Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: Rav Hisda's Daughter

Published in Lilith Magazine, Fall 2012 (vol. 37, no. 3)

Towards the end of Rav Hisda’s Daughter (Plume, $16), Maggie Anton’s eponymous heroine returns to her home in Babylon after four long years in the land of Israel and is greeted by her father with the words, “Blessed are You, Adonai…. Who revives the dead.” Anton has made quite a career out of reviving the dead, first with her trilogy of novels bringing to life Rashi’s three daughters, and now with her imaginative tale of the daughter of the third-century Talmudic sage Rav Hisda.

            The novel’s opening scene is closely based on the Talmudic story in which Rav Hisda’s young daughter sits on her father’s lap while his two leading students stand before him. Rav Hisda asks his daughter which one of them she would like to marry, and she greedily responds, “both of them.” One of the students—arguably the more quick-witted—immediately pipes up, “I’ll go second!” This story sets the stage for Anton’s tale, in which Hisdadukh—Anton invents her name, which is Persian for “Daughter of Hisda”—is betrothed first to Rami bar Chama, the love of her youth and the father of her two children. Following Rami’s tragic and sudden death after just five years of marriage, Hisda is betrothed to the other student, the harsh and hardened Rava. The novel follows Hisdadukh not just from one husband to another, but also from her home in the Babylonia, where she is one of two daughters and seven sons in an illustrious rabbinic family, to the Galilee, where she mingles with amulet scribes, early Christians, and the great scholars of Tiberias, Caesaria, and Sepphoris. It is in Sepphoris that Anton imagines that Hisdadukh serves as the model for the iconic “Mona Lisa of Galilee,” a floor mosaic that remains a popular archeological attraction in Israel today.

Many of the conversations and characters in this novel are lifted straight of the pages of the Talmud. But as the Talmud is not a work of history—Anton may be the first to call it “historical fiction”—even these elements of the novel may raise eyebrows:  “Everyone knew that the Evil Eye was responsible for a great deal of misery in the world. Rav, Father’s teacher, once went to a cemetery and cast a spell that let him talk to the dead. Ninety-nine told him they’d died from the Evil Eye and only one from bad air.” We must be as skeptical of the historicity of Anton’s account as we are of the Talmud’s narration of this incident in tractate Bava Metzia. And so in terms of authenticity, perhaps Rav Hisda’s Daughter has an advantage over Rashi’s Daughters, since there is no pretense that the former is based on historical sources. When Anton succeeds best, she brings Talmudic debates to life by showing the very human personalities and passions behind the various legal positions. And so when Rami and Rava debate the laws of inheritance, Anton suggests that they are in fact really fighting over Hisdadukh; thus their battle of wits is also a sort of romantic duel.

Anton’s novel is rooted not just in the soil of the Talmudic text but also in the field of academic Talmud study today, which is apparent even without glancing at her impressive bibliography or the list of illustrious international scholars she acknowledges. Hisdadukh is a student of Torah arguably modeled on her Palestinian counterpart Beruria, but she is also an enchantress who makes magical incantation bowls of the sort discovered by archeologists in the area that is now Iraq and Iran. The discussions that come alive in this book are Talmudic as well as academic, which may explain why this novel will have so much appeal for readers like myself who are steeped in the Talmudic text and the scholarship about its context. For readers who do not experience the pleasure of the familiar in its fictionalized form, Anton’s novel celebrates our rich and colorful textual heritage and reminds us that feminist history is often a return to the material and the real – to the beer the scholars drank, the springs in which they bathed, the cycle of blood that dictated their most intimate relationships, and the rooms in which they studied texts that occasionally refer to wives and daughters whose lives we can at best imagine.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Twenty Days of Shabbat: Reflections on Perek Aleph

I regard Daf Yomi as others regard their horoscopes, as both a predictor and a reflection of whatever is happening in my life on that particular day. Take the first chapter of Masekhet Shabbat, which I started learning while on pregnancy bedrest after an amniocentisis. I was stuck there lying on the couch, legs propped up on three pillows, holding up my heavy Gemara over my head as I learned about transferring objects in and out of houses on Shabbat (2a-8b). I found myself eyeing the door longingly, wishing that I could go out of the apartment even once, even empty-handed. “Every person should sit in his place and not go out on the seventh day” (Exodus 17:29), the Torah instructs, but for me, every day felt like Shabbat. The only advantage of being supine under coercion for seven days was that I finally read Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL, just in time for her to win the Booker a second time for the sequel…..

