5 THE SPIRITS OF THE DEAD
THE ties that bind man to his home and his associates are insoluble—even death cannot part them. Long after the body has departed this life, the spirit still frequents its ancient haunts, maintaining a shadowy connection with the world it knew and loved. This is the conception of death that has prevailed since man first had ideas on the subject, and it persists to this day more or less overtly.
Among Jews it was never completely ousted by the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. After all, according to the prevailing polypsychism of the Middle Ages, man is possessed of several spirits: the soul, or neshamah, ascending to its Maker, leaves behind the nefesh and the ruaḥ, which are quite capable of performing the semi-terrestrial functions which tradition assigned to them. The neshamah departs for heaven as soon as the body is interred; the nefesh wanders forlornly back and forth between its former home and the grave during the week after burial and then also departs, but not for good—its longing for the body that formerly housed it brings it back to the grave many times, until after a year or so it is completely weaned away; the ruaḥ never forsakes its corporeal shell, even in death, but forever remains with the body.
This scheme often broke down because the three terms were used interchangeably, so that it is uncertain whether the reference is to the “soul” in heaven, or the “spirit” on earth, but this much is abundantly clear: a spirit continues to inhabit the earth long after the body has moldered in the grave, and comes into frequent contact with the living.1 Countless anecdotes and traditions bear testimony to the belief in the continuance of some form of spirit life on earth.
Medieval Jewish literature does not lack its share of ghost stories. From them we may deduce that the spirits foregather nightly by the light of the moon—according to Eleazar of Worms, the spirit is like a flame, and “this is why flickering lights are to be seen in a cemetery at night”—they converse with one another, or pursue their studies, very much as they did in this life. Occasionally a spirit council is called to adjudge disputes between the latest arrivals and older members of the company. On New Moon and Hoshanah Rabbah (the seventh day of the festival of Tabernacles), and probably on other nights as well, they congregate in prayer meetings, when they bespeak the well-being of the living. Some nights they gather in the synagogue, where, clothed in ghostly prayer-shawls, they conduct their own weird service.
Once a man who fell asleep in a synagogue and was locked in by the sexton awoke to find himself in the midst of such a spirit congregation; to his amazement he discerned the forms of two men who were still among the living. Sure enough, within a few days these two passed away. Just prior to the attack on the community of Mainz during the First Crusade two men testified that they had listened in on such a ghostly service; their experience was interpreted by the congregation as a token of impending doom. The custom of knocking on the synagogue door before entering in the morning was probably intended to warn the spirit worshipers that it was time to leave.
Occasionally there are reports of encounters with less fortunate spirits—those who had been doomed to expiate worldly sins by various forms of penance. One such relates that a man who was traveling alone on a moon-lit night espied a long column of carts, drawn by men, while others sat in them. When they drew near he questioned them and learned that they were spirits of the dead, and that this was their punishment; when the cart-drawers grew tired, they got in and the others took hold of the shafts.
Sefer Ḥasidim contains a score of such weird tales. Nor was it unknown for spirits to put in an appearance among the living during the daytime. An undertaker in Worms, coming to the synagogue one morning, recognized on the steps of the building a man whom he had recently buried. To his astonished queries the ghost replied that he had been transported to Paradise in reward for his pious life on earth; his visit home was merely to apprise his friends of his good fortune. The wreath of leaves that he wore, he explained, was made of herbs from the Garden of Eden, and was intended “to neutralize the foul odor of this world.” He could afford to be disdainful of the world he had left behind!2
A frequent source of spirit intrusion upon the living is to be discerned in the notion that “the spirits retain their bodily forms,” and apparently they retain too their former ideas of propriety and modesty. At any rate, they confront the living, usually in dreams, with complaints about their mistreatment by living beings, especially when the grave has been tampered with. More commonly, however, the plaint concerns, of all things, dress! A girl whose father had been too poor to provide her with a shroud could not come out into the open to foregather with the other spirits, and begged that her nakedness be clothed; another spirit, who had been buried with the sleeve of his shroud torn, said “he was ashamed before the others, who had whole garments, while his were torn.” Visits of this nature were repeated until the grave was opened and the defect remedied.’
