Focus

DYBBUKS, IBBURS, AND THE TRANSMIGRATION OF SOULS IN JEWISH FOLKLORE

A dybbuk in Jewish folklore is a demonic dislocated human spirit of a person who has died that, because of unatoned sins, wanders until it finds a haven in the body of a living person. The dybbuk will not leave its host, unless exorcised.[1] In contrast, an ibbur is a benevolent spirit in Jewish folklore, believed to take possession of a living person for positive results, and leaves its host voluntarily without intervention. Belief in dybbuks, and to a lesser extent ibburs, was especially prevalent in sixteenth–seventeenth-century Eastern Europe. 

A dybbuk possession was often identified by its victim showing signs of madness.[2] Often individuals suffering from nervous or mental disorders were taken to a miracle-working rabbi, or tzadik (wise or learned scholar), who alone, could exorcise the harmful dybbuk through a religious rite. The miraculous tzadik healer and his methods were a focus of the documented cases, emphasizing the societal role of tzadik as healer. 

Isaac Luria (1534–72), a kabbalist mystic, laid the grounds for Jewish belief in wandering spirits with his doctrine of transmigration of souls (in Hebrew, gilgul). Widely accepted by mainstream Jewish population in his time, and particularly by Hassidic Jews, but rejected by other prominent Jewish thinkers and sects, gilgul was a means whereby souls could continue their task of self-perfection through a form of possession.[3] So accepted was this idea of transmigration, that gravestones would sometimes even feature a padlock image to ward away dybbuk spirits from mitigating the journey of another’s soul.  

Hayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Gilgulim (Book of Transmigration), Italy, 18th century. Hebraic Section.

Hayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Gilgulim (Book of Transmigration), Italy, 18th century. Hebraic Section.

Padlock on headstone at Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw, 2016. Photo by Fraidy Aber.

Padlock on headstone at Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw, 2016. Photo by Fraidy Aber.

Modern intrigue, popular uses, and worldwide interest with dybbuk folklore can be attributed to the 1916 classic drama of S. An-Sky, Der Dybbuk. Scholar, author, activist, and ethnographer, S. An-sky (1863–1920) went on a number of expeditions through eastern Europe collecting the oral histories and folkways of Jewish shtetl (or small town) life. His play drew from his gathering of dybbuk accounts and has become a canonical work of both Hebrew and Yiddish theatre.[4] Der Dybbuk continues to be translated into a multitude of languages and stagings, from the classic Yiddish language 1937 film [watch clip], to a 1974 Jerome Robbins ballet set to Leonard Bernstein’s music, to an opera at the Palo Alto JCC in 2016. The continued stagings and reconsiderations of An-sky’s classic have made dybbuk a popular understood reference.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century written accounts of dybbuk exorcisms and historical printed leaflets, with specific names, places, and witness signatures are sources of contemporary historiographical studies. Representation of gender in this dybbuk literature has received recent scholarly attention, as often the victims of possession were women and the unrequited sins of the typically male dybbuks connected to sexual desire.[5] 

Contemporary artists continue to mine dybbuk intrigue. Artist Sigalit Landau’s recent work of art, The Salt Bride utilized a recreation of the wedding dress of the possessed woman from the Yiddish film the Dybukk and photographed its crystallization over time submerged in the Dead Sea. Jess Riva Cooper revisits the malevolent dybbuk spirit through a female lens, utilizing plant imagery to explore parasitic qualities of the dybbuk. This gender narrative also played a role in Ellen Gilford’s novel, The Dyke and the Dybbuk, in which a dybbuk is set in motion from an unrequited lesbian love story of Rainbow Rosenblum’s shtetl ancestors, Gittel and Anya.

Jess Riva Cooper, Dybbuk, 2013. Ceramic, sandblasted glaze, acrylic ink, and decal. Courtesy of the artist.

Jess Riva Cooper, Dybbuk, 2013. Ceramic, sandblasted glaze, acrylic ink, and decal. Courtesy of the artist.

In Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid, artist Dina Goldstein chose to feature both the dybbuk and the ibbur in her photographic series Snapshots from the Garden of Eden. 

And while actual tales of dybbuk possession, once commonplace, are no longer part of contemporary culture, the odd appearance still occurs in the paranormal community, as with the fascination on ebay with haunted dybbuk boxes with tales to tell. 

Listing for a haunted Dybbuk box on ebay.com.

Listing for a haunted Dybbuk box on ebay.com.


1. Eli Somer, “Trance Possession Disorder in Judaism: Sixteenth-Century Dybbuks in the Near East,” Journal of Trauma and Dissociation Vol. 5 (2004): 131­–147.

2. Ibid., Somer, 131­–147.

3. Rachel Elior, Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism, and Folklore, (Jerusalem: Urim Publications), 2014.

4. Michael C. Steinlauf, 2010. “The Dybbuk,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, accessed August 25, 2017, yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Dybbuk_The.

5. Ibid., Elior.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic Dictionary of Jewish Words (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society), 2006.

Jewish Virtual Library, “Dibbuk (Dybbuk),” accessed August 20, 2017, jewishvirtuallibrary.org/dibbuk-dybbuk.