This week, Mag­gie Anton — the 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 mag­icThe Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs 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 is the author his­tor­i­cal tril­o­gy Rashi’s Daugh­ters. Her new series, Rav His­da’s Daugh­ter, set in 3rd-cen­tu­ry Baby­lo­nia as the Tal­mud is being cre­at­ed, was a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist and Library Jour­nal’s choice for Best His­tor­i­cal Fic­tion. A Los Ange­les native, Mag­gie worked for 33 years as a clin­i­cal chemist for Kaiser Per­ma­nente before becom­ing an author.