The men listened, leaning in. “On the highway at Sepphoris,” he said, “The Romans crucified five hundred and twenty men going into town, and five hundred and twenty going out. One thousand and forty, all told, of the children of Israel and the Gentiles alike. I made marks on a stick to keep track.” Joseph looked around the circle at his neighbors. “Each man was crucified with three of these,” he said, and lifted the spike up for all to see. “That would be about three thousand one hundred and twenty wrought-iron spikes.” He waited to see if they understood. “At a penney a dozen,” he said, “Or thereabouts.” He reached out to hand the black iron to the man next to him, but it was Naaman, the rabbi, who threw up his hands and drew back.
“That should not even be in here,” he said thickly. “It is cursed by God and absolutely unclean, as you well know, Joseph.” “Yes, Reb Naaman,” said Joseph, “I understand. And Demetrius of Ptolemais understands that if we are hungry enough we will sell our children. First our daughters, we will sell them to feed our sons. Then our sons. Then our wives, and lastly ourselves, Reb Naaman. The pimp of Ptolemais will gladly keep us alive on those terms.” There was quiet for a few moments, and then Matthias, a man with five children, reached out and took the spike. He turned it over in his hands. “Even a prostitute may give a gift to the temple,” he said. “Isn’t it so, Rabbi?” He handed the spike to his brother Judah. “Can we sell the iron in Ptolemais, Joseph?” Joseph cocked his head, but it was young Ephraim across the circle who broke in, “You can sell anything or anybody in Ptolemais!”
“Well,” said Joseph, “We’ll probably get cheated; but it’s around five hundred pounds of Roman wrought iron. I think we could get enough to make it through until next year.” The men looked around at one another, and heads started nodding in agreement.
“God I’m hungry!” said one of the younger men, “Let’s get started!” More heads nodded, and the meeting started to break up into excited talk.
Joseph spoke up loudly, “Rabbi,” he said, “If we could bury them, and pray for them… maybe God could forgive the pollution?” Everyone looked at Reb Naaman. Looking down at his hands he began to nod, yes, and then looked up around the room and smiled. “Thanks be to God!” he said. The men echoed him around the room, “Thanks be to God!”
“We should work at night,” said Joseph. The men quieted. “And just around sunrise, I think. We don’t want to get caught doing this.”