May 23, 2017

binding spell for Donald Trump

After all the research I did on my two Rav Hisda’s Daughter novels, "Apprentice" and "Enchantress", I consider myself an expert on ancient Jewish magic. Which is why I was particularly intrigued by an opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Diana Wagman about the proliferation of people casting binding spells on Donald Trump and the abettors of his administration.

In ancient, and not so ancient, times people believed that illness, death in childbirth, and pretty much any misfortune were caused by three things: demons, curses and the Evil Eye. In order to prevent these afflictions, or to heal someone so afflicted, one hired a sorceress to prepare a protective amulet. Indeed, the vast majority, above 90%, of Jewish spells and incantations were for defensive purposes. Many of these called upon secret names of God and Jewish angels to bind and expel the demons responsible for the client’s suffering.

But there were a few spells to bind a specific person, to prevent them from performing some evil against the client. These were typically inscribed on a tablet that was buried, often in a cemetery. A short one from John Gager’s Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, which I’ve updated for modern purposes, would go as follows: “I bind Donald Trump and climate change deniers, who are with Donald Trump, and their tongues and words and deeds; and if they are planning or doing anything, let it be in vain. Beloved Earth restrain Donald Trump and climate deniers and make them powerless and useless. Beloved Earth, help me; and since I’ve been wronged by Donald Trump and his climate deniers, I bind them.” The metal tablet, pierced by a nail, with the original spell dates from the third century BCE.

Jewish binding tables were to be buried at sunset just after the full moon, thus the spell’s object's power would wane along with the moon’s brightness. The ritual Ms. Wagman describes is to be performed once a month at midnight the night of a waning crescent moon, so those who wish to follow it should do so tonight, May 23. For detailed instructions, visit this link

Posted by maggie at 01:38 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2017

how to ask for a blurb

Last post was how not to ask for a blurb; here is what I suggest you should do. So you’re a writer with a complete manuscript and hope a published author or small press will like it. First prepare a synopsis, following the format that any good book, or website, for writers will provide. With a small press, go on their website and see if they have submission guidelines. If so, follow them exactly. If not, email [do not call] them and ask for the guidelines.

With authors, email to ask if they read unsolicited manuscripts. You should be able to get an email address from their business card if you’re meeting them in person or from their website, which may have an alternate way of contacting them online. Include the short [1-page at most] synopsis of your novel and why you think the author would be interested in it.

Should an author express interest, find out if she prefers a print or e-version. If the former, mail it to her with a cover letter and the synopsis. If the latter, email her a pdf. Email once to ask if she received it and how long she expects it to take to get back to you. But understand that she will only read your manuscript if something hooks her in the beginning. Don’t assume she will slog through an entire book that bored her in the first chapter. Understand also that it may be weeks or months before you hear from her, if at all. If she likes your story, you’ll hear from her. If you don’t, assume she didn’t want to hurt your feelings or spend any more time on your work.
Remember you’re not paying her, she’s doing you a favor. Don’t bug her for explanations or critiques. And don’t expect her to return your manuscript. She’s spent/wasted enough time on it. To learn more check out this article on Writers Digest

Posted by maggie at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2017

how not to ask for a blurb

Every so often I am approached, usually at a book talk, by a woman who wants me to read the manuscript she’s written. My stock response is to give her my card, ask her to email me with some information about the book, and say I’ll get back to her. Unfortunately, most of these encounters end with me not wanting to read the work. Perhaps the synopsis isn’t compelling or the story deals with topics I don’t want to read about [i.e. adultery, intermarriage, sexual abuse]. These criteria also apply to inquiries from published authors who want me to blurb their next novel. I try to reply with a non-judgmental statement along the lines of their story idea just isn’t my cup of tea.

Yes, I’m very picky about reading draft manuscripts by unknown writers. Nobody is paying me for my time, and a 400-page novel might take at a minimum an entire day to read. I know plenty of authors who refuse to read anything unless a publisher or literary agent sends it to them. But because best-selling author Naomi Ragen took a chance and read my first Rashi’s Daughters novel before it was published, and then liked it enough to give me a wonderful blurb, I feel an obligation to play it forward by doing the same for others.

