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Of Devils and Dybbuks

Hanna Rovina in "The Dybbuk," 1920.

Many an enlightened reader of the New York Times must have indulged in yet another condescending laugh at the Catholic Church upon seeing a November 12 report about a conclave of bishops in Baltimore; the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the urgent need for priestly experts in the task of expunging the devil from possessed parishioners. Among those chuckling, no doubt, were many Jews.

Relevant Links
“The Dybbuk”  Michael C. Steinlauf, YIVO Encyclopedia. On the career of an expressionist Yiddish masterpiece and its evocation of a world in which good and evil, living and dead, are intimate, and awesome mystery inheres in the everyday.    
Exorcism in Jerusalem  Shmarya Rosenberg, Failed Messiah. Reports, culled from Yeshiva World News, on the progress and ultimate failure to remove a dybbuk from a young Brazilian.

It is worth remembering, however, that when it comes to belief in demonic ghosts or in evil spirits that possess the souls of the living, Jews have no cause for smugness. A dazzling array of such spirits, and a host of laws, customs, formulas, and talismanic devices designed to ward them off, permeate classical rabbinic literature, to say nothing of the kabbalah. The Yiddish expression, "keyn ayin horeh" ("let there be no evil eye")—familiar to even the most illiterate Jews today—testifies to fears dominant in East European Jewish life for centuries. Similar superstitious folklore is even more widespread among North African and Middle Eastern Jews. To this day the belief in spirits remains a feature of some Orthodox communities.

In late Roman antiquity, the demonic possession of individuals was a belief so widely accepted that the ability to "cast out" was one reason why numbers of Jews in first-century Palestine became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was their divinely anointed savior. Such casting-out was, indeed, the very first of Jesus' miracles recorded in the Gospels (Mark 1:23-26). While, for almost a millennium after the talmudic era, there are no clearly recorded accounts of either possessions or exorcisms, the belief regained prominence with the rise of the Lurianic school of kabbalah in the mid-16th century.

The kabbalists of Safed developed elaborate theories about the transmigration of souls, both benevolent and malevolent; in dealing with the latter, they touted the expertise of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples in banishing what came to be known as dybbuks—malevolent, "clinging" spirits from the netherworld. It cannot be entirely coincidental that in both Judaism and Catholicism, a formal liturgy for the rite of exorcism began to develop at around the same time. (The Safed kabbalists were mostly descendants of Marranos who had lived as Catholics for generations.) But in one major respect, the two faiths differed: while in the Church the competent exorcist can confidently rely on the miraculous efficacy of the rite itself, in Jewish lore the practitioner is called upon to enter into extensive "conversations" and complex negotiations with the evil spirit to convince it to depart.

This feature, unique to Jewish exorcisms, is rooted in the belief that the dybbuk is the restless soul of a sinner whose transgressions in life have barred him (or her) from entry into Gehenna, the transitory station for the expurgation and forgiveness of sins that can ultimately lead to admittance into heaven. Such spirits, caught in a state of limbo, would seek respite by attaching themselves to the souls of living humans with whom they had had some form of intimate contact during their lives. In one common instance, this form of possession, which tended to afflict women far more frequently than men, would involve the attachment of the ghostly soul of a scoundrel husband to his surviving widow.

The complex task of the Jewish exorcist was to identify the dybbuk by name, uncover the nature of its earthly sins, and negotiate acceptable terms for its departure from the body of the possessed person. The Jewish exorcist thus served not only to relieve the suffering of the victim but also to act as an advocate on behalf of the dybbuk itself, usually by assuring it entry into Gehenna and final redemption. The prescribed ritual includes the reading of biblical verses backwards, the sounding of the shofar, and the repeated demand "tsey, tsey, dybbuk!" ("go out, go out, dybbuk!").

A recent book by J. H. Chajes, a scholar of kabbalah, offers a history of dybbuk possessions and exorcisms from the 16th century until the eve of modernity. As Chajes establishes, Isaac Luria's own fame as an expert banisher spawned a cottage industry among itinerant kabbalists that reached its heights in the 18th century. Professional baalei Shem, masters of the Divine name known mostly for healing the ill and the infertile, might also be capable of exorcising spirits from individuals, homes, synagogues, and sometimes entire Jewish villages. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was among those renowned for prowess in this area.  

