Book Review: Rav Hisda’s Daughter


— Reviewer: Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Fascinating reading and learning surprises await those who dive into the vividly depicted world of Babylonian Jewry in Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book I: Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery by Maggie Anton who earlier brought us the remarkable historical fiction series Rashi’s Daughters. Anton succeeds brilliantly in drawing us into the formative period leading up to the Talmud. This was a time when most in the third century Persian culture — men, women and children, sages and commoners, Jews and gentiles – wore amulets, incantation bowls and spells for protection from demons and disease, and in hopes of fertility, healing and good fortune. Yes, this is all well documented right in the Talmud, a typically 37 volume work that emerges after the time of this story, aspects of which are elegantly embroidered into the Rav Hisda’s Daughter‘s narrative. Anton also incorporates Jewish ownership of slaves during this time, rabbinic laws and customs re menstruation, along with betrothal and marriage law by means of the engaging tools of good fiction.

More after the jump.

What is the Talmud? Redacted memories, stories and teachings on Jewish laws and customs. Components are the Mishna, quoting sages who lived from about 100 BCE to 200 CE called the Tanaim. The Gemara surrounds the Mishna, with interpretations and debates from 200 CE to about 500 CE and these sages are known as Amoraim. Also on most Talmud edition pages are sages known as Rishonim and Tosefta/Tosafot, 1,000 C.E. until 1,500 C.E. There is both the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) reflecting shared, although sometimes differently remembered teachings, as well as unique topics and stories.

Anton helpfully contextualizes aspects of the Talmudic record that appear heretical and discomforting when viewed from the contemporary practice of traditional Judaism. She shows us a century when people, Jews and their non-Jewish compatriots believed in demons as they died like flies of plagues, infections and the absence of lifesaving antibiotics and other essential medications. These were times when a women’s primary apparent value to society was her ability to reproduce amply and run a household. Anton’s redemptive thesis reveals how what we would view as magical thinking and behavior would, or could, have been a form of prayer and much sought-after professional community service. For example:

“Inscribing an amulet is like praying?”
Kimchit stared at me with her small, beady eyes. “Exactly. Once you’ve met the clients and heard their sad stories, you’ll want to help them,” she said. “As you write the protective spell, you pray with all your heart that Heaven heed your words, so your compassion imbues the amulet with healing power.” [Page 84]

Anton goes on to document the validity for pious Jews of such an activity as amulet making by citing the Talmudic words of the famed male sage Abba: “…What is a reliable amulet? One that has cured three people.”

The incantations provided are the richly fascinating ones, for example:

“Health and guarding and sealing from Heaven from Ahai bar Mevrat and Kimota bat Horan, their house, possessions, sons, daughters, and fetus. By the ban of Bugdana, king of shaydim and satans, ruler of liliths, whether male or female, I adjust that you be struck in the membrane of your heart by the spear of Tikas the Mighty…..sealed with the signet ring of Solomon ben David, King of Israel. Amen. Amen. Amen. Selah.” [Page 154]

Incredibly strange, isn’t it?-given that the Torah outright prohibits the practice of witchcraft! A few examples:

“You shall not suffer a witch to live.” Ex 22:17 <blockquote>
Mekasefa is the word for witch used in this verse, a term which Anton draws on throughout the volume.

“You shall not eat any thing with the blood; neither shall you use enchantment, nor observe times.” Lev. 19:26

This phrase meaning an auspicious conjunctions of constellations, i.e., astrology is retained in the Shehecheyanu prayer.

“There shall not be found among you any one that … uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer, for all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord.” Deut. 18:10-12

Jewish Witches after the Biblical Period?

Here in Rav Hisda’s Daughter, what we have is the work of a master craftswoman set upon repairing a major gap in Jewish literature and understanding of our own past. Maggie Anton is forging a repair that goes even deeper than history, for her story gives insight into how to approach contemporary encounters with what Phyllis Trible dubbed religious “Texts of Terror” against women (Texts of Terror:  Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives  (Overtures to Biblical Theology)). In pre-modern Judaism any collection of these include “You shall not allow a female witch to live,” and also famously:

‘R. Simeon ben Shetah hanged eighty witches in Ashkelon, these being women who had lived in a single cave and who had ‘harmed the world.’ [Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Hagigah 2:2; by context we infer these were not Jewish witches, though others in the Talmud are.]

