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10 Gripping Facts about Dybbuks from Jewish Folklore

by Jenne Gentry
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

You’ve likely heard of ghosts and demons, maybe even wish-granting djinns. But how about soul-cleaving dybbuks? These evil spirits are rooted in Jewish folklore and rank high among the most dangerous supernatural beings due to a monstrous propensity for human possession. Fear of the dybbuk reached an all-time high between the 16th and 18th centuries, and though it has died down in the years following, some still consider them a threat.

Whether stories of the dybbuk initially served as a horrifying reminder to act rightly, explain troubling behavior, or warn of a real-life danger—or a combination of all three—one thing is sure. These terrifying creatures are the stuff of nightmares. Keep reading for more on these ancient phantoms of lore.

Related: Top 10 Creepy Stories Of Demonic Possession

10 A Dybbuk Defined

Judaism’s ancient curse – the Dybbuk

Dybbuk (or dibbuk) stories have been passed down for thousands of years. But the first written account was in the Talmud, a 1,500 (or so) years old text central to Rabbinic Judaism, which serves as a “traditional guide for life, philosophy, history, folklore, and more.” According to the folklore portions, the human realm is full of spirits whose existence serves as a reminder to live virtuously. The dybbuk and other supernatural beings from the ancient text eventually became linked with Kabbalah, a sect of mystical Judaism with medieval roots.

Initially thought to be a demon, the dybbuk (Yiddish for “clinging spirit”) eventually came to be considered the restless spirit of a sinner who was unable to move on to Gehenna (the transitory station between Heaven and Earth, where sins are expurgated and forgiven). Caught in a state of limbo, they seek refuge by attaching themselves to the soul of a living person.

Some say they attach to someone they had intimate contact with during their lives, and others say they can cleave anyone who “committed a secret sin which opened a door.” Some even say dybbuks can possess an animal or an inanimate object, like a box or a blade of grass.[1]

9 The Dybbuk’s Origins

The Origins of the Dybbuk – How the Kabbalah Transformed Possession & Exorcism of the Evil Dead

Many believe dybbuks come from the “domain of evil.” In Kabbalistic terminology, the domain of evil, the Sitra Ahra (the “Other Side”), is an inversion of the divine world that houses the dark forces. As the story goes, angels oversee our world while demons reside on the Other Side. Satan doesn’t have a significant role in Kabbalistic mythology.

Instead, demons are portrayed as the greatest danger to humans- especially when one clings to a living soul. The importance of removing the dybbuk and its destructive forces from a pure soul falls not only on saving the possessed person but also on the battle in a cosmic war between good and evil. “The Hebrew verb from which the word dybbuk is derived is also used to describe the cleaving of a pious soul to God. The two states are mirror images of each other.”[2]

8 Dybbuks Role in Transmigration

Gate of Reincarnation: Gilgul

Dybbuks fall within the religious and philosophical concept of transmigration and the natural sequence in the life of a soul. In the first form of transmigration, Gilgul (the Hebrew word for “rolling”), the soul occupies various bodies to learn the many lessons needed before being free to reunite with God. In each lifetime, the soul enters the body at birth and lives out the life span allotted to it.

The second form of transmigration describes the dybbuk possessing a living body. The dybbuk might choose this unnatural route for several reasons. It may be attempting to avoid punishment for its sins, seeking revenge against someone who has wronged it, or being lost and needing a Rabbi to send it on its way. Depending on the dybbuk’s intent, the living person may be unaware that a dybbuk is occupying its body or tormented by it.[3]

7 Good vs. Bad Possession

The dybbuk & the ibbur

Kabbalistic texts and Jewish folklore claim possession can also take a positive or healthy form. While dybbuks are pure evil, there is another beneficial type of possession called sod ha’ibbur (Hebrew for “mysterious impregnation”). Also known as an “ibbur,” this type of possession represents the third form of transmigration. An ibbur is similar to a “spiritual guide” in that their mission is to help the person through their trials and tribulations. In so doing, they simultaneously achieve their purpose and perfect themselves.

The ibbur temporarily occupies a living person’s body, joining with the existing soul in a righteous act. The living person may or may not realize it has occurred, but the individual often graciously gives the ibbur permission. Whether the ibbur aims to complete an important task, fulfill a promise, or perform a Mitzva (a religious duty) that can only be accomplished “in the flesh,” their reasoning is always benevolent.[4]

6 Dybbuks Have a Type

The Possession of Dybbuk | The Demon from the Outside

Women are more frequent victims of dybbuk possession than men. It is a preference that, combined with the general assumption that dybbuks are males, further illustrates the doctrine of opposites: “Male and female, living and dead, pure and impure, all fused together in one human body.”

Dybbuks are especially attracted to anyone struggling with the same challenges or feelings they experienced during their lifetime. They’ll work to make the person’s life worse or influence them into making the same mistakes and sins they made. They also tend to zero in on those who have a mental disorder, such as severe depression or psychosis.

