Der Damn Dybbuk Demon

By Tamar Rotem

The head is covered by a hood, which has three holes for the eyes and nose, and the person at the center of the event moves helplessly, like an animal being led to the slaughter. In fact, he is undergoing an ancient ceremony designed to rid him of an evil spirit that has entered his body – a dybbuk.

This, at least, is what the dozens of people who were gathered around him believed, as did hundreds of others converged at the entrance to the Hashalom Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where this dybbuk-exorcising ceremony was held some three months ago.

The possessed person, a Jew from Brazil, makes thick and gruff sounds; witnesses say that when he talks his tongue does not move. That is a sign that the transfigured soul of a sinful man who has died is speaking from this man’s throat.

Rites designed to exorcise dybbuks have been performed many times in synagogues over the centuries, and are traditionally carried out before large audiences.


To a certain extent, the fact that this ceremony was filmed and disseminated over the Internet is a contemporary interpretation, albeit a somewhat exaggerated one, of the traditional requirement that the rites be performed publicly. In the film, which can be viewed on YouTube, the kabbalist rabbi conducting the ceremony, Yitzhak Batzri, sings in a deep, authoritative and calm voice.

“Dybbuk, tzeh, tzeh (Out, dybbuk, out)!” he sings and the audience urges him on. However, after four hours of prayer, of calling and of cajoling it – for example, to emerge from the little toe of the left foot and to reveal its name – it transpires that the dybbuk is stubbornly staying put. As far as is known, it has not left the Brazilian man to this day.

Despite the disappointing outcome this is still the rabbi’s finest hour. Among the distinguished kabbalist rabbis, Batzri is considered an expert in extracting dybbuks. Such ceremonies are quite rare; the previous rites that he orchestrated were carried out several years ago in Dimona. However, for Batzri, this is not alien territory: His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was the well-known kabbalist rabbi Yehuda Petaya, who used to exorcise dybbuks in Baghdad.

Rabbi Petaya was one of a dynasty of kabbalists who engaged, among other things, in extraction of dybbuks. The chain goes back to none other than Rabbi Joseph Caro, the 16th-century figure who compiled the Shulhan Arukh codex of Jewish law.

Prof. Haviva Pedaya, who teaches Judaism and culture at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva, maintains that collective memory is a significant element in understanding such events as dybbuk exorcisms. This memory is particularly important when analyzing the special attraction that such ceremonies have for some communities in the country?s underprivileged, outlying areas.

A great-granddaughter of Rabbi Yehuda Petaya, and thus also a distant cousin of Rabbi Batzri, Pedaya herself remembers family tales about the dybbuks that her grandfather, Rabbi Shaul Petaya, exorcised.

According to psychologist and anthropologist Prof. Yoram Bilu, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, exorcisms had disappeared from the Israeli scene in recent years. If there indeed has been a revival of the practice, there must be an explanation for that. Pedaya, however, sees a continuity in the tradition, which she says remained in the memory of certain communities.

Bilu and Pedaya both agree that the dybbuk phenomenon reemerges or is strengthened at times of transition and change, as traditional societies move to modernism and secularism. During such periods, explains Bilu, exorcisms demonstrate the influence of conservative mechanisms that exist to strengthen religious values and return doubters to the fold. This explains the recent incident in Jerusalem as well. too. Pedaya adds that in kabbala, the dybbuk phenomenon is seen as one in which a person’s body becomes a channel for another soul – in other words, a transpersonal phenomenon.

Perhaps this is why the professor does not dismiss the phenomenon as swiftly as other researchers do. Instead, she says she knows of other events, some of which are connected to the above-mentioned dybbuk exorcism, that have taken place in addition to those featured in media accounts. She says the interest in such rituals is as strong these days as ever. Pedaya opposes “turning [such] ceremonies into demonstrations of divine revelation in the world,” or using them as a means to bring people back to the fold of religious observance. However, she also does not approve of labeling such exorcisms as obscurantist, or of the kind of simplistic criticism of Batzri that was voiced, for example, on Amnon Levy’s recent Channel 10 television program “Screen Saver.”

