views updated May 29 2018


DYBBUK is a term used in Jewish sources for a dead soul possessing the body of a living person. The term first appears in seventeenth-century Ashkenazi (European) Jewish sources. Earlier Jewish sources and Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jewry even after the seventeenth century refer to a possessed person as "adhered to by an evil spirit" (davuk mi-ruah raʾah ). Ashkenazi usage borrowed the root of the verb "to adhere" and made it into a noun signifying "the adherer" (Scholem, 1934). While cases of spirit possession are found in Jewish sources dating back to antiquity, the scattered references in ancient rabbinic literature were followed by a millennium of silence, which was finally broken by a dozen or so sixteenth-century narrative accounts. These first tales served as models for subsequent cases and their narration. Approximately eighty similar accounts were recorded from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries (Nigal, 1994).


Although the early modern etiology of spirit possession most commonly regarded the possessing agent as a dead soul, earlier Jewish sources refer to the possessing agents as shedim or mazzikim, these being malevolent demons. The increasing tendency to identify the intruder as a dead soul is an indication of the growing prominence of the doctrine of reincarnation in sixteenth-century Judaism (Scholem, 1991). The Jewish doctrine, as articulated by contemporary mystical theorists, allowed both for reincarnation into a body at birth (gilgul ; literally, "rolling"), as well as for the temporary transmigration of a soul into an adult body in a supplementary capacity (ʾibbur ; literally, "impregnation"). While the term dybbuk would come to be exclusively associated with the evil "impregnation" of the dead into bodies of the living, contemporary Jewish mystics actively pursued benevolent "impregnations" of saints into their own bodies, often through prostration upon the graves of the righteous (Kallus, 2003; Giller, 1994).

Classical Jewish sources generally regarded the afterlife as entailing a stay of up to a year in Gehenna, a purgatory that was thought to refine and purify the soul in preparation for its entrance into the Edenic heavens. According to sixteenth-century conceptions, however, particularly evil individuals lacked sufficient merit to gain admission to Gehenna. They would thus linger in a tortuous limbo of unspecified duration. Respite for such a soul could only be obtained through its taking refuge in the body of a living person; possession also allowed a soul to negotiate the terms of its admission to Gehenna through the intervention of a rabbinic exorcist.


The Galilean town of Safed was the epicenter of the efflorescence of spirit possession among Jews in the sixteenth century. The Jews of Safed in this period were predominantly pietistic refugees and penitent conversos of Iberian origin who, along with other new immigrants from Jewish communities from around the world, chose the town for its religious advantages as soon as political and economic conditions facilitated their doing so. Despite its small size, Safed became the religious capital of world Jewry, producing masterworks of legal, homiletical, and mystical literature that have remained influential to this day. Leading the Jewish religious revival in Palestine that followed in the wake of the Ottoman conquest of 1516, these mystics cultivated benevolent forms of possession while also serving as exorcists for those whose experiences were of an unwelcome variety. Just as centers of religious devotion in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe were the focal points of outbreaks of demonic possession, cases of "dybbuk " possession notably emerge in Jewish society in the context of this community of self-selected mystical pietists. The monastic intensity of this small community, which took upon itself the burden not only to lead, but to atone for the sins of the entire Jewish people, may have been the driving force behind the eruption of spirit possession in Safed (Chajes, 2003).

Isolated cases from this period were also reported in Jewish communities elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Italy. Over the subsequent centuries, dybbuk possession was reported in Jewish communities from North Africa to eastern Europe. Accounts of spirit possession from Hasidic circles tend to focus less on the victim or spirit, as did earlier accounts, and more on the exorcistin this case, a Hasidic master. While always serving a didactic function, dybbuk accounts in the nineteenth century thus became part and parcel of Hasidic hagiography. The last well publicized case of dybbuk possession took place in Dimona, Israel, in April 1999 when a 38-year-old widow was diagnosed by a prominent Jerusalem rabbi as possessed by the soul of her late husband.

