The Devil Wears (Jewish) History: Dive Into the World of Dybbuks

Dr. J.H. Chajes, researcher of Jewish culture in the early modern era, University of Haifa, talks about the Jewish definition of the karma concept and whether he believes in the spirit world.

Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Your book originally appeared 10 years ago. Were you surprised to find it on The Wall Street Journal’s list of the five best books on demonic possession and exorcism last July?

Completely! The truth is, I probably would never even have known about it if a friend of mine hadn’t read The Wall Street Journal on a flight abroad that week and seen the article. Even my publisher didn’t know about it. I was very pleased, and things started to roll from there.

What do you mean? Is it going to be made into a film?

You’re joking, but the truth is that there is enough material there for quite a few films. I have an older brother who lives in Los Angeles and is trying to get me to leave the university and adapt the materials into a screenplay.

How did you get into this subject?

I became interested in magic as a type of conceptual experiment. We live in a world in which people think they are rational and are capable of distinguishing between knowledge and what is called belief. By delving into the meaning of magic, I felt I would be able to call into question the foundations of our vast confidence in these categories: religion, science and magic. It’s a form of subversive criticism of what we know and what we think we know.

What exactly is a dybbuk? Is it the Jewish version of possession?

That is a good definition. Anthropological studies show that the phenomenon exists in every religion. In the early Jewish world, we find mostly cases of possession in the positive sense. Every prophet to whom God speaks is “possessed”; the spirit of God rests upon him. That is actually desirable.

That’s how things stood until the early modern era: many testimonies of this positive phenomenon of a vital divine spirit resting upon man, and very few testimonies about the negative side, as people know it from horror movies such as “The Exorcist” − in other words, a spirit, which in the Jewish writings is called a “shed” [demon], or an evil spirit that enters the body. Generally, that is a form of punishment, though sometimes people fall victim for no apparent reason.

Beginning in the 16th century, the trend changes. Instead of demons entering the body, dead souls are now said to enter the body.

A specific deceased person with whom the host is familiar, someone who has been reincarnated.

Just so. “Reincarnation” [gilgul] is the correct term. Indeed, it is related to the growing belief in the Jewish world in the transmigration of souls. If you asked a Jew on the street in the 14th or 15th century whether he believed in the transmigration of souls, he probably would have scoffed at the idea. After all, there are sacred texts in which that belief is condemned, as in [the works of] Saadia Gaon. That belief is not mentioned in the Bible or in the writings of the sages. It is only in the kabbala of the 12th or 13th century that we start to hear rabbis whispering about it, mainly as a way to cope with the problem of why good people suffer.

A kind of Jewish adaptation of the karma concept.

Exactly. Why should something bad happen to someone who is good? Maybe it has to do with a previous incarnation. We do not want a world in which there is no justice, and we do not want a God who has no power. Belief in the transmigration of souls grows stronger in the16th century.

Possibly as a reaction to the expulsion from Spain.

Possibly. Another explanation is that selfhood begins to develop: the fate of the individual begins to be meaningful in a way that did not previously exist. Belief in the transmigration of souls preserves the importance of each and every individual. Each individual possesses a meaning and a history that preceded his present incarnation, and his history will not cease with his death. The treatment of those possessed by spirits, in whom familiar dead souls were identified, is also very specific and personal.

How are they treated?

Techniques of this kind can be found as early as in the Qumran (Dead Sea) Scrolls and in Yosef Ben Matityahu [Flavius Josephus]. For the most part they consist of a recitation of chapters from Psalms, the burning of incense − the smoke drives off the demon − and sometimes a shofar [ram’s horn] is also sounded. We find more or less the same techniques in the magical literature of a thousand, 2,000 and also 500 years ago.

Is this a trans-religious phenomenon? Are the same techniques found in the Christian and Muslim worlds?