Similarly, the associations made in life are continued beyond the grave. The spirit likes to find itself among friends, or at least among others of its own station and character. The desire of Jacob to be buried with his ancestors (Gen. 47:30) was explained in this way, and so was the common injunction not to inter a wicked man among the righteous, nor even a “confirmed sinner” alongside a “moderate sinner,” “for undoubtedly the righteous derive pleasure from a good neighbor even after death.” Nor are quarrels extinguished by death: “two enemies should not be buried near one another, for they enjoy no rest together.”
Spirits who find themselves in uncongenial company may be counted on to plague the living in retaliation for this bad turn. In the event that one enemy precedes the other to the grave, the one left behind is in for an uncomfortable time, for spirits have long memories. “One should be very careful,” counseled Sefer Ḥasidim, “that a dying man have no ground to distrust him, for the deceased will certainly seek revenge.” It was already the custom in Talmudic times to beg pardon of the dead, in the presence of ten men at the grave, for any wrong done him, and this practice persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Better far to confess and be absolved than to face the wrath of his spirit.4
The Talmud discussed at length the question whether the dead are conscious of events that transpire among the living, and in raising the issue indicated that there was a strong positive sentiment on this point. In the Middle Ages it was no longer an issue. Nothing is hidden from the spirits, though naturally they are most interested in matters that affect themselves. When a man decided to make a musical instrument out of the remainder of some wood that had been used for a coffin, the spirit of the deceased warned him in a dream to refrain, and when he persisted caused him to fall seriously ill, until his son smashed the offending instrument at the grave of the perturbed spirit and left the pieces there; only then was his father’s health restored.
The dead are quite aware of everything that is said here on earth; laudatory or derogatory remarks concerning them are promptly rewarded or punished. Because of the alertness of the spirits to human actions, pious deeds performed on their behalf, such as prayer, charity, ascetic practices, lighting candles, have a double utility besides their purely ritual significance—they serve to improve the lot of the soul in the realm to which it has been transported, and they give “pleasure” to the spirit. Nor do they go unrewarded. The spirit, in its turn, “prays for the well-being of the living.” Even activities not directly intended for the benefit of the dead, but reflecting credit upon them, delight their spirits, as when a son “pursues the way of the Torah and the commandments and does what is right and good.”6
Obviously the spirits can help as well as harm the living. They have more or less direct access to the heavenly fount of justice, and by their intercession can avert an evil decree or produce a beneficial one. Here apparently it is the “soul” that is operative rather than the more terrestrial “spirit.” Tradition has it that the righteous are granted one request when they reach heaven, but popular practice accorded them much more influence than that. In early times, and indeed until this very day in the Orient, a common method of winning favor in heaven was to make a pilgrimage to the grave of a saint or a sage, and to transmit one’s request through him. An observant visitor to the tomb of Simon bar Yoḥai, for instance, at Meron, Palestine, will discern a host of written entreaties for the saint’s aid heaped about his sepulchre. However, saint worship was never a part of Judaism and in medieval Europe even this custom fell altogether into desuetude.
