Thank you to Professor Howard Lupovitch
Judaism and the Spirit World
While there is no formal concept in Judaism of ghosts and spirits, references to such phenomena are sprinkled through Jewish literature from antiquity to the present. In the biblical book of I Samuel, for example, a desperate King Saul employs the services of a medium to raise the spirit of the deceased prophet/judge Samuel – only to be censured by the latter for disturbing his eternal slumber. Elsewhere in the Bible, the act of raising a spirit is defined as a transgression punishable by death.
Jews living in the Hellenistic world introduced into Judaism the notion of an afterlife where the soul could continue to live following the death of the body. This laid the basis for a notion in Jewish mysticism of the spirits of deceased communicating with the living, if the latter knew how to bridge the gap between this world and the afterlife. By the end of the Middle Ages, such mystical beliefs and rituals gave rise to a more populist, grassroots belief in dybbukim and shedim, spirits of the deceased who would not only communicate with the living but haunt them as well. Rank and file Jews in eighteenth century Poland, particularly in those communities that were cut off from the centers of conventional Jewish learning and communal leadership and were especially prone to embrace superstitions and folkloristic beliefs in ghosts and spirits.
Such beliefs were popularized in Jewish literature. Tevye the Dairyman, for example, playing on his wife’s superstitions, defends his questionable to decision not to honor an arranged marriage by claiming that her grandmother instructed him accordingly from the grave. Periodically Jewish sought out Jewish folk-healers (Ba’ale shem) to drive away hostile spirits through the recitation of mystical incantations and the fashioning of amulets. Y.L. Peretz’s title character Gimpel Tam is visited by the spirit of his deceased wife who, much like Jacob Marley, warns Gimpel to avoid the misdeeds that condemned her to a miserable afterlife. Such beliefs survived in the shtetl into the twentieth century, despite the spread and eventual triumph of a more scientific, rationalist outlook among Jews.