The Dybbuk: Spirit Possession
[Scene from the Yiddish language film, Der Dibuk, found on the Brandais University website, at www.brandeis.edu/.../Catalogue/images/dyb.jpg]
Jewish belief in demonic possession goes back to the Bible (Sam. 16:1-13):
Then the spirit of God left Saul, and an evil spirit from God terrified him….
Taking their cue from this report of King Saul's debilitating haunting, most Jewish sources that discuss demonic possession focus on the assumption that demons primarily inflict illness, so early Jewish amulets and exorcisms were generally concerned with medicinal treatments.
The idea that a soul of the dead could possess a person really gets its first airing in medieval Kabbalah. The Zohar, for example, offers accounts of the Biblical figures Nadav and Avihu, who having died prematurely for an offense, temporarily possess their nephew Pinchas in order to effect a tikkun, a rectification of their souls.
If there is even one organ in which the Holy One does not dwell, then he [the person] will be brought back into the world of reincarnation because of this organ, until he becomes perfected in his parts, that all of them may be perfect in the image of God. (Tikkunei Zohar)
The Zohar limits examples of this phenomena to the ancient past. And so far as I can tell, the first contemporary accounts of spirit possession do not appear for another 200 + years (Yoram Bilu cites the 16th Cent. as the period when dybbuk cases began). In most of these accounts, the dybbuk is a soul whose offenses have brought some intolerable punishment or caused the soul to wander, unable to complete its next cycle of transmigration. Occupying a living person either brings some relief from its torments or serves the dybbuk as an instrument to correct the offenses it committed while alive.
The spirit which took possession of a young man was the spirit of one who, in his life, had sinned egregiously and that thereafter could find no peace. It had entered the youth’s body after having been forced to flee its previous abode, the body of a cow which was about to be slaughtered (Maaseh Buch).
Even though the spirit is in need of tikkun, its evil nature leads it to act out and torture its victim in sundry ways:
[The dybbuk named] Samuel raised her [the victim's] legs and lowered them one after the other, with great speed, time and again. And with those movements, which he made with great strength, the blanket that was upon her fell off her feet and thighs, and she uncovered and humiliated herself before everyone's eyes. They came close to cover her thighs; but she had no self-consciousness in the course of any of this. Those who were acquainted with her knew of her great modesty...(The Great Event in Safed, Sec. 21, as translated in J.H. Chajes' "City of the Dead.")
The resolution of this affliction is an exorcism, usually performed by a rabbi, kabbalist, or other recognized spiritual authority. In a later post I will give an outline of such an exorcism and perhaps give a first-hand account from one of these works.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism is available at Amazon.com:
March 19th: Albuquerque, NM "Understanding Jewish Mysticism, Myth, and Magic"
Congregation Albert, 3800 Louisiana NE, (505)-883-1818
$10 - breakfast provided Contact Congregation Albert Men's Club for more information
March 20th: Albuquerque, "Witches, Visionaries, and Priestesses: Jewish Women Mystics"
Noble Path Books, 120 Amherst NE (Nobhill west of Carlisle, at the corner of Amherst and Campus).
March 24th: Denver, CO "Witches, Dreamers, and Priestesses: Jewish Women Mystics"
5-7PM Saturday Isis Bookstore 5701 E Colfax Ave, Denver CO 80220 - (303) 321-0867