None the less the ancient practice of visiting the cemetery to entreat the good offices of deceased relatives or scholars persisted. According to Judah the Pious, “one should not visit a grave twice in one day, but should unburden himself in a single session, and not return until the morrow.” In addition to such individual visits, there grew up the custom of the entire congregation repairing to the cemetery annually on several occasions, such as the seven “rain-fasts,” and on Tisha‘ B’ab, the anniversary of the destruction of the temple, and on the eves of New Year and the Day of Atonement, “that the dead may beseech mercy on our behalf.” At least one of the reports displays a liberalism which echoes the catholicity of the custom, for
[paragraph continues] “when there is no Jewish cemetery at hand,” we are informed, “we go to a Christian cemetery.” Many rabbis were disturbed by such goings-on. Unable to halt so deeply entrenched a usage, they tried at least to refine the spirit of the act. “One should not concentrate his attention on the dead who lie there,” they wrote, “but should direct his prayer for mercy to God Himself, because of the merit of the righteous dwellers in the dust.” The implied criticism is ample testimony concerning the popular interpretation of these rites.6
The spirits of the dead can be useful to the living in other ways, too. The future is an open book to the denizens of the supernatural realm, and like the demons and the angels, the deceased can by eavesdropping pick up the latest decisions of the court on high; “they flit through the universe to hear what has been decreed.” Then they report back to intimates on earth, in dreams or in personal appearances. Sometimes this is in fulfillment of a compact entered into while still among the living. But in general the spirit-world is chary of its secrets and can be induced to reveal them only by magical means. As with demons and angels, mystical invocations and occult rites are effective in forcing the dead to obey the magician’s will. The art of necromancy is a specialized function of sorcery.7
But the deceased were also inevitably regarded with a sense of dread. For all their usually beneficent attitude toward the living, they were still members of the unknown and uncanny spirit world, possessed of illimitable power—power for ill as well as for good. Witness the spirits of evil men which are assimilated to the demonic ranks, and become implacable enemies of humankind! It was best, at any rate, to keep on their good side, to seek their forgiveness, to obey their commands, to pray for their repose. Quite a few instances were related of the punishment visited upon foolhardy people; because of disobedience some fell ill and even died.
One who neglected the precaution of expiating his sin toward a dead enemy saw him in a dream and heard the rhetorical question, “Do you imagine that the dead have no power to do harm?” Before he could gather his wits for a reply the spirit itself supplied the answer: it seized him by the “sinew of the thigh-vein” and wrenched it sharply. Nor was it only a dream. Forever after he suffered intense pain in that spot. Thus it would seem that dream contacts with the dead are quite real. Therefore one must beware not to accept anything from a spirit in a dream, or to kiss him; even more one should not kiss a corpse, or in a paroxysm of grief grasp the hand of the deceased and wildly pray that one may accompany him to the grave. This would be virtually “to bring death on oneself.”
Sometimes the spirits invite the living to come along with them; to consent is tantamount to sealing one’s death warrant. A person who has received such a grim invitation must repair to the grave of his would-be host and, having shed his shoes, must lie down on the mound and cry out three times, ‘By the will of God, and by my own will, I do not intend to go along with you or with any other deceased. Do not come after me, or after any of my beloved, you or your emissary, for my desire is to live in this world and not in the other.”
In the event that a spirit has threatened a living man, it is advisable to exorcise the dead in this manner: “With the consent of the celestial and earthly tribunals I conjure you in the name of the God of heaven and of earth, and by all the holy Names, that you desist from pursuing any human, whether man or woman, adult or child, near or far, and that you do them no harm with your body or your spirit or your soul. Your body must lie in its grave until resurrection, your soul must rest in that place where it belongs. I command this upon you with a curse and with an oath, now and forever.” Any sensible spirit who understands the force of such a spell will thenceforth leave the living in peace.8
A curious conceit which was barely mentioned in the Talmudic literature came to have considerable significance in later times. In order to emphasize the sanctity and the importance of the Sabbath the early rabbis had pictured the day of rest as invading even Gehinnom, the realm in which the wicked expiate their sins. On the Sabbath its fires are banked, its tortures suspended, the spirits who are serving time there released to roam the earth. Even the souls of the wicked enjoy a weekly day of peace and respite! But when at eventide the angel Dumah, who has charge over them, herds them back to another week of torment they must obey his summons, however reluctantly.
