'Possession' Mixes Jewish Folklore and Urban Legend
By Jim Beckerman - Supernatural possession, as we learned in "The Exorcist," can involve levitation, spinning heads, foul language, green bile. But why should Christians have all the fun?
"The Possession," a horror film that opens Friday, trades on an even older tradition: the "dybbuk" (a Yiddish word, from the Hebrew word for "cling"), a malicious spirit of the dead that, in Jewish folklore, possesses the living.
"Human beings all have the same fears, dreams, hopes and wishes," says Peninnah Schram, professor of speech and drama at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. "That's why so many of our stories, folklore, legends and parables are really universal."
Dybbuk tales have been, in their way, a Jewish pop culture tradition, much as stories of vampires and werewolves have figured in mainstream entertainment. The Dybbuka 1914 play by Sholom Ansky, is considered one of the cornerstones of Yiddish theater; it has been adapted to film, opera and ballet. More recently, dybbuks figured in the films A Serious Man [Blu-ray] and The Unborn [Blu-ray]
"None of this is borne out in authentic Jewish scripture, or Jewish law," says Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood. "It's folk stories."
But "The Possession," uniquely, is based not so much on Jewish legend as urban legend: a supposed "dybbuk box," a "haunted" wine cabinet bought at an estate sale in 2001, and advertised on eBay with a story about a dybbuk's curse that causes misfortune to anyone rash enough to own it.
The story evidently captured the imagination of producer Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead," "The Grudge") and director Ole Bornedal. They've concocted a yarn about a young girl (Natasha Calis) who becomes obsessed with opening such a box, bought at a yard sale, and her divorced parents (Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who eventually turn to an exorcist (Jewish reggae star Matisyahu) as their daughter's behavior becomes increasingly strange.
"In general, the notion of dybbuks entering inanimate objects, I've never seen," says Rabbi David Kalb, director of Jewish education for the 92nd Street Y.
"There is a tradition of spirits entering animals. But I've never heard of inanimate objects. My sense is that this is pure urban legend."
There are, to this day, people who believe in dybbuks – and people who have claimed to cast them out. Kalb has heard two such stories, from the exorcists themselves. "In both cases, as the rabbis probed deeper, they uncovered serious psychological issues," he says.
One example, from the 1970s: a possessed woman who was being "choked" by the necklace she was wearing.
"The necklace had been given to her by a parent, her father, who had committed incest with her," Kalb says. "And he held her over the throat when he did that to her.
"This woman had seen social workers, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, but it was only the rabbi who was able to find this in the background."
Dybbuk tales largely derive from the 16th century, Schram says, when supposedly "true" accounts were told and retold and eventually took on the color of legends. Sometimes they became cautionary tales: Dybbuks could punish people, it was said, who displayed an improperly made mezuzah, or doubted the parting of the Red Sea. "There are stories where somebody breaks a vow, and terrible consequences happen," Schram says.
But a greater number of dybbuk tales stressed the idea of the dead having unfinished business with the living. For instance, the woman wearing her father's necklace in Kalb's story. Or the spirit in the 1914 play "The Dybbuk," a dead groom who possesses the body of his bride as she is about to marry another.
"Somehow, a spirit goes into someone and is causing difficulties for them," Kalb says. "Clearly there is some kind of physical manifestation and mental anguish for someone who has a dybbuk inside them."
Interestingly, Freudian psychology – also a Jewish idea – has at its core the notion of the casting out of malign influences from the past. Did Freud have a dybbuk in the woodpile?
"One might make some parallels between the id and some kind of primitive subliminal force we can't understand," Boteach says. "A lot of what Freud wrote was influenced in some way by the Jewish tradition in which he was immersed." - northjersey
The Dibbuk BoxI decided to investigate this phenomena.
I came across several interesting stories while reading about Jewish mysticism and rituals. I decided to look further and discovered references to the 'Dybbuk'. To my surprise, much of what is described in Judaism and the Kabbalah in relation to spirits and possession correlates directly and more precise to the spirit rescue work that I have recently undertaken. I would like to share some of this with you...