Chajes stops short of exploring the modern history of the dybbuk, but one element of that history has now been filled by a superb new biography of Shloyme-Zanvel Rapaport (1863-1920), known as Sh. Ansky and best remembered today as the author of The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, the most popular and commercially successful play in the history of the Yiddish and Hebrew theater. Wandering Soul, Gabrielle Safran's erudite and immensely sympathetic biography of Ansky, adds a significant new dimension to the background of his famous drama, first performed in Warsaw in 1920 as a posthumous tribute to the author and later made into an equally famous Yiddish film (1937).

The Dybbuk tells the tragic story of a young Jewish bride who is possessed under her wedding canopy by the spirit of a dead kabbalist, whose wife she was destined to be through their parents' mutual contract at birth and their own adolescent romance. Ansky's inspiration for the drama is known to have been the materials he collected during his ambitious 1912-1913 ethnographic explorations of rural Jewish communities throughout the Ukraine, which among other riches yielded a vast folklore of evil spirits, transmigrated souls, and dybbuks as well as vivid tales of exorcisms performed by great rabbis and kabbalists. To this, however, Safran adds the autobiographical elements that must have made the subject of wandering Jewish souls so personally compelling to the dramatist.

Safran's biography, tracing Ansky from adolescence to the hour of his death, yields a portrait of a man never at rest, a Jew never at home. Culturally torn between love of his people and a competing passion for the oppressed Russian masses with whom he identified as a lifelong socialist revolutionary; linguistically torn between Yiddish and Russian (as a writer, he was astonishingly prolific in both); geographically torn between the great cosmopolitan cities of Europe and the harsh Russian hinterlands, Ansky was arguably the most extreme example of a "rootless cosmopolitan," that stereotypical bugbear of European anti-Semites. 

Safran's book opens with a citation from Ansky himself: "I have neither a wife, nor children, nor a house, not even an apartment, nor belongings, nor any settled habits." His domestic history, if one can call it that, was a series of disastrously failed marriages and deeply awkward sexual liaisons. There is more than a hint of repressed homosexuality, especially in his love for his childhood friend and lifelong intellectual partner Chaim Zhitlovsky, the founding father of secular Yiddishism. On this matter, Safran, a consummately careful historian, avoids sensationalist conclusions; but her more substantive suggestions concerning Ansky's personal attraction to the theme of the wandering lost soul are arresting and compelling. Ansky's unsettled life and sentimentally unhinged temperament do indeed resemble those of the protagonist of his great play: the errant and restless young kabbalist Honen, who dies after tempting the Devil, only to become reincarnated in the soul of his true love and destined bride.

Indeed, Safran's treatment calls for further speculation about the possible reasons for the play's unmatched popularity. In addition to its smashing success with Yiddish audiences all across Eastern Europe, the Hebrew version of the play, in the translation of the great poet Haim Nahman Bialik, became the signature performance piece of the Habimah troupe from its Moscow premiere in 1922 through multiple productions over the next decades in Tel Aviv; the Yiddish film and translations into more than a dozen other languages would amplify its reach still further.

All of this testifies to the pull of Ansky's Dybbuk, but does not explain it. The second part of the play's title, "Between Two Worlds," may, however, provide the key to its unrivalled popularity. Europe's Jews were, after all, themselves caught between different worlds and torn by competing allegiances, whether to their own people and its traditions or to a host of modern ideologies and national identities. As a gifted writer and extreme personification of this dilemma, Ansky was able to capture its torments to incomparable effect.

As for his own violent oscillations, Ansky's one unshakably decisive commitment was to the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsarist regime; but even within that commitment, he was always drifting among different parties and sub-ideologies. Ultimately, the persistence of anti-Semitism wherever he turned prevented him from finding any rest—and so, like the dybbuk, his fate remained one of constant, often agonizing, wandering, again something that can be said of so many of Europe's Jews during this turbulent era. At the end, with the triumph of the Bolshevism he had always mistrusted, and came finally to despise, Ansky's greatest hope for both Russians and Jews was utterly shattered.

