Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Spirit possession in Jewish folklore: The dybbuk

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Photo by T. Leish on Pexels 

In the folklore of both Eastern European and Mediterranean Jews, a certain kind of possession was considered a real threat. A demon called a “dybbuk” was a malicious, possessing spirit, believed to be the soul or ghost of a dead, sinful person. The dybbuk was almost always the spirit of a Jewish man, who possessed or entered the person of a Jewish woman, often on the eve of her (sometimes undesired) wedding. The word comes from the Hebrew dabaq, to cling or adhere, and started to appear in the sixteenth century.1 The first published account of an exorcism of a dybbuk was published in Basel in 1602. Others appeared in the 1660s and in 1696.2

Thevictim of the possession had a soul troubled by depression or psychosis, or she was going through the same troubles that the possessing spirit had also gone through.3 It was also suggested that the victim had done “something” (meaning a sin) that made her vulnerable.4,5

The poet and playwright S. Ansky (the pen name of S.Z. Rappoport, 1863–1920) somewhere between 1914 and 1916 wrote a play, The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds. The “Between Two Worlds” indicated that the dybbuk, or wandering soul, was neither in the world of the living nor in a place for the dead—Heaven or Hell—but was caught between the two. In this mythology, Hell was just a sort of waiting room, and one’s stay there was temporary.6 The play was first performed in 1920, and made a wider public aware of the legend.

In the play,7 Khonnon, a young rabbinical student, is in love with Leye. However, her father wants her to marry a rich man. Khonnon studies mystical, forbidden, kabbalistic texts8 to find (unsuccessfully) a way to change Leye’s father’s mind. The young man learns that Leye is about to marry a wealthy young man. Khonnon dies. Perhaps it was a suicide.

As Leye is about to marry, she is possessed by a dybbuk. The dybbuk speaks with Khonnon’s voice, saying, “I have come back to my destined bride. I will not leave her.” A rabbinical inquiry learns that Leye’s father and his friend, Khonnon’s father, before their children’s birth, had sworn that their children would marry each other. Khonnon’s father has since died, and Leye’s father has refused to honor his oath. Khonnon’s spirit is exorcized. It leaves Leye’s body, and she dies. A film was made of The Dybbuk in 1937 in Poland.

Exorcism is not performed to punish the victim of a dybbuk, nor to try her as a witch. Purportedly, the ritual exorcism9,10 takes place in a synagogue and is conducted by a rabbi in the presence of at least ten Jewish men, where seven Torah scrolls are removed from the ark., seven black candles are lit, and seven ram’s horns (shofar, plural shofarim) are sounded. Psalm 91 is recited.

Possession by a dybbuk (or two11) happens in the stories of Yiddish-language Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer.

It has been suggested that the dybbuk legend was created as a way to explain certain illnesses12 such as “madness,” hysteria, seizures, or Tourette syndrome.13,14 In addition, through the dybbuk idiom, forbidden wishes were expressed in a way that “decreased their potential threat to the individual and the community.” These wishes were often sexual urges, since a woman’s open expression of sexuality was taboo.15 Religious transgressions (for example, violating the Sabbath) could also be expressed through a dybbuk.

Modern psychology and psychiatry have considered certain episodes of “possession” to fall under “dissociative trance disorder,” (DTD).16 This condition is marked by a temporary change in a person’s state of consciousness and loss of the customary sense of personal identity. They show decreased awareness of their surroundings and have stereotyped behavior and movements. The condition is also called “possession trance disorder,” or “trance and possession disorder.” Diagnosis requires replacement of the patient’s personal identity by what is perceived as the spirit of an animal, a dead person, or some other power. Behavior and speech (voice, accent, even language) abnormal to the patient’s community are experienced as being controlled by the possessive agent.

Causes of DTD may be psychological stressors, such as the death of a relative, war, trauma, conflict about religious or cultural practices, sexuality, a future marriage, or guilt. A review17 of the medical literature on DTD from 1988–2009 found 402 people with symptoms of this disorder. A few articles were from Europe, Africa, and the Americas, while two-thirds were from Asia. Women outnumbered men nearly 2-to-1. The age of the onset of the problem was about twenty-five years. 43% percent of the patients reported possession by a god, deity, angel, or holy spirit, with a dead relative among 29%, evil spirits or demons 18%, and animals or the devil about 5% each.

In 1999, the Jerusalem Post reported on an Israeli woman who said that she was possessed by the dybbuk of her dead husband; in 2009, it reported on an American man exorcized of a dybbuk over the internet by the same kabbalist rabbi. Jewish magazine Tablet describes one anthropologist’s view, stating, “The rise of ultra-Orthodox enclaves in America and Israel…which mimic the isolated, highly religious shtetl[village] societies of Eastern Europe, have provided a rich soil for the legends of the dybbuk to take root and flourish once more.”18

A modern but faithful presentation of The Dybbuk may be seen through the Tablet article “The many faces of the dybbuk,” via YouTube. It is in Yiddish with English subtitles.


  1. “Dybbuk.” Wikipedia.
  2. Morris Faierstein. “Possession and exorcism,” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Europe, October 12, 2010. Retrieved December 13, 2023.
  3. Jeff Belanger. “Dybbuk – spiritual possession and Jewish folklore,” Ghost Village, November 29, 2003. https://www.ghostvillage.com/legends/2003/legends32_11292003.shtml.
  4. Anya Gruber. “The modern resurrection of the dybbuk, demon of Jewish folklore,” Atlas Obscura, October 10, 2023. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/dybbuk-demon-of-jewish-folklore.
  5. David Stromberg, ed. In: Isaac Bashevis Singer. Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939–1945. Amherst (Massachusetts): White Goat Press, 2023.
  6. Nasrullah Mambrol. “Analysis of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk.” Literary Theory and Criticism, September 12, 2020. https://literariness.org/2020/09/17/analysis-of-s-anskys-the-dybbuk/c.
  7. Mambrol, “Analysis.”
  8. Sharon Packer. “Demons, dybbuks, and other psychic maladies.” Psychiatric Times, February 22, 2021.
  9. Austin Harvey. “Meet the dybbuk, the malevolent spirit of Jewish folklore.” All That’s Interesting, December 26, 2022. https://allthatsinteresting.com/dybbuk.
  10. Leo Rosten. The Joys of Yiddish. New York: Pocket Books, 1968.
  11. Isaac Bashevis Singer. “The dead fiddler.” In: Ilan Stavans, ed, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer, New York: The Library of America, 2004.
  12. Harvey, “Meet the dybbuk.”
  13. W. Trethowan. “Exorcism: A psychiatric viewpoint.” J Med Ethics, 2(3), 1976.
  14. Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish.
  15. Yoram Bilu. “The taming of the deviates and beyond: An analysis of Dybbuk, possession and exorcism in Judaism.” In: Matt Goldish, ed, Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Context from the Middle Ages to the Present, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003.
  16. Mind Help. “Dissociative trance disorder.” https://mind.help/topic/dissociative-trance-disorder/.
  17. Emmanuel During et al. “A critical view of dissociation trance and possession disorder: Etiological, diagnostic, therapeutic, and nosological issues.” Can J Psychiatry, 56(4), 2011.
  18. Asher Elbein. “The once and future Jewish exorcists.” Tablet, October 31, 2014.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2024



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