Ritual: Exorcism in Baltimore
by Steven M. Fink

Illustration by Dean Kennedy
I recently received the most unusual request of my 30-year rabbinic career. Phyllis*, a longtime congregant, phoned to tell me that her husband Mark* was going to have surgery in a week to remove a malignant tumor near his left hip. She then hesitated for a moment and asked: “Rabbi, do you do house blessings?”

“Sure,” I replied, “all the time. When families move into a new house I do a dedication of the home ceremony and we place a mezuzah on the front door.”

“No, Rabbi, that’s not it. Do you bless a house to get rid of all the sickness within it?”

Phyllis explained that in addition to Mark’s malignant tumor, she was in the hospital the previous week with internal bleeding from an undetermined cause. An Orthodox friend had suggested she ask her rabbi to bless the house to purge it of all illness.

“Rabbi,” Phyllis asked again, “Would you come over and bless our house?”

I didn’t know what to say. Phyllis was asking me to do an exorcism!

The expulsion of evil spirits or demons through herbal remedies, incantations, and music was practiced in biblical and Talmudic times, and later among the Kabbalists. Such rituals entered modern times in some Chasidic circles of Eastern Europe. Perhaps the best-known Jewish exorcism is portrayed in The Dybbuk, a play by S. Ansky, who traveled through the Ukraine from 1911 to 1914 recording the folklore of shtetl Jews.

I weighed the options. Phyllis was obviously afraid for her family’s future, and was turning to me for support. If I, her rabbi, did not agree to perform this ceremony, she would likely turn to a Chabad rabbi to do it instead. Should I let my congregants’ need for comfort and hope be met by a Chasidic rabbi?

I thought for a moment and then responded, “I haven’t done this before, but I would be happy to do it for you.” We set up a date before the surgery.

I kept thinking about Phyllis’ request for a house blessing. Would such a blessing be theologically different than the misheberach, the blessing for healing the soul and the body, many Reform congregations, including ours, recite at every service? Most Reform Jews don’t believe in intercessory prayer, the idea that God will necessarily give us what we ask for. When most of us ask God to heal those who are ill, we do not expect the Eternal to automatically grant cures; we are really asking God to give them and their healers strength, courage, and hope. This house blessing would then be a personalized misheberach. I would simply be asking God to bring health to a family in need of healing, and try to bring some light into the darkness that surrounds them.

To be meaningful, the ceremony had to be participatory and include symbols that would speak directly to the family’s needs. My wife, Sally, who has had a long relationship with this family, suggested incorporating salt—which, when used as a weed killer, can be a metaphor for eliminating sickness from a home. She also recommended using a broom to symbolically sweep sickness out of the house, and a candle to represent God’s light.

I still needed a suitable Torah verse to recite at the ceremony. Rabbi Scott Nagel, our congregation’s associate rabbi, proposed that I invoke Leviticus 14:48-53, in which the Kohen (priest) examined a house and, upon finding it free of the plague, sprinkled it seven times with a protective mixture of bird’s blood, fresh water, cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff (cloth or yarn). The priest then pronounced the house pure and fit for human habitation. I had these ingredients. I would just substitute a bird’s blood with the juice of red grapes.

On the day of the ceremony, Phyllis, Mark, their daughter Amy* (who came home from college to partake in the ceremony), Phyllis’ Orthodox friend, Sally, and I gathered at the front door of their house. Mark and Phyllis dipped their fingers into a sterling silver bowl, and, while reciting “ El Na Refaeini Na, God please heal me” (the healing prayer modeled after Moses’ plea for Miriam in Numbers 12:13), sprinkled the blood/water/wood/hyssop/crimson mixture seven times on the front door. Phyllis then entered the house carrying a box of kosher salt and said, “Adonai, may this salt kill all infections and illness within our home.” Tears came to her eyes as she placed the salt upon a small table in the foyer. Mark then entered with a broom, sweeping the illness out of his foyer through the front door with hard, almost desperate waves that took every ounce of energy at his command. Amy carried a lit havdalah candle through the front door into the foyer, placed it on the table next to the salt, and prayed: “May the light of Adonai bring illumination to every corner of our home and rid us of the plague that is afflicting us!” Sally then entered the front door carrying hyssop and pleaded: “May this hyssop that purged our ancestors’ homes of all affliction bring to Phyllis and Mark an end to all illness and affliction!” The ceremony concluded with the group standing in a circle around me holding hands as I said, “Adonai, our God, we pray: May You who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless and heal Phyllis and Mark. May You, O Blessed One, be filled with compassion for them. Restore their health and revive their strength. May You swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit. May the home they love be a source of comfort and peace. May all affliction be banished from it. May this house only bring them blessing and love.”

Towards the end of the ceremony, Mark and Phyllis became less anxious. They were being proactive, doing something important to help Mark deal with his upcoming cancer surgery. And by the time we finished, Mark, Amy, Phyllis, and her Orthodox friend had smiles on their faces.

I next saw Mark in the recovery room following his surgery. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

Mark did not say anything about the surgical procedure, its outcome, or the level of pain he was experiencing. Instead he said simply, “Rabbi, thank you for what you did for us. Thank you, Rabbi, for giving me hope.”

Steven M. Fink is senior rabbi at Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, Maryland.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Union for Reform Judaism.