Out of this fable succeeding ages erected an imposing structure of superstition. During the Middle Ages the belief that the spirits of the wicked are at large on the Sabbath played a most important part in the popular apprehension of the dead. While a degree of compassion was evidenced in the frequent admonitions (first uttered in Geonic times) to draw out the final Sabbath prayers so that the sinners might gain a few more moments of freedom, for they do not return to Gehinnom until the service is concluded, the prevailing note was one of dread. More than once the opinion was expressed that the evil spirits who, according to the Talmud, people the shadows on Friday nights, are none other than these souls of the wicked. They were known even to invade the synagogue.
The Maḥzor Vitry offered a unique explanation of the special prayers introduced on Friday nights to prolong the service so that tardy worshipers might catch up with the congregation; the usual excuse was that it might be dangerous for them to go home alone, but according to this work, the danger lay instead in their being left alone in the synagogue at a time when, on this one night of freedom, the spirits might decide to visit the house of worship. But the greatest fear centered about those moments at the end of the day when the spirits were being driven back to their penance. There was the ever-present possibility that some might evade the angel’s vigilance—if only for a short while—and vent their spleen upon innocent, unsuspecting humans. The Talmud had specified Tuesday and Friday nights as the occasions on which the demons were most to be feared; a later addendum included “the expiration of the Sabbath.”9
The consequences of this belief and the dread it aroused were various. Several protective selections were inserted in the concluding service of the Sabbath, most prominent among them being Ps. 91, “the anti-demonic psalm.” The Habdalah ritual, which marked the beginning of the new week, had long included as one of its features the smelling of pungent spices. It became customary to offer as an explanation of this rite the above legend; “when the Sabbath is over the fires of Gehinnom are rekindled and emit a fearful stench; we therefore smell these spices so that they may protect us from the foul odor of Hell.” (Another common explanation was that the spices strengthened the body against the departure of the “additional soul” which inhabited it on the Sabbath.)
The widely observed abstention from any form of labor on Saturday evening was due to the fear of these spirits. Israel Isserlein told a gruesome story to excuse his own meticulous care to refrain from activity. A scribe once got busy with his work as soon as the Sabbath was out; after he had stopped for the night “there came one who completed the book for him,” but when the stranger ran out of parchment he stripped the skin off the poor scribe’s back and continued his scribbling on it. The implication of the story is obvious.10
Another curious offshoot of this belief, the history of which is too tortuous to go into here in detail, was the notion that one who drank water or ate any food toward twilight on the Sabbath was “robbing his dead.” Briefly, the original source of this idea was traced to a late Midrashic statement that each day at eventide Dumah releases the spirits in his charge—and now it is not only the spirits of the wicked, but all the dead during their first year after decease, before they have been assigned to permanent abodes—to gambol in the fields, to eat the fruit hanging on the trees and drink the water in the streams. “Therefore, whoever drinks water at twilight robs his dead.”
During the Middle Ages, in Germany and Northern France (in Provence, Spain, Italy and England the practice was unknown), this statement was associated with the idea of the Sabbath-rest of the spirits, and it became obligatory to refrain from consuming water or foodstuffs only on the Sabbath toward evening. In some places this prohibition was observed by everyone, but in most it was limited to those who had lost a near relative within the year. Still a further variation upon this motif transferred the prohibition to Friday evening, the explanation given being that the souls of the wicked, immediately on their release, plunge into the streams to cool off.
It seems more than probable that this last version contains the clew to the whole business. The story about “robbing the dead” is certainly too strained to account for the entire complex. Evidently two distinct elements are fused here; the one, fear of swallowing anything that might have been contaminated by spirits at the two critical moments, the beginning and the conclusion of the day of rest; the other, the Midrashic fable, which was so twisted as to fit the superstition. The only feature of the custom that derives from the second element is the provision that it is limited to mourners, but it is significant that the earlier sources speak of it as being observed by everyone, and that water from streams and wells in particular was avoided. Dread of the spirits, rather than compassion for the deceased, undeniably informs this usage.11