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Dybbuks, demons and exorcism in Judaism

Surrounded by invisible forces

by Rabbi David Wolpe

June 27, 2012 | 3:34 pm

Still from the 1937 Yiddish film “The Dybbuk.” Photo courtesy of the National Center for Jewish Film

Still from the 1937 Yiddish film “The Dybbuk.” Photo courtesy of the National Center for Jewish Film

“Civilized people lose their religion easily, but rarely their superstitions.”
— Karl Goldmark

Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest of Jewish mystics, would walk in the hills of 16th century Safed and point out to his students the souls of the dead, often standing on their graves. In the same city at the same time, the great legal scholar Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the great code of Jewish Law, was composing another book dictated to him by an angel.

These visions were not as exceptional as modern Jews like to believe. Dybbuks and demons, possession and magic are woven throughout Jewish history. Amulets to ward off the evil eye, spitting, touching a mezuzah for good luck and a thousand other practices attest to the deep current of folk belief in Judaism. The next time someone persuades you that everything about Judaism is rational, logical and clear, you do not even need to tell them the story in rabbinic literature about the town that beat the river until the blood of the unwelcome water demon appeared. Just ask them to stand in a congregation while everyone is waving a lulav and spinning the etrog; the explanation may be logical, but the atmosphere is redolent of magic.

And yes, we Jews performed exorcisms, too. Anyone who spends time with rabbinic literature (or, for that matter, with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer) is familiar with demons. Jewish demons, like their counterparts in other traditions, like to inhabit people or simply upend them from time to time. Not only are there many discussions of demons in rabbinic literature, but also, as a result of demonic activity, there are many spells directed against them, as where there are demons, there must be defenses and antidotes. Some demons are granted names. (Ashmedai, from the book of Tobit, is among the most notable. He is the king of demons, and in the Talmud, King Solomon tricked him into helping with the construction of the Temple.) And there are endless discussions of their activities and depredations.

Exorcism reached a peak in the mystical community of 16th century Safed. The scholar J.H. Chajes has translated several accounts of spirit possession in Safed. One, in which a man named Samuel Zafrati entered a woman, involved Hayyim Vital, the principle disciple of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. He asked the spirit, “How can we be sure your name is Samuel Zafrati?” and the spirit, through the woman, accurately recounted all the details of the man’s life. “Then we recognized, all those present, that the spirit was the speaker.”

As the questioning and exorcism continued, the spirit was asked where he had been since his death three years before:

“I have gone from mountain to mountain, and from hill to hill. I did not find rest in any place, except that for a period I was in Shekhem, where I entered into one woman, and they removed me through the aforementioned and placed amulets upon her so that I was unable to return to her further.” The narrator then says that he knows all of this to be true from independent inquiries. The spirit continues: “After that I was roving through the city to enter synagogues [thinking that] perhaps I would find rest and comfort there for my soul, but they did not allow me to enter any synagogue.” The spirit then explained that the sages of the past did not permit him to enter, and so he wandered until he found this “kosher” woman to enter. And when asked if he thought it was legitimate to couple with a married woman, the spirit, with wonderful ethereal insouciance, answers, “What of it? Her husband is not here, but in Salonika!” 

With demons about, the consequences of a business trip could be dire.

The most eminent scholars of the time, Isaac Luria, Shlomo Alkabetz, Joseph Karo, Hayyim Vital and others were involved in exorcisms. Some were possessed themselves, like Karo, whose Maggid Mishna took hold of him and dictated, but such possession could on occasion be benevolent. The point is that this was not restricted to a fringe or the untutored; the world was rife with spirits.

Are such stories merely a quaint remnant of an earlier age? In 1999 in Dimona (a name whose origin is from Joshua 21, not from the seeming cognate “demon”), a widowed mother of eight claimed that her deceased husband had entered her body. Although several rabbis refused her an exorcism, one, Rabbi David Basri, head of the Shalom Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was equal to the task. Over the objections of many notable rabbis — and on Israeli national television — he performed the exorcism, apparently successfully.

For a while after this incident, there was a spate of claims of possession in Israel, but the wave abated. 

Some examples practically beg the listener to sneer. In his famous work Or Zarua, the 13th century rabbi Isaac ben Moses writes (recorded by Joshua Trachtenberg in his still valuable “Jewish Magic and Superstition”) of the married woman who had relations with a demon — who appeared once in the shape of her husband and once in the uniform of a local petty count. The question was — is she permitted to her husband after this demonic coupling? Was it adultery — was it voluntary? In the end, she was permitted to her husband by the rabbinic court. There is no report on the fate of the real petty count.

Jewish sources do at times distinguish mental illness from possession, although today we might be inclined to include all such stories in the category of mental disturbances. Recently I was teaching what might be reckoned the very first case of possession — the case of Saul:

“The spirit of God departed from Saul and an evil spirit of God tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘Behold now, an evil spirit of God is tormenting you. Let our Lord command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man, who knows how to play the lyre, and when the evil spirit of God is upon you, he will play with his hand and all will be well.” (I Samuel 16:14-16)

When David, who was then summoned, played music for Saul, it did indeed cure him, at least temporarily. So if this was an exorcism — a matter debated in the sources — then King David was the first recorded exorcist. It gives the profession a noble pedigree, at least.

What was notable in teaching this incident to my Torah class was that not a single member of the class was tempted to interpret this as anything but an internal event in Saul — that is, not an external spirit that afflicted him but a mental disturbance. Although exorcisms are a radical example, we have turned religious experience into a neurological datum: visions are hysteria, trances mania, and prophesies seizures. A desacralized world is more devastating to demons than any exorcist. Vampires make good television and zombies are a mainstay of horror lit, but in life a taste for blood or a lack of affect wrapped in masking tape lead us to grab the DSM and scissors, not a cross and silver bullet.

The meaning of exorcism is tied up for many in issues of gender (some believe this was a bursting forth of frustration from constraint for women or even of obtaining some public power, although plenty of men reported possessions as well) or of Christian influence (although scholars debate whether Jewish exorcisms were a result of the upsurge in the Christian world).  Most of all, it reflects the belief, deeply held and derived from the Talmud, that we were constantly surrounded by invisible forces. In a world of suffering, who could believe that such forces would never be malevolent?

It seems so reminiscent of an outgrown age. And yet … we retain some suspicion, evident in traces of our language, of an earlier world view: “I am not myself today.” “I don’t know what got into me.” Even splitting off selves from essence — “I don’t know who I am” — is a sign of the duality of nature we feel and the way in which boundaries of the self sometimes feel porous. We, too, seek shamans and rabbis and healers, though they often go by different names. And madness, true madness, seems still as though it was a grip from outside more than an internal malady.

Far as we have come, our knowledge is still a small homestead on the vast landscape of our ignorance.


David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

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