‘It could hardly be real’. Yes, that is probably the best description forghosts, an essence that has no substance.
An adult mind would be inclined to pronounce ‘they just do not exist’, andto a large degree would be correct. But they do have a place in our Torah,and deserve at least some clarification. The Mishna (Avos 5:6) declares ‘...some say that also the mazikin (were created at the end of the sixth day ofcreation).’ Mazikin is one of the Hebrew words that refer to ghosts; it alsomeans ‘harmful ones’. So what are they?
The Talmud speaks about them in a number of places. One of the mostrevealing is a tract (Gittin 68) that discusses the marvels that ShlomoHamelech displayed in the process of building the Beis Hamikdosh (the holyTemple in Yerusholayim), for which he enlisted the ‘services’ of the ‘seniormazik’. This is Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation of the verse (Koheles ii:6)‘... I have made for my own purpose male and female singers, as well asthose things that are pleasurable to mankind, and shido and shidos.’ Because‘sheid’ is Hebrew for ghost, therefore shido and shidos are plural ofghosts. Rabbi Yochanan is saying that Shlomo Hamelech was teaching that G-dcreated everything for the purpose of His Divine Service.
Although the Rabbis banished the ‘spirits’ from ever harming a Jew, theirmark still retains a place in liturgy. Noteworthy amongst these is thesection of prayer that we say in Shul each Friday night after completing theAmidah (the silent supplication), when we add ‘vayechulu’ and ‘mogen ovos’.These prayers are only said by one who is praying in Shul, and wereinstituted by the rabbis during the time when our Shuls were lonelybuildings on the outskirts of the town ‘for the sake of the latecomer whohad not yet completed his prayers and might come to harm when left behindafter all the congregants had concluded their prayers’ (Shulchan Oruch,Orach Chaim 268).
People often confuse this term and then presuppose that a ‘spirit’ has someconnection with a person that has once lived and passed on. But nothingcould further from the truth, as the essence of life, our soul, is a pureentity, and could therefore not possibly be the cause of any harm. In fact,the one thing that a soul dreads is to cause harm to another (which is whywe are so particular to mark out the entire area of a grave – so that nocohen should ever step over this place and thereby bring himself tospiritual harm).
So, what is a ‘ghost’?
Another Talmudic story (Kidushin 29b) may explain. Rabbi Yaakov came toAbayeh’s town and was caused to spend the night in the Shul. A seven-headedghost appeared, but this did not deter Rabbi Yaakov in his prayer. Each timehe bowed to G-d another of these heads rolled off the ghost and when hebowed for the seventh time, the ghost finally perished. The ghost is aspiritual essence that has no substance, and is defied by an increase inspirituality.
Shlomo Hamelech teaches this in Shir Hashirim (iii:7) when he speaks aboutthe 60 warriors that protected him at night. These ‘warriors’ are the 60letters of the ‘Priestly Blessing’, and we recite them each night beforegoing to bed.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman says (Tanya p. 73) that these spirits are what give usmost of our dreams. They are the result of our idle thoughts during the day,and the only harm that they can do to us is the pain that we may experiencethrough anxiety as a result of our dreams. Sometimes the dream itself isharrowing, and sometimes the experience of waking up from a blissful dreamand realising that it was only a dream is what disturbs us. Worse yet, isthe disturbance and worry that we may carry along with us after the dream,for which the best approach would be to do an extra good deed and thenignore the dream.
May we all be privileged to live well and serve G-d with true joy.
Have a wonderful Shabbos.