Navigate to Community section

The Spirit of Shvues

Shavuot is about more than cheesecake and the Ten Commandments. It’s also about dybbuks.

Rokhl Kafrissen
May 31, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

The holiday of Shvues (or Shavuot) has a bit of an identity crisis. It doesn’t help that it’s defined by its proximity to another, much more famous, much more beloved, holiday. It’s right in the name: Shvues means weeks, as in, seven weeks after the beginning of Pesakh.

Shvues, on its own, is a lot of things: It’s a harvest holiday; one of its other names is khag hakitser, or, in Yiddish, der yontev fun shnit—the festival of harvestand it marks the traditional start of the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. It is also a pilgrimage holiday: In the time of the Temple, offerings of wheat bread would be brought as a sacrifice. Shvues also marks the giving of the Torah to the Jews and the moment when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. We read the Ten Commandments in synagogue during the holiday, which makes sense, but we also read megiles rus, the Book of Ruth, a key text for understanding conversion and the construction of Jewish identity. Jews also traditionally eat dairy to mark the holiday.

All this makes Shvues seems a bit of a hodgepodge, lacking the commanding master narrative of Pesakh, with its Exodus story. Shvues is the only Jewish holiday with no laws describing its observance, apart from refraining from work. When it comes to Shvues, it’s minhag (custom) all the way down. But drill down, and those customs get a lot more interesting than a plate of cheese blintzes—and a whole lot weirder, involving spirit possession, dybbuks, and charismatic exorcists.

One of the customs of Shvues involves staying up all night to learn Torah. This practice, the tikn leyl shvues, is an embodied ritual of remembering, recalling how the Jews awaited the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. What’s most interesting to me is this aspect of divine revelation and the ways we imagine ourselves into that long ago moment of breathless anticipation. Previously, I looked at how the “you are there” drama was deployed by Yiddish-speaking Labor Zionist activists in the postwar era. As I wrote in Tablet:

Among its many foundational myths, that of personal revelation at Sinai is among the most important to modern Judaism. We know that God gave us the Torah at Sinai because we were there. We smelled the smoke, we saw wonders, we trembled together. And we transmitted that firsthand experience from generation to generation to generation. Whether we take it figuratively or literally, when we read the Ten Commandments in synagogue during Shvues, we understand it as an act of communal imagination. Being able to imagine what it was like (whatever the it may be) isn’t merely an afterthought, but, as [author Menashe] Unger understood, indeed may be the very heart of the matter.

In the last few years, the tikn leyl shvues has made something of a comeback within mainstream American Judaism. Many synagogues and JCCs now offer all-night learning, both traditional and otherwise. It’s a great excuse to stay up all night with your friends, eat midnight cheesecake, and call it “educational.” (I’ll be presenting a brand-new, spooky Shvues lecture-concert hybrid with the brilliant Jeremiah Lockwood if you happen to be in Brooklyn for yontev.)

The history of the tikn leyl shvues is far, far weirder than its modern incarnation might indicate. Indeed, like many aspects of normative Judaism, the tikn is relatively new, and comes to us from the kabbalists of 16th-century Safed (or Tzfat), in the land of Israel. The first written description of a tikn leyl shvues appears in the Zohar, the core text of Jewish mysticism, now believed by scholars to have been written sometime in the 13th century.

The first description of a real tikn leyl shvues, as observed by regular people, appears in the 16th century. The year was probably 1534 or 1535, though it’s difficult to say precisely. And the soon-to-be famous kabbalists of Safed weren’t actually in Safed yet, but in the city of Adrianople, now modern-day Edirne, Turkey. There, Shlomo Alkabetz, Yosef Karo, and their circle of like-minded mystics, stayed up all night learning. They witnessed Karo—a towering figure of normative Judaism, known today for his authoritative compendium of Jewish law called the Shulchan Orech—channel a heavenly spirit called the Maggid, a personification of the Mishnah (Oral Law). (Amazingly enough, the substantial historical evidence allows us to draw a pretty solid line directly from that wild first tikn leyl shvues to our modern all-nighter of JCC programming and cheesecake!)

Alkabetz witnessed the heavenly voice speak through Karo, giving the group encouragement in their mystical work. Today, we know the details of that night because Alkabetz recorded his impressions of the event in a letter to the rabbis of Salonika. Karo continued to receive messages from the Maggid for the rest of his life. He recorded them in a diary called the Maggid Meisharim. Karo not only experienced spirit possession, but he would also become the first person to exorcise a dybbuk. In his brand-new book, The Dybbuk: Its Origins and History, independent scholar Morris Faierstein argues that maggidic possession and dybbuk exorcism “were two sides of the same coin, the result of attempts by kabbalists in the sixteenth century to access divine revelations by magical means.”

