The Dybbuk

By S. Ansky

Translated and introduction by S. Morris Engel

Nash Publishing, 1974, 160 pages


This folk tale contains many superstitious beliefs. It is a story composed originally in Russian and then Yiddish, and the translation is good. It is about the intense unrequited love of a dybbuk for a live girl. Dybbuk is a Yiddish word based on the Hebrew davak, “clinging.” It is a spirit of a dead person returning from the grave that clings to and controls a live person to right a wrong. The tale is similar to the many Roman Catholic accounts of exorcisms. The superstitious notion of a returning spirit is found in many cultures. It result from people’s fear of death and the dark, the dread of having committed wrongs, the feeling that wrongs must be righted, the need to believe that life continues after death, and that what is right will win out in time in this world or the next.

However, unlike many “possession” stories in other cultures that center on sex, dybbuk sagas frequently, and this is an example, focus on a male spirit entering a woman who did something wrong that the spirit needs to correct. The drama in these legends involves how to rid the woman of the invader and righting the wrong.

The tale is composed as a play that was very popular. In its first eight years after 1920 there were six hundred performances. Since then there have been several film versions in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. There were also several ballets composed based on the story. This is S. Ansky’s (1863-1920) only play, but he was a prolific writer and his works are in fifteen volumes.

The story centers on Khonnon the dybbuk whose name is derived from the Hebrew chunan, “pity,” although the play does not tell us this, and the young girl Laia, a form of Leah, which the play states means “not God,” but which really means “weary” and “exhausted.” Although not mentioned, Leah was the girl in the Bible given to the patriarch Jacob by trickery when he wanted her sister Rachel. Here, Laia is about to be married to the wrong man, at least Khonnon thinks so.

Laia’s and Khonnon’s fathers, two close friends, swore a pact that if one of them has a daughter in the future and the other a son, they would marry the two together. Khonnon’s father had a son, him, and Laia’s father had her, Khonnon’s father died. Laia’s father became wealthy but Khonnon the orphan is poor. Laia’s father forgets the pact, and years later is about to marry Laia to the son of a wealthy man.

Khonnon saw that Laia’s father sought another man for his daughter. He immersed himself in mystical cabbalistic rituals and piety attempting to stop her father from marrying her to another, and using the magic to force him to give Laia to him. He fails and dies. But he returns as a dybbuk to claim what belongs to him. Laia speaks in Khonnon’s voice: “I have returned to my predestined bride and I shall not leave her!”

The tale abounds in the use of superstitious items to force the dybbuk to abandon the girl: the services of a mystic and non-mystic rabbi, mysticism, magic, enchantments, prayers, songs, the drawing of a circle of protection from left to right rather than the usual right to left, black candles, white and black garments, blowing shofars (ram’s horns) at discreet times in different ways, visiting the dead at their graves, inviting their appearance, and seeking their aid, exorcisms, the authority and power of a minyon (the quorum of Jews necessary for some prayers), the control and influence of an outstretched staff, the repeated use of the magical numbers three and seven, summoning the dead to a trial, invoking demons, pious exclamations, and much else. These devises, although foolish and ineffectual, gave users a sense of power over the unknown and evil. The users ignored that the procedures never worked except by happenstance. This failure is another plot-line both when Khonnon was alive and as a dybbuk.

In short, this is a fascinating classic with an interesting overlay of mysticism and superstition, evoking a world now gone, but superstitions that have lingered.