An on-line article by Meir bar Ilan makes an excellent study complement to Rav Hisda’s Daughter, it is based on his book Some Jewish Women in Antiquity and demonstrates the Biblical and Talmudic magical actions and books of Jewish men. In fact, two “how-to guides” became available:

“The books of witchcraft of the Talmudic era, Harba de Mosheh and Sefer HaRazim, are attributed to males, and many of the examples in the Talmud deal with men (including some who were titled Rav) who were involved in witchcraft.” [Ibid.]

Bar Ilan notes that the great Amora (scholar of his times), Amemar sought out the counsel of a known kesefa, according to the Talmud Bavli Pesachim 110a and, in 111a, the men of the Talmud easily described such practices, for example:  

“If two women sit at a crossroads, one on this side and the other on the other side, and they face one another – they are certainly engaged in witchcraft.” [Ibid.]

In the Babylonian Talmud [Gittin 45a] girls are cited in patrilineal format: “The daughters of R. Nachman stirred a (presumably boiling) pot with their bare hands…they stirred the pot with witchcraft.” [Ibid.] Meir bar Ilan further includes a worthwhile, extended study of Sota 22a where “a maiden who gives herself up to prayer, a gadabout widow and a minor whose months are not completed – these bring about the destruction of the world.” The sin here? The thirteenth century Rabbinic commentator Rashi is emphatic: “witchcraft”. [Ibid.]

Among the many examples of occult practices by Talmudic sages that we studied in rabbinical school, one finds the Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai performing an exorcism by removing a spirit which had entered into the body of the emperor’s daughter [Talmud Bavli Me’ilah 17b], and in another text, he places an evil eye on his opponent and turns him into a heap of bones [Talmud Yerushalmi Shevi’it 9:1, 38d]. In the words of bar Ilan:

“If R. Simeon bar Yohai carried out actions beyond the realm of the laws of nature, that was a miracle, but if a woman carried out the same action, that was witchcraft. Similarly, if Moses threw a staff and it turned to a snake, that was a miracle and a sign from God, but if a non-Jew did that same action, it was witchcraft. It thus follows that, in ancient times, the boundary between the miracle and witchcraft depended not only on the person’s religion, but also on the person’s sex.” [Ibid.]

Drawing on such distinctions, the persecution of women as witches was carried from Judaism into Christianity, only to result in Salem and other witch burnings. As is well-known, tens of thousands of women were killed based on allegations of witchcraft, and very few men, within a two hundred year period.

Revisiting the times that contributed to such misogynous terror crimes is hard and holy work. What a blessing for Anton to be born in the age of computerized key word searching of the 63 Talmud tractates (approximately 6000 printed pages)! Looking for women who are mentioned or quoted in the Talmud is the needle-in-a-haystack task many women rabbis took up starting way back in the challenging days of organizing notes handwritten on index cards. Anton’s field notes list consultation with topic rabbinic and doctoral scholars in the field.

Who Was Rav Hisda? Why His Daughter?


Map from Parshablog

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Babylonian Jewry established major academies of learning at Nehardea, Sura and Pumpedita, in the region today known as Iraq. Sura, where Rav Hisda primarily lived and taught, would have been just south of today’s Bagdad. Benjamin of Tudela reported that when he reached Sura in the 1170s he found only ruins, but that a significant Jewish community then remained in Pumpedita (A History of the Jews).

Hisda is known for being one of the sharpest sages of his time, as well as for his appreciation of the “power of leniency” when interpreting Jewish law and applying it (Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations). In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat, [folio 140b] we also find a passage where Rav Hisda teaches his daughters the art of sexual foreplay.

So it is both fitting and wonderful that this story of Rav Hisda’s Daughter focuses substantially upon Anton envisioning her apprenticing to a woman who makes amulets and incantation bowls. While the story line’s resolution is disappointingly obvious from the get-go and Jewish holidays seem more described than experienced for their spiritual force, Anton effectively opens the times to us through a pleasurable texture similar to the details of dreams that unfold wonders. This is ever so fitting, since Rav Hisda famously observes: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter unread.” [Babylonian Talmud 55a]

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany, houses the original, massive cerulean and gold tiled gates of King Nebuchadnezzar; it was his forces that captured the Israelites’ First Temple. Those who have witnessed those astonishingly beautiful gates will be afforded heightened appreciation for Anton’s vivid, almost tactile written descriptions of the arts of the period. Nebuchadnezzar’s forces massively slaughtered Jewish families and then exiled survivors to Babylonia in 586 BCE. Turn to the Book of Lamentations, Eichah, to appreciate the excruciating pain of the first wave of exiled ancestors. Later descendants of these Babylonian Jewish exiles would come to live and prosper under the tolerance of the Zoroastrians. By contrast, those Judean Jews who remained behind would live under the Roman Empire, the Second Temple would be destroyed, Rome would become a Christian land called Palestinia, and Jewish power, though not presence, would be extinguished there until our own times.

