Friday, January 15, 2010

Dybuk, Kabblah & Mesorah

Dear Rav Eidensohn,

I stumbled across your blog as I was researching the so-called 'dybbuk' phenomena within the Jewish community. It was my sister who reported this story to me that led me to research the possible Torah sources for whether such phenomena ought to be thought of as anything but psychological illness.

As a college student studying philosophy and chemistry, I am always skeptical when I hear of stories which clash with the claims of modern science, medicine and general logic, so naturally I was doubtful about the supernatural claims being made. Your blog provided me with some relief in seeing that this is not something that Jews categorically believe in.

This episode has led me to the following larger-scale questions, however, which still remain unanswered. These questions have been ones which I have been thinking about a tremendous amount lately, and would appreciate any insight you may have.

(1) I did locate a number of sources in Hasidic/'Kabbalistic' literature which develop the idea of the dybbuk. What are we to make of these sources/claims? Especially when being tied to writings as early as the Ramban, how are we to straddle the line between being men of Torah and reformers when discarding claims being made by earlier rabbis? Does the idea of gilgul purportedly espoused by the Ramban entail the existence of Dybukim? (As an interesting aside, Plato, in the Meno and Pheado, seems to endorse a doctrine of reincarnation of souls on purely rational grounds).

(2) What criteria are we to use to determine when to endorse a given supernatural phenomenon and when to repudiate it? Surely there are certain supernatural events (Har Sinai, Kriyas Yam Suf, etc.) which we take quite literally as having occurred. What justifies our endorsement of these events over events such as dybukkim?

(3) Are the truths revealed by the Torah the same truths that would be arrived at by perfected human reason?

(4) Is the study of secular philosophy advantageous or detrimental in becoming a perfected Jew?

(5) If the claims about dybukkim are false (which I take them to be), then how do we explain how such ideas have crept into our Mesora under the veil of true kabbalah? Why are such ideas endorsed by supposedly important and learned rabbis? And, more importantly, why don't more Rabbis and community leaders who are aware of the spurious nature of such claims publicize the fraud?

Over the years I have formed answers of my own to some of these questions, but I currently find myself in a position where I am in need of further grounded Rabbinic insight to clarify and solidify my stance towards yahadus and my own outlook as a college student and Jew.


  1. There is no single authoritative Jewish answer to these questions. There have been radically different schools of thought throughout Jewish history with regards to mystical and supernatural phenomena, and the study of philosophy. There were rationalists such as Rambam and Ralbag who did not believe in magic and demons and who minimized the supernatural element in miracles, and mystics such as the Arizal and Gra who went to the other extreme.

  2. As I just posted on Cross Currents:

    WADR it reminds me of the line in A Few Good Men – Col. Jessep: [shouts] You can’t handle the truth!

    Do we believe that Dybbuks exist, can they be evicted back to dybbuk central? Is it possible that earlier generations were describing mental illness that they could not treat in any other way?

    I don’t know the answers that R’ Elyashav would give to these questions, but I would suggest that addressing them would be of great value.

    Joel Rich

  3. Rabbi Eidensohn,

    Weren't there eyewitness accounts of the dybbuk in the Chofetz Chaims time?

  4. I heard a great answer to a question about believing the miraculous stories we hear about gedolim. I think the satmar rav said:

    "If you don't believe any of them you're an apikores (heretic). If you believe them all you're a fool."

  5. It may be unclear whether Ramban believed in reincarnation, but to my knowledge, I don't think any prominent (Orthodox) rabbi for the last 500 years or more has claimed that reincarnation does not occur. It may have only become explicit in the Zohar and the works of the tsfat kabbalists, but since this it's been a normative hashkafic belief. Not sure about dybbuks, though.

    Regardless, Judaism believes in souls and angels so it's not that big of a stretch to believe that confused or malevolent spirits may invade the bodies of the living now and then. Believing this does not require believing, however, that most or even any mental illness is caused by such spirits.

  6. These are very important questions which need to be addressed by Rabbis throughout the Jewish community. This can easily be the basis for a wonderful book. I myself have wondered about some of these issues. How does current rabbinic leadership answer these questions?

  7. Profound questions all. Good luck!

  8. I am willing to accept supernatural events which were the foundational events of our religion. These were one-off events with no expectation of repetition.

    Besides for the fact that things like Dibbukim are highly irrational and counter to common-sense, the fact that no Jewish text speaks of them until relatively recently, tells me that it is not a 'Jewish' concept per-se' and I feel no need to accept such silly things. I always find it appalling that people will claim to believe in a mesorah and gladly accept ideas into Judaism which just showed up into our literature within the past few hundred years and have no source in our Mesorah prior.

