Monday, December 13, 2010

Vilna Girl Believes She is Possessed by a Dybbuk; JTA 2/18/1929


Dateline: Vilna

The scenes of S. Ansky's play, "The Dybbuk," which was presented last year in leading cities throughout the world, being played in New York in Yiddish, English and Hebrew, were enacted in real life here when a Jewish girl in the city declared she was possessed of a Dybbuk (evil spirit) which was torturing her to death.

The rabbis decided to cast out the dybbuk by pronouncing a Cherem (religious ban) against it. The girl objected, however, to the ceremony connected with casting out the dybbuk, declaring that the black candles, the white cloaks of the rabbis and the blowing of the Shofar would terrify her.

The rabbis decided to write the Cherem on parchment, to dip the written document in water and to give the solution to the girl to drink. In order that she might not be harmed by the dissolved ink, fruit juice was used to write the Cherem.

Vilna Jews are awaiting the results.


  1. you can watch it here (1937) Dybuk


  2. An interested gentile12:55 PM, December 13, 2010

    I can see that your and your readers are educated in Judaism, and wondered whether you could help me with a question that I was wondering.

    What does the following mean?

    בריישעס באָרע עלויהעמ עס האַשאָמַייעמ ועס האָאָרעמ

  3. An interested gentile12:56 PM, December 13, 2010

    Sorry, it's:

    בריישעס באָרע עלויהעמ עס האַשאָמַייעמ ועס האָאָרעצ

    (I'm still not so familiar with the Hebrew characters, hence the mistake.)

  4. Hi, that's a badly mispelled version of the first verse in the Bible ("In the begining God created heaven and earth"). It's basically a phonetic rendition of the Hebrew. Here's the correct Hebrew:

    בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

    and here is one way to transliterate it into English:

    Bereshit bara elohim et ha-shamayim ve-er ha-aretz

    By analogy, the English sentence "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs" could also be written "Th kwick brown focks jumpd owevur th layzeey dawgz."

    Hope that helps.

  5. Fred: intersting as always.

    Interested gentile: I'm guessing your quotation came from a Soviet (or Soviet-influenced) source. (No, this isn't going to be a rant--I'm serious now.) Yiddish contains some Hebrew words and phrases, and they're normally written in Yiddish text with the original Hebrew spelling. In Soviet Yiddish publishing, the Hebrew phrases were misspelled the way your source has this one.

    Also, S.'s transliteration of the phrase is based on the modern Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew, while the spelling you have is based on an Ashkenazi Yiddish pronunciation. The pronunciation based on your phrase is more like "Breyshis boreh eloyh'm es hashomayem ves ho-oretz."

    Finally, S.'s "ve-er" should be "ve-et."

  6. Actually, it seems to be using the Soviet orthography for Yiddish, and applying it to the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1. (Notice the consistent use of Yiddish vowel-letters in Semitic words, and the lack of special forms for final consonants.) This is quite odd and interesting, because the whole point of the Soviet orthography was to expunge the Semitic and religious roots inherent in the Yiddish language -- so the use of it to spell a Biblical verse in Hebrew is fascinating.

  7. While we're on the subject of Ansky's Dybbuk:

  8. Mar Gavriel,

    You wrote, "[T]he whole point of the Soviet orthography was to expunge the Semitic and religious roots inherent in the Yiddish language." Professor David Fishman in a class on Soviet Jewry presented what you said as a theory and partial explanation, but not a complete one. In other words, he seemed far less sure than you are. Just thought I'd let you know.

  9. Baruch -- Thanks! I'm hardly an expert in this. Did Prof. Fishman suggest any other possible explanations?

  10. "The Dybbuk" is easily the creepiest movie I have ever seen. Besides the subject matter and its treatment, there is the inescapable awareness that most if not all of the Polish Jewish cast must have been dead just a few years after the film was made.

    BTW, I believe that this is the source of the Polish-type spelling that we use for "dybbuk"; otherwise there would be no reason not to spell it "dibbuk" in English. But "dybbuk" also looks spookier.