Habima in Moscow

The dybbuk was one of the most powerful images in European Jewish culture during the early 20th century. That was thanks to the eponymous Yiddish play by S. An-ski, about a Jewish girl, Leah, whose body is occupied by the spirit of her true love, Hanan, who dies after turning to the kabbala for assistance after Leah’s father rejects him as a groom for his daughter. An early version was staged in Hebrew by the original Habima Theater in Moscow in 1921, with translation by Haim Nahman Bialik. Hanna Rovina was the star, white-faced with black circles around her eyes; this image from the play has been etched in the collective imagination.

The criticism of Rabbi Batzri’s activities and the defensive reactions among ultra-Orthodox circles recall the confrontations over the dybbuk stories and An-ski’s play between the Jewish Maskilim (who focused on learning) and the Hasidim (who stressed spirituality and joy).

Prof. Pedaya teaches the play, whose plot she considers a classic reflection of a culture in transition, in one of her courses.

“One may say that ‘The Dybbuk’ is, in retrospect, a requiem to Polish Jewry,” she notes. “An-ski’s view is an ethnographic internal Jewish view. He was a member of a research team sent to traditional communities in the Pale of Settlement, where he heard such stories, was excited and wrote the play. An-ski did not consider the culture of extracting dybbuks primitive. He himself was almost in the grip of a ‘dybbuk’ of documentation. He transmitted the phenomenon to the medium of a modern theater just as it is being transmitted today to YouTube.”

At the same time, adds Pedaya, exposing the ceremonies in which dybbuks are exorcised today, arouses criticism among many Jews with their origins in the Muslim world because they do not want to be labeled as backward.

The dybbuk is not a unique Jewish phenomenon. The concept is part of a much broader, universal phenomenon called “possession,” which existed in Judaism, as in other religions, as early as the Middle Ages. Prof. Bilu describes it as the universal human ability to enter a special state of awareness (“trance” or “dissociation”), which derives from a system of religious beliefs that presupposes the existence of supernatural entities and their ability to control human bodies.

“Jewish mysticism,” he explains, “and especially the kabbalist doctrines of reincarnation and impregnation that developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, constituted fertile ground for the emergence of a system of beliefs that explained the phenomenon, its style, and its behavioral expressions, and even produced the advanced and dramatic curing rites.”

Pedaya distinguishes between when a person considers himself to be the object of divine revelation – which is akin to the biblical prophets – and possession by a dybbuk, in which the spirit of a restless dead man settles within a live person. According to the kabbalist concept, the dybbuk is a soul – in most cases of a sinner – that has not found a home (it is in a liminal state) either in heaven or in hell. The spirit’s entry into a specific body usually had to do with a transgression by the host, which resulted in the sinner’s lost soul settling in his body.

On the social level, the event was designed for the public and served the social functions of both strengthening a community’s values and empowering the kabbalist healer, says Dr. Boaz Huss, a sociologist at Ben-Gurion University. For one thing, the fact that the dybbuk enters an individual can be seen as expression of some psychological or social distress. Sometimes this is an opportunity to express social protest. “Some of the events really were effective, in the sense of being curative,” he notes.

Fifteenth-century roots

Tales of dybbuks being exorcised were common in both East and West, having originated in Jewish comunities in the Muslim world and in the Mediterranean basin, and spread to the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe. What’s interesting, Huss notes, is that in both cases, a fairly fixed ceremony developed, with its roots going back to the 15th century. The ceremony includes a conversation with the dybbuk. There is an attempt to find out who he is and to demand that he leave. Some verses are read backward. All of this is accompanied by shouting at the spirit: “Out, dybbuk, out.” Later, the sounding of shofars was added.

The story patterns formulated in the 17th century struck root in Yiddish texts as well. “All the stories that appear later, about totally different cases with totally different patients and dybbuks, were still written according to the same 200-year-old format,” says Sara Zfatman, a researcher of Yiddish folklore and literature.

“It’s a living folklore, a very local one,” she continues. “In the days when there were no newspapers, tales about dybbuk exorcisms were published in booklets, and this was a very popular genre. Usually, an exorcism was a communal event, but sometimes it was an international item: The person hosting a dybbuk had to travel to several countries, from one noted person to another, in order to get the dybbuk out.” This phenomenon brings to mind the recent case of the dybbuk that invaded the body of the Brazilian Jew.

