Heaven sent: Judaism’s magical mystery tour of the Talmud’s sorcery, spells

Heaven sent: Judaism’s magical mystery tour of the Talmud’s sorcery, spells

Maggie Anton will discuss her new book, “Enchantress,” at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill on Nov. 2. (Photo provided by Maggie Anton)
Maggie Anton will discuss her new book, “Enchantress,” at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill on Nov. 2. (Photo provided by Maggie Anton)

The magic conjured up by J.K. Rowling in her “Harry Potter” series and the magic revealed in Maggie Anton’s new book, “Enchantress,” are two very different kinds of magic, according to the author best known for her popular “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy.

“I didn’t make up the spells, like in ‘Harry Potter,’” Anton explained.

Rather, she said, the spells that appear in “Enchantress,” her fictional account of the life of Rav Hisda’s daughter — a character described in the Talmud, were all derived from actual incantations inscribed on Jewish archaeological artifacts dating from fourth-century Babylon.

References to magic, Anton said, recur throughout the Talmud, and many remnants of that magic are still ubiquitous in Jewish practice today.

Anton, a winner of the 2012 Library Journal Award for Best Historical Fiction, and a finalist for the 2012 Jewish Book Award, will be at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill on Nov. 2 and at Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va., on Nov. 1, to discuss her five-year journey in researching and writing “Enchantress.”

Anton became fascinated with the character of Rav Hisda’s daughter after reading a story in the Talmud of Rav Hisda asking his 8- or 9-year-old daughter to choose which of two of his students she would like to marry. The child says she will marry both, Anton recounted, which eventually does come to pass.

“It was astonishing,” the author said, “because girls really didn’t get a choice in who to marry back then. And it was astonishing because the rabbi asks her which one she wants to marry with the suitors in front of her, and in front of the entire class. The Talmud says she married the older one, and then she married the younger one after she becomes a widow. What audacity she had.”

When Anton’s publisher urged her to find another Jewish heroine to write about following the success of “Rashi’s Daughters,” she set her sights on the character of Rav Hisda’s daughter, she said.

“I thought I’d really like to know more about her,” Anton said. “I thought if anyone is going to tell her story, it’s going to be me.”

In doing her research, Anton found several instances of sorcery in the Talmudic tales of her heroine’s family, she said, adding, “In the Talmud, there’s magic and sorcery in every tractate.”

The fact that sorcery was practiced by ancient Jews is backed up by archaeological evidence Anton found, most notably by the thousands of incantation bowls recovered from the fourth to the sixth century, written in Aramaic — the same language as the Talmud. The incantations inscribed on the bowls, she said, “call upon all sorts of Jewish angels to protect the clients named in the bowls from demons, curses and the evil eye.”

Many objects and spells used by Jews in ancient times are actually still used today, she noted, albeit they have morphed into modern-day Judaic artifacts and prayers.

The evil eye, for example, is still something many Jews guard against through a modern-day amulet — the hamsa — she said.

Anton has spent years studying Talmud and noted that all the magic she describes in “Enchantress” is “authentic Jewish magic.”

After her five years of research on the subject, she had more than enough material for her book.

“I had so much information, so many spells, and stories of so many rabbis doing interesting things, the question was what to leave on the cutting-room floor,” she said.

One East Coast Jewish newspaper refused to review her book because it was concerned the story might offend its large Orthodox readership because “magic is forbidden,” she said.

“But this is in the Talmud,” Anton explained. “I didn’t make this up.”

Magic, according to Anton, has gotten a bit of a bad rap.

“I think magic has gotten kind of corrupted by Christianity,” she opined. “The vision of the ladies with the black pointy hats living in the forest and the black magic that comes from demons.”

But in Judaism, she said, magic originated from heavenly beings or angels.

Noting that ancient Jewish magic “is a hot topic right now,” Anton said that she frequently receives emails from readers asking her for spells — particularly love spells.

While some ancient amulets were used for love spells, she said, most were used for healing and protection.

Her favorite amulet, she said, was used to win at chariot races.

“But I don’t know what happened if everyone at the race had one of those amulets,” she said.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

The event at Temple Sinai is a brunch, from 10 a.m. to noon on Sunday, Nov. 2. There is a charge. Contact Randi Shaw, randirshaw@gmail.com or 412-334-2824 for more information or to reserve a spot.

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