Signs of Possession

Jewish sources note symptoms of dybbuk possession that closely correlate to those found in many other cultures. Physical signs include epileptic collapse, called "the falling sickness" (holi ha-nofel) in medieval sources; unnatural strength; and egg-shaped swellings under the skin, often seen in motion and identified as the source of the dybbuk 's speech. Impostors and insanity were thought to be ruled out, especially when the spirit spoke in a language unknown to the victim (xenoglossia) and when the sins of those present were exposed through its clairvoyance (Patai, 1978). Dybbukim (plural) were often thought to have entered their female victims through the vagina, but other orifices could also be subject to penetration. Food in which a dybbuk was lodged might thus enter a victim who innocently ate of it. Finally, while dybbuk possession was involuntary and the victim not culpable for what she said or did under the influence, many victims were thought to have been possessed as a punishment for a previous sin of omission or commission. Sins of belief seem to have been particularly common, especially what might be called "folk-skepticism" or unlearned disbelief in traditional doctrines and authority.

Traditional Treatment: Jewish Exorcism

While narrative accounts of spirit possession among Jews are lacking between antiquity and the sixteenth century, the evidence of Hebrew and Aramaic magical literature indicates a striking continuity in the approach to treating the possessed over the centuries. A typical Jewish exorcism would begin with the diagnostic examination of the suffering victim. If possession was confirmed, efforts to obtain the name of the spirit would begin. Without obtaining this name, there could be no successful adjuration (Gk., horkos [exorcism]; Heb., hashbaʾah ) of the spirit to depart. Threats of excommunication might be used, along with adjured angels and demons, as well as fumigations of burning sulphur. Such ceremonies were often punctuated by the thunderous blasts of a ram's horn (shofar ), which Jewish sources dating back to antiquity believed had the power to discombobulate demonic forces (leʾarbev et ha-satan ). Finally, an amulet might be written to be hung upon the victim, lest she be repossessed by the dislocated spirit in the aftermath of a successful exorcism (Knox, 1938).

In the wake of the etiological shift of the sixteenth century and the increasing tendency to identify the spirit as the soul of a Jewish sinner, penitential liturgy on behalf of the spirit is added to the exorcism formulae. Thus the exorcist comes to advocate on behalf of this tormented soul and to facilitate its admission to Gehenna in a negotiated quid pro quo, in exchange for leaving the victim quickly and unharmed.

According to the extant accounts, women were more likely to be victims of dybbuk possession by a margin of about two to one. While heterosexual penetration was most common, we also find cases of male souls possessing men; possessions by female souls rarely occur. This predominance of possessed women, not unique to the Jewish possession idiom, has often been viewed as resulting from their social or sexual deprivation in patriarchal cultures. Possession affords its primarily female victims with a licit opportunity for public expression and for the release of suppressed beliefs and feelings; exorcism, in this interpretation, reintegrates the victim into the community (Bilu, 1985). While such functionalist interpretations are compelling, critics charge that they are invoked too quickly in the analysis of women's religiosity, thus disallowing for the possibility of women acting religiously for religious (rather than social or psychological) reasons (Sered, 1994). Indeed, there is reason to believe that at least some of the women described as dybbuk- possessed may have been female visionaries and clairvoyants venerated by segments of the community unrepresented in the accounts composed by men (Chajes, 2003; Deutsch, 2004).

