4.10. S. Anski, ‘play Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk)’ (1919)

Tsvishn tsvey veltn (Der Dibek): a dramatishe legende in fir aktn, “Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk): A Dramatic Legend in Four Acts,” by S. Anski (pseudonym of Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, 1863-1920) begins with a mystical Ḥasidic song. It is heard in the background, before the raising of the curtain, and in a question with an answer it contains the essence of the play:

Why, oh why,
Did the soul descend
From the highest height
To the deepest end?
The greatest fall
Contains the upward flight.

In the third of the four acts, Rabbi Azríel says that human souls have to suffer, going through many transmigrations and reincarnations before reaching God’s throne. Sometimes, a soul striving to the highest is suddenly possessed by an evil spirit who overthrows him; the higher the soul has come, the deeper he falls, to the sorrow of the ten celestial spheres, the kabbalistic emanations of God. In Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk), the upward striving soul, who will eventually fall in order to rise, is the yeshiva student Khonen, who has conceived a great love for Leah. Already before their birth, they were intended for each other through a vow of Leah’s father to Khonen’s father; after Khonen’s sudden death, however, Leah’s father finds another, wealthier match for his daughter and Khonen and Leah are to suffer for this breaking of the promise. Khonen rises as a dybbuk, the soul of a dead person, who can only find temporary peace in the body of someone alive, and that is his beloved Leah.

In order to have the Dybbuk exorcized, both families travel to the ẓaddik Rabbi Azriel. The exorcism ritual occupies part of the final Act 4. *Anski, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) 47-9. It is based on the magic numbers seven and three: the Rabbi convenes a minyan with seven Torah scrolls, seven black candles, and seven shofarot; the shofarot are blown three times, and the tekiʿah, the shevarim and the teruʿah consist of one, three and nine notes respectively. Rabbi Azriel creates a magical chronotope by drawing a circle with his cane and in a solemn prayer, he promises not to deviate from the right path. Leah is called in to take a seat in the circle. Rabbi Azriel orders the Dybbuk to leave Leah’s body and he enforces his call with a tekiʿah by the seven shofar blowers. Though the Dybbuk is driven into a corner, he does not surrender. Rabbi Azriel makes a second call: “Since the higher spirits cannot control you, I am placing you under the authority of the middle spirits, those that are neither good nor evil. And they will pull you out with all their cruelty. Blow the horns! Blow shvórim!” The Rabbi sees this attempt fail too. Now the Holy Ark is shrouded in a black curtain, black candles are lit and all present shroud themselves in white robes. The Rabbi raises his arm like a prophet and gives his third order, ending with the words “I . . . rip apart all threads that tie you to the world of the living and to the body and soul of Leah . . . And I anathematize you and expel you from the community of Israel!!” This is again confirmed by a shofar blast: “Terúah!” When the Dybbuk finally surrenders, Rabbi Azriel revokes the curse, has the candles snuffed out, the black curtain removed and the shofarot taken away. All those present take off their white robes and leave the room; the Rabbi thanks God, who has removed the demons on the path of the “homeless and afflicted soul” and grants him peace in his heavenly palaces.

After the exorcism ritual, Rabbi Azriel addresses himself to Leah’s father, whose broken promise was the cause of the suffering of Leah and the Dybbuk/Khonen, and orders him to say Kaddish. *Chapter 3.2, The Koren Siddur 1056-8 and The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 640, 646. The “Amen” is followed by a symbolic coincidence: the clock strikes twelve, Leah faints and the arrival of the family with the groom is announced. Rabbi Azriel confirms the magical chronotope by again drawing a circle around Leah, this time the other way round, and then goes to meet the company, leaving Leah and her old nurse Fradde.

After Fradde has fallen asleep, the events take an unexpected turn. Leah notices that Khonen’s soul, of which she only hears the voice, is still there and wants to leave her body in order to unite with her own soul. She responds to Khonen’s love and leaves the chronotope of the magic circle to bear her groom as a dead man in her heart. At this moment, Leah hears the wedding march of the approaching company with Menashe, the man to whom she will be given in marriage. Leah escapes the forced marriage, preferring a union with her ​​beloved: *Between Two Worlds 52.

