe in every palace. QUEEN E. was now a pretty powerful lady and, when she heard the tax news from M., she decided to confront the king, who was due at the palace the following month. She had never liked H., but invited him and the king to her boudoir for drinks, and to have it out with them. She wondered why King X. had given the chancellor such wide powers. Came the fateful party, nothing happened. In good Persian style, Queen E. flattered her guests, but said nothing of her thoughts, only inviting them for more drinks the next day. H. went home highly pleased with himself for having been honored by the queen, and the king went back rather jealous that his consort had paid so much attention to his chancellor. It riled him, and that night he couldn't sleep. He summoned his scribes, and they read him the chronicles, coming to the bit where two plotters had been overheard by M. and executed. When the king asked if M. had been rewarded he was told he had not. So he ordered the scribes to agree on a suitable reward with the chancellor, who had just entered the Apadana to get the king's permission to hang M. on the gallows he had erected, because M. had consistantly refused to bow to him, though the king had commanded it. When H. heard that someone was to be rewarded, he imagined it must be himself, for having saved the taxes, and he said the reward should be to wear the king's apparel and ride through the streets on the king's horse. King X. agreed and told the chancellor to go and lead M. through the city as he had described. H had no choice but to obey. THE PARADE became the talk of the town, and we all rushed to see it. We were delighted when we spotted our good friend M. being honored and H. put to shame. Imagine our further delight when we saw H.'s daughter on the roof empty her night jar on her father's head. Poor girl, she must have thought it was M. leading her father and, when she realized her mistake, she threw herself down. H. was crestfallen, but happy to be invited again by the queen. He went off to the palace and sat by the king in the boudoir, planning to ask him for permission to hang M. But the queen got in first. Imagine the surprise when she told the king she was a Jewess, and that there was an evil man who planned to kill all her people. If it had only been to enslave them for not paying the tax, she said, she would not have bothered the king, but as it was a matter of life and death, she had to speak up. King X. was astonished. "Who is this bloody scoundrel and where is he?" he exclaimed. "He sits right next to you," the queen pointed out. The king was flabbergasted and rushed into the garden to collect his thoughts. Chancellor H. saw he was in mortal danger and flung himself on the queen's couch to plead for mercy. The king returned and, seeing the two in this compromising position, shouted: "By Ahura-Mazda and all the gods, there he is, trying to seduce the queen under my very nose!" H. realized he was done for as the guards seized him and, at the king's command, hanged him on the gallows he had prepared for M. But that was not the end. THE PEOPLE OF SHUSH hated us Jews even more and, came the 14th of Addaru (when the taxes had been due), they stormed into our neighborhoods lusting for rape and pillage. But we were ready for them. Thanks to M. we had permission from the king to defend ourselves, and we beat them back with our working tools and even took their leaders, the 10 sons of H., prisoner. The king gave us permission to hang them; he was as anxious as we were to get rid of them to please his lovely queen. We celebrated our escape from the thugs and the deadly tax with a big day of feasting and drinking, and sending presents to each other and the poor. The king and queen also rejoiced. She was happy for her people and he was pleased to have gotten rid of an overweening chancellor. But he still needed to fill the treasury, and so he called on M., the new chancellor, to advise him. M. advised him to call for the tax again, but this time from all the land, not just from the Jews, and so it was done. We Jews called on all our brothers to celebrate that day with drinks in memory of the queen's parties, and fancy-dress parades to remind us of M.'s ride on the king's horse. And the date was sealed by an edict from Queen E. herself, which was only right, as it was her beauty and skill that had saved us. The writer is Senior Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem, and author ofEsther/Ruth/Jonah Deciphered (Devora Publishing, 2004).

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