Rav His­da’s Daugh­ter: A Nov­el of Love, the Tal­mud, and Sorcery

By – April 20, 2012

Anoth­er excel­lent his­tor­i­cal nov­el from Mag­gie Anton, Rav Hisda’s Daugh­ter explores the life of a young Jew­ish woman on the cusp of adult­hood in third-cen­tu­ry Baby­lo­nia. After tragedy strikes, His­dadukh chal­lenges the lim­i­ta­tions of soci­ety, in part by becom­ing an expert in the ancient mag­ic prac­ticed by respect­ed women in her com­mu­ni­ty. She also trav­els to Israel; this is one of the strongest por­tions of the book. Anton’s fas­ci­nat­ing descrip­tions of Jew­ish life there pro­vide superb insight into the bur­geon­ing dif­fer­ences among Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties across the ancient world.

Just as insight­ful are the many dis­cus­sions of Jew­ish law and tra­di­tion from the third cen­tu­ry. These dis­cus­sions touch on a range of top­ics, from the stor­age of veg­eta­bles, to betrothal and mar­riage, to the prop­er cel­e­bra­tion of Passover. Anton draws from the full uni­verse of avail­able sources — includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to Bible, Mish­nah, and Tal­mud — to present com­pli­cat­ed dis­cus­sions in acces­si­ble form. As always, Anton’s book is a good intro­duc­tion to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish learn­ing, and per­haps, like Anton, read­ers will be moti­vat­ed to dis­cov­er the sources for themselves.

Also note­wor­thy is the inte­gra­tion of sec­u­lar his­tor­i­cal events into the nar­ra­tive. The Time Line’ is par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in this regard, as the recur­ring mil­i­tary strug­gles between Rome and Per­sia affect His­dadukh and her fam­i­ly in ways that the read­er will want to under­stand fully.

Those read­ers who enjoyed the Rashi’s Daugh­ters series will find this first book of Anton’s next series plea­sur­able, edu­ca­tion­al – and famil­iar. Much is the same despite the dif­fer­ent time and place, but Anton’s exten­sive research and high-qual­i­ty writ­ing bring con­text to life in a way that is ulti­mate­ly sat­is­fy­ing. Def­i­nite­ly worth the read – and be sure to check out the extra resources avail­able online. Cast of char­ac­ters, glos­sary, map, pref­ace, time line.

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Mag­gie Anton

  • How does the pro­logue set the tone for the nov­el? Why do you think the author reveals that His­dadukh will mar­ry both Rami and Abba right upfront? How does that alter the way you read the rest of the novel?

  • Why is His­dadukh embar­rassed by her response to her father when he asks her whether she would rather mar­ry Abba or or Rami? How does her fam­i­ly react? Con­sid­er­ing what comes to pass, do you believe there was any ele­ment of prophe­cy in her response?

  • How does the his­tor­i­cal set­ting frame the events of the nov­el? What tech­niques does the author employ to bring the sights and sounds of third-cen­tu­ry Baby­lon to life?

  • His­dadukh and her fam­i­ly believe that Rav Hisda’s piety pro­tects them from the evil eye. Does the nov­el ever give you any rea­son to doubt this? How does Rav Hisda’s piety affect how out­siders per­ceive his family?

  • How is the kind of sor­cery that His­dadukh, Rahel, Kim­chit and Em prac­tice linked to their Judaism? Dada ini­tial­ly won­ders why Rahel’s work doesn’t make her an evil kashafa — how does she come to rec­on­cile this?

  • We see in Rav Hisda’s class­es that often times there can be two right answers to the same ques­tion. How does the author jux­ta­pose the dis­cus­sions of the Mish­na and the Barai­ta against Hisdadukh’s rela­tion­ships with both Rami and Abba?

  • Did you expect Rav His­da to be angry when he dis­cov­ered that Dada’s grand­fa­ther was sleep­ing in her kiton with her? Why or why not? What did you learn about Baby­lo­nia cul­ture from the nov­el that sur­prised you?

  • Do Rami and Abba despise each oth­er only because they’re rivals for Hisdadukh’s affec­tion, or is there more to it than that? What did you make of Zahra and Pazi’s advice to Dada, that she should encour­age the two to get along with one another?

  • What did you per­ceive to be the dif­fer­ence between the rab­binic fam­i­lies and the am-ha’aretz? Does Dada’s opin­ion of the am-ha’aretz change over time? How so?

  • Why do you think Push­bi treats Achti so poor­ly? How does her behav­ior change after Tabi­ta curs­es her? What about Achti? What did you think about the way Achti treat­ed His­dadukh after Rami’s death?

  • How does His­dadukh cope with the many tri­als she faces? What role does her faith play? How does it change through­out the novel?

  • What do you think about the laws that gov­ern what hap­pens to a woman’s chil­dren in the event of her husband’s death? How do they align with oth­er aspects of Baby­lon­ian cul­ture at this time? Do you think they make sense with­in the con­text of the times?

  • Why does Dada decide to trav­el with her father to Israel? What makes her decide to stay there? Would you have done the same in her position?

  • Think about how upset Dada is when she learns that her father has entered into ini­tial nego­ti­a­tions to betroth her to Abba. How does Dada even­tu­al­ly come to love Abba? Can you trace the evo­lu­tion of her feelings?

  • Describe Dada’s friend­ship with Yochani. What do the two women offer one anoth­er? Why do you think their friend­ship blos­somed to quickly?

  • Why does Dada agree to mod­el for Sala­man? What ulti­mate­ly pre­vents her from mar­ry­ing him?

  • Do you blame Yehudit’s death on Sepphoris’s kashafa? Dada says that she blames her­self — why? What do you think of her rea­son­ing? What did you make of Abba’s con­fronta­tion with the kashafa?

  • The end­ing of the nov­el is hope­ful but not defin­i­tive. What do you imag­ine is next for His­dadukh? Can you imag­ine Abba and Dada’s mar­riage? How do you think it will dif­fer from her mar­riage to Rami, con­sid­er­ing what you know about each of the characters?