A human being that is possessed by a spirit or some otherworldly creature is a phenomenon found in a myriad of cultures and religions. Jewish folklore calls the spirit that causes this rare but remarkable occurrence a "dybbuk."
A dybbuk (pronounced "dih-buk") is the term for a wandering soul that attaches itself to a living person and controls that person’s behavior to accomplish a task. The word "dybbuk" is the Hebrew word for "cleaving" or "clinging," and surprisingly, having a dybbuk is not always a bad thing for the human host. However, sometimes having a dybbuk is a very bad thing.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler has been studying Jewish folklore, spirituality, and its shamanic roots for more than 25 years. He has written books covering the Jewish perspective on ghosts, apparitions, magic, and reincarnation, including a book titled Dybbuk. I spoke to Rabbi Winkler about dybbuk from his office at the Walking Stick Foundation in the wilderness of New Mexico.
My own understanding of possession is from a very Roman Catholic perspective: a person can succumb to a demon or devil that will take over their body, and the only cure is an exorcism to drive the demon out. Rabbi Winkler said, "[Jews] don’t believe in demonic possession. We believe that, on very rare occasions, there can be a possession of a living person by the soul of one who has left the body, but not the world, and they’re seeking a body to possess to finish whatever they need to finish."
Winkler explained how stories of dybbuk go back to ancient scriptures. In the Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of Samuel (18:10), a bad spirit is briefly described as attaching itself to King Saul, the first king elected chieftain of the ancient tribes of Israel: "And it came to pass on the morrow, that the evil spirit from God came upon Saul…" Later in the Bible, in the Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is possessed by the spirit of a dead man who is trying to get the prophet to trick the King into going to war when he wasn’t supposed to. Winkler said, "You have stories like that, that just nonchalantly mention spirits of people who have left us coming down to effect some change, some phenomenon in this world."
Rabbi Winkler has a unique perspective on dybbuk and other Jewish folklore. Though the kinds of things he’s writing and teaching about may not be discussed in your local synagogue, Winkler explains how ghosts and spirits are definitely part of Judaism. Winkler said, "Our scriptures and our mystical tradition are full of ghosts — ghosts meaning the disembodied soul still wandering around. We also have teachings about what in English they call "demons," but they’re not all evil — they’re called ‘sheydim’ in Hebrew. There are good demons and bad demons. According to our ancient tradition, demons are beings just like we are, just like animals are. They were created in the twilight of creation after the human being was created, right before the climax of creation, so that they’re neither of this world, nor of the other world, but little bit of both. There are teachings about how our ancestors like King Solomon dabbled in demonology, and he learned a lot of sorcery mysteries from the famous head of all the demons, Ashmedai."
So how does a dybbuk take hold of a person? Winkler said, "The dybbuk is drawn to someone who is in the state where their soul and their body are not fully connected with each other because of severe melancholy, psychosis, stuff like that — where you’re not integrated. It seeks a particular person who in their current lifetime is going through what the possessing spirit went through, and so the possessing spirit is drawn to compatibility — to someone who is struggling with the same thing it did. Let’s say in my heart I have a desire to rob all convenience stores, but I don’t follow through because I don’t have the guts. The spirit of someone who has actually done it will be drawn to my desire to do it and will possess me because we’re compatible."
Giving in to your bad inclinations doesn’t necessarily mean you are victim of a dybbuk. A true possession does have specific signs. Winkler explained, "You can tell it is real if the person is capable of speaking things that they would not otherwise be capable of knowing. Because the soul that’s in them is not integrated with them enough to be subject to time, space, and matter, they would be able to tell you things they would ordinarily not know — like what you dreamed last night, what’s happening across the street, maybe they can even speak a separate language that they’ve never known before." If this kind of bad possession takes hold, the solution is exorcism.
The Jewish exorcism ritual is performed by a rabbi who has mastered practical Kabbalah. The ceremony involves a quorum of 10 people who gather in a circle around the possessed person. The group recites Psalm 91 three times, and the rabbi blows the shofar — a ram’s horn. Rabbi Winkler has performed four exorcisms in his life so far. He said, "We blow the ram’s horn in a certain way, with certain notes, in effect to shatter the body, so to speak. So that the soul who is possessing will be shaken loose. After it has been shaken loose, we can begin to communicate with it and ask it what it is here for. We can pray for it and do a ceremony for it to enable it to feel safe and finished so that it can leave the person’s body."
The point of the exorcism is to heal the person being possessed and the spirit doing the possessing. This is a stark contrast to the Catholic exorcism that is intended to drive away the offending spirit or demon. Winkler said, "We don’t drive anything out of anybody. What we want to do is to heal the soul that’s possessing and heal the person. It’s all about healing — we do the ceremony on behalf of both people."
In some cases, a person may exhibit signs of dybbuk but the problem is purely psychological. Rabbi Winkler recounted a story from Jewish folklore that took place in the eighteenth century — around the time the first wind-up alarm clock was invented. A woman brought her daughter to her rabbi because she suspected a dybbuk. The rabbi diagnosed the young girl and didn’t find any real signs of possession, so he sent her home with an alarm clock and told her to carry it throughout the day. The rabbi told the woman and her daughter that at 4:30 that afternoon, the dybbuk would leave the girl. At 4:30, the family believed the dybbuk was gone by the mere shock of hearing the bell go off at exactly 4:30.
There is also a positive aspect to a dybbuk. Sometimes a spirit will come to a person in a time of need to help. Winkler said, "The second kind of possession is called ‘sod ha’ibbur,’ which is Hebrew for ‘mystery impregnation.’ This kind of possession is a good possession — it’s a spirit guide. The spirit of someone who has struggled and overcome what you have struggled with and can’t overcome will be lent to you from the spirit world to possess you, encourage you, and help you overcome what you have not been able to overcome and what it has been able to in its lifetime. Then when it’s done and you’ve managed to achieve what you need to achieve in your life, it leaves you. Sometimes people reach high pinnacles of achievement and they fall into deep depression, and that’s explained as the loss of that spirit. So there’s a sense of loss, and it’s misinterpreted as depression. If the person realizes that, they can be thankful that they had a spirit guide to help them, and they need to continue to lift up their own spirit."
Most belief systems have some notion of a spirit guide or guardian angel, and they also recognize a malevolent spiritual force that can influence us. The Jewish concept of dybbuk recognizes that our physical world and the spiritual world can intertwine for both positive and negative reasons. If those intersecting reasons are negative, Judaism has a healing process to mend the collision so both the possessor and the possessed can move on.