Question: I know there is a dispute in the Gemara regarding ayin hara, the evil eye. Can you discuss the origin of it?
Answer: The Rambam (Hilchot Gezela v’Aveidah 13:11) and the Mechaber (Choshen Mishpat 267:18) write that one who finds a garment must periodically air it out, but not when there are guests around. This halacha is based on Bava Metzia 29b, where the gemara mentions two reasons for avoiding displaying a found garment before guests – either because of ayin hara or because of possible theft. Neither the Rambam nor the Mechaber mention the ayin hara concern. The Aruch Hashulchan (Choshen Mishpat, Hilchos Hashavat Aveidah 267:11) records the same halacha but adds that the finder may air out the garment before guests if he is sure they are people of integrity, in which case, there is no concern of theft or the evil eye. The Bach, to the Tur (C.M. ad loc.), mentions that the Rambam and the Mechaber only mention theft and not ayin hara because the concern of theft is easier for the general populace to understand. (The Rosh and the Rif mention both reasons.)
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Let us delve into the biblical source for ayin hara (since there would be no halachic basis for being concerned about the evil eye if our sages did not find this concept grounded in scripture). We read in Parshat Lech Lecha that our Matriarch Sarah, childless after many years of marriage to Abraham, gives her maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a wife in order that she bear him children. Hagar immediately conceives and becomes so enamored of her pregnancy that she becomes disrespectful to her mistress. Sarah then confronts her husband, “Chamasi alecha; anochi natati shifchati becheikecha, vateirei ki harata va’ekal be’eineha. Yishpot Hashem beini u’veinecha! – The wrong done to me is due to you; I gave my maidservant to you, and now that she sees that she has conceived, I became lowered in her esteem. Let G-d judge between you and me!” (Genesis 16:5).
Sarah subsequently deals harshly with her maidservant, and Hagar flees. An angel of G-d finds her near a spring in the desert and asks her where she is headed. She tells him that she is fleeing from her mistress. The angel exhorts her to return to the servitude of her mistress, promising her a multitude of descendants from Abraham. He tells Hagar, “Hinach harah veyoladt ben, vekarat shemo Yishmael ki shama Hashem el onyech – You are [will be] with child and will give birth to a son, and you shall name him Ishmael because G-d heard your affliction” (ibid., 16:11).
The term “hinach harah” can be understood to indicate the future tense as well as the present. In his commentary to the two verses quoted above, Rashi understands the term to indicate the future tense. Based on the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 48:8), Rashi explains that Hagar had suffered a miscarriage and the angel was promising her another pregnancy. The Midrash deduces that Hagar miscarried due to the ayin hara that Sarah had cast upon her.
The power of the evil eye is also alluded to in connection with the famine in the land of Canaan in the days of our Patriarch Jacob. Jacob sent his sons to Egypt (which had a huge storehouse of food thanks to the astute planning of Joseph) to acquire wheat. Jacob said to his sons, “Why should you show yourselves?” (Genesis 42:1). The Talmud (Ta’anit 10b, see Rashi) points out that Jacob’s family had enough wheat to eat. Jacob, however, was cautioning them not to appear sated before the families of Esau and Ishmael because if they did, they would envy them. Thus, the whole mission to buy food in Egypt was primarily intended to ward off the evil eye.
Scripture also tells us, “Va’yavo’u bnei Yisrael lishbor betoch haba’im – And Jacob’s sons came to buy provisions among the arrivals” (ibid., 42:5). Rashi quotes a Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 91:6) that Jacob had also warned his sons not to all enter Egypt via the same gate since they were men of stature and pleasant features, and he wanted to stave off the evil eye of those who might look at them. Thus, he was clearly concerned about an ayin hara.
(To be continued)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is the Torah editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.