            A few days after my bedrest concluded, my 17-month-old son learned how to open our apartment door and let himself out. I discovered this one day when I was taking out his dirty diaper (which, if left in Reshut HaRabim, might not actually be considered part of Reshut HaRabim since surely everyone would walk around it, as per 7a). I left him playing in the kitchen and found him three minutes later in the building stairwell, holding on to the banister and saying, “down! down!” as he made his way down half a flight of stairs. Since when could he reach the doorknob? Terrifying! Anyway, Matan seemed to think that letting himself in and out was an exciting new game. He would take his new favorite toy—the ten-shekel flashlight that came as a “free gift” with the big toy car we bought him, which he never rides because he’s too busy playing with his flashlight—and carry it in and out of the house, practicing his “in” and “out.” Since he would pick up the flashlight while inside and put it down while outside, he was doing both Akira (uprooting) and Hanacha (depositing), so presumably such an activity would indeed constitute M’lacha on Shabbat.

            It just so happens that it was this same week that Daniel’s mother bought us a toaster oven, an appliance that we have never owned. (I put everything in the oven, even the pita I toast for lunch every morning. It never occurred to me to do otherwise.) The new toaster was a simple model, but it still took me a few trial-and-error rubbery pitas before I figured out how to make toast properly. Hint: You don’t stick the bread to the wall of the oven. Not that I tried that method, but apparently it’s how they did it in Talmudic times (3b). If you stick the bread to the side of the oven on Shabbat, can you take it down (a rabbinic prohibition) so as to avoid the Biblical prohibition of cooking the bread? If you need to think about this one for too long, you might as well go eat a pile of salt, as Rav Nahman quite rudely told Rava (4a). Matan did in fact eat a pile of salt recently, now that I think about it. He loves playing with our salt shaker. One day I went to the bathroom and returned to find him doing just this.

            Needless to say, I go to the bathroom quite frequently these days, seeing as I have two babies (yes, twins!) sitting on top of my bladder, Godwilling due around Purim. I also find that my waist gets thicker with each passing day. Thank goodness I don’t try to wear belts anymore; if I did, I’d have to loosen the belt each time I sat down to a meal, as was the custom in Bavel. We learn that in Israel, a meal was considered to have officially started once everyone washed their hands; but in Bavel, a meal began when all the guests loosened their belts before eating (9b). Sometimes, when I wake up nauseous, the prospect of eating seems so repulsive that I put off breakfast for a few hours. I wouldn’t want to eat as soon as I wake up; only circus acrobats do that (10a). Nor would I eat two hours after awakening, which is what robbers do. Rich people eat after three hours; workers after four; and Torah scholars after five hours. There is no mention in the Talmud of when pregnant ladies ought to eat, so I’m still experimenting with various schedules. Matan, of course, gets breakfast right before Gan; and if I give a piece of bread to any of his friends, I make sure to tell their mothers that I am doing so (10b).

            Breakfast is not the only time that Matan and I spend in the kitchen together. The kitchen is in fact one of his favorite places to play. He loves opening and closing the cabinets, pulling out the various bowls and bottles and spatulas, and banging everything together while shouting “A-boom” (his favorite word). My goal is to try to get him to play with metal rather than glass vessels. According to the rabbis, glass vessels contract Tumah because they are made of sand, and therefore they are regarded as similar in status to clay vessels, which are made from the earth (15b). Metal vessles contract Tumah whether they are flat (like the spatula Matan loves bashing) or whether they contain a receptacle (like his favorite soup ladle) (16a). If they break, they are automatically purified – which may be why Matan is so intent on smashing all our cookware. Perhaps he’s just trying to purify our kitchen!

            As you’ve probably gathered from this post, Matan is an active child who likes keeping busy, even on Shabbat. He bashes dishes on Shabbat too  – no concept of שביתת כלים for him, thank you very much. Every time we leave the house, he insists on turning on the light in our apartment stairwell. He knows the words “light” and “on,” and will scream “On, light! On, light!” until I finally let him press the button. One Shabbat I decided to teach him about muktza. “Muktza, muktza,” I told him, hurrying down the stairs and trying to distract him. I wanted him to know that the light switch is as muktza as the oil of the olive press owners and the mats they use to press the oil (19b). But to my consternation, on Sunday morning he started pointing to the light switch and saying “muktza,” as if this were a new word for light. And so creation had to begin all over again on Sunday, as Matan and I spoke light into being.

            Hadran Alach Perek Aleph, and Shabbat shalom.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Berakhot (chapters 1-3)


When may we say Shma at night?
From the time the priests take their first bite
‘Til the first nightly shift
Or ‘til midnight comes swift?
Rabban Gamliel says: ‘Til first light.

Rabban Gamliel’s sons came home late
From a party. They said, “It was great!
But I fear we forgot
To say Shema. We cannot
Do it now, can we?” “Yes! And don’t wait.”

Rabbi Yossi set out on his way
When he stopped in a ruin to pray
There Elijah was sitting
He said, “It’s not fitting
Your long prayer. We don’t have all day!”

King David would wake with the trill
Of his harp, which would sound with the chill
Of the midnight north wind
But he wasn’t chagrined
He’d jump up and learn Torah – God’s will.