(LEAH leaves the black cloak on the sofa and, all in white, she approaches her bridegroom to the rhythm of the wedding march. She reaches him and fuses with him. . . .)
LEAH. (In a distant voice.)
A giant light is pouring all around us…
I’m joined to you forever, my beloved…
We’ll float together, higher, higher, higher…

Here, the meaning of the words Between Two Worlds becomes clear: the lovers leave the illusionary world of the living and ascend, in order to reach a mystic union in the real world, “the realm of the dead.” Rabbi Azriel enters the room at the head of the company and seeing Leah’s lifeless body, he realizes that he is too late. Stage light dims and backstage, Why, oh why is heard, the song with which the play began.

The shofar blasts in the exorcism ritual are authoritative discourse, because they represent the moral authority of the Ẓaddik Rabbi Azriel and the religious establishment of Rabbi Shimshin against Khonen’s involvement in kabbalistic studies. Reb Azriel’s exceptional status is confirmed by Mikhl, his gabbe: *rabbi’s assistant “Rebbe! You mustn’t forget that entire generations of saints and holy men stand behind you . . . your father and your grandfather, the great man, who was a disciple of the Baal-Shem-Tov.” *Ibid. 36. The Baʿal Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760) was the founder of Ḥasidism. The relationship between the ẓaddik Rabbi Azriel and Rabbi Shimshin, the Rabbi of Miropolye, the town where the exorcism ritual takes place, is expressed by Reb Shimshin himself: “and if a godly man like you [Rabbi Azriel] considers it necessary, then I grant my permission [i.e. to pronounce a ban on the Dybbuk].” *Between Two Worlds 40. Khonen’s ideas are commented on by Sender, Leah’s father: “He [Khonen] used to dabble in the Cabala, and that damaged his soul. . . . The evil spirits. . . . Several hours before he died, he told a friend that we shouldn’t wage war against sin. He also said that there is a spark of holiness in the Devil . . .” *Ibid. 36-7. The utterances of the Dybbuk are internally persuasive discourse in the most literal sense, because Khonen’s soul is in Leah’s body and speaks through her ​​mouth. However, they are also utterances that have an authoritative aspect, and when the second call of the shofarot fails to exorcise the Dybbuk, Rabbi Azriel says to himself: “Some powerful entity must be helping him!” *Ibid. 48. This entity is the Kabbalah, as already becomes clear in Khonen’s monologues and dialogues in Act 1. Khonen says to yeshiva students that the Talmud is all cold and dry, that it is profound, grand and splendid, but shackles people to the earth, preventing them from soaring to heaven. Ecstatically, he adds: “The Cabala, however! . . . It tears the soul away from the earth! It carries us to God’s highest palaces, it opens all the heavens to our eyes.” *Ibid. 12-3. His most problematic statements are: “We must never wage war against sin, we should simply try to ameliorate it. It is like a goldsmith tempering gold in an intense fire, or like a farmer separating chaff from wheat” *Ibid. 14 and “since the Devil is a side of God, he must contain a spark of holiness.” *Ibid. 14.

According to David Roskies’ plausible opinion, The Dybbuk unfolds roughly in the 1860s. *Roskies, “Introduction.” Anski, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) xxvii. It is based on a large body of folk tales and rituals, which Anski collected in his ethnographical expeditions in the Pale of Jewish Settlement during the period 1912-1914. In The Dybbuk, Anski does not stage the standard practice of an exorcism ritual, because something like that does not exist. An extreme and perhaps purely literary case is mentioned by Rabbi Azriel in The Dybbuk: “my grandfather was able to drive out a dybbuk without resorting to spells or incantations! All he had to do was yell at the dybbuk, just yell!” *Between Two Worlds 36. The historian J.H. Chajes describes a wide variety of exorcism rituals, two common elements of which: the traditional shofar blasts from synagogal liturgy and the formula Kera Satan, “May Satan be torn,” are also found in The Dybbuk. *Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism 82-3.

