Evil Eye in Judaism

There are a number of Jewish practices to ward off the harmful effects of the evil eye.

The Evil Eye (ayin ha-ra) is often defined as the ability to bring about evil results by a malicious gaze. In most cultures the belief is prevalent that some human beings have the power of sending destructive rays, so to speak, in order to cause harm to those of whom they are envious or otherwise dislike.

Development of the Concept

The concept of the evil eye seems to have come about in stages in Jewish thought. Originally, in the Mishnah, for example, the “evil eye” simply denoted that its possessor could not bear with equanimity the good fortune of others. In this sense the term is used in contrast to the “good eye,” the possessor of which enjoys seeing others happy and successful.

But, especially in the Babylonian Talmud, the notion developed that some persons do have this kind of baneful power and there are a number of superstitious practices to ward off the harmful effects of the evil eye, for example, spitting out three times when a person seems to be at risk.

Even today some people, when praising others, will add: “let it be without the evil eye” (in the Yiddish form, kinehora), meaning I do not intend my praise to suggest that I am enviously casting a malevolent glance.

Immunity from the Evil Eye?

There was a widespread belief that the descendants of the biblical hero Joseph were immune from the effects of the evil eye; hence the curious incantation found in the Talmud (Berakhot 55b) to ward off the effects: “Take the thumb of the right hand in the left hand and the thumb of the left hand in the right hand, and say: “I, so-and-so, am of the seed of Joseph over whom the evil eye has no power.'”

In view of this, it cannot be said that Judaism knows nothing of the belief in the malevolent power of the evil eye. But it has also to be said that Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides fought against all kinds of superstition, both because they seem totally unreasonable and because of the theological difficulty that since God is in control of His universe it can hardly be possible for human beings to frustrate His will by supernatural means.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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