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A dybbuk, depicted as a skeleton of the dead, riding its male victim; pen-and-ink illustration by the Ukrainian Jewish artist Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874–1925) from "The Book of Job," in "Die Bucher Der Bibel", 1908.

A dybbuk, also spelled dibbuk or dibuk, is a Jewish term for a parasitic entity that afflicts human beings. The word dybbuk comes from the Hebrew verb dāḇaq, meaning to "adhere" or "cling" -- the plural is dibbukim in Hebrew and dybbuks in English. Opinions as to what dybbuks are and where they come from vary considerably. Some say that they are the disembodied souls of deceased persons that wander restlessly, others identify them as entities that have escaped from Gehenna, where wicked people go in the afterlife; still others see them as malevolent entities, as non-human demons or evil spirits, or as wandering souls that have not yet entered Gehenna, despite the seriousness of their transgressions while alive. Possession by a dybbuk is said to give rise to neurological disorders as well as a variety of severe mental illnesses, including confused thoughts, delusions, irrational fears, extreme anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Upon entering a living person, the dybbuk attaches to his or her soul with malicious intent. When a person is possessed in this manner, the dybbuk can use a form of negative, controlling mediumship to talk through the person’s mouth and may even display a separate and outlandish personality.

Reports of possession in early Jewish tradition date to ancient times and generally cite demonic possession rather than that of evil spirits of the deceased. For example, in the Bible a prominent illustration of spirit possession -- and exorcism -- is told in the story of King Saul, who reigned in late 11th century BCE. According to 1 Samuel 16:23, "Whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him." Exorcisms can also be found in Jewish accounts from the first century CE. In these reports, the demons were driven off by using poisonous root extracts or by offering sacrifices (Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 3; Sanh. 65b). The name dybbuk, and the belief that dybbuks are restless spirits of the dead, did not become widespread in Jewish culture until the 16th century, when the mystic Isaac Luria (1534–1572) promoted his theory of the transmigration of the immortal soul or gilgul. This allowed for the understanding that a dybbuk might be the soul of a wicked person.

Dybbuks are believed to take mental possession of their victims by several means and for several reasons. For instance, they may be male spirits of the dead who possess vulnerable women in a sexual manner the night before their weddings by entering through their genitals. They may also be evil spirits or deceased victims who cling to a seemingly good person, which in turn may be a sign that the victim has committed a terrible secret sin, opening an entryway for demonic possession. A miracle-working rabbi -- such as the Baal Shem Tov (c. 1698 – 22 May 1760), a powerful Jewish spiritual figure who possessed secret knowledge of the ineffable names of God -- may be able to expel a dybbuk through a religious rite of exorcism. Practical magic spells and rituals for the removal of a dybbuk also exist within Jewish folk magic. Some modern Jews see the clinging dead as expressions of ancestral and generational curses, while others explain the unwanted attachment of the dead to the living in terms of psychology or familial genetics. Due to the amorphous nature and varied origins of the dybbukim, there is no single depiction of their appearance. This lack of a specific image allows for many visual interpretations of the dybbuk in Jewish popular culture, literature, art, music, stage, and film.


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