Ask the Rabbi: What exactly is the 'evil eye'?

Maimonides minimized impact such beliefs had in legal matters.

evil eye 88 (photo credit: )
evil eye 88
(photo credit: )
What exactly is the "evil eye," and does Judaism recognize its power?- A.E., Haifa A The notion of an "evil eye" stems from antiquity and remains one of the most prevalent beliefs or superstitions in various cultures around the world. While it takes on many connotations, its most popular versions include attributing the evil eye to select powerful forces or, alternatively, to the unintentional effect of jealous onlookers. Colloquially, many Jews use the Hebrew expression "bli ayin hara" (no evil eye) when speaking about their good tidings, seemingly to avoid its wrath against their fortune. There is even a maternity clothing store in downtown Jerusalem called "Bli Ayin Hara"! Nonetheless, different perspectives toward these and other alleged forces have emerged within Judaism, with various customs reflecting this ambivalent, and sometimes contradictory, attitude. In classic Jewish sources, the eye frequently serves as a metaphor to describe God's metaphysical awareness as well as the interest humans take in each other. The Bible depicts the watchful eye of God over the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 11:12, Psalms 33:18) and further demands that people not close their eyes to the needs of the less fortunate (Deuteronomy 7:16, 15:9). It cautions us from being led astray by the wandering eye (Numbers 15:39), understanding that visual sensations cause the most sinful temptations (Sota 8a). Within Tannaitic literature, the sages admonish one for possessing an ayin hara, clearly connoting the vice of a jealous eye (Pirkei Avot 2:9, 11). One should instead adopt the trait of an ayin tova (good eye), taking satisfaction with one's lot in life and wishing the best for one's friends and neighbors (Avot De-Rebbi Natan, A, 16). Beyond the moral effects of evil and hatred, numerous talmudic sources, particularly those from Babylonia, depict an "evil eye" with harmful powers. The sage Rav, for example, attributed many illnesses to the evil eye, with the Talmud even contending that he could enter cemeteries and determine that 99 out of 100 people died prematurely from ayin hara causes (Bava Metzia 107b). As Prof. Jacob Trachtenberg has noted, these sages affirmed that certain eyes possessed natural baneful potencies, or alternatively believed that the envious glare of onlookers, even with no ill-will intended, could cause divine repercussions. These beliefs were widespread in both antiquity and medieval times, and extended to both the learned elite and the masses. Significantly, Rashi (1040-1150, France) and many other medieval scholars explained that the Bible prohibited directly counting the heads of population groups to avoid inflicting an "evil eye" (Exodus 30:12). Many medieval philosophers, including non-Jews like Thomas Aquinas, affirmed this power. Both Gersonides (1288-1344, France) and R. Yitzhak Arama (15th century, Spain), for example, elaborately explain how eyes can emit certain vapors that wreak havoc on their objects. Others, like R. Ovadia Seforno (1475-1550, Italy) adopt a more spiritual approach, contending that escalated individual attention causes God to examine the actions of the given person, increasing the possibility of divine reproach. Maimonides directly challenged the notion of an evil eye and other folklore beliefs by minimizing the impact these types of beliefs had in legal matters. The Talmud, for example, forbids one from overly admiring another's field crops, lest the evil eye damage the crops. While Rashi, Nahmanides, R. Yosef Karo (Hoshen Mishpat 378:5) affirmed this explanation, Maimonides explained the prohibition as a protection of another's privacy, and utterly dismissed the Talmud's reasoning. Similarly, while the Talmud forbids caring for lost property while in the view of strangers, lest the evil eye destroy the property (Bava Metzia 30a), Maimonides only mentions the second reason offered in the Talmud, that the onlookers might steal it. Despite Maimonides's opposition, many popular customs based on belief in the evil eye became ensconced in Jewish ritual. Double weddings within families or congregations were avoided to avoid the harm of noticeable celebration (Even Ha'ezer 62:3). Fathers and sons similarly refrained from reciting consecutive blessings over the Torah reading. While R. Yehiel M. Epstein permitted one to forgo this custom if he was not concerned with the evil eye (Aruch Hashulhan 141:8), the majority of contemporary scholars believe that this custom should never be waived (Mishna Brura 141:19). Some contemporary scholars clearly continue to affirm the historic belief in the ayin hara. R. Meshualam Roth (d. 1963) chastised another scholar for dismissing its significance (Kol Mevaser 2:7), while R. Ovadia Yosef's office recently e-mailed a dvar Torah detailing the measures one can take to avoid the ayin hara ( Others, however, follow Maimonides's lead and relegate this belief to ancient folklore that must join other outdated supernatural beliefs. Nevertheless, most continue to observe the customs based on this notion, paying homage to the sociological power of the evil eye, even as they deny its existence. The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.