SYNOPSIS OF THE DYBBUK
The play takes place around 1860 in the closed Orthodox Jewish community of Brinnits, Poland, populated by Hasidim in the Pale of Settlement, the only area of the Russian Empire in which Jews could, with few exceptions, live legally. It is a story of love, greed, devotion, death, and redemption. The synopsis given here is of the Yiddish version, which differs somewhat in the details of the plot from other versions, and which in one of the many English translations, is probably the best known. Differences among the four best-known versions are discussed on the page “Comparison of Episodes in Four Versions of the Dybbuk.”
Before the curtain rises the strains of the mystical Hasidic chant “Mipney ma” are heard in the distance, setting the mood for the entire play. The curtain rises on an old wooden synagogue. The first to speak are three batlonim, old men who regularly hang around the synagogue waiting for a chance to be paid for saying prayers for some person in need of such, and from which they derive their paltry livelihood. The play begins with their swapping of tales of historic wonder rabbis Dovid of Tolne (1808-1882) who had a chair of gold, Rabbi Yisroel of Rozhin (1797-1850) who had an orchestra of twenty-four musicians, Rabbi Shmuel of Kaminka who went around in golden slippers, Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg (1726-1778) whose snake coiled itself around the neck of a rich man who did not accept the rabbi’s verdict in a case which had been brought before him. The conversation then turns into a discussion of a wonder rabbi in the village of one of the batlonim. Khonen, one of the yeshiva students does not participate in the conversation, but he is listening very intently . He seems to be very interested in the wonder rabbi being discussed, and in the matter of summoning Satan. Khonen was a genius, a talmudic prodigy (like An-sky) who had finished his studies locally but for unexplained reasons had gone away and returned engrossed in the Kabbala, fasting from Sabbath to Sabbath and repeatedly going to the mikveh, the ritual bath. He is obsessed with these spiritual matters not as goals in themselves, but as a means of attaining the hand of Leah, daughter of a very rich local merchant, Sender, in whose house he had taken meals while student previously.
The batlonim switch the conversation from wonder-working rabbis to Sender’s search for a bridegroom of means and lineage for his daughter, but then a distraught old woman with her two small grandchildren in tow, bursts into the synagogue crying out and weeping because her daughter is near death, begging for help. A minyan is hastily assembled to offer the prayers the woman requests. The distraught woman rushes out of the synagogue and in her haste leaves the doors of the ark open. Khonen is surprised, and takes the opportunity to count the nine scrolls, then engages in the numerical manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet interpreting the meaning of the numbers in the practice known as gematria.
After the woman hurriedly leaves, Khonen and and not her student, Enekh resume their strange conversation about Khonen’s frequent trips to the ritual baths where he intones incantations from the Book of Raziel, and fasts from sabbath to sabbath, in order to attain his wishes: that he might melt a diamond by his tears and inhale it into his soul, seize the rays of the Third Heavenly Temple, tiferet, etc. (look this up), but most important from a practical standpoint, two barrels of gold with which to buy Leah, for the marriage contract is in the final analysis a business transaction. Enekh is frightened by this wild talk and hurries away.
Enekh notices Khonen lost in thought and accuses him of neglecting the study of the Talmud and being engrossed in the Kabbala. A discussion between the two ensues concerning the relative worth of the Talmud and the Kabbalah. Khonen makes it clear he has decided to go his own way, and he frightens Enekh with his wild talk, such as saying that if one refines sin of its uncleanness, only its holiness remains, and that since God created Satan, the latter must contain a grain of holiness. The greatest sin of all is lust for a woman, and if that sin can be cleansed, one can reach the heights of holiness. The greatest uncleanliness becomes the greatest holiness, the Song of Songs, which he than begins to chant.
As this is going on, Leah enters with her old nurse Frada. The beadle Meyer takes them to the ark to see its old embroidered curtains, as Leah is planning to embroider a new one for the anniversary of her mother’s death, her yortsayt. She notices Khonen, and they speak briefly, the only conversation they engage in while still alive. Leah says, “Good evening, Khonen. You have come back?” and he replies, “Yes.”
Leah then turns to the scrolls and kisses them passionately in a thinly veiled sublimation of her passion for Khonen, as she is warned by Frada not to kiss them too long. Khonen, for his part, resumes chanting from the Song of Songs, also as sublimation, which is obvious, at least to the audience:
Word comes that Sender has not been able to come to terms with the father of the groom he is seeking, and Khonen joyfully exclaims, “I have won again.” His joy is short lived, as Sender soon arrives to bring the good news that he has betrothed his daughter. Khonen despairs, but suddenly he ecstatically declares that he has won, and then collapses and dies. This is not immediately noticed by the men of the synagogue who are celebrating the betrothal. When they do, to their consternation they see that the Book of Raziel, a practical guide for magicians, has fallen out of his hand, as he lays there lifeless.
The second act takes place in the village square. A batlen explains to a guest the significance of the grave in the middle of the square in which are buried a bride and groom who were massacred by Cossacks in the 17th Century.
While visiting the grave of the martyred couple is customary during wedding celebrations in Brinnits, so is feeding the poor and dancing with them. The food provided to the poor is described by the shames, or beadle, Meyer as a feast, but characterized by the poor themselves as niggardly, especially as contrasted with the sumptuous feast prepared for the other guests. It is stressed that the poor should be treated well, for no one knows, a beggar might be one of the Righteous Thirty-Six, or even the Prophet Elijah.
