For the week ending 20 November 2004 / 7 Kislev 5765

Dybuk - Part 1

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Helene in Louisville, KY

Dear Rabbi,

I read your article on reincarnation and I found it so interesting that I re-read it several times. However, an idea keeps returning to my mind. If a soul can come back many times in different bodies, can it come back into someone else's body who is already living? I don't mean to be redundant, but I guess I'm asking if a soul can return to possess another person.

Dear Helene,

In our article on reincarnation we explained that after a certain number of reincarnations without repair, the soul is not permitted to gehinom, nor to be reincarnated any more as a human being (SHG I:4). Bodiless, the soul is pursued by demons and spirits as it frantically seeks refuge from their torment. Sometimes it finds respite in a sub-human host, such as an animal, plant or inanimate object. This is a form of reincarnation called transmigration where the soul migrates to rest in a different species.

Another possibility is that it finds "room" in another person's body. Usually this happens when the desperate soul finds a spiritual "breach" in a person. This "niche" is often found in one who is steeped in transgression, where the connection between his soul and body is already tenuous. Similarly, intense emotional or mental turmoil can create this "crack" in one's spiritual conscious that can draw fetid souls like flies to a festering wound. Once a soul enters such a "breach", it cleaves tenaciously to its human host who shelters it from its pursuers. This "cleaving", or possession, is called a dybuk that usually takes over the person's speech and behavior.

In addition to punishment, a second reason for dybuk is premature death. While an in depth explanation of "premature death" is beyond our scope here, the idea may be understood from the following saying of our sages: "Once tragedy is let loose, the Angel of Death doesn't differentiate between innocent or guilty" (Baba Kama 60a). This can result in a prematurely disconnected soul that has not yet lived out its purpose in this world, and rather than undergo reincarnation, it clings to this world seeking to fulfill its unrealized potential by cleaving to another's body.

In either case, the dybuk can be removed by exorcism, which is a spiritual repair whereby a tainted soul publicly confesses the sins of its previous life, or a prematurely parted soul is promised fulfillment; each case is accompanied by the spiritual influences of a Kabbalistic ceremony (SHG I:13). Since according to mystical sources every soul has some "ethereal mass" (called tzelem or guf dak), the departing dybuk is observed as a small mobile bump as it exits from the body. A window in the room is usually left open for the dybuk to leave, and after the exorcism the person usually returns to normal.

There is another type of dybuk that is dormant or passive, which is referred to as ibur since it unobtrusively "impregnates" the host who is unaware of its presence (SHG I:2). The ibur may be cooperative where the dybuk of a righteous soul benefits the host, helping the person to achieve perfection, or where the host benefits the dybuk through his good deeds. In such a case, the dybuk stays as long as there is benefit, but departs upon sin. However, an ibur may also be damaging, as when a wicked soul compounds the wicked activities of the host (SHG I:22).

Does the phenomenon of dybuk exist today? We'll see next week!


  • SHG=Rabbi Chaim Vital, Shaar HaGilgulim

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