The Early Sages–Initially, a Legend in Their Own Minds

Curiously, as Anton reminds us, contemporary scholarship teaches that academies like the one at Sura, were minor enclaves with little influence on the dominant Judaism of the third through fifth centuries CE. Yet their discussions, redacted into generations of material within the Talmud, would come to be foundational to the evolution of Judaism up to this day. Anton agreeably positions a number of traditional Jewish legal debates and principles within the family life of Hisda’s Daughter, allowing her to sit in and have us listen-in through her experience. Here is an example of how she incorporates the norm that during this time anyone who incurred debt might well have to sell themselves into slavery until having paid off that debt, even into the home of a prominent Jewish sage:

“I stared at the circle of maidservants sitting in the courtyard, grinding wheat in time to the songs they sang. It was grueling labor, twisting pestle against mortar from before sunrise through midday, until there was enough flour for all that day’s bread. Thought I had already thanked Elohim in morning prayers for not making me a slave, I thanked Him again.

The Mishna said that if a bride provides only one slave as her dowry, that slave grinds grain, bakes bread, and does laundry instead of the bride. And if she provides two slaves, the second one cooks and nurses the children. Apparently women too poor to bring even one slave as a dowry didn’t marry.

But Father told us that this Mishna was contradicted by a Baraita, which taught that a wife is only for beauty and for having children, and thus not for tasks like grinding and baking that could mar her appearance. I was surprised that he’d made no attempt to resolve the contradiction between the Mishna and Baraita, for if a wife was only for beauty, what happened to the women who brought less than four slaves as a dowry?” [page 24]

Finding and Creating Names for Jewish Women of Antiquity

Anton does us the mitzvah of zachor in creating Rav Hisda’s Daughter — researching, reclaiming and “re-membering” the little-recorded lives of Jewish women and girls retroactively into our people’s history. The volume title illustrates how even the names of those of female gender were rarely recorded in sacred text by the sages of patriarchal times; instead they were generically female–“daughter”–and labeled by paternal descent (unless only the mother’s line was known, such as due to rape in war).

Hisda and his wife or wives had two daughters and seven sons. So, one might wonder, which daughter does the Talmud mean when it offers the line upon which Anton hangs her tale of a girl who, when asked which of two young men she wants to marry, oddly answers “both.” Anton chooses to position both girls into our historical awareness by fashioning diverse destinies and personalities for each.

Maggie Anton (pictured to the left) provides evocative imagery, such as the “smell of boiling pomegranates,” the color and texture of silks, the tiling of mosaics with, yes, women’s images on synagogue floors, the fragrance of love, the scent of fear and the hormonal surge of having your feet washed by the one to whom you are betrothed, which brings us fully into each moment of the life of Rav Hisda’s daughter, whom Anton names Histadukh. In a cool bit of interpretation of the incantations and signage on bowls that were placed upside down to capture demons on the street in rabbinic times, Maggie Anton points out in her notes that the term “dukh-daughter” is appended to the name of the father to yield female names on these items and so dubs her main character, Rav Hisda’s daughter — Hisdadukh. This idea can also be bolstered, perhaps, by the practice found to this day in Iceland, where children’s last names go by the mother’s first name, e.g., Adam Goldieson, Karen Gertsdottir, etc. The Talmud itself offers an approach to naming females in an intra-textual commentary on the story of three types of women said to bring devastation to the world, where one alleged witch is named: “Yohani daughter of Retibi” (Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Sourcebook on Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World).

Rav Hisda’s Daughter joins the annals of great historical fiction beside Jewish examples such as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent: A Novel, and Deena Metzger’s What Dinah Thought; the novels of Hayyim Grade also come to mind. Expect authentic period depth and delights when reading a work of historical fiction by Maggie Anton. Let’s hope the next in the Rav Hisda’s Daughter series comes through soon.