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April 18, 2014

Wow! I have an article in this week's Jewish Journal that details Rashi's questions and answers concerning the story of Noah. Of course the questions are mine; Rashi, like the TV show Jeopardy, only provides the answers and part of the fun in Rashi's Torah commentary is figuring out what the question is.

April 12, 2014

In conclusion, Rashi considers the most important, and profound, question about Noah’s Ark:

“And finally, one of the most difficult questions: How could the Holy One repent that He had made man and have it grieve His heart? Didn’t He know when He created Adam and Eve what would happen in the future?”

Salomon paused for a moment before concluding, “When a man fathers a son, he rejoices and makes others rejoice with him, even though he knows that his son will sin and some day his son will die. So too is the way of the Holy One. Although it was clear to Him that in the end man would commit evil deeds and be destroyed, for the sake of the righteous men who were to issue from them, He still created humanity.”

April 09, 2014

Rashi answers even more questions about Noah’s ark:

“It rained for forty days and forty nights, but how long did Noah and all the animals stay in the ark altogether?” A student who’d actually begun to think about the text usually asked about this. “The rain began to fall on the seventeenth day of the second month, and one solar year later, on the twenty-seventh day of the second month, the earth had dried sufficiently that the ark’s inhabitants could leave.”

“A whole year! How could they stay on the ark so long?” The previous answer always required elaboration. “Before the flood, the Holy One made a covenant with Noah and the animals such that fruit and grain to feed them would not spoil, the carnivorous animals would not eat their vegetarian fellows, and the wombs of the females were closed so no babies would be born on the ark.”

“Noah took seven pairs of clean animal and two unclean. How did he know which animals were clean before Moses received the Law?” Another problem for the skeptic. “Obviously Noah was acquainted with Torah even before Moses. After all, Torah existed before the earth was created.”

April 07, 2014

Rashi continues answering questions about Noah’s ark:

“People have children when they’re young; why didn’t Noah have any until he was 500 years old?” Salomon could see the dubious expression on a skeptical student’s face. “Because the Holy One restrained him, saying, ‘If Noah’s descendants are wicked, they will perish in the flood and it will grieve him; and if they are righteous, he will have to trouble himself by building several arks.’”

“What does it mean that Noah is called a righteous man in his generation?” One of his more intelligent students usually asked this question. “Some say to his credit that Noah was righteous even in a generation of wicked men, that he would have been considered even more righteous in a generation of good men. Others say, to his discredit, that in comparison to his own generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been of no importance.”

“There are many ways the Holy One could have saved Noah; why did He burden him with constructing an ark?” Another intelligent question. “So the wicked men might see him building the ark and ask about it, and thus confronted with their impending destruction, perhaps they would repent.”

April 03, 2014

The top-grossing movie last week was “Noah,” and though it sold plenty of tickets, audience reaction was mixed. People apparently either loved it or loathed it, but one reaction was universal. Everyone had lots of questions, particularly about how far the movie strayed from the biblical text and where the screenwriters [both Jewish, though professed atheists] got their ideas.

Rashi too had lots of questions about the Noah story, or perhaps his students did, because his Torah commentary answers many of them. As it happens I created a scene in the second volume of Rashi’s Daughters: Miriam, where he is explains the Noah story to an audience of Jews and Notzrim in the local count’s court.

miriam comp APPD.JPG

So in honor of this new Noah movie, I am devoting my next few blog posts to that scene, in hopes that Rashi may enlighten my readers with his opinions. Here’s how it starts:

“Salomon decided to discuss Noah’s Ark, a subject even the most ignorant of Count André’s court should be familiar with. Yet even Noah’s Ark had its pitfalls. With a Jewish audience Salomon would have spent time explaining how the Holy One’s name changes during the tale. Sometimes, like when He tells Noah to make an ark because He is going to destroy the earth along with its corrupt and violent inhabitants, He is Elohim, God of Strict Justice. At other times, like when His heart is grieved and He regrets creating mankind, He is Adonai, God of Divine Mercy. But a lesson depending on Hebrew would be wasted on Notzrim.

Maybe he should treat them like children. Slowly Salomon went through the text, considering of all the anomalies his daughters and students asked him about.

“Were all the people so wicked that they deserved to be destroyed, even the little children?” Surely his compassionate daughter Miriam had asked about this, and Salomon’s answer applied to many similar situations. “Whenever you find a society of lewdness, idolatry, robbery, and corruption, then punishment of an indiscriminate nature comes, killing both the guilty and innocent.” He spoke the last word with a sad sigh.

March 30, 2014

Last month, when I posted about my readers dismay at the Talmudic rabbis’ attitude towards slavery, I mentioned that the average woman in Talmudic times was not much better off than a slave. I speculated that a maidservant might even prefer living in a wealthy household like Rav Hisda’s rather than marrying a poor man. A reader asked me to elaborate, so here goes.

A Mishna in Tractate Ketubot [59b] details the tasks a wife does for her husband: grind grain, bake bread, launder, cook, nurse their child, make his bed, and work with wool [i.e. spin or weave]. However if she brings maidservants as her dowry, her tasks devolve to them, to the point where a wife with four female slaves may sit in a chair all day. Clearly the poor wife with no maidservants must do all these chores herself, in addition to providing a sexual outlet for her husband and caring for their children. If there wasn’t enough food, her husband and sons got their share first.

A slave in a rich household would likely perform one specific job, like making bread, doing laundry, cooking meals, or caring for children. Though she would be sexually available to the master and his sons, and perhaps to the male slaves, she would be well fed, clothed, and housed.