There is some correspondence. The technique is also valid in the Christian world, for example − apart from the shofar, of course. The turning point in the techniques in the Jewish world does not occur until the 16th century, as I said, when the diagnosis begins to be made according to the new approach. The entity is no longer Satan or a demon but a soul, so the technique must be adjusted so that it helps both the victim − the host − and the spirit. It becomes a two-faced technique.

If previously the focus was on an attempt to exorcise the spirit, now a solution is sought for its distress.

The diary of Hayyim Vital, which you quote in your book, describes in detail how to go about this.

Vital’s diary, and also some Lurianic writings [referring to the 16th-century mystic Isaac Luria] provide the techniques unembellished.

We have compilations of such techniques with variations and with an added element that did not exist before: rescuing the spirit.

How is that done?

By finding out as many details as possible about the person − about his life, his sins, why he finds himself in this situation, whether he has other ways to leave the body. Maybe there is a son who will recite kaddish for him.

By the way, when I mention the Psalms element of the techniques, it’s not like reciting Psalms in the synagogue. It’s a magical reading. It might consist of just one verse, but in reverse order of the words, or the order of the letters in each word might be reversed. The idea behind the methods was to augment the power latent in the verse. It’s a method that’s familiar to most people who have a mezuzah in the house.

What do you mean by that?

What’s written on the other side of the parchment [in the mezuzah] is gibberish. We find the Hebrew letters “Shin. Dalet. Yod” [which form the word “Shaddai,” one of the names for God] and “kuzu bmuksz kuzu.” What’s that? It’s a one-letter shift of the names of God [as they appear in the Shema Yisrael − Hear O Israel − prayer]. By this means, the power of the letters is augmented in order to drive away the demonic forces. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the Jews were always known as having very potent weapons against demons in their sacred sources. [Third century theologian] Origen wrote that there is no better phrase than “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” to frighten off demons. You don’t have to be Jewish. The phrase is just incredibly powerful.

You must have seen Rabbi David Batzri exorcising demons on YouTube. What did you think?

In the best case, he was operating on the principle that if you diagnose someone as being possessed by a dybbuk, you have to use the tools of the kabbalic arsenal with which you are familiar to save that person. What bothers me about this episode is a feeling that it is exploitation for political purposes. Something very cynical and cheap − on top of which, it is marketed as part of Shas’ election campaign.

So, if one of your daughters suddenly started to speak in a weird voice, you wouldn’t call him?

I would call an ambulance. The truth is that here, too, there is place for a type of healthy relativism. My daughters don’t live in a world where things like that happen, but there are still places − in Israel and elsewhere − in which such things can happen. The question is what you do then. My teacher and mentor, Prof. Yoram Bilu, a psychologist and anthropologist, understood that there is a phenomenon of this kind in the ultra-Orthodox world. It exists.

Let’s say you are a psychologist, and a Haredi woman comes to you, and she and the world in which she lives apprehend what is happening to her as a dybbuk. Are you supposed to say, “I don’t believe in that, take some pills,” or might it be more effective to avail yourself of some technique or to bring in a rabbi who is willing to cooperate and help you?

It happens mainly to women, right? In the book you deal extensively with the story of the daughter of Raphael Anav, as recounted in the diary of Rabbi Vital.

In that case, the Sabbath had fallen and the girl was sitting at the table and eating fish. Suddenly she started to talk in a voice that was not hers and to give orders to those present: her father; all kinds of distinguished guests; rabbis; relatives. At one point, the spirit that had entered her − the spirit of a rabbinical sage who had died not long before − demanded that those present bring Hayyim Vital to the house. Vital arrives, and it is here that his documentation of the evidence begins.

He followed the case for months, during which the girl made contact with the souls of other people, and various zaddikim [righteous men], including Isaac Luria, appeared in her dreams. On another occasion she convenes all the rabbinical sages of Damascus and, with the aid of a local kabbalist, causes an angel to appear in a mirror. Then, by means of messages she receives from the angel, she reveals the transgressions of everyone in the room.

How do you understand that story?

