What is the world’s oldest profession? Author Maggie Anton thinks it might be sorcery. Anton grew up in a secular, socialist household with little knowledge of Judaism. She met David Parkhurst, who would become her husband, and the two embarked on a Jewish journey as adults.
When Anton began studying Talmud 20 years ago, she was fascinated by the tale of Rav Hisda’s daughter, who, when asked which of two Talmudic students of her father’s she wanted to marry, answered, “Both of them.” While Anton completed the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, figuring that 11th Century France was easier to research than 3rd Century Babylonia, her mind kept coming back to “that important place in Judaism’s history, a time when Constantine converted to Christianity, Israel became a Christian province and rabbis in Babylonia were fighting an uphill battle to keep Jews practicing religion.” It was, she said, “an intriguing, important, unknown time when rabbinic Judaism developed all sorts of laws defining kashrut, marriage, divorce and other ideas that are still being practiced today.”
As Anton was doing her research, other scholars were studying Babylonian incantation bowls from the same time period. Anton discovered the role of sorcery and magic, realizing that the bowls were written in literate Aramaic, “quote Torah a lot, were clearly written by Jewish writers and the Talmud has quite a bit to say about this.” The incantations on the bowls were for protection and healing, the Talmud said this was the province of women, “one has to be learned to write these things and it’s likely that the women were from rabbinic families,” according to Anton, who used the Talmud as her primary reference for the book.
Rav Hisda, one of the most prominent figures in the Talmud, was known to cast spells. The protagonist of the book, who was mentioned in more passages of Talmud than any other female, was his youngest child. Although unnamed in the Talmud, Anton named her Hisdadukh, or “daughter of Hisda,” as it would have been in Persian.
Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book I: Apprentice follows Hisdadukh from about the age of nine through her middle adulthood as she becomes a sorceress trainee, gets betrothed and then married, suffers personal tragedy and comes into her own as the possessor of magical powers. The book brings the world of the Talmud to life from a woman’s perspective.
“The borderline between prayer and incantation is fuzzy, and the borderline between religion and magic is fuzzy,” Anton concluded. “Even though we say we don’t believe in magic, we carry around the traveler’s prayer and wear red threads and hamsas. Even in modern times we like to protect ourselves against disasters.”
Anton in Orange County
UCI Faculty Club, 801 University Club, Irvine
Laguna Beach Books, 1200 S. Coast Hwy # 105A,
Atid Hadassah, Temple Bat Yahm, 1011 Camelback St., Newport
Sisterhood Brunch. Temple Beth David, 6100 Hefley St, Westminster
Jewish Women International Luncheon, Huntington Landmark, 8641 Atlanta Ave., Huntington Beach
Festival, Merage Jewish Community Center, Irvine