Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism

Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism

Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism

Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism


After a nearly two-thousand-year interlude, and just as Christian Europe was in the throes of the great Witch Hunt and what historians have referred to as "The Age of the Demoniac," accounts of spirit possession began to proliferate in the Jewish world. Concentrated at first in the Near East but spreading rapidly westward, spirit possession, both benevolent and malevolent, emerged as perhaps the most characteristic form of religiosity in early modern Jewish society.

Adopting a comparative historical approach, J. H. Chajes uncovers this strain of Jewish belief to which scant attention has been paid. Informed by recent research in historical anthropology, Between Worlds provides fascinating descriptions of the cases of possession as well as analysis of the magical techniques deployed by rabbinic exorcists to expel the ghostly intruders.

Seeking to understand the phenomenon of spirit possession in its full complexity, Chajes delves into its ideational framework--chiefly the doctrine of reincarnation--while exploring its relation to contemporary Christian and Islamic analogues. Regarding spirit possession as a form of religious expression open to--and even dominated by--women, Chajes initiates a major reassessment of women in the history of Jewish mysticism. In a concluding section he examines the reception history of the great Hebrew accounts of spirit possession, focusing on the deployment of these "ghost stories" in the battle against incipient skepticism in the turbulent Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam.

Exploring a phenomenon that bridged learned and ignorant, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, Between Worlds maps for the first time a prominent feature of the early modern Jewish religious landscape, as quotidian as it was portentous: the nexus of the living and the dead.


What therefore is the locus that authorizes me, today, to suppose that I can
speak the other better than all of them? Lodged like them in knowledge that
attempts to understand, with respect to the possessed I am reiterating the
now with a few variants which must he evaluatedthat for
merly belonged to the demonologist or the doctor

Michel de Certeau

In the early 1540s, a Jewish boy in the Galilean—and, for nearly a generation, Ottoman—village of Safed, was possessed by the soul of a sinner, a dybbuk. Furious that the boy’s father had killed the dog in which he had formerly been lodged, the soul sought vengeance by killing the man’s son. the eminent sage who was called upon to exorcise the spirit, having forced it to speak with threats of excommunication, discovered that there was little he could do but rescue the boy by removing the intruder and banishing him to the wilderness. This he accomplished by intoning a classic Hebrew liturgical formula, though with a magical twist: the rabbi recited the words both forward and backward. More cases were to follow. Safed would again be the locus of possession episodes in the early 1570s, as would, to a less dramatic extent, cities in both Christian and Muslim worlds: Ferrara, Ancona, Pesaro, Venice, Damascus, Prague, Cairo, Tituán, and Turin.

The possessed Jews of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not alone. Convulsing, tearing off their veils, bleating like sheep, and climbing trees like cats, the nuns of Wertet, in the country of Hoorn, Brabant, were possessed in large numbers in 1550. So too the nuns of Xante, Spain, in 1560. Communities of nuns were overwhelmed by devils in Milan in 1590, in Aixen-Provence in 1611, in Lille in 1613, in Madrid in 1628, and, famously, in . . .

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