Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Dybbuk in Jewish Legend

Practically every culture that has ever existed has had some type of ghost myth.  The mystery of death and belief in the afterlife lead to a wide variety of myths, legends, folklore, and entertaining stories.  And, of course, the ghost story is not merely an ancient motif.  Considering the popularity of horror films and literature, it may even be reasonable to speculate that ghost stories are more popular now, in our modern, scientifically-based world, than ever in history.

When analyzing the patterns in ghost stories, certain themes come up repeatedly.  Of course, not all ghost stories are the same.  But many of them tend to follow the themes of “unfinished business,” retribution, punishment of the soul, or simply explaining the unexplained.

A particularly interesting ghost story tradition comes from Jewish folklore: “The Dybbuk.”  The dybbuk, “clinging spirit” in Yiddish, is a spirit that attempts to possess the body of a living person.  Looking at a survey of legends and beliefs from around the world, one could possibly compare the concept to some of the Loas of certain African traditions, spirits (not demons) who possess the living (sometimes by invitation and sometimes by surprise visit).  The dybbuk are sometimes referred to by the more general term “ruchim” in early biblical accounts, which translates simply to “spirits” in Hebrew.

The dybbuk’s origins vary among the various stories.  The “unfinished business” concept mentioned previously is very common among world folklore traditions, indicating that souls sometimes cannot rest until they have accomplished some task or communicated an important message.  In these cases, the possession of a body, as terrifying as it may be to the victim and the spectators, is not necessarily a malevolent act.  In this version, the dybbuk simply has no choice but to “borrow” the body of a living person in order to carry out his or her task.  Many stories assert that all spirits must occupy some kind of living thing – even animals or plants.  However, a dybbuk who seeks to accomplish an important task is most likely to try to inhabit a person.

In other versions, the dybbuk has experienced “karet,” separation from God due to evil deeds committed during life.  For this soul, the normal cycles of the afterlife are interrupted as a punishment or negative consequence of the person’s living deeds.  Once again, stories often indicate that a dybbuk can potentially occupy any living thing, but they usually prefer to inhabit a human body.  Whereas the “unfinished business” dybbuk may choose a human host out of necessity, an evil dybbuk may choose a human host out of malice, spite, and better opportunity to do harm.

Women were traditionally portrayed as being more susceptible to possession by a dybbuk, perhaps because of the assumption that women were not as strong-willed as men.  People living in homes with neglected or missing mezuzot (special parchments inscribed with scriptures and hung on door frames as a sign of faith) were also portrayed as being more susceptible to dybbuk possession, for this was seen as a sign of little religious faith.  Religious faith, of course, is the greatest defense against any supernatural threat.

Like many traditions, the Jewish folklore includes spirits that are not necessarily evil or potentially harmful.  Some stories include the spirits of honorable ancestors, “ibbur,” who play some type of role in the development of the action.  “maggid” also surface in these tales, righteous sprits who linger for a while to serve as a helper or guide to the living who are in need of its assistance.  Although dybbuk are not all necessarily evil, their attempts to possess the living (their defining characteristic) separate them clearly from these helpful, non-threatening spirits.

The process of exorcising a dybbuk from a possessed person varies from story to story.  However, they tend to have certain patterns that are very similar to other exorcism traditions from various religions.  The interview is usually represented as a crucial element of this process.  The righteous man, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group, sometimes with the help of a maggid or angel, speaks to the dybbuk and attempts to gain knowledge of it, especially its name.  The concept that knowledge of an entity’s name grants power over it goes at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians, and this ancient, powerful idea is prevalent in most exorcism tales.  Once the name is known, the person attempting to release the dybbuk must use a combination of patience, logic, faith, and pure will to convince the spirit to leave, sometimes imprisoning it in a vessel.

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