And what of the career of modern-day dybbuks? If there is a shortage of qualified exorcists among Catholic priests, it is certainly no less hard to find a qualified rabbi. This was dramatically demonstrated just last year by a sensational series of attempts at an exorcism on behalf of a young man in Brazil who claimed to have been possessed by a dybbuk. Finding no one to help him at home, the victim turned to one of Israel's most respected masters, Rabbi David Batzri, the scion of a distinguished line of Iraqi Jewish exorcists.

Mounting what may have been history's first virtual rite of exorcism, Batzri tried using Skype to communicate with and expel the malevolent spirit; but to no avail. The victim then traveled to Israel and underwent many hours of heroic expulsion rituals while Batzri conducted exhausting negotiations with the dybbuk—only to fail again.

Needless to say, this affair provoked much ridicule in secular Israeli circles, even as the seriousness with which it was taken by the ultra-Orthodox community testified to the ineradicability of age-old intuitions. Tens of thousands gathered outside the home where Batzri was engaged in his dark arts, chanting along with him "tsey! tsey!" These remarkable scenes, played over and over again on Israeli television, then took on an afterlife when Batzri decided to market the DVDs of his heroic, if failed, efforts, all of which had been meticulously recorded. This in turn led to accusations of charlatanism, especially after an Israeli woman testified that she had been paid by Batzri to feign possession by a dybbuk for the sole purpose of producing a video.

On the night of November 13, just as the Catholic conference was wrapping up in Baltimore, the young Brazilian who had claimed to be possessed by a dybbuk apologetically admitted that his entire story was pure fabrication. It is nevertheless safe to predict that, among some Jews as among others all around the world, certain forms of belief are likely to transcend such momentary setbacks; those inclined to mock might pause to recall that all Jews are mandated by religious law to wash the demons of the night from their fingertips before even stepping out of bed to read the morning Times.

Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.

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David Aharon on November 30, 2010 at 8:08 am (Reply)
Let's use a little modern thinking ... all of us know there are harmful things that are too small for us to see... present all around us ... Every doctors knows about these things .... so with our 58th [21st] century understanding let's call these dybbuks
"GERMS" and you'll get the most up-to-date meaning of the word.
Another way of looking at this is to remember that when you upset the balance in the body or environment you get sick. For example, you just ate a peace of meat that somehow did not smell just so - but you ate it just the same ... two hours later you feel sick. It is the dybbuk or germs that are inside of you. Maybe you had another piece of gooey chocolate cake over the holiday... an hour later it's sticking to your lining beause it was one piece too many.

Geoff Dennis on November 30, 2010 at 8:51 am (Reply)
The previous comment was a little simplistic - many possessions look in retrospective like mental illness, hardly a microbial dybbuk. Nevertheless, he is on to a key element in these practices. Even as we look back and are offended by insulin shock, lobotomy, and EST, we fail to realize just how powerless our ancestors felt in the face of both biological and psychological illness. Simple infections killed with frequency, and before 1933 (with the invention of sulfa) we were powerless to stop them once they began. Ancient amulets and magical bowls were most often directed against evil spirits of disease. All these practices were efforts at human enpowerment over unseen powers that harmed them. I can fault their conclusions of casuality, but I refuse to criticize and mock their efforts. Even today people cannot find the succor they need in medicine (usually through no fault of the practitioners) and the intuitive solution is to fall back on tradition.
David Aharon on November 30, 2010 at 10:04 am (Reply)
I would like add that through my studies of illness in general I have discovered that what we think about directly affects us physically. Just go to any large bookstore and see how many books there are discussing this relationship under psychology and self-help and success in wealth.

In Mishle [Proverbs - attributed to King Solomon] you will see something like this .... As a man [or woman] thinketh in his heart, so he IS !

It seems to me that every motvational speaker today is using this idea of the power of positive thought.
Scott Riemersma on November 30, 2010 at 10:45 am (Reply)
I agree with Geoff Dennis as my grandparents (on my father's side, my mother's parents were from an 'enlightened' Germany) were convinced as regards dybbuks and many other things we see today as superstitions. Shortly after coming to America and getting his own farm my grandpa would not use hybrid seed. He considered that to be 'mixing' and therefore forbidden. His farm was successful anyway.

Before coming to America in 1949 they lived in a very scary place during very scary times. They had spent years in hiding and their only frame of reference was the past and religion.

I myself believe that 'possession' in most cases was mental illness. I also believe that in many cases 'exorcism' by a rabbi cured the problem. Might have been more dramatic than today's therapy but probably no less effective.

