Navigate to Community section

The Once and Future Jewish Exorcists

For Halloween, the dybbuk—a demon that invades Jewish bodies—is back from the shtetl, and special rabbis will drive it out

Asher Elbein
October 31, 2014
emily north
emily north
emily north
emily north

Long ago, the legend goes, in the 16th-century Israeli town of Safed, a young woman was attacked by a spirit. As she fell to the ground, the spirit slithered inside her and coiled up in her body. When she rose, she’d changed. She shook, she wept, and she spoke in a different voice. It fell to a local rabbi, Hayyim Vital, to step forward and attempt an exorcism. Slowly he drew out the spirit’s name and history: It was the ghost of a wicked man, whose soul had found no rest in death. Denied entry into heaven or the purging of purgatory, it wandered, tormented endlessly by more powerful spirits, until it hardened into something different: a body-snatching horror called a dybbuk.

Like the more famous golems of Prague, the modern dybbuk is rarely more than a literary figure, a metaphor connecting readers to the distant past. But for 400 years, the threat of dybbuk possession bedeviled Jews across the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, a symptom of life both in the shtetl and in the Diaspora. At a time of year when Americans scare one another with ghost stories and hang plastic skeletons on their porches, it’s worth considering this uniquely Jewish apparition—and the people who protect us from it.

Spirit possession is a common motif in cultures the world over, and though benevolent cases aren’t unheard of—Pentecostal Christians, for example, have a tendency to find themselves playing host to the Holy Spirit—more often the culprit is a demon. Yoram Bilu, an anthropologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has done extensive work tracing the history and psychology of dybbuk possession. In a recent interview, he said that the dybbuk emerged not out of demon folklore but from Kabbalistic writings of the 12th century.

At the time, it was widely held that a wicked or improperly buried ghost could not enter the afterlife and thus joined the ranks of the unquiet dead. But sages gradually developed the theory of transmigration: the idea that such spirits could slip inside newborn children, where they could complete unfinished business or rehabilitate themselves by living a second, reformed life. Transmigration quickly established itself as a fixture of Jewish mysticism, but the idea’s spookier implications wouldn’t appear for another 300 years.

Those centuries were painful ones for European Jewry. The golden days of Moorish rule in Spain faded, as the caliphate split under internal tensions and ferocious attacks by Christians eager to reconquer the region. In 1492, the Moors gone and the Inquisition in full swing, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella turned their attention to Jews, expelling them from Spanish soil.

Agnieskzka Legutko, the director of Columbia University’s Yiddish program and a specialist in dybbuks as a literary tradition, describes the event as a shockwave in the Jewish world, a diaspora that scattered refugees across the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. “The Jews spent 400 years as part of the [Spanish] community,” Legutko told me. “Suddenly, they had to deal with the horror of expulsion.” In 1548, during the aftermath of that horror and after three centuries of dybbuk dormancy, spirit possessions occurred among the Sephardic Jews of Safed.

At first the dybbuk was mostly limited to Sephardic societies, Bilu said, although they didn’t use the term, preferring to call the troublesome ghosts ruakh rajah, “evil spirits.” In “Taming of the Deviants,” a 2003 paper examining dybbuk possession cases, he describes cases appearing at first in Israel and later in Italy, where the Borgia pope had invited Jews to settle. Possession stories traveled rapidly, by word of mouth and by cheap pamphlets. In the 16th century, the geographic reach of the spirits widened, with new reports surfacing from Damascus, Cairo, and Turkey and sporadic possessions continuing in Italy and Safed. Only at the end of the 17th century did the first accounts of “evil spirits” reach the insular Ashkenazi communities of Poland and Russia.

The dybbuk formally acquired its name in Eastern Europe, Legutko said, from the Hebrew verb dibbūq, “to cling.” “It’s actually an abrogation of the phrase ‘the clinging of the evil spirit,’ ” she said. “It was first used in the 18th century … from then on, the term ‘dybbuk’ was used in reference to the phenomenon.” Dybbuk lore soon became a rich and remarkably consistent facet of life within the shtetls, nourished by the specific societal conditions and tensions within.

Dybbuk possessions—for instance, that of the woman attacked in Safed—often began with a sudden fall, often accompanied by convulsions, aches, or constant weeping. Sometimes the symptoms were behavioral, a person refusing to participate in the congregation or rebelling against community standards. And sometimes they were mystical and unsettling—speaking in a strange voice and demonstrating knowledge of far-away events or secret sins within the community. Either way, victims were young, with few cases appearing in those over 35. Women were a common target—Legutko gives the figure at 65 percent of cases—while nine out of 10 spirits identified themselves as male. These masculine spirits were happy to possess either gender, Legutko said, while the rarer female dybbuks were confined to female hosts.