Considering fear of the dybbuk was at its peak during a time when the subject of mental health wasn’t open for discussion, it’s relatively safe to say that more than a few “possessed souls” would have benefited more from a mental health professional than a rabbi. Anyone who didn’t fit in with the social norm could have earned the label “possessed” just as quickly.[5]

5 Witchcraft, Possession, and Religion

Witchcraft – The Witch Flight to the Sabbat – From Inquisitional Myth to Psychedelic Flying Ointment

These types of “mix-ups” were not limited to Judaism. A man or woman showing symptoms of dybbuk possession would have likely been branded a witch by the Christian community. Somewhere between 300,000 and one million men and women condemned as witches were reportedly burned to death by the Christian church in the 16th through the 18th centuries.

Meanwhile, a formal liturgy for the rite of exorcism began to develop in Judaism and Catholicism during the same period, which many claim is no coincidence. Both religions agree that the sole remedy for possession is performing an exorcism to remove the evil spirit, but there is one significant difference. In the Catholic church, a trained exorcist can rely on the miraculous efficacy of the rite itself. Jewish lore requires the practitioner to negotiate with the evil spirit and convince it to depart.[6]

4 Dybbuk Exorcisms Are Complicated

The Exorcism Rituals in Judaism [Wrestling with the Angel]

Stories about exorcising dybbuks differ significantly, but they all share one main goal: to release the body of the possessed person and the dybbuk from its wanderings. The only way to exorcise a dybbuk is to provide a Tikkun (or “restoration”) for it, either by transmigration or sending the dybbuk to hell.

Most stories claim the exorcism needs to be performed by a pious man, who may be assisted by a maggid (“beneficient spirit”) or an angel. Some stories say the ritual requires the presence of a minyan (a group of 10 Jewish adults, usually all males, purified through fasting and ritual immersion), be performed at a synagogue, or both.

The first step is crucial: interview the dybbuk to determine their reason for not moving on. Later, this will help the exorcist convince them to leave. It is equally important to discover the dybbuk’s name. According to the folklore, knowing the name of an otherworldly being allows a person to command it.

Following the interview is a combination of adjurations and props. For example, the exorcist might recite a formulaic adjuration, holding an empty flask in one hand and a white candle in the other, before commanding the dybbuk to reveal its name (if it hasn’t already). In a second adjuration, the exorcist commands the dybbuk to leave the body and fill the flask. If successful, the flask will glow red.[7]

3 More on Dybbuk Exorcisms

Possession and Exorcism in Ancient Israel – Judaism

Sometimes, the exorcist cajoles and threatens the dybbuk, listing all the offenses the soul committed during its human life. The minyan, if present, will dress in white shrouds and prayer shawls. Sacred parchment binds their arms and heads. If performed in a synagogue, the men remove seven scrolls from the Torah, light seven black candles, and sound seven blasts on seven rams’ horns. The exorcist then recites curses, incantations, and seven different combinations of the 42-letter name of God.

Safed kabbalist Hayyim Vital recorded instructions for exorcising a dybbuk that he received from his teacher, Isaac Luria. Above all, Vital stresses the need to remain strong-hearted and show no fear. The dybbuk must leave the body between the big toe and its nail to avoid permanent damage to the possessed person. Finally, the exorcist must issue a firm warning to the spirit not to enter anyone else: “There is no place for the world of the dead in the abode of the living.”[8]

2 Dybbuk’s Have Starred in Plays, Movies, and Books

ATTACHMENT (2022) Official Trailer — Horror (HD)

Dybbuk lore leaped from religious text to mainstream media in 1920 when folklorist Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport wrote a play called The Dybbuk based on years of research. Written under the pseudonym S. Ansky, The Dybbuk eventually became a canonical piece of Yiddish literature. The play has seen multiple iterations since, including a 1937 film and a ballet created by Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.

Films like The Unborn (2000), The Possession (2012), and Ezra (2017) are more recent examples. While these movies present a more modern take on dybbuk lore, Gabriel Bier Gislason’s Attachment (2022) honors the ancient Jewish folklore and mysticism.

An oft-quoted book on the subject is J.H. Chajes’s Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (2003), which includes written accounts and case studies of dybbuk possessions. Another highly-rated book is Rachel Elior’s Dybbuk’s and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore (2008), which examines social, historical, and phenomenological perspectives with particular attention to gender significance.[9]

1 They’ve Even Been Resurrected on Social Media

The Dybbuk Box: Cursed Artifact or Paranormal Hoax?

Dybbuk boxes have been having a moment lately via social media sites like TikTok and YouTube. An eBay listing by Kevin Mannis for a wine cabinet with an elaborate backstory may have inspired this trend. In 2003, Mannis claimed that a Polish Holocaust survivor previously owned the piece and that a powerful demon known as a dybbuk had come to inhabit it. Since acquiring the cabinet, paranormal occurrences, disturbing nightmares, and intense feelings of being watched by an evil presence have plagued Mannis.

Eventually, the cabinet was sold to Zak Baggins, host of Ghost Adventures, and placed on display at his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas. However, in 2021, Mannis admitted that his story was a hoax that he made up to create an “interactive horror story in real time.” Around this time, a wave of people began to “debunk” and “expose” so-called dybbuk boxes on social media. Skeptics dismiss the trend as trivializing Jewish tradition.[10]

As written in a blog post from Zo Jacobi of Jewitches, “It takes almost no research into actual Jewish mythology and folklore to understand and learn that there is no historical basis for [the existence of Dybbuk boxes], but rather a far more modern thirst for sensationalism…”

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen