A Ghostly Trace of the Jewish Occult

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
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A newly discovered piece of stained, wrinkled paper conjures up the details of a Jewish exorcism that appears to have been performed sometime in the 18th or 19th century.

A Prayer: A text fragment from a ceremony held in the 18th or 19th century and recovered from the Cairo Geniza.
Courtesy of The University of Manchester
A Prayer: A text fragment from a ceremony held in the 18th or 19th century and recovered from the Cairo Geniza.

The ghostly document details the prayers that were performed on Qamar bat Rahmah to try to rid her of the spirit of her dead husband, Nissim ben Bonia. According to the handwritten but well-preserved Hebrew text, the rabbis asked the ghost to “leave this woman, Qamar bat Rahmah, [and forgo] all authority and control that it has over her; and Nissim ben Bonia shall have no more authority and control whatsoever over Qamar bat Rahmah in any form or manner at all.”

The 150-word text provides a haunting insight into the often forgotten world of the Jewish occult. While exorcisms are frequently described in Jewish texts from the Middle Ages on, this appears to be the first text that provides the prayer used in a specific exorcism.

“It has names, and you can kind of speculate as to some sort of story lurking behind the names,” said Yossi Chajes, an expert on Jewish magic and mysticism at the University of Haifa who was not involved in the unearthing of the text. “It’s an unusual document.”

The document fittingly comes from the abandoned recesses of the Cairo Geniza, a storeroom attached to a Cairo synagogue in which hundreds of thousands of ancient texts were left because of the Jewish prohibition on destroying religious documents. The storeroom and its contents were discovered in the late 19th century and were made famous through the scholarly work of Solomon Schechter.

Some of the geniza’s collection made its way to the University of Manchester, in England, where the exorcism text was found while Renate Smithuis, a researcher, was cataloguing the 11,000 items there. When she shared the text with an Israeli colleague, Gideon Bohak, who is an expert in Jewish dybbuks, or spirits, she realized the significance of her discovery.

“We got a bit excited because we realized that people have collected lots of dybbuk stories, but our fragment describes a real event, where you see how they come together and pray in order to exorcise the ghost from a widow,” Smithuis said.

The prayer makes a number of things clear. At the time of the exorcism, Qamar bat Rahmah is married to Joseph Moses ben Sarah and is bothered by the spirit of her late former husband, Nissim ben Bonia, and the “control that it has over her.” The prayer is respectful to ben Bonia’s spirit and asks that when it leaves his widow’s body, it “shall go and reunite with his [vital] soul, his spirit and his [rational] soul in the place which is appropriate for them.”

The document is evocative, with its wavy handwriting, and its brown smudge on the bottom — but it does not contain much information to determine where or when it was used. The documents found in the Geniza came from a span of more than a thousand years (including original documents written by Maimonides).

Smithuis and Bohak believe that the exorcism of Qamar bat Rahmah probably took place in the 18th or 19th century because most of the documents that ended up in Manchester are concentrated in that time period. In addition, Bohak found that the incantation on the document matches up almost exactly with a prayer recited by Rabbi Shalom Shar-Abi, the famous Jerusalem kabbalist, which was recorded in a book published in 1843.

Chajes, the Haifa scholar, said that exorcisms of dead spirits became particularly prevalent in the Jewish world after the 16th century thanks to the popularity of Kabbalah, with its discussion of reincarnation and the transmigration of spirits. In Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean, Chajes said, most exorcisms went through a number of common steps. They would begin with a minyan of men reciting psalms, before moving onto the blowing of a shofar and the incantation of prayers written to coax the ghost out. While in Eastern Europe, a ghost was often referred to as a dybbuk, in Sephardic lands a ghost was more commonly referred to as a ruach, or spirit.

“The bottom line is that these

things were generally done according to an established pattern,” Chajes said. The primary curiosity for Chajes in the new finding is that it contains little distinctively mystical or kabbalistic phrasing.

Smithuis and Bohak have written an article about the finding that is set to appear in an upcoming book from Oxford University Press about the Geniza collection in Manchester. Smithuis said that of all the documents she has combed through, this one has a special hold on her.

“I can just imagine the widow being still quite sad about the loss of her first husband, and then maybe, I don’t know, being considered deranged by her new husband,” Smithuis said. “I don’t quite know how to think about it psychologically, but obviously it makes you imagine all kinds of things.”

Contact Nathaniel Popper at popper@forward.com






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