Bava Metzia 107

Ninety-nine by the evil eye.

Like much of the Book of Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy 7 lays out the terms and conditions of the Israelites’ covenant with God. And if the Israelites obey that covenant, Deuteronomy 7:13 promises that, “God will ward off from you all sickness; and will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon all your enemies.” A powerful promise. 

Within the context of Deuteronomy 7, the two parts of the verse function as a doublet, a biblical way of saying the same thing twice for poetic effect. The sickness we are protected from is all the dreadful diseases encountered in the land of Egypt. But as we might now expect, the rabbis of the Talmud insist that each word in the Torah teaches its own unique idea. So on today’s daf, the rabbis ask what is the unique idea being taught by the promise that God will protect us from sickness, which wouldn’t also be covered by the second part of the biblical verse. 

The Talmud offers five different answers to this question: 

Rav says: “This is the eye.” Rav conforms to his line of reasoning, as Rav went to a graveyard, and did what he did and said: “Ninety-nine by the evil eye, and one by natural means.”

Rav apparently reads the first half of the verse as promising divine protection from the evil eye, a malevolent force that causes both interpersonal and personal harm. If those who obey the covenant are protected from the evil eye, that’s a huge deal for Rav, because apparently, after performing some kind of necromancy in a graveyard, Rav came to believe that 99% of deaths were caused by the evil eye. 

Rav’s colleague, Shmuel, offers a different interpretation: 

And Shmuel says: “This is the wind.” Shmuel conforms to his line of reasoning, as Shmuel says: “Everything is because of the wind.” 

The ancient world was rife with beliefs that certain winds (often the north wind) were particularly harmful or associated with demonic forces. So it’s possible that Shmuel is suggesting some kind of harm that speaks to a cultural belief most readers today don’t share. But it’s also possible that he’s noting the effects of harsh winds and weather on human lives. 

Rabbi Hanina says: “This is the cold,” as Rabbi Hanina says: “Everything is at the hands of Heaven, except for excess cold and heat, as it is stated: Cold and heat are on the path of the perverse; he who guards his soul shall keep far from them. (Proverbs 22:5).” 

Rabbi Hanina offers a fascinating take on God’s divine omnipotence, a world in which God controls everything except extreme weather. And Rabbi Hanina reads Deuteronomy 7:15 as requiring Israel to obey the covenant to help prevent extreme weather. An early statement about the responsibility of each of us to address the climate reality of our times!

The last two interpretations are more rooted in the organic realities of the human body: 

Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina says: “This is discharge,” as the Master says: “Discharge of the nose and discharge of the ear — much of it is harmful, but a bit of it is beneficial.”

Rabbi Elazar says: “This is the gallbladder.” This is also taught in a beraita: “Sickness — this refers to the gallbladder. And why is it called sickness? It is because it makes a person’s entire body ill. Alternatively, sickness because 83 diseases are dependent on the gallbladder. 

Eighty-three is the numerical value of the Hebrew word mahala, sickness.

Each of these rabbis believes that if we follow the covenant we will be protected from all the diseases of Egypt and from some other thing. While I can’t speak to the medical effectiveness of their strategies, I do appreciate their recognition that bodies are complicated and hard to understand, and that a small sense of control over the uncontrollable can help us all live a little more comfortably in the world.

Read all of Bava Metzia 107 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 14, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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