To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits
Day 31: Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits
When a person dies, their soul flies free from the body. It crosses the land, sea, and sky. Sometimes the soul settles in a fish and is eaten by a person. If a blessing is said over the fish, the soul ascends to rest beside God in the Garden of Eden. If the soul settles on land it grows into a fruit, and if these fruits are blessed by a person before being eaten, so too is the soul blessed as it flies up to the Garden of Eden. If the soul ends up in the belly of an animal, again a blessing must be made over the flesh of the animal if the soul is to ascend back to God. Sometimes, souls do not find their way back to God. They get lost on the way to the Garden of Eden. Perhaps blessings were not made over the food they inhabited before it was eaten. Or, if the person was wicked in life, then she is not permitted into the Garden and becomes a wandering spirit. Sometimes these wandering spirits find their way into the body of a living person. We call these possessing spirits dybbuks.
A tale is told of a widow living in the city of Safed in the 16th century who was possessed by a dybbuk. She went to see Rabbi Isaac Luria and ask for his help. To his astonishment, the woman spoke with the voice of a man, and this voice addressed the Rabbi by name, as if they were old friends. The dybbuk said he once had been a student of Rabbi Arsin, which the Rabbi Arsin confirmed. The dybbuk said that as a human being he had slept with another man’s wife and fathered a child with her. While out at sea a storm hit and he drowned. His body was recovered and buried in a Jewish cemetery. But before the earth was dry, the angel Dumah came and used his fiery rod to crack open the grave and take him down to the gates of Gehenna. Yet even there, the soul was not permitted access, for so great was his sin in life. He was punished to wander the earth, continually tormented by three demons.
His soul had taken possession of two more bodies before this unfortunate widow: a rabbi, who escaped the dybbuk by invoking impure spirits, and a dog, who was so upset by the spirit inside of it that it ran and ran until its heart gave out.
Rabbi Arsin tried to perform an exorcism of this dybbuk, but his incantations would not work. So he called in the great Rabbi Hayim Vital. As soon as Rabbi Vital entered the room, the widow turned her back on him.
“Why do you turn your back?” Rabbi Vital asked.
“I cannot bear to look,” said the widow in the voice of a man. “For your countenance is too great.”
Rabbi Vital nodded, because he was a holy man and filled with the light of God. “You are a lost spirit,” the rabbi said. “How long are you cursed to wander?”
“I shall wander this earth until my illegitimate son has died.”
“How did you enter this woman’s house?” the rabbi said. “It is protected by a mezuzah.”
“The mezuzah,” the spirit said, referring to the bound-up prayer scroll attached to the door, “is empty.”
The rabbi gasped, and when he had a man check the mezuzah on the woman’s door, he found his words to be true: there was no prayer parchment wrapped inside.
“And how did you enter this woman’s body?” the rabbi said. “For she is of the House of David.”
“She doubts that the Red Sea truly parted.”
Rabbi Vital was learned in the ways of the Torah and was able to speak to the woman even though the spirit was possessing her. He asked the widow if she believed in the Red Sea miracle, and she replied that she did. He had her repeat this three times, then he commanded the dybbuk, using a secret kabbalistic formula, to depart the woman’s body. The woman shrieked as the spirit fled from her pinky toe of her left foot. A new mezuzah was put up that very night.
The Myth’s Origins
The word dybbuk means to adhere or to cling, and entered common usage in the 17th century through German- and Polish-speaking Jews. Tales of dybbuks and possessing spirits are rife in medieval literature. Early tales of demonic possession in Jewish folklore can be found in Josephus’s Antiquities 8:2.5, “God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day.” And Talmud Me’ilah 17b speaks of an exorcism.
But in the latter medieval texts, the possessing spirit is not a demon but that of a corrupted soul who could not enter paradise. This concept went hand in hand with the concept of gilgul, or the transmigration of souls, and it was understood that these lost spirits sought refuge in human bodies. One of the tests of true faith among Jews was the belief in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. And those who didn’t believe in this miracle were seen as leaving themselves open to unclean spirits.
Also, the mezuzah, literally “doorpost,” is a small prayer written on parchment, wrapped in a tiny ornamental box, and affixed to the doors of one’s home, as prescribed in Deuteronomy 6:9. It was believed, in much the same way that the lamb’s blood painted on the door posts spared the ancient Hebrews the wrath of the Angel of Death during the Exodus, that affixing a mezuzah to one’s door protected that home from malicious spirits. An empty mezuzah was one such way these evil spirits tricked people into letting them into their home.
Rabbi Isaac Luria and his many disciples wrote down many stories about dybbuks, and they documented how one might exorcise them. Those who were learned in kabbalah and knew how to apply the Holy Name, these baalai shem, or masters of the name, were able to exorcise these unclean spirits and send them down to Gehenna, where they belonged.
One of the most famous instances of this myth is S. Ansky’s 1916 play “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds.” S. Ansky became deeply interested in Judaic myth and folklore and feared it might be lost as the culture interacted more and more with the rapidly modernizing world. Between the years of 1911 and 1914, he dove deep into Eastern European and Russian regions, the so called “Pale of Settlement,” to document the traditions of the local Jews, asking them more than 2000 detailed questions. His assistant Samuel Schreier-Shrira stated that S. Ansky was particularly impressed by the stories of a Mirapol hasidic rebbe known as Samuel of Kaminka-Miropol and his reputation as an exorcist of dybbuk spirits. Before that, the concept of dybbuks was not widely known outside of Jewish circles.
Some Thoughts on the Myth
Tales of possession by evil forces are rife in the world’s many faiths. What’s common about the tales of Jewish dybbuks are the same basic premises: a spirit possesses a body and causes chaos until a rabbi intervenes. Then the dybbuk tells its tale to the rabbi, before the rabbi “exorcises” the spirit, and the person is freed from its evil influence. The possessed is often someone of wavering or no faith, though not always.
What might be occurring here is a religious explanation for mental illness and its periodic psychoses. Whether by placebo or through a talk therapy — the “dybbuk”telling his or her story — the “evil spirit” is freed from the body. The disturbing mental energy is thus discharged, and the person goes on living his or her life. Imagine a person with schizophrenia living within a hasidic world. How often would they need to be exorcised? And would talking about their needs and their story discharge the turbulent mental energy enough to quell the psychotic episode? Did these exorcisms form an early version of psychotherapy? Or did these religious machinations only make things worse? If someone with mental illness was seen as “evil,” this would no doubt adversely affect his or her relationship with the community. They might be shunned and feared.
Also, here we see another example of of a paranoid world-view. Only by obeying God’s laws and protecting one’s home with magic mezuzah can one protect herself from evil spirits. Doubt the Red Sea miracle? Then you leave yourself open to possession. Don’t want to put a mezuzah on your home? Then evil spirits will enter it.
I feel bad for the mentally ill person who was both a believer in God and the Red Sea miracle and had a proper mezuzah on her door, only to be told she was “possessed” by evil. While these tales might make great fictional story fodder, in real life such myths probably accounted for much suffering among people.
Tomorrow’s Myth: The Fear of Death