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.), argues 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.)
We find that our forefathers’ and mothers’ actions at times have been influenced by the evil eye. According to the Midrash Rabbah, Hagar miscarried due to the ayin hara that Sarah cast upon her. And the Talmud (Ta’anit 10b, see Rashi) states that the only reason Jacob sent his sons to go down to Egypt to buy food was to ward off the evil eye (Jacob, in fact, had enough food to eat). According to Bereishit Rabbah 91:6, he also instructed them enter Egypt through separate gates for the same reason (they were all tall and handsome).
* * * * We have discussed instances referring to the power of ayin hara. There are also sources, though, pointing to its inefficacy. Thus Berachot 20a states that R. Yochanan (who was famous for his good looks) was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the mikveh. He said, “When the daughters of Israel come up from their immersion they look at me and have children as handsome as I am.” The Rabbis said to him, “Is not the Master afraid of the evil eye?” to which he retorted, “I am of the seed of Joseph over whom the evil eye has no power, as it is written (Bereishit 49:22), ‘Ben porat Yosef, ben porat alei ayin.’ ” The Gemara continues, “And R. Abbahu said in regard to this verse: Do not read ‘alei ayin’ but ‘olei ayin’ ” (literally, “rising above the eye,” i.e., above the power of the evil eye).
Berachot (ad loc.) also states: “R. Yossi son of R. Chanina derived [proof that the evil eye has no power over the descendants of Joseph] from the verse [containing Jacob’s blessing to Joseph’s sons]: ‘Ve’yid’gu larov bekerev ha’aretz – And let them multiply like fish throughout the land.’ Just as the fish in the sea are covered by water and the evil eye has no power over them, so, too, the evil eye has no power over the seed of Joseph. Or, if you prefer [namely, another reason], I can say: The evil eye has no power over the eye that chose not to partake of that which did not belong to it [Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife].”
Berachot (55b) also discusses various remedies for bad dreams and other matters: “If a man entering a town is afraid of the evil eye, let him take the thumb of his right hand in his left hand and the thumb of his left hand in his right hand, and say: I [inserting his name], son of [his father’s name], am of the seed of Joseph over whom the evil eye has no effect, as it is written, ‘Ben porat Yosef, ben porat alei ayin.’ ”
The Maharsha (ad loc.) points out that R. Yochanan (ibid. 20a) clearly stated that he was Joseph’s descendant. Tractate Sotah (36b) also refers specifically to “bnei Yosef.” But this Gemara seems to be talking about a remedy for all Jews entering a city, many of whom obviously do not descend from Joseph! Some argue that, indeed, the suggested remedy is effective only for those who turn out to be descendants of Joseph. Others, however, maintain that all Jews are considered the children of Joseph, as it says (Tehillim 80:2), “Ro’eh Yisrael ha’azinah, noheg katzon Yosef – Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, who leads Joseph like a flock.” Rashi and Metzudat David explain that since Joseph sustained his brothers and their families in Egypt, they are referred to by his name.
This last explanation implies that since we are all immune to the destructive power of the evil eye, it is impossible to cast an ayin hara upon another Jew. How, then, do we explain the statement in Tractate Bava Metzia attributed to Rav (107b): “Ninety-nine [of the dead in the cemetery where he was standing] died as a result of the evil eye, and [only] one from natural causes” as well as the other statements and examples mentioned above?