  9. sefer habrit (talmid ha gra) says the dybuk must know hidden ..strange languages,sins of those present(like the hofetz haim dybuk) which were missing in the r batzri cases.

  10. I don't think any prominent (Orthodox) rabbi for the last 500 years or more has claimed that reincarnation does not occur. It may have only become explicit in the Zohar and the works of the tsfat kabbalists, but since this it's been a normative hashkafic belief.

    Not true. See Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Body And Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy,” The Torah u-Madda Journal vol. 10 (available free online.) See also Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a.

  11. Shraga said...

    Rabbi Eidensohn,

    Weren't there eyewitness accounts of the dybbuk in the Chofetz Chaims time?
    There are conflicting accounts regarding Rav Elchonon Wasserman's attitude toward the Chofetz Chaim's dybuk. Some say that he believed it was real but said that there would be not future occurrences. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky said he saw a letter from Rav Wasserman who said it would not occur again because just as the spiritual level declined was the impure level inclined. So Rav Yaakov held that Rav Wasserman would say that it could happen in very spiritual communities. On the other hand there were others who said that Rav Wasserman did not like talking about the subject because he didn't think the dybuk was real.

    In short the issues is not witnesses but the evaluation of whether this was not a normal phenomenon. There were plenty of witnesses to this dybuk just as there were 11 years ago to the previous dybuk of Rav Batzri which inhabited a woman and fascinated all of Israel. She later however said she was a fraud.

  12. History Maven, thanks for the references. It still appears that no one for 400 years has disputed reincarnation, besides the Rashash's brief commentary. Perhaps many people avoid this topic and are uncomfortable with it, but I'm not aware of any major figure (besides the Rashash) in the last few hundred years speaking against gilgulim. Do you know of anyone else -- just wondering. Also see this:

    "these contradictions may
    be reconciled as follows: a Gaon (R’ Saadya [who disputed reincarnation]) is not as authoritative as a Tana (Rashbi and Onkelus [who supported it]). Also, Rav Saadya may not have been aware of reincarnation in the Jewish tradition because: a) Kabbalah was still very much hidden in his day; b) It is possible that he was aware but wanted to discourage people from over emphasizing it. Rashash on
    Baba Matzia may be reconciled with the sources suggesting transgression is a cause for reincarnation as follows: a) in any given reincarnation, one is born free of sin vis a vis that life time; b) one must strive to rectify now in order to leave the current lifetime free of sin as
    when he arrived in the first lifetime."

  13. In general there has been a reluctance on the part of rabbis to openly speak out against widely accepted beliefs, particularly if they were also accepted or endorsed by great rabbis. An example of a widely accepted belief that, I believe, has never been accepted or endorsed by great rabbis yet has also not been repudiated is the "red bendele" wound around Kever Rachel. All the more so when the belief or practice has been promoted by great rabbis or sources.

    Rather, the general approach on the part of those rabbis who disapprove (or disbelieve) in such things is to basically ignore it, or make statements to the effect that it "used to" be effective or be important, but "now" it doesn't work, or there are other things to concentrate on. In other words marginalize and ignore and redirect attention, rather than to get up and say "This is nonsense."

    The effect of this is that the believer can say that no one repudiates whatever it is that they believe, which may well be one of the reasons why rabbis do not go on the record, as it were, denouncing such beliefs. But actions speak fairly loudly, and the mavin is yavin.

    As for gilgulim, I am told that Rabbi Avigdor Miller would publicly point out that they are not mentioned in the Gemara, and this was seen as his way of saying they're hooey. I doubt very much that only the Rashash and R. Avigdor Miller did not believe in gilgul neshamos in a thousand years.

  14. of course rebbi vamori rav a. Miller believed in gilgulim. Only he didn't speak of this in public.


    Great article on Dibbukim - answers a lot of questions referenced in the above comments.

  16. I have just come across a fascinating set of claims, on the history of the concept of "Gilgul" or metempsychosis as it is called in English.

    it is well known that Saadia opposed this idea, and called it madness. However, in Prof Scholem's work, "Mystical Shape of the Godhead" he cites a great Karaite leader called Kirkisani. Kirkisani states that it was Anan Ben David who originally held by this concept, and his breakaway followers continued to hold by it. Kirkisani, a rationalist karaite, then refuted the concept of gilgul, much like saadia had done. Anan, although he is allegedly the founder of the karaite movement, was actually a great Talmudist who founded his own movement. Also R' Bernard Revel ztl has pointed out that Anan did not really differ much from Rabbinic halacha.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.