TRANSMIGRATION OF SOULS (termed also Metempsychosis):

Doctrine Refuted by Saadia.

The passing of souls into successive bodily forms, either human or animal. According to Pythagoras, who probably learned the doctrine in Egypt, the rational mind (ψρήν), after having been freed from the chains of the body, assumes an ethereal vehicle, and passes into the region of the dead, where it remains till it is sent back to this world to inhabit some other body, human or animal. After undergoing successive purgations, and when it is sufficiently purified, it is received among the gods, and returns to the eternal source from which it first proceeded. This doctrine was foreign to Judaism until about the eighth century,when, under the influence of the Mohammedan mystics, it was adopted by the Karaites and other Jewish dissenters. It is first mentioned in Jewish literature by Saadia, who protested against this belief, which at his time was shared by the Yudghanites, or whomsoever he contemptuously designated as "so-called Jews" (; see Schmiedl, "Studien," p. 166; idem, in "Monatsschrift," x. 177; Rapoport, in "Bikkure ha-'Ittim," ix. 23; idem, introduction to Abraham bar Ḥiyya's "Hegyon ha-Nefesh," p. lii.; Jellinek, in "Orient, Lit." 1851, p. 410; Fürst, "Gesch. des Karäert." i. 81). According to Saadia, the reasons given by the adherents of metempsychosis for their belief are partly intellectual and partly Scriptural. The former are as follows: (1) Observation shows that many men possess attributes of animals, as, for instance, the gentleness of a lamb, the rage of a wild beast, the gluttony of a dog, the lightness of a bird, etc. These peculiarities, they assert, prove that their possessors have in part the souls of the respective animals. (2) It would be contrary to the justice of God to inflict pain upon children in punishment for sins committed by their souls in a previous state. The Scriptural reasons are conclusions drawn from certain Biblical verses, such as: "Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day" (Deut. xxix. 14, 15); "Blessed be the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly," etc. (Ps. i. 1). Both sets of reasons are refuted by Saadia, who says that he would not consider it worth while to show the foolishness and the low-mindedness of the believers in metempsychosis, were he not afraid lest they might exercise a pernicious influence upon others ("Emunot we-De'ot," vi.).

Influence of Cabala.

The doctrine counted so few adherents among the Jews that, with the exception of Abraham ibn Daud ("Emunah Ramah," i. 7), no Jewish philosopher until Ḥasdai Crescas even deemed it necessary to refute it. Only with the spread of the Cabala did it begin to take root in Judaism, and then it gained believers even among men who were little inclined toward mysticism. Thus one sees a man like Judah ben Asher (Asheri) discussing the doctrine in a letter to his father, and endeavoring to place it upon a philosophical basis ("Ṭa'am Zeḳenim," vii.). The cabalists eagerly adopted the doctrine on account of the vast field it offered to mystic speculations. Moreover, it was almost a necessary corollary of their psychological system. The absolute condition of the soul is, according to them, its return, after developing all those perfections the germs of which are eternally implanted in it, to the Infinite Source from which it emanated. Another term of life must therefore be vouchsafed to those souls which have not fufilled their destiny here below and have not been sufficiently purified for the state of reunion with the Primordial Cause. Hence if the soul, on its first assumption of a human body and sojourn on earth, fails to acquire that experience for which it descended from heaven, and becomes contaminated by that which is polluting, it must reinhabit a body till it is able to ascend in a purified state through repeated trials. This is the theory of the Zohar, which says: "All souls are subject to transmigration; and men do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He! They do not know that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into this world and after they leave it; they are ignorant of the many transmigrations and secret probations which they have to undergo, and of the number of souls and spirits which enter into this world and which do not return to the palace of the Heavenly King. Men do not know how the souls revolve like a stone which is thrown from a sling. But the time is at hand when these mysteries will be disclosed" (Zohar, ii. 99b). Like Origen and other Church Fathers, the cabalists used as their main argument in favor of the doctrine of metempsychosis the justice of God. But for the belief in metempsychosis, they maintained, the question why God often permits the wicked to lead a happy life while many righteous are miserable, would be unanswerable. Then, too, the infliction of pain upon children would be an act of cruelty unless it is imposed in punishment for sin committed by the soul in a previous state.

