My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’
As a child, I looked forward to Purim each year. I spent weeks planning my costume and savored the excitement of the annual carnival and the entertaining megillah reading at my synagogue. Purim represented pure, unobstructed joy.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to experience the deeper meaning of Purim. Our rabbis teach that Purim (a day of exuberant, drunken celebration) and Yom Kippur (our holiest day of atonement) have much in common. In fact, the Tikunei Zohar, a section of Jewish mystical literature, makes a delightful pun using the names of these two holidays. Yom Kippur is often referred to in our liturgy as Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonements). Our rabbis adjust the phrase slightly to read Yom K’Purim, meaning “A day like Purim.”
On Yom Kippur, we strive to come to terms with the apparent chaos of our lives. When faced with the reality and complexity of the human condition, we turn to tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteous acts of giving) as vehicles for making ourselves whole. We wear all white (a costume of sorts) and bang on our chests, fasting and engaging in deep personal reflection that will ideally leave us in an ecstatic place of restoration.
On Purim, we also strive to confront the chaos and complexities of human existence, and likewise we ecstatically celebrate our ability to transform these obstacles into entryways to a better tomorrow. We chant the scroll of Esther — the story of how our people came frighteningly close to being annihilated at the hands of Haman and his followers, but miraculously survived due to the brave conviction of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. We remember how, through human courage and connection, our people were able to claim control over their destiny. And so, on Purim we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people with all of our kishkes — drinking, eating and acting silly.
On Yom Kippur, we do the internal work that is necessary to improve ourselves and our communities. Five months later, on Purim, we do the external work. On Purim, we are commanded to eat a festive meal. Each of us is obligated to take part in this celebratory gathering, rich and poor alike. We are also commanded to give matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. During the remainder of the year, we give tzedakah, righteous charity. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and legal scholar, teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is teaching a person a trade so she can help herself in the future. The second highest form of tzedakah is mutually anonymous giving.
Matanot la’evyonim — gifts to the poor — are neither proactive trade classes nor anonymous donations. Matanot la’evyonim come in the form of food or money that are meant to be used on Purim day for a feast. And matanot la’evyonim are given directly — into the palm of the hand. On Purim, we are forbidden from passing a poor person on the street without stopping, truly seeing him and sharing food. On Purim, we must see everybody in our midst, even those we may be in the habit of ignoring, and we must unite as a community.
Purim forces us to experience the wonder of a world, for one day, in which there is no 99 percent and no 1 percent, a world in which both the billionaires and the working class eat a celebratory meal. We remember that through our people’s ability to unite in the story of Esther, we were able to change the course of history. And so we imagine a time in the future when everybody will truly see each other without shame, and everybody will enjoy a beautiful meal, like we do on Purim, each and every day.
Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, conceals her Jewish identity when she marries the king. Her name includes the root letters of the word “hidden.” However, in order for Esther to do the transformative work of saving her people, she must reveal her Jewish identity. Our rabbis teach that when we dress up on Purim, we should pick a costume that not only disguises our immediate appearance, but also reveals an inner piece of us that we keep hidden during much of the year. With this intention, we use the act of covering to uncover, the act of disguising to reveal an inner essence.
And so we say that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim, and Purim is a day like Yom Kippur. Some Jews repent hard on Yom Kippur, and some Jews party hard on Purim. In truth, both holidays are essential. Our internal reflection on Yom Kippur and our external celebration on Purim both propel us past life’s moments of chaos and pain, and help us embrace our potential to reveal goodness and light.