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How to Find an Expert Sorceress, According to the Talmud

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 | Permalink
This week, Maggie Antonthe author of the Rashi's Daughters series and, most recently, Rav Hisda's Daugther: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorceryblogs for The Postscript on naming her heroine and discovering a Jewish tradition of ancient magic The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Maggie at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

I was inspired to write about Rav Hisda’s daughter by a small section of Talmud. She is approximately nine years old and sitting in her father’s classroom when he calls up his two best students and asks her, “Whom do you want to marry?” Astonishingly she replies, “Both of them.” Immediately, the younger of the two says, “I’ll be the last one.” And that, the Talmud tells us, is what happened. She marries the older student and is widowed, followed by the younger.

Understandably, I was impressed. I knew if anyone were going to write this girl’s story, it would be me.

Once I decided to write about Rav Hisda’s daughter (that’s what the Talmud calls her), I confronted the problem of finding a name for her. I couldn’t use one from the Talmud since those belonged to other women. What I needed to name my heroine, and various female secondary characters, was a primary source of Jewish women’s names from 3rd-4th century Babylonia. Not that I had hopes of finding such a thing.

To my surprise, I discovered something called Babylonian incantation bowls, amulets consisting of magic spells written on common pottery, then buried under a client’s house. Particular to the Talmudic period, thousands have been unearthed in modern Iraq. The texts are clearly Jewish: Aramaic written in Hebrew letters, they call upon Jewish angels, use Jewish names for God, and quote Torah. The vast majority are written for protection from illness and other misfortunes caused by demons, curses, and the Evil Eye.

What excited me was that the incantations included the names of the clients, and their mothers’ names. Many were published, providing me with hundreds of authentic Jewish women’s names from the exact time and place I needed. So I wondered what the Talmud had to say about them, and about demons and magic in general. Amazingly, this was quite a lot.

Rabbis, including Rav Hisda, cast spells, but the Talmud is adamant that sorcery is the province of women. Not evil witches, but professional amulet scribes and healers. In one case a rabbi consults the head sorceress, indicating a hierarchy and organization. The Talmud instructs us how to find an expert sorceress and how to know if her spells are proven. I learned that Rav Hisda’s daughter herself knew enough magic to protect her husband from demons in the privy.

Which meant that my heroine was a sorceress, perhaps one who inscribed incantations bowls – since what Jewish women except those from rabbinic families would be so educated and literate? Since I had to start this novel when she was a child, to include that scene with the two students, then I would have to show how she became a sorceress and what they did.

So my book got a new, unexpected, subtitle: A Novel of Love, the Talmud and Sorcery. And I became an expert on ancient Jewish magic, a subject I didn’t know existed before.

Want authentic snacks to eat at your book club meeting? Try dried fruits such as apricots, peaches, figs and dates (of course), as well as nuts like almonds and pistachios. 

To read more from Maggie, see her Visiting Scribe posts here

Maggie Anton on Jews and the First Crusade

Friday, September 04, 2009 | Permalink

In her last posts Maggie Anton, the author of the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, reviewed Elie Wiesel’s Rashi and wrote on being a historical novelist.

When I first decided to write a trilogy of historical novels about Rashi’s daughters, one for each, I knew that the third book, on Rachel, would contain scenes occurring in the First Crusade. In particular I would be writing about the destruction of Rhineland Jewry in the Spring of 1096. Anticipating that researching this subject could be painful, I deliberately put it off as long as possible. And while some ‘eyewitness’ accounts were indeed horrific, I discovered that much of what I thought I knew about how the First Crusade affected European Jewry was more misconception than reality.

The biggest misconception Jews have about the First Crusade is that it directly caused the destruction of medieval French and German Jewry. But it is only with 20-20 hindsight that we can see European Jews beginning to lose status and anti-Semitism rising after the First Crusade. Judging by its almost complete absence in contemporaneous Jewish writings, most Jews took little notice of events in the Rhineland in 1096, just as they had ignored the Berbers’ destruction of Jewish life in Tunisia fifty years earlier. A large number of people were killed during the First Crusade, and the 10,000 German Jews who died, either by their own hand or at the hands of crusaders, was dwarfed by the over 100,000 peasants of the People’s Crusade who perished without reaching the Holy Land and tens of thousands of knights who died on the journey.

Yet I firmly believe that the First Crusade was instrumental in bringing about the Jews’ decline – first for economic reasons. Until the crusaders came en masse to Byzantium and the Holy Land, Jews had a monopoly on long distance trade between Christian Europe and the Muslim Levant, buying surplus produce cheap in one locale and selling at a profit in the other. Franks and Germans paid high prices for silk and spice, just as Egyptians and Arabs paid high prices for woolens and wine, with neither group knowing how little these items cost in their native lands.

