On that dread day, when the cosmic injustice was perpetrated, and Jesus Christ was crucified in the midst of robbers on Golgotha, Ben-Tobith, a tradesman of Jerusalem, had been suffering since the early hours of the morning the agonies of an excruciating toothache.
It had started the day before, toward evening; at first his right jaw had commenced to ache slightly, and one tooth, the extreme tooth next to the wisdom tooth, seemed to rise a little, and felt painful when coming in contact with the tongue. After the evening meal, however, the pain had entirely subsided; Ben-Tobith had forgotten it altogether and felt no worry about it; that day he had profitably traded his old ass for a young and strong animal, at a profit, and he was in a merry mood and did not attach any significance to an evil omen.
And he had slept well and soundly, but before the dawn of day something commenced to disturb him, as if someone sought to rouse him to attend to an important matter, and when Ben-Tobith woke up wrathfully, his teeth were aching, aching defiantly and fiercely, with the excruciating fury of sharp and throbbing pain. And now it was impossible to tell whether it was still the tooth of the day before, or whether others had joined it as well; his mouth and his head were wholly filled with the dreadful agonizing pain, as though someone forced him to masticate a thousand red-hot sharply pointed nails.
He took in his mouth a swallow of water from an earthern pitcher; for an instant the fury of the pain subsided; the teeth twitched with undulating throbs, and this new sensation seemed even agreeable in comparison with the pain that had preceded it.
Ben-Tobith lay down again; he bethought himself of his newly purchased ass; he mused how happy he would it be if it were not for his teeth, and tried to sleep. But the water was warm; within five minutes the pain returned, with greater fury than ever, and Ben-Tobith sat up in his bed, rocking back and forth like a pendulum.
His face was all wrinkles, and something seemed to draw it toward his huge nose—and from his nose, that had turned livid with agony, hung a drop of cold perspiration. Thus, rocking back and forth, groaning with agony, he faced the first rays of that sun which was fated to see Golgotha with its three crosses and then to be dimmed with horror and grief.
Ben-Tobith was a good and kindly man, who disliked injustice, but when his wife woke up, he said to her many disagreeable things, barely able to open his mouth, and complained that he had been left alone like a jackal to howl and to writhe in pain. His wife bore the undeserved reproaches with patience, for she knew that they came not from an angry heart, and she brought him many good remedies: some purified rat dung to be applied to his cheek, a sharp elixir of scorpion, and a genuine fragment of the tablets of the law broken by Moses.
A little improvement followed the application of rat dung, though it did not last long, and the same happened after the use of the elixir and the stone, but each time the pain returned with added vigor. But in the brief moments of respite Ben-Tobith comforted himself with the thoughts of the ass, and mused about him; and when the pain grew worse, he groaned, scolded his wife and swore that he would dash his brains out against a stone if the pain did not subside. And all the time he walked back and forth upon the flat roof of his house, from one comer to another, ashamed to come close to the edge because his head was all tied up in a kerchief like a woman's.
Several times during the morning his children came to him on the run telling him something with hurried voices about Jesus the Nazarene. Ben-Tobith stopped and listened to them for a moment, with wrinkled face, but then angrily stamped his foot and drove them away. He was a kindly man, fond of children, but now it annoyed him to be pestered with all sorts of trivial things.
It was also annoying to him that the streets and the neighboring roofs were crowded with people who seemed to have nothing to do but gaze curiously upon Ben-Tobith whose head was tied with a kerchief like a woman's. And he was already on the point of going downstairs, when his wife said to him:
"Look, they'are leading the robbers. Perhaps this might take your mind away from your pain."
"Leave me alone, please. Don't you see how I suffer?" angrily retorted Ben-Tobith. But the words of his wife held out a vague promise that his toothache might pass, and he reluctantly walked over to the edge of the roof. Inclining his head to one side, he shut one eye, held a hand to his cheek, made a wry, sniveling grimace and looked down.
Up the steep ascent of the narrow street moved a confused and enormous mob of people in a cloud of dust and with a ceaseless uproar. In the midst of it, bowed under the burden of their crosses, marched the evildoers, and over their heads swished the whips of the Roman soldiers like sinuous dark-skinned serpents. One of them, he with the long, light locks, in a torn and blood-stained cloak, stumbled over a stone which someone had thrown before his feet and fell. The shouts increased in loudness, and the crowd closed in about the fallen man like a sea of motley waves.
Ben-Tobith suddenly shuddered with the pain; it seemed as though someone had pierced his tooth with a red-hot needle and twisted it around; he groaned "oo-oo-oo," and walked away from the edge of the roof, wryly indifferent and wrathful.
"How they yell!" he enviously muttered, picturing to himself their wide-opened mouths with strong and pain-free teeth, and thinking how he might yell himself if he were only well. This mental picture added fury to his pain, and he shook his bandaged head vehemently and howled "moo-moo-moo."
"They say that he healed the blind," observed his wife clinging to the edge of the roof and casting a stone at the spot where Jesus was slowly moving onward, having been raised to his feet by the soldiers' whips.
"Or course! Of course! He might have cured my toothache," replied Ben-Tobith sarcastically and with irritation, adding bitterly: "Just look at the dust they are raising! Like a herd of cattle. They should be scattered with rods. Lead me downstairs, Sarah!"
The wife was right; the spectacle had diverted him somewhat, or perhaps the rat dung remedy finally proved its efficacy, and he managed to go to sleep. And when he woke up, the pain was almost gone, only a swelling had formed on his right cheek, so slight a swelling, in fact, as to be hardly noticeable. His wife said that it could not be seen at all, but Ben-Tobith smiled craftily, he knew what a good wife he had and how ready she was to say agreeable things. His neighbor, Samuel, the tanner, had come meanwhile, and Ben-Tobith took him to see the new ass; he proudly listened to his neighbor's words of praise for the animal and for its master.
Then, at the suggestion of his curious wife Sarah, the three of them walked over to Golgotha to see the crucified. On the way Ben-Tobith related to Samuel about his tooth-ache from its very beginning, how the day before he had felt a twitch of pain in his right jaw, and how during the night he had been awakened by an agonizing pain. By way of illustration he made a wry face, shutting his eyes, hook his head and groaned, and the grey-bearded Samuel sympathizingly nodded and said:
"Tss-tss-tss, what suffering!"
Ben-Tobith was gratified by this expression of sympathy and he repeated his tale and reverted to that distant past when his first tooth had, commenced to turn bad, the left tooth in the lower jaw. In such animated conversation they reached Golgotha. The sun which was fated to shine upon the world on that dread day had meanwhile set behind the distant hillocks, and in the west glowed like a bloody stain a narrow band of ruddy crimson. Against this background dimly darkled the crosses, and kneeling at the foot of the cross in the center some white-garbed figures glistened vaguely in the gathering dusk.
The people had long since dispersed; it was growing cold; casting a fleeting glance upon the crucified figures, Ben-Tobith took Samuel by his arm and cautiously turned him in the direction of their homes. He felt unusually eloquent and he was anxious to tell him more about the toothache. Thus they walked homeward, and Ben-Tobith, to the accompaniment of Samuel's sympathizing nods and exclamations, made once more a wry face, shook his head and moaned artfully, while from the deep crevices and the distant arid plains rose the blackness of night. As though it sought to cover from the sight of heaven the great misdeed of the earth.