4 Spooky Mystical Jewish Figures

October 24, 2022Crystal Hill

Even though Halloween began as a pagan holiday, it now brings spooky fun to children and adults of all backgrounds, including many Jews who view it as a secular holiday. As Halloween approaches, I enjoy dusting off my favorite stories of goblins, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night. This year, since I also have a soft spot for folk tales and mythology, I began exploring supernatural entities that can trace their origins back to Jewish folklore and was absolutely fascinated by what I discovered. Unless you took a course in feminist midrash or have dug deep into Yiddish literature, you likely have never come across these spooky, mystical characters, either.

So, light your favorite fall-scented candles, brew yourself a cup of tea, curl up with your favorite blanket, and join me as we learn about some of Judaism's spookiest figures.

1. Dybbuk

Woodcut of a man wandering with a staff in his hand, bent over from the weight of carrying a skeleton draped in black on his back.

A dybbuk is not a demon. At least, it is not only a demon. It is created when someone dies, but their soul doesn't move to the next stage of its journey. The soul can be found by a demon who then guides it to a living person, providing the soul with a body to inhabit and the demon, a person to possess.

According to Kabbalistic literature, a case of dybbuk possession could only be cured through an exorcism performed in a synagogue by a rabbi in the presence of 10 men who had fasted and immersed in a mikvahmikvahמִקְוֶהA ritual pool or gathering of waters used for ritual immersion to mark a significant life cycle moment, celebration, or transition, or as a component of the conversion ritual. In some Jewish communities, married women immerse each month at the conclusion of their menstrual cycle. Customarily, a bride immerses in a mikvah prior to her wedding and today, both brides and grooms might immerse prior to their wedding. Some people immerse to prepare for Shabbat or holidays. There are many creative rituals for using the mikvah at any significant lifecycle moment. Immersion in a mikvah is also a final step in the conversion process; a natural body of water also can serve as a mikvah. Plural: mikvaot. . The exorcism involved the rabbi addressing the dybbuk, listing the offences the soul may have committed in life, cursing the dybbuk, and pronouncing seven different iterations of God's name. Once the dybbuk was expelled, it was only to leave the body in the space between the nail and the big toe. If it were to leave by any other route, the possessed person could be permanently harmed.

2. Lilith

Painting of a white woman with red hair in a white dressing gown surrounded by flowers brushing her hair while gazing into a hand mirror.

Few figures in Jewish folklore have more diverse reputations than Lilith. According to legend, Lilith was Adam's first wife. She strove for equality with Adam, citing the fact that they were both made from the earth. Adam disagreed, stating that he was to be the dominant one in the relationship. Lilith responded by leaving Eden, sprouting wings and flying off. When God sent angels to retrieve her, she refused to return to the garden and was turned into a demon.

Since the first century CE, Lilith has been considered the ultimate femme fatale; seducing men, killing small children, and threatening the wellbeing of pregnant women. There have been archaeological finds of talismans and amulets made to guard people from Lilith's powers. Some parents still hang red ribbons on a newborn's crib to ward off Lilith. Even the word "lullaby" can be traced to the phrase "Lilith-abi," meaning "Lilith, begone."

In the modern era, Lilith's image has begun to be rehabilitated. While some still perceive her as evil, others see her as a symbol of women's empowerment. There is even a Jewish feminist journal that is her namesake . No longer a one-dimensional figure, Lilith has become a complex character that illustrates how Jewish perceptions of independent women have evolved.

3. The Golem

Figurine of short, squat humanoid, with opened chest area, triangle eyes, and circle on the forehead.

The principles of golem creation date back to the time of the Talmud, which tells the story of some rabbis who were on a journey and became hungry. They created a calf from clay (as one does), brought it to life, and ate it for dinner. Yum.

The most famous golem tale is over 500 years old. The Golem of Prague was created by Rabbi Judah Loew to protect the Jews of Prague during a time of virulent antisemitism. The golem would protect the Jewish population from those who wanted to harm them. However, over time, the golem became too strong and, some say, violent. Others say that the golem was a gentle soul who only became violent when its protection was needed.

Either way, after being promised that the attacks on Jews would end, Rabbi Loew followed the same ritual that brought the golem to life, but in reverse. This put the golem in a state of hibernation. It is alleged that the golem is still housed in the Altneushul in Prague, ready in case it is needed once again.

4. The Corpse Bride (yes, that Corpse Bride)

Claymation woman with blue skin and wavy blue hair in wedding dress and veil extends her hand to the viewer.

Finally, rounding out our list of eerie folk characters is Emily from Tim Burton's 2005 film. Okay, okay. Emily herself isn't a figure from the Talmud or kabbalistic literature, but the story that she is part of can be traced back to Jewish folklore.

There is a Jewish tale that seems to have inspired the storyline of the movie, dating from 16th century Palestine.

The story is entitled "The Finger" and it closely mirrors the premise of the movie: a young man is walking in the woods the night before his wedding. When he sees a finger sticking out of the ground, the groom-to-be places a ring on it and says the marriage vows three times, causing the corpse to return to life and chase him back into the city. The next day, just as the rabbi is preparing to lead the groom and his betrothed through their vows, the corpse interrupts the wedding and declares that the young man cannot be married, as he is already married…to her. The rabbi convenes a beit dinbeit dinבֵּית דִּיןHebrew for "house of judgment", a beit din is a rabbinical court that has jurisdiction in matters of Jewish law.   , and, after much deliberation, they determine that the young man is not married to the corpse for three reasons. First, he was already betrothed when he said the wedding vows to the corpse. Second, he had made the vows as a joke, not with sincere intent to marry the corpse. Finally, and perhaps most reminiscent of the movie, the living cannot marry the dead, as death has already parted them.

Remember, however you choose to enjoy the autumn season, check your mezuzotmezuzahמְזוּזָהLiterally, “doorpost;” a decorative case that holds a handwritten parchment scroll of the Shema and V’ahavta. Mezuzot are placed on external and internal doorposts of homes to fulfill the commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5-9 “inscribe them [these words] on the doorposts of your house.” , say the Sh'maSh'maשֵׁמַע Jewish affirmation of belief in one God. Lit. "Hear/Listen/Understand." The affirmation of God's unity is found in Deuteronomy 6:4. before you go to sleep, sing the children in your life a lullaby to keep them safe, and if you happen to have a ring on you, don't propose marriage to a dead hand or a tree branch! You may get more trouble than you expect.

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