Shvues represents perhaps the most important occurrence of direct, divine revelation in Jewish history. Direct revelation continued after Sinai: for example, in the era of the prophets. The story Faierstein tells in The Dybbuk is about a new era of revelation, in which a small group of mystics devised methods meant to induce divine revelation, whether from angels, or with long dead tsadiks and sages. It is no accident that this revolutionary mystical moment flowered in Safed, long an undeveloped backwater compared to Jerusalem. Safed was a figurative stone’s throw from Meron, and the many graves of those tsadiks and sages, including the purported author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. Another piece of Faierstein’s story is how Isaac Luria, the avatar of modern kabbalistic thought, found direct mystical union with the soul of Shimon bar Yohai at his grave. The direct revelation he received from Shimon bar Yohai legitimated Luria’s own authority to interpret and create Jewish text and practice.

What’s so surprising about this story is that, as Faierstein tells it, the dybbuk was something of an accidental byproduct of the mystical innovations of the Safed kabbalists, happening only a few times within that milieu. It could only have arisen out of the particular conceptual-practical developments that took place among kabbalists at that time, specifically the previously theoretical, now practical application of gilgul (transmigration of the soul), ibur (soul impregnation in the living), and yihud (mystical union with a spirit or heavenly entity).

A dybbuk was the result of a sinful soul whose punishment was not Gehenna, but to wander the earth without rest. In Gehenna, a soul had the chance to atone for their sin and ascend to paradise. As a dybbuk, the wandering soul suffered without even that hope, thus seeking a kind of negative ibur (soul impregnation) within a living body, and some relief from its torment.

Faierstein set out to examine the dybbuk phenomenon with fresh eyes, examining the primary sources and concepts which he argues made this new dybbuk phenomenon possible. He draws a strong distinction between the preceding thousand-plus years of Jewish spirit possession and exorcism, involving nonhuman entities, and this new kind of possession, in which the souls of Jewish men (and Jewish men only) wandered between worlds. Gilgul, the transmigration of souls, had previously existed as a theory, but, according to Faierstein, it wasn’t until the arrival of Isaac Luria in Safed that we see recorded accounts of souls becoming dybbuks.

Previous methods of spirit exorcism had drawn on shared traditions of magic to draw out malicious entities, such as using incantations to command the spirit to leave. The kabbalists of Safed utilized new exorcism techniques taught by Luria, such as yihud. Within this new mystical soul paradigm, “there are sins that cannot be atoned for through the normal forms of punishment and … the only recourse to relief is through the intercession of a holy man with exceptional powers.” After the death of Luria and the dissolution of the Safed kabbalistic circle, the dybbuk phenomenon seems to disappear for a while, before it is reincarnated in Central Europe, with dybbuk possession popping up at the end of the 17th century. Here it changes once again, with dybbuk exorcisms bearing greater resemblance to the old demonic exorcisms than the new, esoteric techniques of Safed. This is the era of balei-shem, wonder-working Hasidic rebbes. And it is here, at this time, that we actually see the word “dybbuk” attached to the phenomenon of sinful souls invading the bodies of the living, where they had previously been known simply as “ruakh rah” or evil spirits, in Safed.

I’m not a historian or specialist in Jewish mysticism, so I’m not positioned to make any judgments on Faierstein’s arguments. However, the book is written in an accessible style, which is not always the case, especially in specialist literature such as this. But what really stands out about The Dybbuk is that the second half of the book contains an astonishing wealth of primary sources, newly translated by Faierstein himself. The appendices include letters, diary excerpts, stories and more. It is an outstanding resource for anyone with a serious interest in the topic but who may lack any of the various language literacies necessary.

If someone were looking for texts to make their upcoming tikn leyl shvues (Shvues is June 11-13, 2024) a little weirder, The Dybbuk: It’s Origins and History would be a great place to start.