The bride is also expected to dance with the poor. Dancing with the beggar women Leah has a vision of the other world and discusses the experience with her old nurse, Frada, who warns her about evil spirits. A heavy discussion about spirits and people who die before their time ensues. In the meantime Menashe, the bridegroom
m, arrives in the background with his father and tutor. Gitel and Bassia are anxious to see him, but Leah is not interested. The Messenger, a mysterious figure who comes and goes, dispensing sage comments at strategic points in the play addresses Leah about the transmigration of souls.
It is now time for Leah to go to her mother’s grave to invite her to the wedding. Frada tells her she may invite other people also, but they must be near relations. Leah tells her she wishes to invite a non-relative, i.e. Khonen. Frada tells her that it is forbidden, but indulges her anyway, taking responsibility for allowing Leah to do so, something she is to regret.
The in-laws now appear. Menashe, described as “a small, wizened youth who stares about him with terrified eyes,” is accompanied by his father, Nachman, and his tutor, Rabbi Mendel. The latter instructs Menashe how he is to behave at the wedding ceremony, how to sit and stand, and how to deliver his wedding speech.
In the meantime, Leah has fainted in the graveyard. After she has been revived with much difficulty, she is led to the wedding canopy, but when Menashe attempts to cover her face with a veil, she cries out that he is not her bridegroom. She runs to the graveyard of the martyred couple asking for their protection, speaking with a man’s voice. It is Khonen saying that he has been buried but has returned to his destined bride, and will never leave her. The Messenger announces that a dybbuk has entered Leah’s body.
Sender takes Leah to Miropolye to seek the help of wonderworking Rabbi Azriel. The third act begins as his Hasidim sit around a large table waiting for him to come. The Messenger, also sitting in the room, tells stories. One concerns a crystal spring that flows down out of the mountain and must not lose sight of the heart of the world at the opposite end of the earth, which must not lose sight of the spring, lest it die.
When Rabbi Azriel arrives, he says the blessing over the Saturday night meal “The feast of David, the King, the Messiah. . .” In the Yiddish version this is in Aramaic. [check, also two Hebrew versions)
Rabbi Azriel then tells a story of the Baal Shem Tov who watches a German tightrope artist walk over a river and wishes people would submit their souls to such discipline. Then the Rabbi expounds on the theme of ascending levels of the holiness of places, people, days and words.
After the men leave, Rabbi Azriel’s assistant Mikhoel comes to tell him that Sender of Brinnits has come to see him. Very old and weary, the Rabbi is ravaged by doubts and ponders why people come to see him, but Mikhoel resolves his doubts by reminding him of the charisma he has inherited from his father and grandfather.
Rabbi Azriel interrogates Sender concerning any sin he may have committed that brought this terrible tragedy upon him. Sender admits knowing Khonen and says the voice of the dybbuk is his, but denies having sinned against him.
Leah is brought in and the dybbuk begins to speak through her and is quizzed by Rabbi Azriel. He refuses to leave, saying he is the maiden’s predestined bridegroom. A minyan is summoned which gives the rabbi permission to expel the dybbuk. Azrielke orders him to depart Leah’s body, but he continues to refuse.
Rabbi Azriel’s assistant is sent to bring the town rabbi Shamshon in order to obtain the necessary legal authorization to excommunicate Khonen. Rabbi Shamshon gives permission , and reveals that Khonen’s father, Nissan, had appeared to him in three dreams the night before demanding that he summon Sender to a trial before the Rabbinical Court. Nissan reveals that he and Sender had made an agreement that if one of them had a son and the other a daughter, they would be married. He is holding Sender responsible for what happened to Khonen.
The assembled two rabbis and two judges recite the formula to dispel the bad dreams Rabbi Shimshon has experienced. Mikhoel is sent to the cemetery to summon the dead Nissan to the trial. Sender confesses his guilt and begs forgiveness. He is required to say Kaddish for Nissan and Khonen the rest of his life and give half of his wealth to the poor. Nissan is called upon to forgive Sender and order his son to leave Leah’s body. Sender accepts the verdict, Nissan does not reply.
They now plan to expel the dybbuk and then proceed with the wedding. The dybbuk begins to weaken, but is determined to fight as long as he has the strength to do so. The dybbuk finally shrieks that he is lost, and Azriel pronounces him excommunicated. As Khonen agrees to leave Leah, Rabbi Azriel revokes the excommunication. Sender has just uttered the first few words of Kaddish when Leah faints onto the sofa. Rabbi Azriel draws a protective circle around Leah and leaves her in the care of Frada, as the in-laws approach. After Leah awakens, Frada tries to console her with a chant, and then she falls asleep.
Leah awakens and hears the voice of Khonen, but she is unable leave the magic circle Azriel has drawn. They now really converse for the first time in the play. Leah asks Khonen to come to her, he does, and their should are united forever in death. Rabbi Azriel comes and exclaims “Too late.” The Messenger intones the benediction for the dead: “Blessed be the righteous judge.”
The play ends as it has begun with the chanting of “Mipney ma” from afar.