But recently I had the unpleasant experience with a woman who apparently doesn’t use email because she kept calling about how to get her manuscript to me in person. Heaven forbid she should merely mail it to me, and she insisted that I lived too far away to drive it to my home. We finally agreed for her to drop it off at my synagogue for me to pick up the next time I was there. Then she called me every few days to see if I’d gotten it yet, as well as harassing the staff there so much that they called me to hurry up and get her off their case.

You can imagine how eager I was to read this nearly 350-page tome [not!]. The one-page single-spaced synopsis described ten characters whose lives were interconnected, but I couldn’t discern a plot. In fact, I couldn’t tell if this was a novel or memoir. I had no idea when or where the story took place. I figured that if the synopsis was so poorly written, I wasn’t about to read what followed.

Months later, the woman called me and demanded to know why I had taken so long to read her manuscript. I prevaricated by saying I was busy, and admitted I was unlikely to have more time in the near future. Furious, she lit into me for not getting back to her in a timely fashion. I tried to be nice, but finally I felt forced to admit that I didn’t like what little I’d read and I wasn’t going to read any more. Then she insisted that I return the manuscript to her; remember, she thought I lived too far away for her to come and get it. I wasn’t about to pay to mail it to her, not to mention the hassle to going to the post office. So I suggested that she should just print out another copy if she needed one. She continued to complain until I hung up.

This is exactly the reason many authors never read anything an unknown writer asks them to. Although I’ve also heard tales of authors receiving an unsolicited manuscript and then getting sued by the writer for plagiarism, who accused the authors of stealing their idea. Next post will be about how a newbie writer should approach an author about reading their work.

Read How to Ask a Famous Author for a Blurb for another look at this.

Posted by maggie at 10:53 PM | Comments (0)

May 07, 2017

Women exempt from Omer

Passover may be behind us, but we’re still counting the Omer. I have blogged previously that according to the Talmud, women are exempt from any positive commandment that is time-bound. This means any to-do mitzvah that is assigned to a specific time, such as tzitzit, which are only worn during the day, or lulav, which is only taken on Sukkot. The Mishna gives no explanation for this exemption, but the usual excuse is because of their heavy household and childcare responsibilities.

However, women are obligated to perform some time-bound mitzvot, such as lighting Chanukah candles, hearing the reading of Megillat Esther, and various Passover rituals, because the Talmud says women were part of those miracles. And women are obligated to observe Shabbat and fast on Yom Kippur, obviously time-bound, because there are also negative commandments associated with those days. These days women have taken on two additional time-bound mitzvot, dwelling in the sukkah and hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, to the point where some rabbis consider women obligated perform them. After all, women attend services on Rosh Hashanah and if their home has a sukkah, they will eat there along with the rest of their family.

But women are still considered exempt from counting the Omer, for the Omer is only counted during a specific time of the year. Yet this mitzvah takes only a minute or two, and can be done at any time during the 24 hours, so it surely won’t interfere with a woman’s household responsibilities. For those women who wish to take on these mitzvot, being exempt doesn’t mean forbidden. We can thank Rashi’s grandson Rabbeinu Tam (Rosh Hashanah 33a), who has written not only that women may in fact perform mitzvot that they are exempt from, but if they do so, they should say the blessing.

For those interested in the subject, I give you a link to a thorough explanation of which Seder rituals are incumbent on women and why. The discussion includes matzah, Pesach offering, four cups of wine, maror, telling the Exodus story, Hallel, and reclining. Click here to read it.

Posted by maggie at 07:31 PM | Comments (0)

May 04, 2017


The Torah portion Acharei Mot [Leviticus 16-18], along with previous week’s portion Tazria, are two sections of Torah that bnai mitzvah students most fervently hope to avoid. Luckily Acharei Mot is often read together with portion Kiddushim [Lev 19-20, aka the Holiness Code] on the same Shabbat, giving the 13-year old an opportunity to read from the latter instead of the former. This decision is also a relief for the child’s parents, since Acharei Mot details a long list of prohibited sexual behaviors, some of which a younger teenager might not be aware of yet [at least the parents hope not].

