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What Is a Dybbuk?

The Dybbuk in Jewish Folklore

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A scene from the play The Dybbuk

A scene from the play The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds by Salomon Anski

Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a ghost or disturbed soul that possesses the body of a living being. In early biblical and Talmudic accounts they are called "ruchim," which means "spirits" in Hebrew. During the 16th century spirits became known as "dybbuks," which means "clinging spirit" in Yiddish.

There are numerous stories about dybbuks in Jewish folklore, each with its own take on the characteristics of a dybbuk. As a result, the specifics of what a dybbuk is, how it is created, etc, vary. This article highlights characteristics that are common to many (though not all) of the stories told about dybbuks.

What Is a Dybbuk?

In many stories a dybbuk is portrayed as a disembodied spirit. It is the soul of someone who has died but is unable to move on for one of many reasons. In stories that assume there is an afterlife where the wicked are punished, the dybbuk will sometimes be described as a sinner who is seeking refuge from the punishments of the afterlife. A variation on this theme deals with a soul that has suffered "karet," which means that it has been cut off from God because of evil deeds the person did during their life. Yet other tales portray dybbuks as spirits that have unfinished business among the living.

Many stories about dybbuks maintain that because spirits are housed inside bodies, wandering spirits must possess a living thing. In some cases this can be a blade of grass or an animal, though frequently a person is the dybbuk's preferred choice. The people most often portrayed as being susceptible to possession are women and those living in homes with neglected mezuzot. The stories interpret the neglected mezuzah as an indication that the people in the home are not very spiritual.

In some cases a spirit that hasn't left this world is not called a dybbuk. If the spirit was a righteous person who is lingering to serve as a guide to the living, the spirit is called a "maggid." If the spirit belonged to a righteous ancestor, it is called an "ibbur." The difference between a dybbuk, maggid and ibbur is really in how the spirit acts in the story.

How to Get Rid of a Dybbuk

There are probably as many different ways to exorcise a dybbuk as there are stories about them. The ultimate goal of an exorcism is to release the body of the possessed person and to release the dybbuk from its wanderings.

In most stories, a pious man must perform the exorcism. Sometimes he will be assisted by a maggid (beneficent spirit) or an angel. In some stories the ritual must be performed in the presence of a minyan (a group of ten Jewish adults, usually all male) or at a synagogue. (Or both).

Often the first step in the exorcism is interviewing the dybbuk. The purpose of this is to determine why the spirit has not moved on. This information will help the person performing the ritual to convince the dybbuk to leave. It is also important to discover the dybbuk's name because, according to Jewish folklore, knowing the name of an otherworldly being allows a knowledgeable person to command it. In many stories, dybbuks are more than happy to share their woes with anyone who will listen.

After the interview, the steps in exorcising a dybbuk vary greatly from story to story. According to author Howard Chajes, a combination of adjurations and various props are common. For instance, in one example the exorcist may hold an empty flask and a white candle. He will then recite a formulaic adjuration commanding the spirit to reveal its name (if it hasn't done so already). A second adjuration commands the dybbuk to leave the person and fill the flask, whereupon the flask will glow red.

"The Dybbuk"

After traveling between Jewish shtetls (villages) in Russia and the Ukraine, playwright S. Ansky took what he had learned about dybbuk folklore and wrote a play titled "The Dybbuk." Written in 1914, the play was eventually turned into a Yiddish-language film in 1937, with some variations to the storyline. In the film, two men promise that their unborn children will marry. Years later, one father forgets his promise and betroths his daughter to the son of a wealthy man. Eventually the friend's son comes along and falls in love with the daughter. When he learns that they can never marry, he invokes mystical forces that kill him and his spirit becomes a dybbuk that possesses the bride-to-be.

Sources: "Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Jewish Culture and Contexts)" by Jeffrey Howard Chajes and "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism" by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis.

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