A Ghost from Our Past
by Sala Levin
Fans of the film-making, Minnesota-bred brothers Joel and Ethan Coen were transported back to the old country in the opening scene of the 2009 film A Serious Man. A couple—clad in full shtetl garb—is visited by a man believed to be dead. The woman declares him a dybbuk, a figure unfamiliar to most 21st-century filmgoers, but one quite at home in the horror movies it predates.
The word dybbuk is a Yiddishized adaptation of the Hebrew root davek, meaning to cling or to cleave, and the basis of the contemporary Hebrew word for glue. The term first appears in Genesis, where it’s written that a man will “leave his father and his mother and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be as one flesh.” Dvekut, in kabbalistic thought, is “a kind of ecstatic state in which a person achieves greatest intimacy with the divine,” says Yossi Chajes, professor of Jewish history at the University of Haifa. A dybbuk is, in a sense, a perversion of dvekut: “a sticky evil spirit,” Chajes says—a deceased, disembodied malcontent who clings to a living person in order to find respite from its troubles.
The phenomenon of being overcome by an otherworldly spirit has a long history in Judaism. In the book of Samuel, David rids King Saul of “a spirit of melancholy from God” by playing his harp. The idea of the dybbuk gained traction in the 16th century, when kabbalah, flourishing in the northern Galilee city of Tzfat, promulgated ideas about the afterlife. Kabbalists probed “the secrets of the soul and the meaning of its incarnation so that the final reparation could take place,” says Chajes. A person who had committed serious sins—murder, sexual crimes—and who died without repenting for them would be stuck in a spiritual limbo called gehenom, where he would be tormented by, for example, “avenging angels with fiery whips,” says Howard Schwartz, author of Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. In order to escape its eternal torture, the spirit would find refuge in a living person, where it could no longer be pursued by the antagonists of the afterlife.
Dybbuks were typically male spirits who possessed women, often on the eve of their weddings, says Rachel Elior, professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University and author of Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore. The possessed might speak rudely or in the voice of the spirit, expose herself or refuse to talk or eat. The inhabitance often took a decidedly sexual tone, entering young, presumably virginal women through the vagina. Elior suggests that “possession had to do with instances of sexual harassment or imposition where women were not allowed to complain.” In the days of arranged marriages, a woman forced to marry a suitor she didn’t love might fall ill, in a sense, by being possessed. In this state, the woman “gained relative independence” by succumbing to a sort of sickness in which she couldn’t be touched or treated normally, says Elior. Young men were possessed less often—in about 25 percent of reported cases—and also in response to unwanted matches.
A young bride’s possession is the centerpiece of the Russian writer S. Ansky’s 1914 play The Dybbuk, which became the 1937 Yiddish-language film that introduced the idea of the dybbuk to a wider audience. In the play, a young woman’s lover dies before the two can wed. When the woman’s father promises her to another suitor, the deceased man returns to possess her. Ansky, Elior says, “understood profoundly the tragedy of undesired matchmaking.” An inhabiting like the one in Ansky’s play was “something that happened to you out of despair,” Elior says, “because if you’d had the choice to arrange matters differently, you wouldn’t need the possession. It’s a response to a situation that you can’t deal with in any other way.”
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To purge the spirit from the body, rabbis performed exorcisms, a ceremony depicted in Ansky’s play. The ancient rite included using smoke to expel the spirit, sounding the shofar and reciting biblical verses. Not all rabbis knew the techniques; those who did were called ba’alei shem (“masters of the name”). At times, the exorcist physically manipulated the possessed person, stemming from a belief that the spirit might be “a kind of ball under the surface of the skin, or some kind of physical presence they could attempt to move away from organs of the body,” explains Chajes. Kabbalists interested in spiritual salvation also attempted to negotiate with the intruder to “achieve some kind of reparation of the spirit and intercede on the spirit’s behalf so it could enter a more optimistic, tolerable afterlife,” says Chajes, reflecting a “concern for the dybbuk that didn’t exist before.”
Reported cases of dybbuk possession began to wane in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the result of declining belief in the occult and growing understanding of mental illness. “People don’t get possessed anymore because people don’t believe in that anymore,” says Chajes. “There’s a kind of spiritual operating system that people can choose to accept or not. You have to buy into the system for the system to operate on you. You can’t get a Windows virus if you’re running a Mac, but that doesn’t mean the Windows virus doesn’t exist.” Elior points out other reasons for the decline: greater freedom to choose spouses, and a societal framework that makes it possible to discuss sexual intimidation.
There are those who believe that dybbuks continue to haunt us. Jews from Italy, Spain, Portugal, North Africa and elsewhere all have their own notions of the dybbuk—and some, such as members of certain Ethiopian Jewish communities, still believe. “They’re not communities that experienced the European Enlightenment and loss of faith and secularization in the same way that European Jews did,” says Chajes. Dybbuks have also migrated to Israel; the ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi David Batzri has performed exorcisms on a woman in Israel and on people in the U.S. and South America—through the mystical powers of a tool called Skype.