Although Anski does not explicitly refer to the Bible or to prayer books, his play contains some clues to these traditional texts. Before the beginning of the ritual, Rabbi Azriel draws a circle, the chronotope in which Leah must sit, so that seven shofarot can exorcise the Dybbuk. A much larger magic circle is drawn in Josh. 6 around Jericho, seven times on the seventh day by seven priests with seven shofarot, and this ritual breaks the resistance of the city. This story, too, is about preserving a woman, namely Raḥav, the ally of the Israelites. When the Dybbuk says in Act 3: “I have not died,” *Between Two Worlds 38 Rabbi Azriel replies: “You’ve left our world, and you have no right to come back / until the Great Shofar, the ram’s horn, is blown on Judgment Day.” By saying this, the Rabbi refers to the U-Netanneh Tokef in the Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services. *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 566 and The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 842.

The shofar blasts in The Dybbuk are identical to those in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service and they are blown in the same order, only once, but by seven shofarot. In the same service, the shofar is mentioned as a means to combat evil, first in a piyyut: “Awaken and sound the shofar, cut down all evildoers, . . . O Holy One” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 412 and then in a prayer for the tokeʿah: “May our shofar notes rise up to awaken Your compassion; . . . Shut and seal the mouth of the Adversary, and do not let him accuse us.” *Ibid. 494. In the Hebrew text, the “Adversary” is Satan. This last prayer contains six verses, whose initials constitute the acronym Kera Satan, “May Satan be torn.” *Ibid. 494. Finally, the Mishnah tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah states: “If one blows the shofar into a pit or a cellar or a barrel, one who hears the sound of the shofar – has fulfilled his obligation; one who hears the echo – has not” *Ibid. 168. Chapter 3.1 and this is interpreted by Rashi as the fight by means of the shofar against the demons hiding in the well. *Rashi, comment on Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 28a. In Chajes, Between Worlds 82.

Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) has been adapted many times as an opera, ballet or film and one of the operas is Between Two Worlds by Shulamit Ran. *Chapter 4.57. Ofer Ben-Amots (Chapter 4.48) wrote a chamber opera based on Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk). The play was a direct source of inspiration to Aaron Copland, who attended an English production in 1925 and was so fascinated by the Ḥasidic song Why, oh why, that he used it as a theme in his piano trio Vitebsk, *Chapter 4.15 named after the Belorussian city where Anski heard the song for the first time. The concluding line: “The greatest fall / Contains the upward flight” resembles the motto to Nelly Sachs’ poem And Someone Blew the Shofar: “The sinking occurs for the sake of the rising.” *Chapter 4.16.

The shofar, in The Dybbuk a magical instrument in the struggle against evil, has the same function in Perets’ short story The Shofar. * Chapter 4.4. Old Reb Shimen remembers how the congregation in the synagogue is threatened by pogromists. In the deep dark after the closing of all doors and windows, the rabbi gives the order to blow the shofar. Reb Shimen, the shofar blower, puts his whole soul into the tekiʿahs, but with a mixed result: “I may have conquered Satan, . . . but not the pogromists! They laid the town in ruins! Who can conquer them? Unless it is the shofar of Messiah!”

The Dybbuk has both the idea of transmigration and the horror in common with Leyvik’s poem The Wolf, in which a rabbi in a shtetl destroyed by a pogrom turns into a werewolf terrorizing the other Jews. At the blowing of the tekiʿah in the Yom Kippur service, “the door of the synagogue burst open, / And a thin, protracted howl / Cut into the heart of the horn’s blowing.” This seems a reversal of a passage *Between Two Worlds 47 from Anski’s play, in which the Dybbuk gives the cry “Oh God!” answered by Rabbi Azriel with a curse and a shofar blast. In Leyvik’s poem, too, the demon finds redemption: the wolf is killed by the congregation and dying, he transforms into the rabbi he once had been. *Leyvik, The Wolf v. 727. Chapter 4.13. Groups of shofar blowers as in The Dybbuk can be heard in Golijov’s Tekyah *Chapter 4.64 and Savall’s Fanfare of Jericho. *Chapter 4.68. In all these works the shofarot are used as weapons against an enemy who can be beaten only collectively: an entity that threatens the existence of a Jewish community or the Jewish people in general, or is considered to do so. The shofar blowers act as their representatives and their blasts announce the decisive moments in the exorcism ritual, whose success is thought to depend on strict rules.


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