When the possession was identified by the community, a rabbi would be called for to dispatch the specter. These exorcisms usually took the form of grueling bargaining sessions between the rabbi and the spirit, with the rabbi attempting to convince the dybbuk to release its hold on its victim. Sessions took place in a synagogue laden with suitably gothic trappings: black candles, prominently displayed sacred items, and a crowd of onlookers pressed against the narrow pews. “The rabbi exorcist begins conversing with the dybbuk in order to know who the spirit is,” Legutko said. “Usually dybbuks are souls with unfinished business. They have to atone for sins or they’ve done something they have to repair—so a deal is made. The dybbuk will leave the possessed and the community as a whole will say Kaddish for him, or particular prayers, or give charity.

If the dybbuk proved stubborn (as most did) then the rabbi would threaten the spirit with excommunication, expose it to Torah scrolls, or order the shofar blown. In extreme cases, Bilu writes in “Taming of the Deviants,” the exorcist resorted to beating the victim in order to force out the offending spirit. It was important that the dybbuk agree to leave via a toe or little finger, as it was widely held that the malicious spirit would mangle the organ it departed from. When it released its victim, people in the room often heard a loud bang and the shatter of breaking glass.

These cases often reflected the psychological pressures of the highly religious shtetl communities, Bilu said. Morality was a common motif: Dybbuks were the souls of sinners, their existence a warning to the wicked about their fate after death. They were also scapegoats for communal tensions: When victims were troubled or alienated, blame for their behavior fell safely on the dybbuk, and a successful exorcism refolded them into the community. Bilu has suggested that the structure of the ritual itself, an interrogation to draw out the spirit, created a charged environment that unconsciously shaped restless behavior into a fully blown possession. “Even if the victim didn’t have a sense of the thing inside him or her, the questions led them to kind of crystallize it,” Bilu said.

Possessions also tended to be “saturated with sexual overtones,” Bilu said. The male spirits entered young adults through the mouth or genitals, and clung stubbornly to them until forced out. Not only were the spirit’s sins usually sexual in nature, the prospect of a man’s ghost inhabiting a woman carried adulterous connotations of its own. Moreover, sexual tensions flourished in the patriarchal villages. Victims were often women forced into arranged marriages, Legutko said, and may also have been queer people unable to express their sexuality. Viewed in that light, manifesting strange voices or condemning communal sins were expressions of frustration, with women adopting a male persona to force the community to listen to their grievances. “During the possession,” Legutko said, “[the possessed] could say things that they wouldn’t normally be able to say.”

The 19th century marked the fullest expression of the dybbuk, with cases reported all over Eastern Europe and the Middle East, in locations as diverse as Jerusalem, Lithuania, and Germany. Dybbuks also continued to pop up with some regularity in Russia and Poland, Bilu writes. But by the early years of the 20th century, the dybbuk phenomenon was on the decline. The insular ghettos and villages where it had flourished were dying, bled by secularization, uprooted by mass immigrations to America and Israel, pummeled by the Great War, and finally wiped out by the Holocaust. Formed and nourished in large part by one wave of the diaspora, the dybbuk had been banished by another.

Yet the spirit was about to make a curious transformation. As its status as a real and terrifying ghost faded, it was refashioned by authors like S. An-sky and Isaac Bashevis Singer into something else: a specter of shtetl life haunting the present, a ghost of Judaism past that could not be banished or denied. Second-wave Jewish feminists put their own spins on the dybbuk, reclaiming an instrument of patriarchal social control. In the novel The Dyke and The Dybbuk, for example, a 1992 work by Ellen Galford, female characters grapple with being haunted by their own cultural identity. This trope marks a logical shift, Legutko said. As modern Jews, “we are in a sense possessed by the past. … The revival of interest in the dybbuk might come from the nostalgia for the ritual aspects of life that most people in this age of secularization don’t have any more.” By the late 20th century, the dybbuk was fully transformed into a literary motif, the days of exorcisms and black candles and trumpeting blasts of the shofar long ended.

Or so it seemed: In 1999, the Jerusalem Post reported the case of an Israeli widow who claimed to be possessed by the dybbuk of her husband. In 2009, according to another report by the Post, a dybbuk was cast out of an American man via the Internet. A year later, a Brazilian man was given an attempted exorcism via Skype, the footage of which was posted online.

In all these cases the exorcisms were performed by the same man, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi David Batzri, a disciple of the late Rabbi Yitzkhak Kaduri, himself reported in a Post obituary to have exorcised 20 dybbuks. The rise of ultra-Orthodox enclaves in America and Israel, Bilu said, which mimic the isolated, highly religious shtetl societies of Eastern Europe, have provided a rich soil for the legends of the dybbuk to take root and flourish once more. Appropriately enough for a wandering spirit, it turns out that the dybbuk is terribly difficult to kill.

Asher Elbein is a freelancer and short fiction writer from the Southeast, with stories appearing in Arkham Tales, Bards and Sages, and Nameless Magazine.