Hisdadukh, blessed to be beautiful and learned, is the youngest child of Talmudic sage Rav Hisda. The world around her is full of conflict. Rome, fast becoming Christian, battles Zoroastrian Persia for dominance while Rav Hisda and his colleagues struggle to establish new Jewish traditions after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Against this backdrop Hisdadukh embarks on the tortuous path to become an enchantress in the very land where the word ‘magic’ originated.
But the conflict affecting Hisdadukh most intimately arises when her father brings his two best students before her, a mere child, and asks her which one she will marry. Astonishingly, the girl replies, “Both of them.” Soon she marries the older student, although it becomes clear that the younger one has not lost interest in her. When her new-found happiness is derailed by a series of tragedies, a grieving Hisdadukh must decide if she does, indeed, wish to become a sorceress. Based on actual Talmud texts and populated with its rabbis and their families, Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book I – Apprentice brings the world of the Talmud to life – from a woman’s perspective.
Author Maggie Anton
Jewish novelist Maggie Anton has found herself dealing with some of the same subject matter as fellow female novelist J.K.Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame, but Anton’s magic stories are based on real history.
Anton is the author of the novel “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” .
“I’ve been studying Talmud for 20 years,” Anton said. “There’s magic stuff. I didn’t realize my book would focus so much on ancient sorcery. During the first 500 to 600 years of this millennium, sorcery was ubiquitous. They had incantations, amulets and magic spells.
“As I discovered that sorcery was rampant, it was interesting to see the differences between sorcerers. Today we think of wicked witches, but according to the Talmud, sorcerers are actually in league with the angels. In Jewish tradition, nobody has ever burned witches. Now I can understand why. There was a tradition of healing magic.”
Anton’s novel is set in Third Century Babylon, where enchantresses were sought out for spells and amulets for everyday needs. Jewish rabbis not only didn’t condemn sorcerers, their commentaries on the scriptures, known as the Talmud, give advice on how to find a good sorcerer whose spells are trustworthy.
Anton theorizes that the sorcerers, all women, were typically the wives and daughters of rabbis, because the spells were the work of highly literate women writing Aramaic with Hebrew lettering.
After the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D., the dispersed Jews had to develop rules and procedures for practicing Judaism without the temple.
That’s the purpose of the Talmud, Anton said in an interview.
“The Talmud is the basis of Judaism as we practice it today,” Anton said. “When the temple was there, Jews would go to Jerusalem and sacrifice animals. After the temple was destroyed, they came up with a way to practice Judaism wherever you were. They collected all the laws and put them in a book, the Mishnah, that’s about 600 pages. Then somebody’s going to have questions, and they had to answer the questions. The Talmud is a book discussing the Mishnah, how to make Jewish law, how to understand Jewish law. The post-biblical traditions and laws all come from the Talmud. It’s the customs and laws we follow today. The Bible is not many books. The Talmud is a whole bookcase.”
Questions would be asked, and answered, in a running, voluminous commentary. But in the sixth century, the rabbis cut off discussion, Anton said.
“The whole point is how we’re going to do Judaism now that we have no temple and no priesthood,” Anton said. “How are we going to atone for our sins? They innovated new ways to do Judaism. It enabled the Jews who spread everywhere to take their religion and spread their religion. They were forced to come up with new ways to practice Judaism wherever they were.”
Anton learned about the Babylonian magic or incantation bowls during her research. “I was trying to find authentic Jewish names from back then,” she said. “The spells and incantations were said with a person’s mother’s name.”
During the Iraq war, archeologists began digging in ancient Jewish communities. Under every home, they found an incantation bowl, or sorcery cup, about six inches across.
“They all come from Iraq, unearthed by archeologists,” Anton said. “All of these bowls are unique. They were composed by sorcerers for clients, buried under person’s house, to protect against sickness and ward off demons. They call upon Jewish angels, quote from the Torah or Mishnah. This is the only archeological evidence we have from fourth to sixth centuries when the Talmud is being created. In the 1800s, they found them and were ashamed. When the Iraq war happened, there was no security, and looters and archeologists flooded Iraq. This is people going to ruins to dig. They found these bowls under every house where they looked. Thousands of them found their way into museums. These were under every house. This is what everyone was doing. Suddenly the study of Jewish magic became cool.”
