Saturday, April 07, 2007

Exorcism III: Battling Dybbuks and the Dead

[Uncaptioned illustration by E.M. Lilien from the Book of Job, appearing in Die Bucher Der Bibel]

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.

Or, more likely, possession by unsettled spirits faded from Jewish culture and consciousness and only reappeared once the doctrine of gilgul (transmigration of the soul - see my earlier entry) became widely circulated. Once it was accepted that souls could move freely from their bodies, the notion that they could take up residence in someone else's was also regarded as plausible.

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.

Spirit exorcism in Judaism in most respects resembles demonic exorcism in other cultures. There are many of the same elements present - determining the name of the spirit, discerning its purpose in possessing the victim, then using both Biblical and liturgical adjurations to expel the dybbuk, often with the employment of ritual objects (shofar, tefillin, Torah scrolls, even amulets) and rites (candle-lighting, fumigation with noxious substances). Most distinctive of the Jewish approach is its philosophic underpinning: that the dead can possess, rather than just haunt, the living. Because of this, unlike Christian rites, the exorcism is seen as doubly therapeutic; ideally both the victim and the ghostly assailant should be healed. Since we are dealing with a "soul" here, the goal is effect a tikkun, a rectification for the malevolent dead. Here is an extract of an elaborate account of a less-then-successful exorcism effort from Divrei Yosef, pp. 319-24, as translated in Spirit Possession in Judaism:

...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].

Dybbuk seizures continue to be recorded to this day - almost always in very traditional communities in Israel - though the number of incidents has radically declined from their peak in the 17th-18th Centuries.

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek (complete with release waivers and EMTs) modern rendition of a Jewish exorcism, can be seen in the 2009 movie The Unborn. OK, so the movie ignores much of dybbuk mythology, there's a handsome black priest at the rite (need reach those cross demographics - get it? cross demographics?), there is no minyan (I guess that's too many to kill without making the whole thing seem over-the-top), etc. But it gets a few things right - blowing a shofar (though its a mighty funky looking shofar), standing in a circle, and reciting Ps. 91 are all legit.

To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism : http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/ref=pd_rhf_p_1/104-9077615-8031133


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