Midnight’s the deadline to say
Ma’ariv. After that, you can’t pray.
So the sages ruled, lest
One come home, craving rest,
And be snatched by sleep ‘til the next day.

If you say Shema in your bed
Then the demons will not rear their heads.
If you pray to the Lord
Then a sharp two-edged sword
Will protect you (or so it is said).

If you know that your friend will say hi
You should greet him right when you espy
Him. If first he greets you
And you don’t greet him too
You’re a thief (also not a nice guy).

God gets mad for but seconds. The hen
Has the sign that will tell you just when:
Its comb turns pale white
And it trembles in fright
You should curse all your enemies then.

An Aramean said, “Please sit down
On my bed.” Papa heard this and frowned:
“First turn over that bed”
Yikes! A baby was dead
Underneath. Papa fled from their town.

When to say Shema? At first light?
From the time you can tell blue from white.
Others say: Blue from green
(Guess their eyesight is keen)
All agree: ‘Til the sunrise burns bright.

Young King David would nurse at the breast
Of his mom. (Even then, breast was best!)
He would break off and sing
Of this marvelous thing:
“Praise the Lord who put these on her chest!”

Beruria said to her spouse: “It is sin
And not sinners that we want done in.
So I pray, as one should,
For the bums in our ‘hood
Meir said: “With my wife, I can’t win.”

Hannah said, “There is no rock like God.”
But the midrash says, “This is a nod
To the Artist Divine
Who, with brushstrokes and lines,
Shapes a babe, like a pea in a pod.”

If you marry a virgin, no need
To say Shema, our religion’s great creed.
For a widow, you must
You can wait with your lust,
Pause to pray, and then go do the deed.

Balak’s blessing, intended as curse,
Is not part of the Shema. For averse
Were the sages to add
Not because he was bad
But because he was, well, not quite terse.


One was reading the Torah and got
To the point with the Shema. Was it not
His intention to pray
From the scroll on that day
It depends on his plan and his plot.

If you start the Shema, then fall asleep
Do we wake you, or make not a peep?
If you said the first line,
But no more, it is fine.
Others say: Shema sure beats counting sheep.

Don’t take care of your needs ere you pray
Prayer should mark off the start of your day.
Don’t say hi to your friend
Or set off down the bend
On a trip. We allow no delay.

If you say Shema with earplugs – ok?
But you can’t even hear what you say.
Rabbi Yossi says: No!
But the sages say: Go
On. It’s God who must hear what we pray.

The womb is like hell. Both admit
Things that come, stay a while, and sit,
Then go out. But the womb
Is a most quiet room;
Hell absorbs you with loud screaming fits.

Workers say Shma on top of a tree
Or on stones where they happen to be
In the middle of work.
It’s a small builders’ perk
To help them pray more conveniently.

On the ninth of Av, most take a break
From their work – it’s a fast, for God’s sake.
If others don’t work
Then you should also shirk
Your job. Humility is at stake!


If before you, spread out on a bed,
Is a man who is lying there dead
Then you need not fulfill
Any mitzvot, until
Burial. Shema, too, need not be said.

In a cemet’ry no one sits chilling
But if you are there, don’t wear tefillin
It is rude to the dead
Who can’t wear on their head
That same mitzvah that you are fulfillin’.

Rav Hisda’s sons sadly forgot
All the Torah they learned. This was not
Something good. They said, “Woe,
Does our dead father know?
Is he conscious, or is he just rot?”

A man on a way to a bris
Finds a dead man unburied: “What’s this?
What do sages advise:
Bury or circumsize?
With man’s honor, we can’t be remiss.

Rav Gidel would sit and observe
Naked women in mikvah. A perv?
“No,” said Gidel, “To me
They’re like geese, I just see
Skin like feathers.” (And what of their curves?)

If you walk into shul and you’re late
(Who would do that? That’s never my fate.)
Do you try to return
To the start? Well, we learn
For Kedusha you always must wait.

If you’re praying, and find you’re near poop
This could throw Kavana for a loop.
Walk four cubits away
Only then can you pray
Better yet: Pray in shul with a group.

My Tefillin were stolen! Oh dear!
By a whore who just snatched them, I fear.
Then she claimed I had paid
Her for getting me laid.
I must jump off the roof, disappear.

Please, no spitting or sneezing in shul
These are things they should teach you in school:
It is no doubt a sign
That you’re most unrefined
Would you spit with a king there, you fool?

You cannot pray near someone who’s nude
What, you think that the sages were prudes?
It would surely distract
It would therefore impact
How you daven. Besides, it’s quite lewd.

The Persians have toilets, we’ve stated,
Which were five stars, and also first-rated.
Though the person would squat
And make poop, there would not
Be a trace of it. Sophisticated!