I don’t often run guest posts here on My Machberet, but I’ve admired Maggie Anton for such a long time–and she asked me so nicely!–that I had to agree to her request. I hope you’ll enjoy discovering “three surprising things” that she learned about Jewish history while researching her latest novel, Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter, which has been described as “a novel that weaves together Talmudic lore, ancient Jewish magic, and a timeless love story set in fourth-century Babylonia.”
Maggie Anton is the award-winning author of historical fiction series “Rashi’s Daughters” and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter.” She is a Talmud scholar, with expertise in Jewish women’s history. Intrigued that the great Talmudic scholar Rashi had no sons, only daughters, Anton researched the family and decided to write novels about them. Thus one acclaimed trilogy was born, to be followed by National Jewish Book Award finalist, Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice.
Please welcome Maggie Anton.
Three Surprising Things I Learned About Jewish History While Researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter
Guest Post by Maggie Anton
Before getting to what I learned, I will admit how little I knew. Although Talmud has been the source of Jewish law and traditions for over 1500 years, only a few scholars are familiar with the rabbinic community who produced it. I was aware that Rav Hisda’s daughter lived in fourth-century Babylonia while the Talmud was being created there. I was intrigued that when he asked her which of his two best students she wanted to marry, she then replied, “Both of them.” And when I found that she eventually did marry both men, I was determined to write her story. That’s when my research really started.
The first thing I learned, which was contrary to what I’d been led to believe in my twenty years of Talmud studies, was that the Sages were not a powerful and monolithic group whose tenets were followed by Jews everywhere. According to modern scholars, the several hundred rabbis named in the Talmud made up at most a thousand families among a million Babylonian Jews. These rabbis taught a small cadre of young men in their homes, not vast numbers of students in large academies. I was shocked to find that they were a beleaguered minority whose teachings were either rejected or ignored by most Jews of their time, Jews who were understandably skeptical of the rabbis’ self-appointed authority to institute new practices after the Holy Temple’s destruction.
The second discovery was that Babylonia at this time was ruled not by pagans, but by monotheist Zoroastrians whose beliefs and traditions were surprisingly similar to Judaism – particularly the Torah’s prominent precepts of a hereditary priesthood, complicated impurity rules, and the mitzvah of procreation. Many Jewish beliefs promulgated in the Talmud–such as divine judgment after one died, followed by reward or punishment in the Afterlife–originated in Zoroastrianism.
But the most astonishing thing I learned was the prevalence, even ubiquity, of sorcery among the same people who gave us Talmud. Early in my research I came across a corpus of information about Babylonian Magic Bowls, the only archaeological evidence we have for the time and place the Talmud was created. Unearthed beneath homes in what is now Iraq, these consisted of common household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the home’s inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, which were believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy, and other such misfortune. Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote Torah, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Some quote Mishna and the rabbinic divorce formula.
I soon discovered that the Talmud mentions magic in every tractate. Some rabbis cast spells or wrote amulets themselves, but generally they maintained that sorcery was the province of women. The Talmud explains that the Torah passage about not allowing a sorceress to live only applied to pagans, not to Jewish women whose magic was for healing and protection. Many of these apatropaic spells and rituals are detailed in the Talmud, and in no case is a sorceress punished or even criticized. Rabbis quoted and consulted these skilled professionals, among whom was Rav Hisda’s daughter, who knew the magic procedure to defend against demons in the privy.
Eventually I concluded that the Jewish enchantresses who inscribed those Babylonian Magic Bowls were the wives and daughters of rabbis, for what other women back then would be sufficiently literate and learned? The power that people believed they wielded over angels and demons would have made them esteemed and formidable healers, not at all the reviled and wretched back-alley conjurers I’d imagined.
And that, to me, was the most surprising thing of all.
To learn more about Maggie Anton and her books, please visit MaggieAnton.com.