Dybbuk possession is known today primarily through the Yiddish play, Between Two Worlds: The Dybbuk, written in the early twentieth century by S. Ansky, and first performed shortly after his death in 1920 (Werses, 1986; Ansky, 2002). Ansky's ethnographic research in eastern Europe and his keen grasp of the dramatic potential of possession narratives resulted in a mythic tale of a righteous young scholar who gives up everything, including life itself, to be united with his true love. Denied her as his bride in life, he possesses her upon his death on the day she was to have married another. Adapted for film and shot in Poland in 1937, Der Dibuk is one of the finest Yiddish films of the period and, in retrospect, a poignant time-capsule of Jewish life in Poland in its final hour. The play, directed by Evgeny Vakhtangov, was also performed in 1922 in a Hebrew version by the Habima theater troupe in Russia; Habima would later stage popular revivals of the play in Tel Aviv, lending it a formative role in the history of Israeli theater. More recent works by Leonard Bernstein, Tony Kushner, and others testify to the enduring appeal of this material.

See Also

Exorcism; Hasidism; Magic; Qabbalah; Spirit Possession.


Ansky, S. The Dybbuk and Other Writings. Edited by David G. Roskies and translated by Golda Werman. New Haven and London, 2002.

Bilu, Yoram. "The Taming of the Deviants and Beyond: An Analysis of Dibbuk Possession and Exorcism in Judaism." In The Psychoanalytic Study of Society: Essays in Honor of Paul Parin, edited by L. Bryce Boyer and Simon A. Grolnick, pp. 132. Hillsdale, N.J., and London, 1985.

Chajes, J. H. Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism. Philadelphia, 2003.

Deutsch, Nathaniel. The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World. Berkeley, Calif., 2004.

Giller, Pinchas. "Recovering the Sanctity of the Galilee: The Veneration of Sacred Relics in Classical Kabbalah." Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 4 (1994): 147169.

Kallus, Menachem. "Pneumatic Mystical Possession and the Eschatology of the Soul in the Lurianic Qabbalah." In Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present, edited by Matt Goldish. Detroit, 2003.

Knox, W. L. "Jewish Liturgical Exorcism." Harvard Theological Review 31, no. 3 (1938): 191203.

Nigal, Gedalyah. Sippurei Dybbuk be-Sifrut Yisrael. Jerusalem, 1994.

Patai, R. "Exorcism and Xenoglossia among the Safed Kabbalists." Journal of American Folklore 91 (1978): 823835.

Scholem, Gershom. "'Golem ' and 'Dibbuk ' in the Hebrew Lexicon." Leshonenu 6 (1934): 4041.

Scholem, Gershom. "Gilgul: The Transmigration of Souls." In On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in Kabbalah, edited by Jonathan Chipman, pp. 197250. New York, 1991.

Sered, Susan Starr. Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women. New York and Oxford, 1994.

Werses, Shmuel. "S. An-ski's 'tsvishn Tsvey Veltn (Der Dybbuk )' 'beyn Shney Olamot (Hadybbuk )' 'Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk )': A Textual History." In Studies in Yiddish Literature and Folklore, edited by Chava Turniansky, pp. 99185. Jerusalem, 1986.

J. H. Chajes (2005)


views updated May 17 2018


In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk (or dibbuk) is the spirit or soul of a dead person that enters a living body and takes possession of it. Dybbuk is a Hebrew word meaning "attachment." According to tradition, the dybbuk is a restless spirit that must wander aboutbecause of its sinful behavior in its previous lifeuntil it can "attach" itself to another person. The dybbuk remains within this person until driven away by a religious ceremony.

Belief in such spirits was common in eastern Europe during the 1500s and 1600s. Sometimes people who had nervous or mental disorders were assumed to be possessed by a dybbuk. Often a special rabbi was called to exorcise, or drive out, the evil spirit.

Shloime Ansky wrote a play in Yiddish called The Dybbuk in 1916. It concerns a rabbinical student named Khonnon who calls upon Satan to help him win Leye, the woman he loves. When Khonnon dies, he becomes a dybbuk and takes possession of Leye. After she is freed of the spirit, Leye dies, and her spirit joins that of Khonnon.


views updated May 18 2018

Dybbuk (evil spirit in Jewish folklore): see DIBBUK.


views updated May 18 2018

dybbuk in Jewish folklore, a malevolent wandering spirit that enters and possesses the body of a living person until exorcized.