By Maggie Anton
Maggie Anton is justly praised for the drama, suspense, and romance in her splendid three volumes about Rashi’s daughters and the first book in this series on Rav Hisda’s Daughter. This book continues the story in book one, which was subtitled “Apprentice.” In Book one, as a young girl, Rav Hisda’s daughter Hisdadukh was asked which of two of her father’s preeminent students she would want to marry Rami bar Chama or Rava. She answers both. Her first husband, Rami, died and she began her studies of enchantments. We read how the famed scholar Rava, who is also knowledgeable of the secret arts and sometimes uses it, began to pursue her, wanting to marry her after Rami’s death. We read also of her conflict with other women who practiced the magical arts and who are jealous of her skills. In this second book, we read how she is seeking to improve her skill, her relationship with Rava, how she uses her new skills, and how she and Rava fight an evil sorceress.
Anton’s novel brings talmudic society to life and is an excellent and enjoyable introduction to aspects of that life, especially the superstitious beliefs of the period that most people do not know. She draws her tale from many talmudic and historical sources – the story of Hisdadukh’s marriage preference, for example, is in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 12b – which she embellishes with poetic license.
Rav Hisda lived in Babylon and died there in 320 CE at age 92. Many Jews had been exiled to Babylon after the temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE and their descendants remained there until the present time. Hisda was a leading teacher of Judaism. He had at least seven sons and two daughters. His student Rava, Hisdadukh’s second husband (270-352), was one of the most oft-quoted rabbis in the Talmud, and Judaism generally follows his opinions when other rabbis disagree with him. He did have to defend the authority of rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, called “Oral Law,” against Jews who wanted to observe only what is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, as mentioned in this book.
Some readers may be bothered to read how the Jews believed in the efficacy of magic and how they practiced enchantments, but this was true. The Jews at the time, as Jews and non-Jews today, were influenced by the people among whom they lived. Readers will find an excellent discussion of three talmudic sections dealing with rabbis and magic, including the creation by magic of a calf and then eating it on the Shabbat, by the 2014 Israel Prize Winner, the noted scholar Professor Shamma Friedman. It is in “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Can Source-Criticism Perform Magic on Talmudic Passages about Sorcery?” Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia, ed. Tal Ilan, Ronit Nikolsky, Leiden: Brill, 2014, pp. 32-83.