Opposition to the View.

Although raised by the Cabala to the rank of a dogma, the doctrine of metempsychosis still found great opposition among the leaders of Judaism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In his "Iggeret Hitnaẓẓelut," addressed to Solomon ben Adret in defense of philosophy, Jedaiah Bedersi praises the philosophers for having opposed the belief in metempsychosis. Ḥasdai Crescas ("Or Adonai," iv. 7), and after him his pupil Joseph Albo ("'Iḳḳarim," iv. 29), attacked this belief on philosophical grounds, considering it to be a heathen superstition, opposed to the spirit of Judaism. The opposition, however, gradually ceased; and the belief began to be shared even by men who were imbued with Aristotelian philosophy. Thus Isaac Abravanel sees in the commandment of the levirate a proof of the doctrine of metempsychosis, for which he gives the following reasons: (1) God in His mercy willed that another trial should be given to the soul which, having yielded to the sanguine temperament of the body, had committed a capital sin, such as murder, adultery, etc.; (2) it is only just that when a man dies young a chance should be given to his soul to execute in another body the good deeds which it had not time to perform in the first body; (3) the soul of the wicked sometimes passes into another body in order to receive its deserved punishment here below instead of in the other world, where it would be much more severe (commentary on Deut. xxv. 5). These arguments were wittily refuted by the skeptical Leon of Modena in his pamphlet against metempsychosis, entitled "Ben Dawid." He says: "It is not God, but the planets, that determine the temperament of the body; why then subject the soul to the risk of entering into a body with a temperament as bad as, if not worse than, that of the one it has left? Would it not be more in keeping with God's mercy to take into consideration the weakness of the body and to pardonthe soul at once? To send the soul of a man who died young into another body would be to make it run the risk of losing the advantages it had acquired in its former body. Why send the soul of the wicked to another body in order to punish it here below? Was there anything to prevent God from punishing it while it was in its first body?"

The School of Luria.

Upon the doctrine of metempsychosis was based the psychological system of the practical Cabala, inaugurated by the cabalists of the school of Luria. According to them, all the souls destined for the human race were created together with the various organs of Adam. As there are superior and inferior organs, so there are superior and inferior souls, according to the organs with which they are respectively coupled. Thus there are souls of the brain, of the eye, of the head, etc. Each human soul is a spark ("niẓaẓ") from Adam. The first sin of the first man caused confusion among the various classes of souls; so that even the purest soul received an admixture of evil. This state of confusion, which gives a continual impulse toward evil, will cease with the arrival of the Messiah, who will establish the moral system of the world on a new basis. Until that time man's soul, because of its deficiencies, can not return to its source, and has to wander not only through the bodies of men, but even through inanimate things. If a man's good deeds outweigh his evil ones, his soul passes into a human body; otherwise, into that of an animal. Incest causes the soul to pass into the body of an unclean animal; adultery, into that of an ass; pride in a leader of a community, into that of a bee; forgery of amulets, into that of a cat; cruelty toward the poor, into that of a crow; denunciation, into that of a barking cur; causing a Jew to eat unclean flesh, into a leaf of a tree which endures great suffering when shaken by the wind; neglect to wash the hands before meals, into a river.

The main difference between the passing of the soul into a human body and its transmigration into an animal or an inanimate object consists in the fact that in the former case the soul ignores its transmigration, while in the latter it is fully aware of its degradation, and suffers cruelly therefrom. With regard to the transmigration of the soul into a crow Moses Galante, rabbi at Safed, relates that once he accompanied Isaac Luria to 'Ain Zaitun to pray at the tomb of Judah ben Ilai. On approaching the place he noticed on an olive-tree which grew near the tomb a crow which croaked incessantly. "Were you acquainted," asked Luria, "with Shabbethai, the tax-farmer of Safed?" "I knew him," answered Galante: "he was a very bad man and displayed great cruelty toward the poor, who were not able to pay the taxes." "This crow," said Luria, "contains his soul" ("Shibḥe ha-Ari," p. 29).

Impregnation of Souls.

A quite new development of the doctrine of metempsychosis was the theory of the impregnation of souls, propounded by the cabalists of the Luria school. According to this theory, a purified soul that has neglected some religious duties on earth must return to the earthly life and unite with the soul of a living man, in order to make good such neglect. Further, the soul of a man freed from sin appears again on earth to support a weak soul unequal to its task. Thus, for instance, the soul of Samuel was supported by those of Moses and Aaron; the soul of Phinehas, by those of Nadab and Abihu. However, this union, which may extend to three souls at one time, can take place only between souls of a homogeneous character, that is, between those which are sparks from the same Adamite organs. As the impregnated soul comes either to make good a neglect or to support a weak soul, it enters into the body only after the man has completed his thirteenth year, when he reaches the age of religious duty and responsibility.

The dispersion of Israel has for its purpose the salvation of man; and the purified souls of Israelites unite with the souls of other races in order to free them from demoniacal influences. Each man, according to the practical Cabala, bears on his forehead a mark by which one may recognize the nature of the soul: to which degree and class it belongs; the relation existing between it and the superior world; the transmigrations it has already accomplished; the means by which it may contribute to the establishment of the new moral system of the world; how it may be freed from demoniacal influences; and to which soul it should be united in order to become purified. He who wishes to ascertain to which of the four worlds his soul belongs must close his eyes and fix his thought on the four letters of the Ineffable Name. If the color he then beholds is a very bright, sparkling white, his soul has proceeded from the world of emanation ( ); if an ordinary white, from that of creative ideas (); if red, from that of creative formation (); and if green, from that of creative matter ().

Special Instances.

The cabalists of the Luria school pretended to know the origins and transmigrations of all the souls of the human race since Adam; and in their works accounts are given concerning Biblical personages and the great teachers of Judaism. Thus, for instance, the soul of Aaron is said to have been derived from the good part of that of Cain. It entered into the body of the high priest Eli, who, in expiation of the sin committed by Aaron in making the golden calf—a sin punishable with lapidation—broke his neck in falling from his seat. From Eli it transmigrated into the body of Ezra; and it then became purified. The name "Adam" contains the initials of David and Messiah, into whose bodies the soul of the first man successively entered. The name "Laban" contains the initials of Balaam and Nabal, who successively received Laban's soul. Jacob's soul passed into Mordecai; and because the former had sinned in prostrating himself before Esau, Mordecai obstinately refused to prostrate himself before Haman, even at the risk of endangering the safety of the Persian Jews. Interesting is the account given in the "Sefer ha-Gilgulim" of the souls of some contemporaries of Isaac Luria. The soul of Isaac de Lattes is said there to have been a spark from that of a pious man of the olden times (); that of Joseph Vital, one from the soul of Ezra; that of Moses Minz, one from the soulof Seth, the son of Adam. To the soul of Moses Alshech was united that of the amora Samuel ben Naḥmani; hence the former's talent for preaching. Both Moses Cordovero and Elijah de Vidas partook of the soul of Zechariah ben Jehoiada; hence the great friendship that existed between them. Because of some sin his soul had committed in a previous state Moses Vital was unable to acquire a perfect knowledge of the Cabala. The soul of Joseph Delpino entered into a black dog. Ḥayyim Vital possessed, according to Isaac Luria, a soul which had not been soiled by Adam's sin. Luria himself possessed the soul of Moses, which had previously been in the bodies of Simeon ben Yoḥai and Hamnuna Saba.

Generally the souls of men transmigrate into the bodies of men, and those of women into the bodies of women; but there are exceptions. The soul of Judah, the son of Jacob, was in part that of a woman; while Tamar had the soul of a man. Tamar's soul passed into Ruth; and therefore the latter could not bear children until God had imparted to her sparks from a female soul. The transmigration of a man's soul into the body of a woman is considered by some cabalists to be a punishment for the commission of heinous sins, as when a man refuses to give alms or to communicate his wisdom to others.


The theory of impregnation gave birth to the superstitious belief in "dibbuḳ" or "gilgul," which prevailed, and still prevails, among the Oriental Jews and those of eastern Europe. This belief assumes that there are souls which are condemned to wander for a time in this world, where they are tormented by evil spirits which watch and accompany them everywhere. To escape their tormentors such souls sometimes take refuge in the bodies of living pious men and women, over whom the evil spirits have no power. The person to whom such a soul clings endures great suffering and loses his own individuality; he acts as though he were quite another man, and loses all moral sense. He can be cured only by a miracle-working rabbi ("ba'al shem") who is able to cast out the soul from his body by exorcisms and amulets. The usual exorcism in such cases consisted in the rabbi's reciting, in the presence of ten men (See Minyan), the 91st Psalm, and adjuring the soul in the name of God to leave the body of the afflicted one. In case of refusal on the part of the soul to yield to this simple injunction, the ban and the blowing of the shofar are resorted to. In order that it may cause the least possible amount of damage to the body, the soul is always directed to pass out through the small toe.

The belief that migrant souls seek refuge in the bodies of living persons became more and more deeply rooted; and regular methods for expelling them are given in the cabalistic works of the seventeenth century. This superstition is still widely spread, especially in Ḥasidic circles. Curtiss relates ("Primitive Semitic Religions of To-Day," p. 152) that a few years ago a woman was exorcised in Palestine, and that the spirit when questioned replied that it was the soul of a Jew who had been murdered in Nablus twelve years before. The migrant soul was generally believed to belong to a wicked or murdered person; but it may happen that that of a righteous man is condemned, for a slight offense committed by it, to wander for a while in this world. Such a soul is, however, free from demoniacal influences, and it enters the body of a living person not to avoid evil spirits (who have no power over it), but to atone for the fault it has committed. As soon as this has been accomplished it leaves the body of its own free will. Ḥayyim Vital records that while sojourning at Damascus in 1699 he was called upon to entertain himself with the soul of a pious man which had entered the body of the daughter of Raphael Anaw. The soul informed him that it was exiled from heaven for having slighted the virtue of repentance. For a time it dwelt in a fish, but this fish was caught and sold to Raphael for the Sabbath meal; the soul then entered the body of the daughter of the house. In proclaiming before Vital the great importance of repentance it became free to return to its heavenly abode ("Shibḥe Ḥayyim Wiṭal," ed. Lemberg, p. 11). Narratives of this sort abound in the cabalistic writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and many of them are reproduced in the "Nishmat Ḥayyim" of Manasseh ben Israel, who showed himself a firm believer in all kinds of gilgulim and dibbuḳim. He even went so far as to endeavor to demonstrate that references to them are to be found in the Bible. It is noteworthy that most of the cases of exorcism occurred at Safed or in its neighborhood; that is, in localities where mysticism was flourishing. A curious case is cited by Moses Prager in his "Zera' Ḳodesh": it is interesting from the fact that David Oppenheim, the collector of Hebrew books and manuscripts, who was the rabbi of Nikolsburg, Moravia, was one of the signatories of the narrative. See Dibbuḳim.

  • Azariah da Fano, Gilgule Neshamot, passim;
  • Manasseh ben Israel, Nishmat Ḥayyim, part iii., ch. xiv.; part iv., ch. xx.;
  • Luria, Sefer ha-Gilgulim, passim;
  • Shebaḥe ha-Ari, passim;
  • Israel Saruk, Shibḥe Ḥayyim Wiṭal, passim;
  • Abraham Shalom Ḥai, Sefer Nifla'im Ma'aseka, p. 18;
  • Ginsburg, The Kabbalah, p. 42;
  • Karppe, Etude sur l'Origine du Zohar, pp. 320 et seq., Paris, 1902;
  • P. Rudermann, Uebersicht über die Idee der Seelenwanderung, Warsaw, 1878;
  • S. Rubin, Gilgul Neshamot, Cracow, 1898;
  • Alexander W. M. Menz, Demonic Possession in the New Testament, Edinburgh, 1902;
  • Güdemann, Gesch. i. 202, 205, 216.
K. I. Br.