Dybbuks, demons and exorcism in Judaism


“Civilized people lose their religion easily, but rarely their superstitions.”
— Karl Goldmark

Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest of Jewish mystics, would walk in the hills of 16th century Safed and point out to his students the souls of the dead, often standing on their graves. In the same city at the same time, the great legal scholar Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the great code of Jewish Law, was composing another book dictated to him by an angel.

These visions were not as exceptional as modern Jews like to believe. Dybbuks and demons, possession and magic are woven throughout Jewish history. Amulets to ward off the evil eye, spitting, touching a mezuzah for good luck and a thousand other practices attest to the deep current of folk belief in Judaism. The next time someone persuades you that everything about Judaism is rational, logical and clear, you do not even need to tell them the story in rabbinic literature about the town that beat the river until the blood of the unwelcome water demon appeared. Just ask them to stand in a congregation while everyone is waving a lulav and spinning the etrog; the explanation may be logical, but the atmosphere is redolent of magic.

And yes, we Jews performed exorcisms, too. Anyone who spends time with rabbinic literature (or, for that matter, with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer) is familiar with demons. Jewish demons, like their counterparts in other traditions, like to inhabit people or simply upend them from time to time. Not only are there many discussions of demons in rabbinic literature, but also, as a result of demonic activity, there are many spells directed against them, as where there are demons, there must be defenses and antidotes. Some demons are granted names. (Ashmedai, from the book of Tobit, is among the most notable. He is the king of demons, and in the Talmud, King Solomon tricked him into helping with the construction of the Temple.) And there are endless discussions of their activities and depredations.

Exorcism reached a peak in the mystical community of 16th century Safed. The scholar J.H. Chajes has translated several accounts of spirit possession in Safed. One, in which a man named Samuel Zafrati entered a woman, involved Hayyim Vital, the principle disciple of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. He asked the spirit, “How can we be sure your name is Samuel Zafrati?” and the spirit, through the woman, accurately recounted all the details of the man’s life. “Then we recognized, all those present, that the spirit was the speaker.”

As the questioning and exorcism continued, the spirit was asked where he had been since his death three years before:

“I have gone from mountain to mountain, and from hill to hill. I did not find rest in any place, except that for a period I was in Shekhem, where I entered into one woman, and they removed me through the aforementioned and placed amulets upon her so that I was unable to return to her further.” The narrator then says that he knows all of this to be true from independent inquiries. The spirit continues: “After that I was roving through the city to enter synagogues [thinking that] perhaps I would find rest and comfort there for my soul, but they did not allow me to enter any synagogue.” The spirit then explained that the sages of the past did not permit him to enter, and so he wandered until he found this “kosher” woman to enter. And when asked if he thought it was legitimate to couple with a married woman, the spirit, with wonderful ethereal insouciance, answers, “What of it? Her husband is not here, but in Salonika!” 

With demons about, the consequences of a business trip could be dire.

The most eminent scholars of the time, Isaac Luria, Shlomo Alkabetz, Joseph Karo, Hayyim Vital and others were involved in exorcisms. Some were possessed themselves, like Karo, whose Maggid Mishna took hold of him and dictated, but such possession could on occasion be benevolent. The point is that this was not restricted to a fringe or the untutored; the world was rife with spirits.

Are such stories merely a quaint remnant of an earlier age? In 1999 in Dimona (a name whose origin is from Joshua 21, not from the seeming cognate “demon”), a widowed mother of eight claimed that her deceased husband had entered her body. Although several rabbis refused her an exorcism, one, Rabbi David Basri, head of the Shalom Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was equal to the task. Over the objections of many notable rabbis — and on Israeli national television — he performed the exorcism, apparently successfully.

For a while after this incident, there was a spate of claims of possession in Israel, but the wave abated. 

Some examples practically beg the listener to sneer. In his famous work Or Zarua, the 13th century rabbi Isaac ben Moses writes (recorded by Joshua Trachtenberg in his still valuable “Jewish Magic and Superstition”) of the married woman who had relations with a demon — who appeared once in the shape of her husband and once in the uniform of a local petty count. The question was — is she permitted to her husband after this demonic coupling? Was it adultery — was it voluntary? In the end, she was permitted to her husband by the rabbinic court. There is no report on the fate of the real petty count.

Jewish sources do at times distinguish mental illness from possession, although today we might be inclined to include all such stories in the category of mental disturbances. Recently I was teaching what might be reckoned the very first case of possession — the case of Saul:

“The spirit of God departed from Saul and an evil spirit of God tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘Behold now, an evil spirit of God is tormenting you. Let our Lord command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man, who knows how to play the lyre, and when the evil spirit of God is upon you, he will play with his hand and all will be well.” (I Samuel 16:14-16)

When David, who was then summoned, played music for Saul, it did indeed cure him, at least temporarily. So if this was an exorcism — a matter debated in the sources — then King David was the first recorded exorcist. It gives the profession a noble pedigree, at least.

What was notable in teaching this incident to my Torah class was that not a single member of the class was tempted to interpret this as anything but an internal event in Saul — that is, not an external spirit that afflicted him but a mental disturbance. Although exorcisms are a radical example, we have turned religious experience into a neurological datum: visions are hysteria, trances mania, and prophesies seizures. A desacralized world is more devastating to demons than any exorcist. Vampires make good television and zombies are a mainstay of horror lit, but in life a taste for blood or a lack of affect wrapped in masking tape lead us to grab the DSM and scissors, not a cross and silver bullet.

The meaning of exorcism is tied up for many in issues of gender (some believe this was a bursting forth of frustration from constraint for women or even of obtaining some public power, although plenty of men reported possessions as well) or of Christian influence (although scholars debate whether Jewish exorcisms were a result of the upsurge in the Christian world).  Most of all, it reflects the belief, deeply held and derived from the Talmud, that we were constantly surrounded by invisible forces. In a world of suffering, who could believe that such forces would never be malevolent?

It seems so reminiscent of an outgrown age. And yet … we retain some suspicion, evident in traces of our language, of an earlier world view: “I am not myself today.” “I don’t know what got into me.” Even splitting off selves from essence — “I don’t know who I am” — is a sign of the duality of nature we feel and the way in which boundaries of the self sometimes feel porous. We, too, seek shamans and rabbis and healers, though they often go by different names. And madness, true madness, seems still as though it was a grip from outside more than an internal malady.

Far as we have come, our knowledge is still a small homestead on the vast landscape of our ignorance.


David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

Religion: The ‘first and worst’ explanation


Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning.

“Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.”

To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed — or actually insisted upon — that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister.

For Sir Isaac Newton — an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-papist — the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian, as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about evolution and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued — though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it — that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

How true is this on a second look or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct in Africa 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan.

Which design or designer made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan or planner determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous and even cruel.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it. They cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was once the prerogative of the pope and the witch doctor, but now it’s gone.



Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books


This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism, not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence.

It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear.

This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This, of course, is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates, we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of “God Is Not Great” and the editor of “The Portable Atheist.” This piece was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation as part of an essay series that can be found at http://www.templeton.org/belief.