Once Christians reached the Levant, two things happened: 1) they grew angry at how the Jews had ‘overcharged’ them; 2) they realized how profitable the business was and [Italians in particular] became merchants themselves. In less than 100 years, the great Italian city-states had not only broken the Jewish trading monopoly, they had supplanted the Jews as the chief financial powers in Europe. Over the same time period, the rise of craftsman’s guilds affiliated with specific churches [which obviously excluded Jews] led to further limiting of Jews’ choice of occupations. Given a choice between doing business with Jews and Christians, most Europeans patronized their compatriots, further eroding the Jews’ income.

But the massacres of the First Crusade had another, more insidious, effect on relations between Christians and Jews. Christians were horrified to see Jews kill themselves to avoid baptism. They were outraged that Jews would kill their own children rather than let them be captured, and the only explanation Christians could imagine was that Jews were somehow lacking in human feelings. It was only a small step to believe that Jews must be something other than human, something less than human, demonic even. Judaism was no longer Christianity’s ‘little brother’ who shared the same Bible, but an enemy of Christianity with its own heretical text, the Talmud.

Jews, knowing that German burghers opened their city gates to the crusading hordes and joined in their attacks, began to distrust Christians in general. Each side viewed the other with increasing enmity. When many German Jews who were forced to apostatize returned to Judaism [and were viewed as heretics by the Church], those who remained Christians were never quite accepted. The expansion of the Inquisition, originally created to root out Cathars and Albigensians, focused the Church’s attention not only on converted Jews suspected of being Christians in name only, but also on Jews who encouraged their former coreligionists to backslide. No one with Jewish ‘blood’ was safe from their scrutiny, and anyone with a grudge against either a Jew or former Jew had only to report them to the Church to get revenge. Thus anti-Semitism grew into a thriving entity that has continued for almost 1000 years, one that was only indirectly caused by the First Crusade.

Maggie Anton’s newest book, Rashi’s Daughters, Book III: Rachel: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France, is now available. Visit http://www.rashisdaughters.com, her official website.

Maggie Anton on Being a Historical Novelist

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 | Permalink

In her last post Maggie Anton, the author of the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, reviewed Elie Wiesel’s Rashi. Below, Anton writes on being a historical novelist.

Because the main characters in my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy are real, historical figures, the family of the great medieval Jewish scholar, my readers are both concerned and curious about what is fact and what is fiction in my novels. This important consideration leads to a basic question: what is the difference between a historian and a historical novelist? Answer: the historian must be right, but the historical novelist cannot be wrong. In other words, as long as nobody can prove the fiction author is mistaken, she can write what she likes. Legally, you cannot libel the dead.

But the novelist must have some integrity. Obviously if forks weren’t invented until the 14th century, then Rashi’s family, living in the 11th century, can’t use them. Yet because nobody knows what my heroines did for a living, I felt free to make Miriam a midwife and Rachel a clothier. After all, the majority of long-distance trade, a Jewish monopoly at this time, involved luxury woolens and silk. And there were certainly plenty of midwives in medieval France [it’s not as if I made Rashi a midwife]. The author must also be accurate about details such as what her characters eat, how they dress, where they lived. For Rashi’s household, this meant I had to know what was Jewish Law in his community and how it differed from halacha today. And since I considered my characters sophisticated enough to gossip about local court politics, I insisted on ferreting out events and scandals that actually occurred in Champagne and Paris, as well as the names of the nobles and clerics involved.

What about legends? Certainly a novelist should weave legends into the story, perhaps excepting those that have been absolutely discredited. But the details should be authentic. Not everyone agrees that Rashi was a vintner, but when I chose to give him this profession, I became an expert on medieval winemaking. One famous legend says that Rashi’s daughters were learned in a time when most women were forbidden to study the holy texts. So I created realistic scenes in which their father first began to teach them, then decide what texts they’d study and how their husbands and communities would react to this breach of custom. When I discovered a legend that Rashi’s daughters wrote his Talmud commentary on Tractate Nedarim [which is definitely not his], I couldn’t resist having them write it in the final volume of the trilogy, Book III–Rachel.

One final caveat. If the author wants to invoke legends, or even write something with no evidence whatsoever, she owes it to her readers to inform them of this in an afterword or ‘note to readers’ at the novel’s conclusion.”

Maggie Anton’s newest book, Rashi’s Daughters, Book III: Rachel: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France, is now available. Visit http://www.rashisdaughters.com, her official website.

Maggie Anton Reviews Elie Wiesel’s “Rashi”

Tuesday, September 01, 2009 | Permalink

Maggie Anton, the author of the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, reviews Elie Wiesel’s RashiThe final book in the Rashi’s Daughters series, Rachel: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France, was just released.