But if you can’t get your hands on a copy, there is another amazing book out, just in time to enweirden your tikn. Rebecca Margolis is a scholar of Yiddish language and culture and her latest work is a media survey and analysis with the intriguing title, The Yiddish Supernatural on Screen: Dybbuks, Demons and Haunted Jewish Pasts. As the blurb copy puts it, the book “traces the transformation of the figure of the dybbuk—a soul of the dead possessing the living—from folklore to 1930s Polish Yiddish cinema and on to global contemporary media” and “examines the association of spoken Yiddish with spectral elements adapted from Jewish legends within the horror genre … Framing spoken Yiddish on screen as an ancestral language associated with trauma and dispossession, Margolis shows how it reconstructs haunted and mystical elements of the Jewish experience.”

By now, everyone has probably seen the wonderfully spooky Yiddish prologue from the Coen brothers-directed movie A Serious Man. In it, a Yiddish-speaking couple accidentally welcomes a dybbuk into their home.

If you ever wished that the Serious Man prologue could be its own genre, you’re in luck. It turns out that in the last 20 years there have been a bunch of them, and Margolis gives them a whole chapter, drawing from The West Wing, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Cobbler, and more. As she puts it, these prologues are “invented texts,” representing “an imagined Eastern European Jewish past where Yiddish is associated with the supernatural.” In a surprising turn, these Yiddish language prologues completely subvert 70 years or so of “the reductionist typecasting of Yiddish as inherently humorous.” In the span of two decades, Yiddish on screen has gone from punch line to jump scare.

Most pertinent to our discussion here is her section on Yiddish and the horror genre. Canny filmmakers have turned, for example, to the setting of shmira, the vigil over a corpse before burial, as required by Jewish law. Shmira is a gift to any screenwriter looking for a way to get demons into human bodies, and providing the atmosphere for The Vigil (2019) and The Offering (2022).

In modern day London, a woman named Leah is possessed by a dybbuk in Danish director Gabriel Bier Gislason’s 2022 Attachment. This dybbuk story isn’t just a dybbuk story, but also a “European queer indie romcom horror movie.” Rather than using the dybbuk trope as an allegory for queerness, a 21st-century dybbuk story is freer in what it can explore, depicting its lesbian romance on screen. Unlike the dybbuk who possesses an earlier Leah in the 1937 film adaptation of Ansky’s play, this dybbuk is not presented as Jewish. The filmmakers are more interested in the drama of exorcism than the identity of the spirit, in a reversal of the Safed dybbuk exorcisms, where the kabbalists seemed to regard the exorcism itself as a bore, and a dybbuk, by definition, was Jewish. Attachment and other recent “dybbuk films” revel in the contemporary free play of identity in which we, the viewers, are situated. Languages and folklores intermingle and are transformed, speaking to, and through each other, proving that cinema itself may be the most powerful modern dybbuk.

MORE: Read The Yiddish Supernatural on Screen: Dybbuks, Demons and Haunted Jewish Pasts and The Dybbuk: Its Origins and History … This past March saw the passing of an important Israeli scholar in the field of dybbuk research, Dr. Sara Zfatman. In 2015 she published Jewish Exorcism in Early Modern Ashkenaz, in which she presented a newly discovered Yiddish-language account of a late 17th-century exorcism. Koved ir ondenk … Join Jeremiah Lockwood and me for a journey through the spooky side of Shvues. Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. June 11. Full Shavuot Across Brooklyn listing here.

ALSO: Author Golan Moskowitz comes to the American Jewish Historical society with “Wild Outside in the Night: Queer Jewishness and Childhood Liminality in the Picture-Books of Maurice Sendak.” Moskowitz will discuss “how Sendak’s multiple perspectives as a gay, Holocaust-conscious, American-born son of Yiddish-speaking Polish immigrants informed his life and work.” June 4, in person and online. Tickets hereBibliotheque Medem in Paris offers its monthly, all-day seminar on Yiddish literature, conducted in Yiddish. (For those in North America, note that listed times are for France.) June 9. Register here … “Runaway Husbands, Desperate Families” is a new exhibit coming to YIVO in June. It tells the story of the National Desertion Bureau through a wealth of never-before-seen materials from the NDB’s archive. Opening June 17 ... Now is always the best time to learn how to read the Hebrew alphabet. Workers Circle is offering a five-session class called “Learn to read Yiddish Alef-Beys with Gustavo Emos.” Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, June 4, 6, 11, 18, and 20. Register now! … Queen of the klezmer fidl Alicia Svigals just released a new CD, Fidl Afire. She’ll be celebrating with CD-release parties in New York and Boston, June 23 and 25. Check her website for more details ... Tickets for the Yiddish Book Center’s Yidstock festival are going fast. Catch the Klezmatics, Levyson, and other artists in concert, or one of many lectures and classes. July 11-14. Tickets here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.