As a historical novelist, my goal is to take my readers to a distant place and time, but without them forgoing 21st-century improvements like antibiotics and indoor plumbing. There I hope to provide all the pleasure of other fiction genres – conflict, passion, and perception into the human condition – but with the extra advantage of insight into the culture of a previous era and society.
My novels have an additional goal, that of introducing readers to the lives of learned Jewish women in communities that are rarely written about elsewhere, such as 11th-century France in Rashi’s Daughters and 3rd-century Babylonia in Rav Hisda’s Daughter. Embedded in my heroines’ scholarly households, readers learn how the Talmud shaped Jewish holidays and life-cycle events into those we observe today.
Engaging fiction thrusts readers in a character’s conflicts, keeping them turning pages until the final challenge is resolved. So Rav Hisda’s Daughter provides conflict on three levels. On the grand stage, Zoroastrian Persia battles Christian Rome for world domination, while on a more intimate stage, Rav Hisda’s two best students vie for my heroine’s hand in marriage. [Spoiler alert: she eventually weds both of them]
In the middle is a conflict whose outcome fundamentally changed Judaism. This is the early Rabbis’ struggle to reinvent and revitalize Judaism after the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in the first century. Until this time, as detailed in the Bible, Jewish observance centered on the Temple. There the people came for the three pilgrimage festivals; there the priests offered a variety of sacrifices on their behalf. Yet in less than 400 years, Rav Hisda and a few hundred colleagues convinced a million Jews in Babylonia to embrace a new Judaism that functioned without the Temple or its priests. This had to be a difficult transition, as many Jews would have been skeptical of these self-appointed Rabbis and rejected their authority.
The Rabbis’ earliest success was likely instituting new ways to observe the Biblical festivals, as well as creating new holidays like Hanukah and Purim. Synagogues came into existence, along with innovative rituals and liturgy. Passover was now celebrated at home with a special dinner, the Seder, and using some clever arithmetic, the Rabbis showed that Shavuot, another pilgrimage festival, deserved celebration because it was the day the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai.
But it was with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur where they excelled.
Compared to the pilgrimage festivals, these holidays are barely mentioned in the Bible. There we learn that the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashana to announce the New Year and that a goat is sent into the wilderness to atone for the peoples’ sins on Yom Kippur. The Rabbis expanded Rosh Hashana to include a lengthy shofar service in synagogue, along with a theology of people being judged by the Heavenly Court as to whether they merited being written into the Book of Life for the upcoming year. Yom Kippur built on this to give a holiday much like today, where Jews spend the entire day in synagogue – fasting, confessing their sins, and praying for forgiveness.
In this manner the Babylonian Rabbis created the Talmud, which has been the source of Jewish law and traditions for over 1500 years. And in Rav Hisda’s Daughter: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery, I show how this process began.
Watch the book trailer for Rav Hisda’s Daughter