I also have a lot of respect for our predecessors. They believed many things we today consider strange. That doesn't make them any less deserving of our respect.
AK on November 30, 2010 at 3:31 pm (Reply)
"those inclined to mock might pause to recall that all Jews are mandated by religious law to wash the demons of the night from their fingertips before even stepping out of bed to read the morning Times."

The main explanation given for "netillat yedayim" is a ritual washing before prayer having nothing to do with demons. Another explanation is that when one is asleep, he is compared to being dead, which is impure, so he must wash his hands at the start of the day.
David Aharon on November 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm (Reply)
Again the Code gives us a second reason for Netilat Yadayim - touching certain areas like your nostrils which do get filled with germs - not to mention your private areas we don't mention in public.... also if you look at the Yom Kippur service mentioned in Leviticus the cohen gadol at each stage had to do a netilat yadayim or a full immersion ... as a change of status. He had to be tahor (pure) before he started.
Shael Siegel on November 30, 2010 at 6:45 pm (Reply)
Religion is but one manifestation of reasonable people trying to explain and give meaning to the unknown. Belief in God is predicated on faith. On has to have faith in order to believe. If one believes in God and angels ...why can’t one believe in other systems as well? How much of a leap of faith is it for a person of faith who believes in God to believe in vampires as well? After all, the world isn’t one dimensional, and who is to say that what we see is all there is? Science fiction, concerned with this, is rooted in the principle that there is no limit to what man can imagine or create at least in his own mind. Science fiction has built a world where man can be transported through space back and forth; journey through wormholes, beaming through solid walls and travelling in starships that move faster than light.

Until now it’s been fun imagining the unimaginable. But converting Einstein’s theories from the theoretical to the real world has brought the unimaginable to a new level. Einstein’s universe is one that curves back on itself in three dimensions of space and a fourth invisible dimension – time. Scientists like Michio Kaku, author of "Physics and the Impossible" believe that extrapolating Einstein’s theories can make time travel and travel through wormholes possible. If all this is true perhaps there is a fifth dimension that parallels our universe, one that has vampires and werewolves. If this is a consideration surely our Jewish sources would have commented on it.

There are aggadic references in the Talmud of blood-eating demons. In Chullin 105b and Eruvin 43a references are made with the explanation that in the Bible we are forbidden to consume blood because “it is the life force of all creatures” (ki dam who hanefesh). One of the most common types of vampires was Lilith (Eruvin 100b; Niddah 24b; Shabbos 151b) described as a wild haired winged nymphomaniac. Rashi recommended having amulets to protect oneself and loved ones from her. Medrash Rabbah explains that man’s wasted semen was used by Lilith to create vampires. Perhaps here is the appropriate place to explain that there was a time when Jewish cultural practice subscribed to the notion that there was a vast “middle world” neither of flesh nor entirely of spirit. Demons and angels populated this middle world and as a result of them magic (hashba’at shedim) was employed to conjure them up.

The estrie was another type of vampire that had much currency during the middle ages. The estrie was a type of vampire that lived among the human population, appearing as human, in order that it would have a steady supply of blood which it craved and needed for survival. An estrie wounded by a human being would die unless it obtained bread and salt from the intended victim. A rich source for this vampirology is fond in Rabbi Judah the Pious’s book Sefer Hasidim. According to Sefer Hasidim, estries were one of those creatures referred to in the Talmud that spoke of beings created in the twilight of the first Friday evening of creation, bodies not yet completed when God seized working in order to create the Shabbat.

In one incident detailed in great detail by Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid a woman who was an estrie fell ill and was watched over during the night by two unsuspecting ladies. When one guardian fell asleep the patient (estrie) began to unravel her hair and tried to suck the blood of the sleeping lady. The alert guardian cried out, woke the sleeping guardian and prevented the estrie from sucking the blood. If injured the estrie could reverse the damage by getting bread and salt from the victim. But what victim would then turn and give a vampire the necessary bread and salt, you might ask? Rabbi Yehudah wrote that they were able to morph themselves in to other creatures and thereby trick the victim. Sefer Hasidim relates an incident of an estrie who took the form of a cat. But a certain Jew sensed a familiarity with the cat, identified it as an estrie and struck it. The following day a woman approached the man asking him for bread and salt, would have complied but was warned by a wise old Jew not to give it to her.

Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid also cautioned that a deceased estrie in the grave wasn’t necessarily dead. It could rise from the grave unless it was buried correctly. Accordingly, an estrie that is buried with its mouth open must be stuffed with earth otherwise it will rise and seek out blood. He sites other rabbinical sources (Rabenu Yerucham, Rav Yoel Shem Tov, Rav Menasheh ben Yisroel; the Zohar; and Taame Hamitzvot of the Radvaz) that conquer with his opinion.

Our folk history is rich with customs on how to navigate in a world where vampires and werewolves in search of human blood moved freely in towns and villages where unsuspecting humans lived. Earlier I said that our tradition grew on two tracks one was halachic; the other folk history / aggadic. There were times however that while they ran somewhat parallel to each other at times they intersected. An instance of this intersection where the folk tradition influenced halachic renderings was at the crossroads of halacha and survival. Folk tradition understood that vampires, estries and Liliths do not always strike in obvious ways. Sometimes they appear in the night as spirits sitting on our hands and fingers waiting for us to rub our eyes, mouth or ears which would be the portals of entry into our bodies for these spirits. In order to avoid this, our rabbis declared that Jews upon waking in the morning before even walking “daled amos” were to wash their hands (negel vasser). Many developed the ritual of placing a bowl of water and cup near the bed precisely for this purpose. Interestingly, on Yom Kippur, although we are forbidden to bathe our bodies we are still obligated by Jewish law to wash our hands up to the knuckles in order to perform the mitzvah of “negel vasser”, avoiding the possibility of the body being invaded by the “ruchot”, evil spirits who distinguish not between weekdays and holy days.

Our rabbis believed at one time in these spirits of the middle world. In our sophistication we have written out of our heritage a rich folk history that ought to be considered as a legitimate part of our tradition. Not until reading an innocuous and light weight best seller and connecting it to some science fiction based upon Einstein did I realize that maybe its true. Maybe there is a universe running parallel to ours populated by estries and Liliths crossing their boundary ever so often in search……of nutrition.
peter nuar on December 1, 2010 at 11:18 am (Reply)
To dismiss the idea of evil as completely mental is a common modern simplistication. While mental illness still must be carefully distinguished (although intricately connected as modern psychological science emphasis on virtue demonstrates), denial of the power of evil is a sure way to be caught unawares. God does not leave us powerless though, as he reaches out to save us.

I thoroughly enjoyed the completeness of this article (minus the woefully inadequate depiction of Catholic exorcism - for a thorough treatment, see Fr Euteneuer's new book "Exorcism and the Church Militant"). This was my first visit to this website, which I stumbled on quite by accident, clicking unintentionally on the link from website. Rest assured I will gladly return.

Scott Riemersma on December 1, 2010 at 11:01 pm (Reply)
peter nuar, I do believe in evil. We see it manifested all of the time. And some people seem to go out of their way to express evil.

I was probably being over simplistic when I equated my grandparents Eastern European beliefs/backgrounds with our modern conception of mental illness. My wife also thinks I treated this issue too lightly. She believes much more like my grandparents and I generally agree with her on this.

My intention was that what psychiatrists treat as mental illness is in many cases the same thing as my grandparents' dybbuk. If psychiatry had all the answers here, we would not need mental hospitals and prisons.

Most mental health practitioners would probably laugh at this, but exorcisms, at the very least for those who believe, might free many of these individuals from their 'demons', if not from custody.

I may no longer be Orthodox like my grandparents but I in no way consider our ancestors, or the Ultra-Orthodox of today, to be simple folk, or deluded. They were and are every bit as intelligent as you and I. And I am proud of them.
[email protected] on January 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm (Reply)
There is definitely evil in this world which cannot be explained away by psychology. In modern times, the atrocities in Africa, the holocaust, and countless other events evince the existence of evil. The glamourizing and selling of evil to make money ....witness television and movies...creates a conduit for evil to take residence in the hearts of man. And sometimes old wives tales are metaphors for profound truths. Do not cast aside the past and its lessons.

One needs to wash one's hands metaphorically as well as literally. One may be "possessed" by ideas and thoughts that launch evil acts, science has no solution for sociopaths.

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