Enchantress: A Nov­el of Rav His­da’s Daughter

By – May 22, 2014

Mag­gie Anton takes read­ers on a jour­ney to fourth-cen­tu­ry Baby­lo­nia as she con­tin­ues the sto­ry of Rav Hisda’s daugh­ter. His­dadukh, called Dada, is griev­ing the loss of her hus­band and young daugh­ter. She jour­neys to Pumbe­di­ta, a major city on the East-West trade routes, to con­tin­ue her stud­ies as a cha­rasheta, enchantress, with Em, a mas­ter sor­cer­ess. Already a skilled writer of amulets and incan­ta­tion bowls, she will learn to use herbs for heal­ing and study mag­ic and spells. She will also deal with the com­plex rela­tion­ship that she has with Rav, her late husband’s teacher. She once believed that he was respon­si­ble for her husband’s death, but now she would also like to mar­ry him.

This well-researched his­tor­i­cal nov­el gives read­ers a taste of life in ancient times, when demons, spells, and mag­ic were part of dai­ly life. Sor­cery was an esteemed pro­fes­sion that gave women sta­tus and pow­er in the com­mu­ni­ty. Dada must use her pow­ers to con­quer an evil sor­cer­ess who wan­ders in the desert, deter­mined to seek vengeance on her fam­i­ly. Read­ers will be turn­ing pages quick­ly to see how this epic bat­tle ends. Will Dada suc­ceed and ful­fill her des­tiny as Rav’s wife? The author thought­ful­ly pro­vides read­ers with a time­line, a cast of char­ac­ters (there are many!), and a glos­sary. Book clubs will have a great deal to dis­cuss. Who knew that the sages of the Tal­mud also dealt with mag­ic? Some of their incan­ta­tions are, in fact, now part of the prayers that Jews chant in the synagogue.

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Mag­gie Anton

    • His­dadukh and her con­tem­po­raries accept mag­ic — curs­es, demons, and spells — as a nor­mal part of every­day life. Did this sur­prise you? Why do you think mag­ic is such an inte­gral part of their lives?

    • Em tells His­dadukh that the longer a man has desired a thing, the hard­er he works for it, the more wor­ried, per­haps even fright­ened, he becomes as his goal comes with­in reach.” Do you agree with her? What ulti­mate­ly allows Rava and His­dadukh to rec­on­cile and wed?

    • Rava often remarks that he strug­gles with his yet­zer hara. But lat­er on in the nov­el, Rav Oshaiya tells him that God wants us to love Him with both our yet­zer tov and our yet­zer hara.” What does he mean by this? Does Rava even­tu­al­ly suc­ceed in using his yet­zer hara in this way?

    • Why are Em, Rava and Abaye so dis­mayed by the dream inter­pre­ta­tions they receive from Bar Hedaya?

    • The author weaves many teach­ings from the Tal­mud through­out her text. What pur­pose does this serve?

    • There are many restric­tions placed on women liv­ing in fourth-cen­tu­ry Baby­lo­nia. What are some of the chal­lenges His­dadukh, Homa, and oth­ers face because of these rules? Alter­na­tive­ly, were there some ways in which the lives of women were bet­ter than you might have expect­ed them to be?

    • How does His­dadukh man­age to endear her­self to both Em and Yal­ta? What does she learn from each woman?

    • What is Rava’s rela­tion­ship with his son, Joseph, like? Why does he treat him dif­fer­ent­ly than he does his younger sons? Do you think Rava strug­gles with the same sense of resent­ment that Rav His­da admit­ted to feel­ing when his first son was born?

    • His­dadukh tells Homa that a cha­rasheta must be favored by the angels in order for her incan­ta­tions to work. His­dadukh and Rava are blessed by these angels, but not all of their friends and fam­i­ly are. Is there any dis­cernible rea­son why some are more favored than oth­ers? Is it pos­si­ble for a per­son to change their luck?

    • Why is see­ing Ashmedai in Rami’s form so upset­ting to Rava? What even­tu­al­ly allows him to for­give Hisdadukh?

    • When Rav Ham­nuna dies, Rava inher­its King Solomon’s ring and a sheaf of papers with a spell writ­ten in them. As Rava and His­dadukh exam­ine the pages, His­dadukh comes to a real­iza­tion: Rabbi’s spells were self-serv­ing, while those of cha­rasheta were to pro­tect and help oth­ers.” Does the nov­el make a judg­ment as to which kind of mag­ic is superior?

    • What is Hisdadukh’s rela­tion­ship with Chama like? How does it change over the course of the book?

    • How is His­dadukh affect­ed by the deaths of her par­ents? Does she react dif­fer­ent­ly to the death of her father than she did of her moth­er? How so?

    • Con­sid­er Hisdadukh’s inter­ac­tions with Ashmedai. How does he try to con­trol her? Would she have been able to bend him to her will with­out Solomon’s ring?

    • Why is it so impor­tant to His­dadukh that she defeat Zaf­nat her­self? Could she have suc­ceed­ed with­out Rava and Chama’s assis­tance and learning?

    • What role does for­give­ness play in the novel?