Where does the Evil Eye come from? Does it really exist? The Evil Eye is not just a mystical concept, but has a rational explanation, too. A person who flaunts his wealth and possessions becomes the focus and an object of envy. This can cause enmity and hatred between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Thus, the Evil Eye could lead to vandalism, theft, and even violence. The remedy is not to brag or boast, but to keep a low profile in all matters.
However, the mystical side and notion of an “Evil Eye” stems from antiquity and remains one of the most prevalent beliefs in various cultures around the world. While it takes on many connotations, its most popular versions include attributing the Evil Eye to certain mysterious, powerful, negative, spiritual forces that are unleashed by the gaze of jealous onlookers. Colloquially, many Jews use the Hebrew expression “Bli Ayin Hara” (without the Evil Eye) when speaking about their good fortune, to avoid arousing its wrath against their health and wealth. There is even a women’s clothing store in Jerusalem called “Bli Ayin Hara”!
In Kabbalistic sources, the eye frequently serves as a metaphor to describe G-d’s metaphysical awareness as well as the interest people take in each other. The Bible depicts the watchful eye of G-d over the Jewish people (D’varim 11:12, T’hilim 33:18) and further demands that people not close their eyes to the needs of the less fortunate (D’varim 7:16, 15:9). It cautions us from being led astray by the wandering eye (Bamidbar 15:39), understanding that visual sensations cause the most sinful temptations (Sota 8a).
Within the Talmud the Sages admonish one for possessing an Ayin Hara, clearly connoting the vice of an Evil 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 D’Rabi Natan 16).
Numerous Talmudic sources depict an “Evil Eye” with harmful and destructive spiritual powers. The sage Rav, for example, attributed many fatal illnesses to the Evil Eye, with the Talmlud even contending that he could enter cemeteries and determine that 99 out of 100 people died prematurely from Ayin Hara causes (Bava Metzia 107b).
These sages affirmed that certain eyes possessed natural baneful potencies, or alternatively believed that the envious glare of onlookers, even with no evil intended, could cause Divine negative 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 affirmed this power of Ayin Hara. Both Gersonides (1288-1344, France) and Rav Yitzhak Arama (15th century, Spain), for example, elaborately explain how eyes can emit certain vapors that wreak havoc on their objects. Others, like Rav Ovadia Seforno (1475-1550, Italy) adopt a more spiritual approach, contending that escalated individual attention causes G-d to examine the actions of the given person, increasing the possibility of divine reproach, since no one is without sin.
Maimonides directly challenged the notion of an Evil Eye and other folklore beliefs by minimizing the impact these types of beliefs had in Halachic matters. The Talmud, for example, forbids one from overly admiring another’s field crops, lest the Evil Eye damage the crops. While Rashi, Nahmanides, Rav 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 part of Halacha – Jewish Law. Double weddings within families or congregations are not held 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 Rav 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. Rav Meshulam Roth (d. 1963) chastised another scholar for dismissing its significance and importance (Kol Mevaser 2:7). Rav Ovadia Yosef gave a fascinating dvar Torah detailing the measures one can take to avoid the Ayin Hara. The main precaution one can take to prevent the Evil Eye is to lead a modest lifestyle. This includes dressing and behaving with Tzniut (modesty), not showing off, and not boasting about one’s accomplishments, achievements, and possessions.
Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is Dean of Students at the Diaspora Yeshiva