Magic had its rules and regulations.
“The Talmud has a lot to say about sorcery,” Anton said. “Sorcery is the province of women. The rabbis have rules – when you need an amulet spell, how do you find an expert, how do you know it works? They want you to go buy the amulets.”
For example, “The magical procedure to protect yourself in the privy is wash yourself three times and say a prayer as you come out,” Anton said.
“There is a place in the Talmud where the rabbis consult the head sorceress,” Anton said. “These were not a bunch of wacko ladies living in caves. The rabbis consult them a lot and tell you how to find a competent one. If it’s their wives and mothers, of course they’re respectable. They have to be literate to be able to write one.”
But it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a prayer and an incantation, she said.
“It’s a fuzzy line, whether it’s a prayer or blessing, or if you’re conjuring demons or angels. The Jewish incantations are almost always directed toward angels, to dispel demons. It would look to us like a prayer for protection. During the Enlightenment, Jews tried to distance themselves from superstitious stuff.”
Echoes of the old incantations remained.
“We have prayers in every service, prayers for healing, with the name of the person’s mother,” Anton said. “If you have a blessing, a healing blessing, that’s done with the name of the mother.”
The tradition of Jewish sorcery is indisputable, she said.
“Catholics pray to the saints,” Anton said. “Most of these Jewish incantations are directed to angels. God is too busy running things. God has a big bureaucracy. When you want something, you go to the secretary, the guy behind the counter; they saw the angels as part of the bureaucracy.”
Modern-day Judaism is a bit conflicted about this bit of Hebrew history, she said.
“It’s embarrassing; it’s superstitious,” Anton said.
The parts of the Talmud she writes about are not taught in rabbinical schools.
“It’s scattered all through there – how to find a good amulet maker, a proven spell,” Anton said. “If you’re sick; you need protection from sickness or healing, you can wear an amulet on the Sabbath, but only a proven amulet written by an expert. Some of the discussions just come from out of nowhere. The Talmud is not organized in as good a fashion as you would like. There are certain sections that everybody studies. But that’s a small section.”
But experts on the Talmud know about the magic spells. “They know it’s there,” she said. She keeps bibliography and footnotes, in case anyone questions the validity of her research.
Rav Hisda was a real Tamudic scholar, and his daughter, Hisdadukh, the heroine of her novel, is mentioned in the Talmud nearly two dozen times, she said.
“He’s a historical guy who really lived,” she said of Rav Hisda. “She (the daughter) is mentioned in more places than any other woman. There’s a scene in the Talmud where the rabbi is teaching and she’s in the classroom. He calls up his two best students. He asks which one she wants to marry. She answers, ‘Both of them.’ The younger one says, ‘I’ll be the last.’ First she marries the older boy, has kids, is widowed, then marries the second, and has more kids. I read that and said, ‘I’ve got to write her story.’”
“Most of my audience is women,” Anton said. “People are finding it fascinating. This is not something they learned in religious school, this is not something they learned from their rabbis preaching. This is not what Judaism is now, and we don’t want everybody out there making amulets and incantation bowls.”
Anton uses her novels to take people back in time to a very real period of history.
“When they read my novels, they’re there,” she said. “They’re experiencing it.”
For Anton, it’s a fun period of Jewish history.
“I like to write about a time period when there’s no persecution, no pogroms,” Anton said.
“I want a happy ending, a satisfying ending, in a time period when things are good for my people. There are times when things were good.”
Anton said there’s still magic spells out there today.
“In a Judaica shop on Long Island, I was looking for amulets, and I bought one of the most common ones,” Anton said. “It has a spell from Talmud, to protect merchants on the road, a traveler’s prayer, or blessing. It looks like a keychain. There’s lots of that ancient magic that still permeates Judaism in ways that people don’t realize what it is.”