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 having a dybbuk is not always a bad thing for the human host...though, in most instances this is not the case.
In the Roman Catholic view, a person can succumb to a demon or devil that takes over their body, and the only cure is an exorcism to drive the demon out. In the Jewish faith there is no belief in demonic possession though there can be a possession of a living person by the soul of one who has left the body, but not the world. This soul is seeking a body to possess in order to take care of unfinished business.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, a bad spirit is described as attaching itself to King Saul, the first chieftain of the ancient tribes of Israel. Later, the prophet Elijah is possessed by the spirit of a dead man in an attempt to persuade the prophet into maneuvering the King into a war.
According to ancient Hebrew tradition, demons are beings not much different than humans but were created in the twilight of creation after the humans and right before the end of creation. They are neither of our world, nor of the other world, but a part of both.
The concept of the transmigration of souls developed and found serious followers during the Dark Ages, and by the 12th century it became an established part of the Kabbalah. The 16th century schools of mysticism embraced it. When Hasidism developed, the belief took final hold.
The first form is the Gilgul, which is the Hebrew word for 'rolling,' but means, in this context, the transmigration of the soul. Generally, it is represented as a natural sequence in the life of the soul and simply enters the body at birth, just as the infant is about to leave the mother's body, and prepares to live whatever normal life span has been allotted to it.
The second form of transmigration is the Dybbuk, a disembodied spirit possessing a living body that belongs to another soul. The earliest description was that they may be nonhuman demons...later it was assumed they were the spirits of persons who have died. The dybbuk may be the soul of a sinner, who wishes to escape the just punishment given to it by the 'angels of the grave' who seek to beat them, or to avoid another form of soul punishment...which is wandering the earth. A dybbuk may seek revenge for some evil that was done to it while it lived. The dybbuk may be lost and enter a body simply in order to find a rabbi who would be able send it on it's way. The living host may or may not know that a dybbuk is occupying their body. There may be torment towards the host but this depends on the intent of the possessing soul.
The third form is the Ibbur. The Hebrew translation of the word means 'impregnation.' Ibbur is the most positive form of possession, and probably the most complicated. It happens when a righteous soul decides to occupy a living person's body for a time, and joins, or spiritually 'impregnates' the existing soul. Ibbur is always temporary, and the living person may or may not know that it has taken place. Many times the living person has given consent for the Ibbur since it is always benevolent. The departed soul seeks to complete an important task, to fulfill a promise, or to perform a Mitzva (a religious duty) that can only be accomplished in the flesh.
If the dybbuk is able to encounter a rabbi while possessing a living host, then an exorcism ritual can be performed. The Jewish exorcism ritual is performed by a rabbi who has mastered practical Kabbalah. 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 Roman Catholic exorcism that is intended to drive away the offending spirit or demon. The intent is to heal the soul that's possessing and heal the person. The ceremony is done on behalf of both.
In some cases, there is a positive aspect to a dybbuk. On occassion a spirit will seek out a person in a time of need to help. This second type of possession is called 'sod ha'ibbur,' which is Hebrew for 'mystery impregnation.' This is a good possession simply because this is 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 and stimulate you, and help you overcome misfortune and what it has been able to in its lifetime. When it's tasks are done and you've managed to achieve what you need in your life, it leaves you.
Some people reach high pinnacles of achievement and they may fall into deep depression. This can be explained as the loss of that spirit. There's a sense of loss, and it's misinterpreted as depression. If the person eventually realizes that, they can be thankful that they had a spirit guide to help them. They need to continue to lift up their own spirit for the remainder of their life.
The 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, there is a healing process to mend the collision so both the possessor and the possessed can move on.
NOTE: There have also been times when a dybbuk can haunt or infest an inanimate object, for example the Dibbuk Box, a supposed haunted wine box that has brought terror and regret to several owners over the years...Lon
A Dybbuk and Other Tales of the Supernatural
The Dybbuk and Other Writings by S. Ansky
Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Jewish Culture and Contexts)
Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore
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