What do the tales of “The Arabian Nights” have in common with the Talmud? Historical novelist Maggie Anton has the answer: Magic. Rabbis at the time of the Babylonian Talmud are even said to have consorted with jinni released from bottles. “ ‘Open, sesame!’ This is that time,” jokes Anton.
She points out that the Mishebeirach prayer for healing, as well as the Tefillat Ha-Derech (traveler’s prayer), derive from Jewish incantations. And an ancient spell designed to ward off the demons one might encounter in the privy “is kind of the basis of the prayer Asher Yatzar,” which traditional Jews today say as a blessing after using the bathroom.
Anton is the author of the wildly popular trilogy “Rashi’s Daughters” and of the National Jewish Book Award finalist “Apprentice,” the first in her new “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series of novels set in fourth century C.E. Babylonia. The newly released second volume, “Enchantress,” picks up the story of Hisdadukh, a sorceress and the daughter of Rav Hisda, one of the most famed Babylonian scholars of his generation.
Anton will give a series of book talks on “Enchantress” throughout the Bay Area, beginning Sunday, Dec. 7 in San Francisco and Los Gatos.
The author fleshes out a sprawling cast of characters who come straight from the pages of the Talmud, which Anton has studied for more than 20 years. “Enchantress,” far more than its predecessor, makes the force of magic in ancient Jewish life palpable, with Hisdadukh’s lover and later husband, Rava, conjuring a golem, and the two of them facing off against the demon Ashmedai and even the Angel of Death in order to protect the community.
For some readers, magic and Judaism don’t mix. “Some of them think I made a lot of it up,” says Anton, a lifelong Los Angeles resident. “A few people were kind of offended, and said, ‘How could you have these great rabbis doing magic, it’s an offense against Jewish law.’” Yet, she says, “All this magic is authentic.”
During the course of writing “Enchantress,” Anton reviewed original sources and corresponded extensively with scholars specializing in the history of Jewish magic. In “Enchantress,” Hisdadukh applies the lore of potions, healing spells, amulets and incantation bowls she learned as an apprentice sorceress, and readers are drawn into a powerful network of female healers that Anton posits could very well have actually coexisted alongside the early rabbinic academies. While “the historian must be correct,” Anton says, “the historical novelist just cannot be wrong.”
The spells Hisdadukh uses come not only from Talmud, but from actual magic manuals of the time and from sources unearthed by scholars in the Cairo Genizah.
“Especially after you study Talmud a bunch, you realize that what’s ‘against Jewish law’ depends on who’s interpreting Jewish law,” Anton says. Her research showed her the extent to which the sages of talmudic times needed to understand how magic worked — “and not only healing magic.” As custodians of the judicial system, they had to be ready should a sorceress come into court and cast a spell to cloud the perceptions of judges and witnesses. The rabbis “had to do sorcery better than anyone who would come into the court.”
“Enchantress” offers a richly detailed portrait of what Anton imagines the daily life of fourth-century Jewish women would have been like, and the real power she believes they had. She points to the thousands of examples archaeologists have discovered of “incantation bowls,” each written for a named individual client.
“If we accept the rabbis’ explanations that sorcery is the province of women,” she says, “who are the women who could write these spells” that quote Torah and Mishnah and use scholarly terms in Aramaic? This was “a tremendous amount of intellectual activity, and clearly the women who were doing it would be quite highly regarded. Obviously, they must be from rabbinic families, and that explains why the rabbis would be able to consult them so easily: They were their wives, their daughters, their sisters.”
Anton chose to begin her new series after becoming fascinated with mentions of “Rav Hisda’s daughter” in her reading. In a key talmudic passage that presented her with the germ of the novel, Hisdadukh is asked which of her father’s students she would like to marry: Rami bar Chama or Abba bar Joseph (Rava).
She answers, “Both!” Rava says he’ll be second, and that’s exactly what happens: “Enchantress” develops the intense push-pull of the attraction between Hisdadukh and Rava after the death of Rami, with the couple’s sharing of talmudic precepts serving as an unusually engaging kind of foreplay.
“Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter” by Maggie Anton (400 pages, Plume, $17)
Maggie Anton will discuss “Enchantress” at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. and 1 p.m. the same day at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos. For more book talks, see calendar, 38.