Jewish Exorcism

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

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Power of Speech

Many possessing spirits are evidently quite forthcoming and loquacious. At times cooperation was coerced from the demon by "fumigation," exposing it to smoke and sulfur, a sympathetic invocation of the infernal realms (Igrot ha-Ramaz). The goal of the interview is to eventually learn the name of the evil spirit.

The exorcist then uses the power of the demonic spirit's own name to "overpower" it, by round after round of scripted ritual actions involving threats and rebukes, getting more intense and invasive with each effort. A few ceremonies on record reached the point of actually "beating" the demon out, but most simply involved verbal coercion.

Jewish exorcisms are usually "liturgical," using protective passages from the Psalms and other sacred texts. Antidemonic psalms have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, though whether they were used in actual exorcism is impossible to know.

The same idea resurfaces in the Middle Ages, with Psalms 10, 91, and 127 particularly being lauded for their power against evil spirits. Sefer ha-Gilgulim (by Hayyim Vital, 16th-17th centuries) instructs the patient to recite Psalms 20, 90, and Ana B'koah, an acrostic prayer made from a name of God. Rituals accompanying the recitations can include sounding a shofar or the use of other Jewish objects, such as candles, Torah scrolls, kvittles (written requests for spiritual guidance, healing, or miraculous intervention, sent to a Hasidic master), tefillin (phylacteries), or lamps (Sha'ar Ruah ha-Kodesh 89; Ma'aseh shel Ruah be-Kehillah). Later exorcism reports include the use of amulets (Minhat Yehudah 47a).

According to Lurianic Kabbalah, exorcism of a possessing dybbuk involves the tikkun, or "repair" of the ghostly soul. The tzadik/exorcist accomplishes this by promising the dybbuk salvation, then extracting all its goodness, restoring those resources to the root soul or Treasury of Souls, until the estranged evil consciousness withers and is annihilated. Thus the Lurianic kabbalist is acting on behalf of both the victim and the dybbuk.

Exit Ghost

The primary sign of a successful exorcism was a bloody fingernail or toenail, the point by which the dybbuk enters and leaves the body. Occasionally there are reports of spirits violently leaving through the throat, vagina, or rectum. A sudden and dramatic change in the victim's behavior is also a sure sign of recovery (Igrot ha-Ramaz 24b).

Interestingly, Jewish exorcisms are occasionally reported to have failed. Apparently, reports of misadventures are virtually non-existent in Catholic tradition. Jews, as always, are highly self-critical.

In a related tradition, it is believed righteous individuals have the power to gather up lost souls who are trapped in this world and release them so they may continue their journey into the afterlife. Figures such as the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, and Rabbi Hayyim ben Attar were famous for doing this.

Reports of exorcisms continue to come out of traditional communities both in the United States and Israel, though there has been a marked decline in the number over the past century.

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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.