Jewish Exorcism

Jews have developed complex plans for coaxing evil spirits out of those who are possessed.

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Reprinted with permission from the Encyclopedia of Magic, Myth, and Mysticism (Llewellyn Worldwide).

Exorcism is a ritual of power performed in order to drive an evil spirit, whether demonic or ghostly, from a possessed person, location, or object. The Christian scholar Origen credits Jews with a special talent for exorcising demons (Against Celsus, book 4).

The first allusion to exorcism appears in the Bible, in the youth narratives of David (l Samuel). But while the biblical David seemed to be able to effect a temporary expulsion of Saul's evil spirit using music, the book of Tobit contains the first explicit description of an (informal) exorcism. Josephus recounts incidents of possession and exorcism in his Antiquities of the Jews (2, 5, 8, 45-48). In his description, exorcism involved burning herbs and immersing the possessed person in water. The New Testament also reports Jesus to have performed numerous exorcisms of demonic spirits in first-century Palestine (Matthew 12; Mark 5, 6, 13; Luke 8).

The Dead Sea Scrolls include several exorcism incantations and formulae, mostly directed against disease-causing demons. The DSS Psalms collection in particular (11Q5) has "four songs for the charming of demons with music." People who fell under the influence of false prophets and mediums were thought to also require the exorcism of possessing evil spirits (the false prophets and mediums themselves were subject to death, a sure cure for most possessions; see Zechariah 13).

The Midrash mentions the procedure, though at times in a tongue-in-cheek manner (Pesikta de-Rav Kahannah 1:4, Numbers Rabbah 19.8). An extended story in Leviticus Rabbah 24:3 tells of the exorcism of a well of water involving iron implements and shouted formulae. Shimon bar Yohai exorcises a demon that assists him in getting the cooperation of Caesar in lifting an oppressive decree against the Jews. In a medieval Midrash, Hanina ben Dosa is credited with exorcising an evil spirit haunting an old woman. Intriguingly, in the last two accounts, the Sages exorcise demons, even though each of the evil spirits actually behaved in a beneficial fashion. By the late Middle Ages, whole texts dedicated to demons started to appear.

Get That Spirit Out!

Key to any Jewish exorcism is having a truly pious man, an abba, baal shem, rebbe, or a rabbi, conduct the ceremony. This is in contrast with Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman practices, which generally use a physician.

The process usually starts with the exorcist ritually purifying himself, either according to traditional Jewish practice, or by special means, such as anointing himself with water and oil. Some exorcists may invoke the presence of a maggid, or beneficent spirit, to assist them.

Many exorcisms were public events, either performed in a synagogue, or at least requiring the presence of a minyan, a minimum of ten men that normally makes up a ritual quorum (Divrei Yosef). Various somatic symptoms (swellings, paralysis, markings, and bodily sensations) were sought in the victim for diagnostic purposes (Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim). Most techniques include interviewing the demon and/or dybbuk, taking a personal history, as it were, in order to understand what is motivating the spirit and so better effect the removal (Shalshelet Ira-Kabbalah).

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Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis

Geoffrey Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, TX. He is also lecturer in Kabbalah and rabbinic literature at the University of North Texas.