Dibbuk (Dybbuk)

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DIBBUK (Dybbuk)

In Jewish folklore and popular belief an evil spirit which enters into a living person, cleaves to his soul, causes mental illness, talks through his mouth, and represents a separate and alien personality is called a dibbuk. The term appears neither in talmudic literature nor in the Kabbalah, where this phenomenon is always called "evil spirit." (In talmudic literature it is sometimes called ru'aḥ tezazit, and in the New Testament "unclean spirit.") The term was introduced into literature only in the 17th century from the spoken language of German and Polish Jews. It is an abbreviation of dibbuk me-ru'aḥ ra'ah ("a cleavage of an evil spirit"), or dibbuk min ḥa-hiẓonim ("dibbuk from the outside"), which is found in man. The act of attachment of the spirit to the body became the name of the spirit itself. However, the verb davok ("cleave") is found throughout kabbalistic literature where it denotes the relations between the evil spirit and the body, mitdabbeket bo ("it cleaves itself to him").

Stories about dibbukim are common in the time of the Second Temple and the talmudic periods, particularly in the Gospels; they are not as prominent in medieval literature. At first, the dibbuk was considered to be a devil or a demon which entered the body of a sick person. Later, an explanation common among other peoples was added, namely that some of the dibbukim are the spirits of dead persons who were not laid to rest and thus became *demons. This idea (also common in medieval Christianity) combined with the doctrine of*gilgul ("transmigration of the soul") in the 16th century and became widespread and accepted by large segments of the Jewish population, together with the belief in dibbukim. They were generally considered to be souls which, on account of the enormity of their sins, were not even allowed to transmigrate and as "denuded spirits" they sought refuge in the bodies of living persons. The entry of a dibbuk into a person was a sign of his having committed a secret sin which opened a door for the dibbuk. A combination of beliefs current in the non-Jewish environment and popular Jewish beliefs influenced by the Kabbalah form these conceptions. The kabbalistic literature of *Luria's disciples contains many stories and "protocols" about the exorcism of dibbukim. Numerous manuscripts present detailed instructions on how to exorcise them. The power to exorcise dibbukim was given to ba'alei shem or accomplished Ḥasidim. They exorcised the dibbuk from the body which was bound by it and simultaneously redeemed the soul by providing a tikkun ("restoration") for him, either by transmigration or by causing the dibbuk to enter hell. Moses *Cordovero defined the dibbuk as an "evil pregnancy."

From 1560 several detailed reports in Hebrew and Yiddish on the deeds of dibbukim and their testimonies about themselves were preserved and published. A wealth of material on actual stories of dibbukim is gathered in Samuel *Vital's Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim, in Ḥayyim *Vital's Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot, in Nishmat Ḥayyim by *Manasseh Ben Israel (book 3, chs. 10 and 14), in Minḥat Eliyahu (chs. 4 and 5) by *Elijah ha-Kohen of Smyrna, and in Minḥat Yehudah by Judah Moses Fetya of Baghdad (1933, pp. 41–59). The latter exorcised *Shabbetai Ẓevi and his prophet *Nathan of Gaza who appeared as dibbukim in the bodies of men and women in Baghdad in 1903. Special booklets on the exorcisms of famous spirits which took place in Korets have also been published (end of 17th century in Yiddish), in Nikolsburg (1696, 1743), in Detmold (1743), and in Stolowitz (1848). The last protocol of this kind, published in Jerusalem in 1904, concerns a dibbuk which entered the body of a woman and was exorcised by Ben-Zion Ḥazzan. The phenomena connected with the beliefs in and the stories about dibbukim usually have their factual background in cases of hysteria and sometimes even in manifestations of schizophrenia.

[Gershom Scholem]

In the Arts

There are a few significant treatments of the dibbuk theme in literature, one of the earliest being a story in the *Ma'aseh Book (1602; Eng. tr. 2 vols., 1934). The classic interpretation of the story is Der Dibbuk (1916), a play by S. *An-Ski, which inspired various artistic and musical treatments. An unusual adaptation of the old legend is the French novelist Romain *Gary's bitterly satirical La Danse de Gengis Cohn (1967; The Dance of Genghis Cohn, 1968), which tells of the haunting of an ex-Nazi by the spirit of a Jewish entertainer whom he murdered in World War ii. In drama and music the dibbuk motif has mainly found expression in compositions associated with An-Ski's play, the *Habimah production of which, in Moscow in 1922, was both visually and dramatically a landmark. It was directed by Eugene Vakhtangov, who gave the play an expressionist interpretation; the stage sets were designed by Nathan *Altman, and Jacques *Chapiro collaborated in the production. A Yiddish film version of the play was made in Poland in 1938 and a Hebrew version in Israel in 1968.

Joel *Engel's music for An-Ski's play, like the play itself, dates from 1912, when the two men heard the old folk-tale from an innkeeper's wife. An-Ski constructed the play on the leitmotiv of the hasidic song Mipnei mah ("Why did the soul descend from the supreme height to the deep pit?"). The tune was used at the first performance of the play by the Vilna troupe, and was taken over by Engel. For the rest of the stage music, Engel drew on the folk melodies he had collected, mainly those of hasidic provenance. In 1926 Engel published an arrangement of the stage music as the Suite "Hadibuk" (op. 35). Bernhard Sekles wrote an orchestral prelude, Der Dybuk (publ. 1929). The opera Il Dibuk by Lodovico Rocca (text by Renato Simoni after An-Ski) had its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in 1934. Later settings include a ballet by Max Ettinger (1947), and two operas (both entitled The Dybbuk) by U.S. composers – David Tamkin (1951) and Michael Whyte (1962).


Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim (1875), 8–17; Moses Zacuto, Iggerot ha-Remez (1780), no. 2; Moses Graff of Prague, Kunteres Ma'aseh ha-Shem ki Nora Hu (Fuerth, 1696); Moses Abraham b. Reuben Ḥayyat, Sefer Ru'ah Ḥayyim, (1785); M. Sassoon, Sippur Nora shel ha-Dibbuk (1966); Phinehas Michael, Av Bet Din of Stolowitz, Ma'aseh Nora'ah… (Yiddish, Warsaw, 1911); S.R. Mizraḥi, Ma'aseh Nora shel ha-Ru'aḥ (1904); M. Weinreich, Bilder fun der Yidisher Literatur Geshikhte (1928), 254–61; G. Scholem, in: Leshonenu, 6 (1934), 40–41.