It is such a rich story. All I can do is suggest ideas. One thing is clear, namely that in contrast to what is happening today in the religious world, in the 16th century rabbis were willing to listen to women.

This story tells of the strength of this specific woman. And of the strength of other women − spiritual women who cannot be called “kabbalists” but who represent a different kind of spiritualism, one which has also been forgotten in the modern Jewish world. The significance is that it is not necessarily through kabbala studies that one becomes a spiritual prodigy. It’s a gender issue.

But you still see the difference. The women achieve spirituality because some sort of spirit rests on them; the men achieve it through study, a path that was blocked to women from the outset.

I am not arguing with that. Nor is every woman who is a spiritual prodigy possessed by a spirit. She might be able to tell the future or might possess certain magic techniques. The point is that we have become used to the kabbala being a male preserve, as a result of which there is hardly any feminine spirituality in historical Judaism.

Also, with a few exceptions, we don’t see women having contributed to kabbalic literature. In my study I revealed that there are other ways to be spiritual than by being a kabbalist, and that even the kabbalists respected women whom they knew were mystics.

The psychological and anthropological explanation for the phenomenon of women who engage in magical practices or experience a dybbuk is the very opposite. It is said to be a reaction to a repressive society, which silences and excludes women and marries them off against their will, so the dybbuk is the only real outlet for their energies.

To begin with, I object to all the functionalist interpretations of religious phenomena. I also think it’s not fair to project explanations of that kind on women. Why not say the same about men who are kabbalists? After all, what they experience is no different from what women experience, yet the men are said to be spiritual prodigies, while the women are said to engage in manipulations. In any event, there is no single sufficient answer as to why it is more prevalent among women. There are many reasons: structural, functional, kabbalistic.

Have you ever come across a case of a woman’s spirit that transmigrated into the body of a male host?

If there is such a story, it is extremely rare. I don’t recall anything like that. I can say that it is more common in women than in men by a ratio of, let’s say, two to one. The transmigrating spirits are indeed those of men. But that is compatible with the structural logic of the phenomenon. As in sexuality, the penetrating being is masculine.

The dybbuk terminology is generally from the sphere of spousal relations.

That’s true, so it is not so surprising that we don’t find female incarnations among the penetrating spirits. Still, we can talk about the woman’s strength in this situation, a woman who preaches to an audience of men. I want to give credit for that, not to argue that she is fabricating the phenomenon.

I don’t think it’s fabricated, but based on the descriptions I read in your
sources, I’m not sure it’s possible to distinguish a dybbuk from, say, a psychotic fit. There is no argument about the experience, only about the interpretation.

Perhaps. But the experience is also culture-dependent, which is why we, as researchers, must be very cautious, especially when it comes to mental illnesses, which have always existed in our society. I think mental illnesses are a reflection of certain aspects of the society in which they occur.

Yes. “A history of insanity in the age of reason,” as French philosopher Michel Foucault described it.

Indeed. You know, the whole field of medical anthropology is structured such that not even a headache is objective. All the more so an event of this kind, in which a woman starts to speak in different voices, and those around her identify the presence within her of a familiar person and enter into a conversation with that person.

What do you think it is?

I think it is exactly that.

You think a spirit entered a human being?

Isn’t it enough to say that I think that the description fits what happened?


And it’s also not enough to say that I believe that this is what they thought happened?


I am inclined to say that I don’t believe it could happen today, but that I do believe it happened in the past. There are a number of sources, particularly from the 19th century, in which rabbis are asked how it is possible that the cases of dybbukim ceased after so many instances. I can think of at least two of the greatest religious arbiters who replied that the moment one does not believe in them, they are not bothersome. That is quite a sophisticated statement, which does not reject the existence of the phenomenon. Different things happen in different worlds and different dimensions.

Don’t be evasive. Do you believe that there is a world, a dimension, in which spirits exist?


Thank you.

I only say, together with Shakespeare, that there are stranger things than we can conceive of in our world. We know only a small part of reality.

Dr. J.H. Chajes.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum



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