Here in the season of unacceptably small candy bars masquerading as “treats,” questionable choices made in the name of costuming oneself, and aggressive yard decorations, there are also haunted things, which I particularly enjoy. (Let the record show that although the trailer for The Nun made me afraid of hallways, I inexplicably watched it 17 times.)
In my sojourn through the land of horror, I’ve noticed that Jews are basically never involved. There are some exceptions. Here is a brief list.
1. This episode of the now defunct A&E show Paranormal State, which involved a group of college aged ghost hunters, where a Jewish family in Alabama is haunted by an assortment of ghosts and shadow figures. You can watch the episode on YouTube.
2. The Dybbuk box episode of Paranormal Witness, in which a series of humans attempt to learn what the Dybbuk box is, and why it will mess you up. In short, the box is a wine cabinet that’s supposed to be haunted by a dybbuk, a super malicious spirit in Jewish mythology that seeks to possess the living. A lot of bad things happen in this episode.
3. The Dybbuk box episode of Zak Bagans’ show Deadly Possessions in which people inspect and feel drawn to the box, which you are totally not supposed to touch. Post Malone has apparently touched the Dybbuk box and things aren’t really going well for him.
4. The movie The Possession (featuring Matisyahu!), which, again, includes a group of people, including a little girl, who get waaay too involved with the Dybbuk box by accident (maybe don’t buy mysterious objects at yard sales?).
Jews do have ghost stories, and I know because they’ve told them to me. J spoke of a dead grandmother who checks in on those still alive (and gives advice about how to handle family drama). L recalls the time her brother saw a little girl in a white dress standing in the bathroom of a creepy old house. He thought it must be L, but she was in her bed, sound asleep.
The encounters people told me about were pretty chill — no interventions required, and the ghost characters seemed not to have any long term plans or violent tendencies. Even though most of what we see on TV and in the movies involves people seeking help in the forms of Christian blessings and exorcisms for problems like evil imaginary friends and walls dripping with blood, there is a Jewish tradition of demonology. Although it seems unlikely that a demon (sheyd in Hebrew) is going to come and get you, there are some ways to deal with them in case they do.
Throwing Sheyd is a podcast about Jewish demonology brought to you by Miriam Brosseau and Alan Jay Sufrin (both of the Biblegum Pop duo Stereo Sinai). Every week-ish, these two walk the listener through Jewish texts that mention sheydim and tell us how we can achieve “better living through Jewish demonology.”
The sheyd you’re most likely to recognize is Lilith, who attacks new mothers and steals their babies. The texts which cite the existence of sheydim aren’t esoteric, they’re surprisingly mainstream — including the Mishnah, Gemara, Talmud, and Yiddish lore. What we can extrapolate about demons based on a tour of Jewish texts: sheydim are real, sheydim are everywhere, and sheydim are external (as opposed to the idea of having demons inside you) and not at all metaphorical.
So why don’t we hear more about them? “As Jews assimilated and adapted to new countries and surroundings,” says Alan, “we prioritized rationalism, because people like that, and the supernatural stuff fell to the wayside.”
The historical context of references to sheydim is, of course, important — how do you explain events like the Crusades, the pogroms, and numerous inquisitions without attributing such horror to something, well, horrifying? “If you were making a horror film about the 1100s in Europe, sheydim would be your whole life,” Alan says.
In the Middle Ages, there was a trend among Jewish philosophers, including Maimonides, rejecting the notion of sheydim and urging people to trust in God. “The idea is that if something bad happens,” Alan says, “it’s because God wants it that way. It’s all part of God, even what we perceive as evil, so stop looking for sheydim.”
If, however, you think you might have a sheydim problem, the answer, according to the Rabbis of the Talmudic period, is learning Torah of course, Psalms 90 and 91 in particular — check out the latest episode of Throwing Sheyd for more on why. Or you could always call a paranormal team if text isn’t your thing, but no, I can’t refer you to anyone.