The Exorcist, one of the most famous horror films ever created, is based on the terrifying concept of someone being possessed by the devil. And while the deeply evil devil of Christian lore is certainly not a Jewish concept, the idea of spiritual possession is not unheard of in mystical Judaism.

The best-known reference on “possession” is probably the Yiddish play The Dybbuk, written by S. Ansky in 1916. The storyline is simple: a student falls in love with a girl who is engaged to another. He dies and his soul takes possession of her body until it is finally exorcised by a rabbi. Unfortunately, this being a tragedy, the girl also dies.

The word dybbuk is a derivative of the Hebrew word lid’bok, to cling. The word itself, however, is not found in Jewish writing until 17th century kabbalistic writing. Tales of dybbukim, and of contrasting ibburim (possession by a righteous soul purely for the fulfillment of certain mitzvot) became more common with the growth of the Chassidic movement because the Chassidim opened the study of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) to less learned Jews. However, without mentioning the word dybbuk, the concept of spiritual possession is mentioned in the Talmud:

“There are three things that can force a person to act against his better judgment and against the will of God: Idol worshipers, an evil spirit [a demon taking possession of a person’s body] and the pressure of extreme poverty. What practical difference does it make? So that people should pray [for the sinner] to be freed from these scourges” (Eruvin 41b).

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