The Transmigrating Soul: A Yiddish Folktale

There are many Yiddish stories about transmigrating souls–a gilgul in Hebrew–that occupy bodies to the detriment of the occupied. Perhaps the most common such stories involve dybbuks, souls pursued by demons who–to escape–enter human bodies and need to be exorcized. The following is an abridgement of a tale collected from an anonymous source in Ignaline, Poland. It is reprinted with permission from Yiddish Folktales, edited by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, translated by Leonard Wolf, and published by Pantheon Books (New York) in cooperation with YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

My grandfather bought the forest in Paluzh and ordered the peasants to cut down some trees. One day a group of children went to the forest to gather mushrooms. When they finished they ran off, having forgotten about one little girl so that they left her behind.

The girl sat down to rest on the stump of a tree and at that moment she began to cough, because a gilgul had entered into her.

At last she got home, and her family noticed that she coughed with the sound of a dog barking. When she was silent, the gilgul spoke; and when the gilgul spoke, she developed a goiter. The gilgul used to call the girl’s mother “Mother,” and they had to give him whatever he wanted. One day when he wanted milk, he said, “Mother, unless you give me milk, I’ll strangle your daughter. So bring me milk.” Another time when the girl’s mother was baking challah, the braided Sabbath bread, he said, “Mother, make challah for me, too. I want to eat some. ”

One of my uncles told him one day, “You’ve got an awfully big mouth. You want everything.” This made the gilgul cry. Whenever they ordered him to leave the girl, he would say, “If you want me to leave, you’ll have to bring ten rabbis. But if you bring the Rabbi of Oshmen, one will be enough.”

My grandfather disguised himself and said, “I’m the Oshmen Rabbi, and I order you to leave this girl.”

The gilgul replied, “Some rabbi you are! You’re the one who bought the forest and sent a couple of huge peasants with axes into it to chop down trees. And they cut down the one I lived in so that I had to enter the girl.”

The gilgul told them that he had once transmigrated into a dog, a very quiet yellow dog that my father himself had seen. Then Gentile boys killed the dog, so the gilgul entered into a horse, but the horse died, so he entered into a tree. Then Shmuel-Yoysef of Paluzh bought the forest and had the tree cut down, after which the gilgul entered into the girl.

He tormented the girl so severely that finally they went to the Rabbi of Oshmen. And the rabbi quarreled with the gilgul, because the gilgul wanted to leave by the girl’s throat and the rabbi wanted him to leave through one of her little fingers. At last he did leave, and a great shot was heard.

The story is told that before he went, he asked that candles be distributed for the sake of his soul. After that, the rabbi advised the family to sell the house and leave the town.

They followed the rabbi’s advice and emigrated to America.

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