Both wives and female slaves were typically acquired for the first time just before their twelfth birthday, when they became subject to taxes. Each was acquired by payment to her father – a minimum of a dinar for a maidservant but only a minimum of a perutah, the smallest Babylonian coin, for a wife. There was no way either woman could leave her husband/master while he lived; he had to free them with a get, or in the slave’s case, he could sell her or give to her someone else. At least the wife was freed by her husband’s death, if she lived so long.

March 23, 2014

More on characters, this post on choosing names for them. My two series take place in Jewish communities of 11th-century France and 3rd-century Babylonia. My main characters are historical figures, assuming you call the Talmud historical, so I had no choice about their names. But I like to be as authentic as possible for the others, which means major research, since Jewish names may or may not mirror names in the general population. In addition, I couldn’t just choose biblical names since, like today, some were common and some not. For example, David has been one of the most popular names for Jewish boys in America for 100 years, but it was rarely used in Rashi’s and Talmudic times.

Finding authentic names for women was even more difficult, as they aren't mentioned in historical records/documents as often as men. I hit gold for Rashi's Daughters in the Jewish Museum in Paris, where they have tombstone records going back 1000 years. Luckily the one place women are equal to men in in the cemetery, so I found lots of good choices there. For Rav Hisda's Daughter," I culled men's names from the Talmud itself, but for of women I ran into a huge stroke of luck with Babylonia Incantation bowls. These date from 4th-6th century and the clients' names on them always include the person's mother's name.

Lastly, to avoid confusion, I had to choose names that didn't look too much like other characters' names. I was also confronted with more than one historical character with the same name [a situation common in medieval England as well]. So I ended up creating nicknames or variant spellings, i.e. Yosef and Joseph, Samuel and Shmuel, Salaman and Shlomo.

March 19, 2014

Readers often ask if my characters are based on anyone I know, and if so, who? Those in Rav Hisda’s Daughter are completely from my imagination, but I did use friends and family, and myself, as templates when writing Rashi's Daughters. For example, Rashi is based on a college professor I knew, who shall remain anonymous. However, I learned that as a young man, Rashi had to leave his German yeshiva and return, very reluctantly, to run his family's vineyard in France. During his youth these had been managed by his widowed mother. Obviously she was no longer capable of this, but none of Rashi's writings said why.

At the time, my own mother was declining with Alzheimer's so I decided to make her the model for Rashi's mother Leah. Everything Leah did in the novel was based on similar behavior by my mother. It also gave me a way to work through my feelings about my mom's continuing deterioration. The scene in the wine cellar where Joheved and Miriam find Leah’s account ledger, which contains some personal notes as well, Joheved reads some of Leah’s writings aloud. Leah’s complaints about being taxed on her land in addition to her wine came straight from a responsa by the beit din in Troyes. The next part, about her fear as she realizes that her mind and memories are dimming, was lifted verbatim from my mother’s diary – which my sister and I found when we were cleaning out her house after moving her to assisted living. It was her final entry.

March 14, 2014

To whet your appetite for all the silliness to come this weekend as we celebrate Purim, here is a cute article on the Talmud Blog.

February 24, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni LP: A NovelThe Golem and the Jinni LP: A Novel by Helene Wecker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is fantastic [in both senses of the word]: wonderfully creative and unique plot, fascinating characters, good writing, and best of all, a satisfying and happy ending. I'm not going to detail the story - other reviewers have done that - but I must say that as a historical novelist whose latest books deal with Jewish magic Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda's Daughter, I am very demanding when reading other novels in my genre, and this one surpassed my expectations. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Maggie Anton

View all my reviews

February 19, 2014

When I speak to book groups about RAV HISDA’S DAUGHTER, which I do both in person and by speakerphone or skype, there are certain questions that seem to come up regularly – questions that would only occur to someone who has read the book. One of them is about my depiction of slavery, both in my heroine’s household and in her world.

This novel, and its sequel ENCHANTRESS, takes place in 3rd-Century Babylonia and the Galilee of Eretz Israel. Both Rome and Persia had millions of slaves among their populations; some estimates as high as 25% in the Roman Empire. For the most part, there were no such thing as 'hired' servants, only slaves, although some Roman slaves were so wealthy and powerful that they had their own slaves.

The Talmud makes it clear that some rabbis back then had slaves and some were slaves [usually scribes and secretaries to other rabbis]. Persia imposed a tax on individuals older than 12, and those who couldn’t pay it became the slaves of those who paid it for them. The Jewish community considered it praiseworthy for wealthy Jews to pay the taxes of poor ones, for this way the poor would not become slaves to Persian non-Jews. Of course nobody seemed to consider that the rich could just give charity to the poor to prevent them from being enslaved.

Quite a few of my readers were dismayed to see that Rav Hisda’s family were slaveowners and how they treated their slaves, which was actually fairly decently compared to others. But I was determined that my heroine would not have 21st century views in a 3rd century body, even if I wrote about her doing and thinking things that I personally found upsetting. I was also determined not to cover up or ignore this aspect of her culture, which so many other historical novelists seem to do by either calling slaves 'servants' or ignoring their existence altogether.

And don't even get me started on the position of the average woman back then, which was only a step up from slavery - either to her father or her husband. I will only say that a female slave in a wealthy household like my heroine’s would undoubtedly have considered herself better off than a poor man’s wife.

February 11, 2014

♪♫♪♪♫ Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64? ♪♫♪♪♫
I turned 64 today and Google surprised me with a special screen when I logged in.

Screen shot 2014-02-11 at 12.59.14 AM.png

When I clicked on it, it said "Happy Birthday, Maggie." I wonder how the NSA intends to help me celebrate.

Maggie Anton

More sites to read

Erika Dreifus

The Talmud Blog

The Forward Sisterhood

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance