Oz Torah: Ghostbusters – Ask the Rabbi


Q. Does Judaism believe in ghosts?

A. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the answer is No.

This applies regardless of whether the living try to summon up the ghost or whether the ghost appears on its own initiative.

The Jewish belief as summed up by Maimonides (Guide 3:46) is that when you die, your body is buried and your soul returns to God (however, Nachmanides is more inclined to think that in the afterlife, people have both bodies and souls).

In Maimonides’ view, your soul is immortal but as it has no longer has a body, it can only “appear” in a spiritual or metaphorical way.

Joseph was unable to sin once he saw the “d’mut d’yukno shel aviv”, “the appearance of his father” (Rashi on Gen. 39:11, based on Sotah 36b).  The thought of his father Jacob came into his mind and steeled his conscience. His father had taught him morality and courage, and as his father’s son he could strengthen himself against sin.

Many people ask themselves, ”What would my father or mother think (or say)?” and have a strong feeling of how the parent would handle a specific situation.

In folklore there are references to spirits and demons, but the rationalist tradition deny that they have any authentic physical shape, form or presence.

The Torah forbids enquiring to or of the dead (Deut, 18:11), though some say that communicating with the dead is not impossible though it is forbidden. Maimonides regards such communication as witchcraft and pagan.

It is true that the Bible reports contacts with the dead, e.g. King Saul using the Witch of En-Dor to summon the deceased judge Samuel (I Sam. 28), but whilst Chai Ga’on thought this was a one-of-a-kind miracle, Shmuel ben Chofni Ga’on said the witch was an imposter who fooled Saul.

Roaming ghosts figure in many traditions, but the stories are generally dismissed as imagination.

Even Australia has Jewish ghost stories such as Abraham Davis of Broome, who (a tall bearded figure wearing a tallit) haunted his former house when it became the home of an Anglican bishop. After 1957 when the house was demolished there were no further sightings of the ghost.


Q. Shouldn’t the fast of Tishah B’Av become an occasion for celebrating now that the Jewish people have a state in the Land of Israel and Jerusalem has been rebuilt?

A. In the 17th century, the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi promoted his messianic claims by making Tishah B’Av a yom-tov and telling his followers to rejoice on the day as they would on the normal festivals.

This was partly because 9 Av was his birthday; it impressed him to think that Judaism had long believed that it would be on this date that the Messiah would be born.

But it was more than personal considerations that led him to change the mood of the day.

Zechariah had prophesied that in the messianic era, fast days such as 17 Tammuz and 9 Av would “be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons” (8:19).

Convinced that the messianic prophecies had been fulfilled in himself, Shabbetai Zvi believed the time had come to make Tishah B’Av a festival.

His pretensions brought great suffering to the Jewish people. He himself ended up in another religion, though some continued to believe in him.

History views him as one more pretender. But though the real Mashi’ach is yet to come, many argue that the wondrous re-emergence of Israel and its survival against all odds, is a messianic beginning, and some suggest that the mood of Tishah B’Av must change – if not to make the day a yom-tov, at least to lift some of the gloom.

Orthodox men pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Tisha B’Av.

The answer is not basically political: it is spiritual. With the destruction of the Temple came not merely the exile of the Jewish people but the exile of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.

In spite of the great blessing which Israel represents to our people and – if only the world knew it – to humanity as a whole, so much still needs to happen before the messianic era of peace, justice and truth can be said to have arrived.

One day the Amalek spirit will vanish and the Shechinah will be at ease. Only then will Tishah B’Av be “joy and gladness and a cheerful season”.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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