Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), p. 124.
Ansky’s very popular play The Dybbuk has, as a central theme, an exorcism practiced by a hasidic tzaddik. There are, in fact, numerous tales of tzaddikim being called upon to use their magical powers to drive out a dybbuk (lit., “attachment”). The dybbuk is not an instance of demonic possession but the soul of a dead sinner pursued by demons, which has obtained relief from its persecuters by lodging temporarily in the body of a living person, generally one who has invited the invasion by committing a sin, albeit of a minor nature such as drinking water without reciting the holy words of the benediction.
The whole idea of the dybbuk, derived from the Lurianic Kabbalah, came very late in Jewish folklore. There is no official order of exorcism, but the reports usually speak of the blowing of a shofar, the recitation of Psalm 91, and the holy man’s ordering the oppressed spirit to depart. It must be appreciated that tales of exorcism in Eastern Europe are by no means confined to the circles of the hasidim, yet the miracle-working tzaddik, with his profound knowledge of the unseen world, is the personage around whom such tales tend to gather.
There is to be observed among contemporary hasidim in the Western world a decline in the belief in dybbukim and consequently in the need for exorcism. Hasidic rebbes have been known, nowadays, to refer to a psychiatrist a person said to be afflicted by a dybbuk, though here and there one still hears of hasidic rebbes practicing exorcism.
The skeptism is never extended to any outright denial of the dybbuk notion because that would be to cast doubts on the “reliable witnesses” who testified that famous tzaddikim had driven out dybbukim. The rationale for current skepticism among the hasidim is either that the saints of old have succeeded in driving away all evil spirits from the hauntings of humans or that if the dybbukim were still able to enter the bodies of humans, the tzaddikim would be obliged to drive them out, which would be in the nature of the kind of miracle of which our poor generation is unworthy.
J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, p. 50 and note.