    During the 1990's there was a notorious dybbuk exorcism in Israel that was somehow mixed up in a political corruption scandal. I'm still waiting for the movie version.

  11. Mar Gavriel,

    Unfortunately, I can't really recall. I don't think he devoted that much time to this topic. All I remember is that when he presented your explanation he did so in a manner that clearly indicated that he didn't think it was the only explanation or the full story. Sorry I can't be more helpful.

  12. It was simply the idea of a spelling reform, proposed by secular Jews, but not necessarily anti-religious, and in pre-Soviet times at that. That the Soviet authorities saw it as a good thing for severing the ties with religious life is true, but came later.

  13. Once tape recording equiptment became cheap, available, and ubiquitous, we suddenly stopped seeing dibbuks. Just like now that everone has a camera and recording is easy, we havent had a loch ness monster sighting in 30 years. Just saying.

  14. I don't know that there haven't been recent sightings. I know a guy who used to say in a supernatural voice, when his missus was getting zany, "A dybbuk has taken possession of the bride." And this was a lot less than thirty years ago.

    We're divorced now. But that's not why (it was a joke we shared, honest).

    different anonymous

  15. Re spelling reform, I don't remember where, but I recall hearing that the removal of the final letters may have been an efficiency measure.

  16. I read once that the original word was "Bereshit", and the Ashkenazim changed this to "Bereshis", in order to avoid the taboo word "sh*t". I'm not sure whether to believe this, though.

  17. Actually there is an instance of a technical pronunciation of a biblical word or which may have been shaped by the fact that reading it grammatically as "fi adonay" is, in French, cursing God. Therefore, according to one source, the seemingly less correct reading is "pi."

    See here.

  18. Bob - there is something that sounds like what you're thinking of in the Nitzacchon Vetus, translated by Dr. David Berger.

  19. @Bob unlikely given that we didn't used to speak English.

  20. OK, because Bob raised the issue, and because of my great friendship and respect for Fred, I dug around through my old files and finally found what I referenced above. As there is nothing at all personal in this letter from Dr. David Berger, I dont beleive I'm breaking any confidnece in sharing it. Anyway, below is my letter to Dr. Berger from January 12, 2002, followed by his response:

    DF - I recently found a copy of your Nizzahon Vetus . . . The author responds to the Christian that if the first three letters of Beraishit can be said to stand for the trinity [Ben, Ruach, Av], the last three letters can be said to stand for something also. In the notes you write that it is difficult to determine what the abbreviation stands for. Is it not possible that the letters spell out exactly what it stands for, S-H-I-T? I beleive I have read scholarship showing that this word has been extant for hundreds of years (and I know for certain it was common in the 16th century.)If the author knew latin, perhaps he knew this term was well. This would be a suitable way to begin a book, by giving a one-word judgment of the Christian's arguments. . .

    Dr. DB responded - If I am not mistaken, Scheiss is the modern German version of the English vulgarism. Much would depend not only on its antiquity but on the pronounciation of tav by mideival German Jews. I beleive they were still pronouncing it "t" (as in Sefardit) at that time, but I may be wrong. I had a high school teacher who said that when Christians said that berasihit stands for "Ben ruach av shloshtam yachad temimim", Jews replied, "Ba rasha echad, shemo yeshu, taluhu." . . .

  21. I beg to differ with my renowned dean.

    In fact, the Ashkenazzim never pronounced tav refuya as [t], "as in Sefardit". They entered central/western Europe pronouncing it [θ], about a thousand years ago. This sound did not exist in the languages which they began speaking, and so, immediately on impact with these languages (i.e., in the first generation which was speaking these languages natively), the sound became [s] for the German Jews, [ts] for the French, and [d] for the Italian.

  22. Gabriel, is there direct evidence that European Jews pronounced it like /Þ/ or is it circumstantial, i.e., conjectured on the basis of the later pronunciations which you listed?

  23. Fred,
    PResumably the answer to your last question would be found in Ilan Eldar's work on Hebrew in early medieval Ashkenaz, in the first volume.



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