I haven’t looked forward to a book’s release so much since the final installment of Harry Potter. Here is a new biography of Rashi [1040-1105], part of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounter series, written by one of Judaism’s most revered living authors, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Who better to write about Rashi, the French Talmud scholar, than Wiesel, who attended yeshiva as a youth, found asylum in France after surviving Auschwitz, and went on to study at the Sorbonne?

Wiesel’s Rashi, originally written in French, is a love story between the author and Rashi, who lived and died in Troyes, capital of the province of Champagne. Rashi, an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, wrote commentaries on the entire Hebrew Bible and nearly the entire Talmud. The greatest of Jewish scholars, more Jews study his words every day than all the other scholars put together.

But Rashi isn’t just words on a page; he was a writer whose personality and opinions permeate his works, a father with three learned daughters in a time when women were forbidden to study the holy texts, and a teacher who attracted a cadre of disciples who wrote devotedly of the teachings they’d “received from his mouth.”

In this slim volume, Wiesel writes a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ remembrance beginning with what he learned from Rashi as a child, then expanded with legends, musings about Rashi’s commentary on Genesis, and finally, comparisons between the First Crusade, which took place towards the end of Rashi’s life, and the Holocaust, which stole Wiesel’s youth and became the force behind his own prodigious writings. Throughout the book, Wiesel asks questions about the medieval scholar who so influenced his childhood. Yet not all his questions get answered. Like Rashi, Wiesel admits that there are things he doesn’t know.

There are only four chapters, less than 80 pages of text. The first chapter, titled “Impressions,” recounts Rashi’s life and places him in a community, country, and historical setting. Legends abound, and Wiesel is careful to label them as such. Considering his own history, Wiesel can be forgiven for focusing so heavily on the adversities that Jews of Rashi’s time suffered, yet he admits that “in the eleventh century … Jews in Europe and in the Holy Land lived in relative safety.”

During Rashi’s lifetime there were no ghettos, no Inquisition, no blood libels, and no restrictions on Jews’ occupations – these come much later. In fact, Rashi lived at the beginning of what is known as the twelfth-century Renaissance.

Chapter Two, “Biblical Commentaries,” opens with the first line of Genesis and Rashi’s reply as to why the Bible begins with creation and not with the first commandment. Wiesel then continues with selected commentaries on the Garden of Eden, Noah, Abraham and the other Patriarchs, through the death of Jacob in Egypt. I admit I was pleased to see that Wiesel included some of Rashi’s rather “feminist” opinions, such as Adam bearing blame for eating the forbidden fruit — because, by blaming Eve, “Adam showed his lack of gratitude to God for giving him the woman.”

Rashi was not shy about discussing sexual matters in Genesis, and Wiesel is not shy in sharing these. For example: what aroused the serpent’s interest in Eve? “He saw man and woman united sexually, and this excited him,” he writes.

Chapter Three races through Rashi’s commentary on the rest of the Bible — oh, if Wiesel had only included more of Rashi’s Talmud commentaries! — and concludes with some responsa, or legal queries sent to Rashi for judgment.

The fourth chapter, “Sadness and Memory,” returns to the massacres of the First Crusade, some in rather gruesome detail. Only at the final page do we hear about Rashi’s death, as it is mentioned in two different Talmud commentaries, one by his son-in-law and the other by his grandson.

Obviously such a small volume cannot possibly discuss every detail of Rashi’s life and work; even ten such books could not. What is impressive is how beautifully Wiesel gives us a glimpse at what lies behind Rashi’s greatness, a taste of Rashi’s erudition and vast corpus of work.

Some say that Rashi allows us to swim in the sea of Talmud, but Wiesel eloquently writes: “Without him, I would have gone astray more than once in the gigantic labyrinth that is the Babylonian Talmud.” However one describes it, Rashi’s commentary is what keeps us from drowning or getting lost in this otherwise opaque text. And since Judaism as we know it is based on the Talmud — how we celebrate our holidays, observe our lifecycle events, prepare our food, run our businesses, how we relate to our Creator — if Rashi hasn’t given us the ability to understand Talmud, Judaism today would either not exist or be a very different religion.

Maggie Anton’s newest book, Rashi’s Daughters, Book III: Rachel: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France, is now available. Visit http://www.rashisdaughters.com, her official website.

Maggie Anton Shares Her Top 10 Books About Jewish Women

Thursday, July 09, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Naomi at the Jewish Publication Society just started a new series on the JPS Blog, where she asks JPS authors to recommend a list of ten books related to the subject matter they’ve written about themselves. She posted her first entry today, which featured Maggie Anton. To view Maggie Anton’s top 10 books about Jewish women, please visit here.