Manuscript fragment reveals Jewish 'exorcism'

By Leon Symons, December 17, 2009

A fragment of a manuscript measuring 6in by 5in has lifted the veil over the long-vanished world of Jewish exorcism.

The fragment, containing 150 words of a handwritten Sephardi Hebrew prayer of exorcism from the 18th century, is almost certainly unique, according to the academic who discovered it.

Dr Renate Smithuis is the official cataloguer of Manchester’s John Rylands Library Geniza, a treasure trove of 11,000 manuscript fragments rescued from a 1,000-year-old storeroom at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, now held at the University of Manchester.

Dr Smithuis, who has collaborated with Prof Gideon Bohak of Tel Aviv University, said: “This is not an account of an exorcism or a story, it is an actual exorcism ritual prayer with the names of the three people involved, recited in a synagogue. When you read it you feel almost as though you are in the synagogue. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

The neatly-written fragment contains part of a prayer ritual in which the husband — or husband-to-be — of a widow, recites an exorcism prayer, to which the other men gathered in the synagogue respond with a similar prayer.

It calls for the departure of the evil spirit of Nissim Ben Bunya from his widow, Qamar Bat Rahma. Apparently, she had been possessed by Nissim’s spirit — or dybbuk — while engaged to, or just married to, Joseph Moses Ben Sarah.

Joseph and the rest of the congregation ask God through the prayer that the spirit should be expelled from Qamar and that the new family and all their possessions may be protected from it in the years to come.

Professor Bohak discovered that the prayer was written by a famous 18th-century kabbalist, Shalom Shar‘abi.

Dr Smithuis said exorcism was practised by Jews from the second half of the 16th century until the late 18th or 19th century. The fragment is thought to have come from Cairo or Palestine.

Dr Smithuis, who is not Jewish, has learned Hebrew and Arabic for the project.

Last updated: 4:47pm, December 17 2009