Ghosts in the Hebrew Bible

Courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles @ cartoonkronicles.com.

Courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles @ cartoonkronicles.com.

— by Rabbi Mike Uram, philly.com

As we brace ourselves for the sugar rush of Halloween, it might be appropriate to examine some of the more dark and spooky sides of Judaism.

Several sources in the Bible either allude to or make direct mention of ghosts. In Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Children of Israel not to adopt the abhorrent customs of the native populations:

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to fire, who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviners, a sorcerer, one who cast spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar sprits or one who inquires of the dead.

These verses have two interesting aspects:

  1. The prohibition is not based on a larger ethical or theological reason. The essence of is to keep the Israelite separate from other peoples.
  2. The Bible assumes the world of magic, ghosts, and spirits is real.
Witch_of_Endor_(Nikolay_Ge)

A woman of Endor summons the prophet Samuel for King Saul in “Witch of Endor” by Nikolai Ge, 1857.

 

An incredible story about contacting a ghost appears later in the Bible:

When King Saul fears the approaching Philistine army and does not know what to do, he prays to God for help. When he receives no answer, he seeks out the help of a woman in Endor (1 Samuel 28), who knows how to communicate with the dead. Saul asks her to rouse the prophet Samuel so that he can ask his mentor for help.

The scene is vivid as Samuel grumpily rebukes Saul, saying, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” Saul does not get the help he wants, but it is clear that by contacting the dead, he has committed a sin.

In contrast to the rules in Deuteronomy, the act of consulting with ghosts in this story has a deeper meaning. It is viewed as crossing a line that undermines the natural order of the world as determined by God, and in doing so, amounts to a denial of God’s power.

Ghosts also make appearance in different places in the Talmud, as well as in medieval Jewish literature. The whole possibility of ghosts rests on the idea of an immortal soul that can hang around in the world of the living.

One Jewish notion of the soul is that it is comprised of three parts:

  • the neshamah, which ascended and reconnects with God;
  • the nefesh, which wanders around in the same places where the dead once lived; and
  • the ruach, which stays forever near the body at the graveside.

While the precise definitions of these terms are never fully fixed and were sometimes used interchangeably, some form of the soul has the ability to walk among the living and create chaos and suffering (see Jewish Magic and Superstition by Joshua Trachtenberg). The aforementioned sources include examples of Jewish ghosts causing sickness, ghosts fighting with each other, and even ghosts going to synagogue to pray.

In one medieval work, the author warns that ghosts are particularly connected to the places where their homes once stood. In order to protect the living from any kind of haunting, a complex protocol for building homes is suggested:

First, do not build a home where another home once stood. If you must, build it from wood, which is more permeable for ghosts who want free access to their old dwelling places. If for some reason stones must be used, make sure to build it with the windows in the same place as the previous home to allows the spirits to come and go with ease, lest you anger them and cause a supernatural retribution.

While these sources are amusing, this folklore is just that. They are legends and superstitions that made their way into Jewish tradition, especially during the medieval period, but they do not, for the most part, represent active tenants of modern Judaism.

However, these ideas can offer one piece of wisdom to the modern person. We are certainly more scientific and rational than our medieval ancestors, but they were ahead of us in one area: they understood how to embrace the mystery of living.

While science and technology improve our lives in immeasurable ways, they also delude us into thinking that everything that we think, feel and intuit can be explained empirically. We know that this is not true.

Some of the best parts of living are the experiences we have that transcend the logical and play on our sense of the mystery of the Universe.

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