A text detailing a Jewish exorcism has been discovered among a collection of 11,000 manuscript fragments rescued from a 1,000-year-old storeroom – or genizah—in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue.
The neatly written 150-word document describes a ceremony to dispel the evil spirit of Nissim Ben Bunya from his widow, Qamar Bat Rahma. Apparently, Qamar had been possessed by the spirit—or dybbuk—of her late husband while engaged to, or just married with, Joseph Moses Ben Sarah.
Renate Smithuis, the medieval Jewish studies scholar at The University of Manchester who found the text, thinks the Hebrew document was most likely written in the 18th century and probably originated from Egypt or Palestine. Professor Gideon Bohak from Tel Aviv University, who has worked with Smithuis, discovered that the prayer is ascribed to the famous 18th century Kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Shar‘abi.
The fragment contains the second part of a prayer ritual in which the husband—or husband-to-be—of a widow recites an exorcism prayer, to which the other men gathered in the synagogue respond with a similar prayer.
Smithuis said that from the second half of the 16th century onwards, there were many stories about exorcisms in Jewish communities across the Mediterranean, primarily in North Africa and Palestine.
“But this fragment is so exciting because it’s not a story, but the record of a real event using a prayer which was actually recited in a synagogue,” he said. “The prayer was said in the presence of a minyan—the minimum number of 10 adult Jews required for a communal religious service.
“We think it likely to have come from Egypt or Palestine not only because the fragment originates from the Cairo Genizah but also because Qamar (Arabic for “Moon”) and Rahma (“Mercy”) are names of Arabic origin,” Smithuis continued, adding that “we know little more about what happened than what is contained within these 150 or so words - but it does throw some light on this mysterious and little known side of Jewish culture.”
Although Smithuis and many other Jews consider exorcisms beyond the pale of everyday Jewish practice, if you ask certain kabbalistic figures in Jerusalem’s Geula, Beit Yisrael and Mea Shearim neighborhoods, you’ll receive another answer altogether.
Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri said that exorcisms, which are known in Jewish parlance as “removing the dybbuk,” are a fairly common practice.
“My father has performed several of them in the past few years,” said Batzri on Tuesday, referring to Rabbi David Batzri, head of Yeshivat Hashalom.
In fact, a video on the haredi Internet site Ladaat shows Batzri performing the removal of a dybbuk to a man in America via Internet just two weeks ago. The procedure was “successful,” but it took several hours.
Batzri also performed exorcisms on a woman from Dimona and a woman from South America.
Batzri’s son said that the dybbuk talks “out of the throat” of the person which it inhabits, and that the exorcism ceremony is performed by 10 men with Shofars who read special liturgical texts.
“Basically, the dybbuk is encouraged to leave the body of the person it has entered,” said Batzri. “The dybbuk is in actuality a lost soul who did not merit going to the Garden of Eden but also did not deserve going to Gehinom. He remains in limbo and at some point enters the body of a person,” said Batzri.
In Ladaat’s video Batzri is shown reciting prayers together with nine men and coaxing the dybbuk out of the man’s body.
The goal is to get the dybbuk to leave the body through the small toe of the left foot of the person who was possessed, explained Batzri.