First come the laws of incest, which are specific in their detail. Children shall not uncover the nakedness of their parents, nor their siblings or cousins or aunts or uncles or grandparents. Parents shall not uncover the nakedness of their children, nor their children’s children. Nakedness of in-laws and relatives shall not be uncovered. Also a man may not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness. Nor may he have carnal relations with a neighbor’s wife and defile himself with her. Next comes the infamous prohibition of male homosexuality: “Do not lie with a man the 'layings' of a woman,” followed by, “Do not have carnal relations with any beast.”

When speaking about "Fifty Shades of Talmud", I always mention this piece of Torah as one of the reasons the Talmudic rabbis had so much say about sexual relations. Modern readers certainly don’t know what exactly it means to “uncover the nakedness” of someone, and the Sages weren’t sure either. Clearly it is some kind of sexual activity, but since there are bad consequences for doing it, the Talmud needs to define this activity in detail. This is particularly important for adultery, which is a capital offense. After all if you’re going to execute people for engaging in adultery, you better all agree on what precisely the two witnesses need to have seen the couple doing. And the Talmudic rabbis do precisely that, in explicit detail, apparently using their own sexual practices for reference.

In contrast the Rabbis do not define exactly what it means for a man to lay with a man the “layings” [note plural] of a woman, which is the literal translation of Leviticus 18:22. Indeed they discuss instead that there are two different ways for a man to lay with a woman, vaginal and anal, and this Torah verse teaches us that if he does either one with a forbidden woman, he has sinned. In plain words, if a man has anal sex with a another man’s wife, he has still committed adultery.

Posted by maggie at 07:45 PM | Comments (0)

May 01, 2017

Tazria and my new book

I am now settled in at my cousin’s house in Potomac MD. Today is a rest day, and after speaking at three different synagogues yesterday I need a day off. Tomorrow/Tuesday I will be at my cousin's shul, Rodef Shalom, followed by another break until I take the train up to Baltimore for my scholar-in-residence weekend at Congregation Beth El.

I noticed an interesting coincidence between my Shabbaton in DC last weekend and my upcoming scholar weekend. As always when I speak on Shabbat, I checked the Torah portions so I could refer to them in my talk. Usually it takes me several days, in consultation with Rashi, to find a link, but this time I saw the connections immediately.

Last week’s portion was Tazria, where in Leviticus 12:1-10 God instructs Moses about the purification rituals for mothers following childbirth. Here we learn that a woman who bears a boy is impure for 7 days, and if she has a girl, she is impure 14 days. To my immense gratification I actually address this inequity in my new book, Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Have to Say about You-Know-What. Some feminists object to the longer impurity for girls as demeaning since it implies that males are more "pure" than females. But the Talmudic rabbis explain the disparity because boys must be circumcised on the eighth day, and if the mother were still impure at this time, she wouldn't be able to join in the celebration. So this is a good thing for women.

Even better for feminists, the very name Tazria, literally "she bears seed," shows us how progressive and egalitarian the Talmudic sages were. Back in those days, over 1500 years ago, nearly every other culture believed that a man’s semen contained a homunculus, a tiny yet fully formed human being from which a baby developed. The mother contributed nothing except nourishment; in other words, she was the dirt in which the father’s seed was planted. But Rabbis teach, correctly, that both the man and woman provide seed.

In Niddah 31 we learn that here are three partners in a child: God, the father and the mother. The father’s seed forms the baby’s white parts such as the bones, sinews, and brain; the mother’s seed forms the red parts such as the flesh, hair, and blood; and God provides the soul, the ability to see and to hear, and the child's intellect. When a person dies, God takes back God’s share and leaves those of the father and mother.

I often share this beautiful piece of Talmud when I speak about my new book, and it was wonderful to get the opportunity to do so in synagogue when we read from Tazria. My next post will address this week’s Torah Portion, Acharei Mot.

Posted by maggie at 03:54 PM | Comments (0)