Exorcism III: Battling Dybbuks and the Dead
Today I'd like to devote an entry to that most Jewish of exorcism rites - combating spirit (Ruach Ra; Dybbuk) possession. Jews regard themselves to be spiritually 'permeable,' that ethereal-divine forces can and do penetrate and pass through the living on a regular basis. This has its roots in the Bible, where the "Spirit[s] of God/Prophecy/Wisdom" occasionally seized the living (Ex. 31:3; Numbers 27:18). But ghostly possession is another matter. The 1st Century CE Jewish historian Josephus give us (to my knowledge) the only report of spirit possession by the dead prior to the 13th Century:
....it [a special root] quickly drives away those called demons, which are no other than the spirits of the wicked, that enter into men that are alive and kill them, unless they can obtain some help against them (Wars 7:6,3).
After Josephus, the notion that ghostly spirits can possess the living all but vanishes from Jewish sources. Perhaps the belief simply became occult for twelve hundred years. Jews certainly continued to think about and report ghosts visiting asiyah, the material plane, either in a cemetery (close to their body), or as a dream vision.
While the theoretical possibility of spirit possession is mentioned in the 13th Century Sefer Zohar, the return of spirit possession to recorded Jewish history had to wait until the 16th Century, when accounts of possessions and exorcisms suddenly proliferate. Quite a number of notable Jewish figures from this time forward fill the role of exorcist, including Yosef Karo, Isaac Luria, Chayyim Vital, Isaiah Horowitz and the Chofetz Chayyim.
...I was amidst the great gathering, for there were over one hundred people there, Torah scholars and heads of communities. Two men, who knew the adjurations and many matters, approached the [possessed] woman so that the spirit within the woman would speak, by means of the smoke of fire and sulfur that they would make enter her nostrils…by means of the adjurers the voice would begin to be heard…they would quarrel with him…and say to him, “Evil one, speak and say who you are in a clear tongue"...and they again spoke to him with a great voice…”What is your name, evil one?” He would respond “Samuel Zarfati.”…he had died in Tripoli [this is followed by considerable familial details of its past life extracted from the dybbuk]…they asked him, “For which matter do you reincarnate in the world in reincarnation such as these?” He responded, “For many sins I have committed in my life.” In turn they demanded, “Be explicit about them.”…And then the aforementioned two men began to entreat him and compel him by means of the ban to depart from within her…by means of the techniques mentioned above [techniques also mentioned elsewhere in the account include amulets, reading the Ten Commandments, and pronouncing “cherem,” a kind of legal ban or restraining order] . They also would petition for mercy upon him [the dybbuk], and pray for him, and blow the shofar…And then we said [the prayer] El Melekh and va-ya’avor [Ex. 34:6] thrice with the blast of the shofar…[the dybbuk goes on to describe his failed transmigrations, how he entered this home, and entered the possessed woman]....They pressed him with the aforementioned adjurations, and with the aforementioned smoke, and with the [Divine] Names, that the spirit should depart through the big nail of one of her feet…[the dybbuk resists by various machinations, and tries to avoid enacting the proof that he had left the body, demanded by the exorcists, by extinguishing a candle positioned ten ft. from the victim, but it finally agrees to leave]…so it was done, and it became known that the spirit went out through the place and drew blood as he went..[this conclusion proves premature; the spirit manifests itself again in a matter of days and the poor woman dies eight days later].