Less well known than its cousin, the dybbuk, an ibbur (pl. ibburim) is also a form of ghost possession that appears primarily in rabbinic mystical writings. The term ibbur is etymologically derived from the word for impregnation. Unlike a dybbuk, which typically enters a person against their will, an ibbur is a form of possession that is intentionally cultivated by the living host. In the classic formulation of Kabbalists working in the tradition of Isaac Luria (1534-1572), an ibbur possession is a technique for seeking perfection of the soul. Those seeking to purify or elevate themselves can seek power and aid from the spirit of a mighty ancestor. By joining one’s own vital energies to a guide from the spirit world, new pathways in life and new habits of thought are made possible.
As part of his mystical pedagogy, Isaac Luria would instruct his students as to which ancient sage they should appeal for aid from. Luria would use his magical powers of divination to identify the roots of the souls of his living companions and would be able to instruct them in identifying with which spirit they had commonality. To achieve the goal of spiritual impregnation, the supplicant would travel to the grave of an ancient sage or Biblical figure. At the grave site, the supplicant would lie face down on the earth. After reciting certain prayers, the ancestor spirit would enter into the body of the living. Through this act of unification, the living supplicant would attain power and would be assisted in achieving otherwise impossible goals.
Pilgrimage to the graves of saints is still a lively practice in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, epitomized by the annual mass pilgrimage to the grave of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, Israel every year for the Lag B’omer holiday. I would tentatively suggest that ibbur possession offers a model for constructive engagement with the past that is underutilized by Jews of more liberal persuasions. Intentionally cultivating relationships with the dead and seeking to gain power from the strengths of revered historical figures and ancestors would allow the living a measure of autonomy in how the past is produced psychically in the present. Rather than being non-consensually invaded by memory and the baggage of history, choosing to invite the dead into our lives reverses the typical power dynamic with the past. Ibbur possession reconfigures the dead as helpers and friends in seeking to achieve cherished goals in the world of the living.
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.