“One might have expected,” Zfatman says, “that dybbuk stories would be more connected with the local color of the kabbala and the Hasidic way of life, or with pracitioners of kabbala. We did not expect to find such tales among more rational groups, such as the Lithuanians, who laugh at the Hasidim and their miracles. But it turns out there are dybbuk stories from Lithuania as well – from sources around the Hafetz Hayim [Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen, a leading 20th-century Orthodox rabbi] and Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman [an important ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the same period]. In other words, no one is immune.

“After all,” says Zfatman, “telling stories is human, traditions pass on, and the formula moves to Yiddish texts as well. That is why there are no new dybbuks, just another variation on the same story. After all, how does Rabbi Batzri know how to conduct the dybbuk-extraction ceremony, how does he know the dybbuk emerges from the left side, and where did he get his familiarity with the prayers, if not from the written texts? In Jewish society, everything reverts to the written text. These are very much written traditions.”

Apparently, what was true in Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries continues to be true to the present day.

“If at the beginning of the 20th century there was a significant drop in the phenomenon in the West, until it was eradicated,” explains Prof. Pedaya, “in other parts of the world, in countries such as India, Russia and Brazil, where the culture of shamanism and spiritualism is strong, such phenomena are strengthening. Precisely when globalization is taking over the world, and civilization views itself as moving ahead, there are places where conservative communal structures remain.

“In a way, the people who suffer the most are precisely those who find themselves between East and West, between globalization and the memory of particular communal traditions: It is among them that dybbuks may appear and be cured. And it is those people’s suffering that becomes a stage for the group’s conflict.”

Pedaya adds that she recently advised a high school in one of the country’s outlying areas, where some of the students came from families of limited socioeconomic means. One of the students, a member of a small community of new immigrants, showed his friends some exorcism clips on YouTube, and this aroused an atmosphere of fear.

“I was shocked by the phenomenon and especially the obsession the boy developed about it,” Pedaya says. She considered the boy’s activity as a kind of reaction to the fact that he had to repress part of his culture and be exposed to a culture that totally rejected his own.

“Just as the dybbuk is a confrontation between two identities within the same person, the dybbuk’s outburst reflects a confrontation between the center and the periphery and a confrontation between cultures, East and West,” she explains. “It is no coincidence that the people who are now affected by the dybbuk are from groups representative of the periphery in Israel – a woman from Dimona, a man from Brazil, or the Ethiopian immigrant community. (In Ethiopia, spirit-possession is called Zar.)”

Even among adult members in migrant communities, there is considerable interest in films about exorcism. Pedaya says the phenomenon “challenges teachers and rabbis; it proves the shortcomings of real multi-cultural education. You cannot tell girls there are no ghosts or spirits, because fear of them exists, and the minute there is fear, an authoritative answer is insufficient. Complex tools must be devised and the subject of ‘memory’ must be understood. In the State of Israel there are people for whom the exorcism of dybbuks is something very real.”

She notes that the only way to develop an educational language for dealing with exorcisms is to acknowledge that the problem goes far beyond dybbuk ceremonies.

“It must be remembered that [the incident involving] Rabbi Batzri is indicative of something much broader,” Pedaya says, “something that represents a confrontation between the center and the periphery, East and West, and that there are more hidden symptoms. If you go and tell people, ‘That is primitive,’ they won’t listen to you.”

Huss suggests: “The more a belief in reincarnation gains legitimacy, not least because of mega-celebrities like Madonna, the more secure does a person like Rabbi Batzri feels when he creates ceremonies that in the past, when kabbala culture was considered a marginal oriental culture, would have aroused ridicule and been discarded as primitive.”

From Batzri’s perspective, the ceremony is seen as something that strengthens values, says Boaz Huss. “We have a social deviation. The person who is suffering was in the wrong, and now the matter is being dealt with and becomes normative. In other words, the event is a call to ‘not veer away from the norm.’ This is also a call to repent, a modern element that did not exist in the past.”

But one must also bear in mind the competition in the kabbalist arena. “Rabbi Batzri’s position, today, is not very strong. He must preserve his position, and he does it with the help of the marginal niche of extracting dybbuks and holding tikkunim [prayer services] for the purpose of matchmaking.”

Zfatman believes that dybbuk stories will always be around to kindle the imagination: “Literary patterns are deeply entrenched in culture,” she says. “Story telling is an art in which all of us take part. After all, the human soul has not changed that much.”





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