A dybbuk (pl. dybbukim) is a form of ghost possession that appears in Jewish folklore and rabbinic literature. The word derives from the Hebrew root D-B-K, a form that implies cleaving, and shares an etymology with dveykes, the Hebrew/Yiddish term for spiritual ecstasy through union with the Shechinah, the Divine feminine presence. A dybbuk is a spirit of a dead person that cleaves to the body of one who is living. The ghost is a restless spirit that cannot leave the earth because of their transgressions or some other unfinished business. Sometimes the dybbuk is a sinner and their wandering is a punishment. In other cases, the dybbuk is the ghost of a righteous person who had one secret flaw they needed to rectify.
In most dybbuk stories, the ghost is the spirit of a male and the living host is female. This gendered dynamic creates opportunities for young women who are possessed to perform behaviors that would be forbidden in ordinary circumstances. In an anecdote recounted by the rabbi and mystic Chayim Vital (1543-1620), a young Jewish woman, identified as the daughter of Anat, becomes possessed and takes on prophetic power. In her guise as a dybbuk, the daughter of Anat takes on new powers in her community, announcing the secrets of powerful men, forcing them to publicly atone for their concealed wrongdoings. While dybbuk possession is framed as something that is done to young vulnerable females, possession afforded women opportunities to speak in public forums that were typically the province of male power.
Today, the best known dybbuk is the eponymous character in Russian Jewish author S. Ansky’s (1863-1920) play, perhaps the most famous work of Yiddish drama. In The Dybbuk, Ansky exhumes the erotic undercurrents of ghost possession by spinning a love story between Leah, a rich man’s daughter, and Khonen, the ghost of an impoverished yeshivah student her father had spurned as a suitor. Ansky’s appropriation of elements of Jewish folklore into his play brings older themes concerning ghosts and blurred boundaries of gender into a modern narrative of chosen love and non-conformity. Like the daughter of Anat in the 16th century, Ansky’s hero/heroine is entangled in a supernatural occurrence that allows them to transcend, however briefly, the rules of sex, the norms that govern propriety, and the laws of nature that divide the living and the dead.
Jeremiah Lockwood is a musician and scholar, disciple of blues legend Carolina Slim, founder of The Sway Machinery, recent PhD from Stanford University. He is currently living in Brooklyn and pursuing research on Jewish liturgical music while performing and writing.