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.
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).
The evil eye should not always concern us. R. Yochanan asserts in Tractate Berachot (20a) that he has no fear of the evil eye since he descends from Joseph. R. Yossi ben R. Chanina explains that the evil eye has no power over the eye (i.e., Joseph) that chose not to partake of that which did not belong to it (the wife of his master Potiphar). Tractate Berachot (55b) suggests that one who is afraid of the evil eye should, among other things, say “I…am of the seed of Joseph over whom the evil eye has no effect.”
There is some discussion about whether all Jews enjoy this protection from the evil eye. Rashi and Metzudat David (to Tehillim 80:2) explain that since Joseph sustained his brothers and their families in Egypt, they are referred to by his name. If we are immune to the destructive power of the evil eye, however, the following statement by Rav about a cemetery is problematic: “Ninety-nine died as a result of the evil eye, and only one naturally” (Tractate Bava Metzia 107b).
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Let us refer back to the matriarch Sarah and Hagar’s miscarriage. Why did Sarah’s ayin hara have such a great effect? The answer seems to lay in the unique ability we attribute to the righteous, colloquially referred to as “Tzaddik gozer v’Hakadosh Baruch Hu mekayyem – The righteous decrees and G-d upholds.”
Tractate Ketubbot (103b) describes what happened after Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi died. According to Rabbi Yehuda’s deathbed wish, R. Chanina ben Chama was to have succeeded him as head of the academy. R. Chanina, however, did not accept the position because R. Affes was older, and so R. Affes presided at the academy. He, however, died soon afterward. The Gemara concludes: “Since Rabbi [Yehuda Hanassi] decreed that R. Chanina ben Chama should preside at the academy, there could be no possibility of him not becoming head, for about the righteous it is written (Job 22:28), “vetigzar omer v’yakam lach – you would utter a decree and it would be done.” Indeed, such is the power of the righteous – they decree and G-d upholds their decree.
The Gemara in Tractate Shabbos (63a) goes even further, stating, “R. Assi – others say R. Chanina – said, ‘Even if the Holy One, blessed be He, issues a decree, he [the righteous man] can dispose of it.’ ” Tractate Mo’ed Katan (16b) comments on the verse (II Samuel 23:3), “Amar Elokei Yisrael li dibber tzur Yisrael, Moshel ba’adam tzaddik, moshel yir’at Elokim – The G-d of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me [King David], ruler over man shall be the righteous, he that rules with the fear of G-d.” R. Abahu says that this verse is to be interpreted thus: The G-d of Israel said to David, “I rule man; who influences Me? the righteous – for I issue a decree and he [the righteous] may dispose of it.”
All this points to the power of the righteous man, the tzaddik. We might perhaps find an explanation to this phenomenon in a Midrash preceding the one cited above about Jacob sending his sons to buy food in Egypt. The Midrash states, “From the day Joseph was kidnapped, the Divine Inspiration departed from Jacob [for Jacob was in mourning, and the Divine Inspiration does not rest upon man in gloom]. He would see and not see, hear and not hear.” Scripture (Genesis 42:1) informs us that “Jacob saw that there was corn [being sold] in Egypt.” Actually, Jacob could not literally see what was going on in Egypt. Indeed, in the next verse Jacob tells his sons, “I have heard that there is corn [being sold] in Egypt.” The Midrash (which is quoted by Rashi) points out that we have to interpret “shever” (literally, food being sold) as “sever,” hope. Jacob saw in a prophetic inspiration that his hope – i.e., Joseph – was in Egypt.