Latest update: May 19th, 2013
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.
The Talmud provides numerous examples that demonstrate that a tzaddik can set the evil eye upon another Jew. How then do we explain the statement that the descendants of Joseph (which is interpreted to mean all Jews) are immune to the power of the evil eye?
Perhaps people who act wickedly are an exception to this rule. Tractate Berachot (58a) relates that a Sadducee once contradicted R. Sheshet. R. Sheshet cast his eyes upon him and the Sadducee became a heap of bones. (This was a particularly amazing feat as R. Sheshet was blind.) A similar fate befell an old man who spoke derisively of R. Shimon ben Yochai (Shabbos 33b-34a). Tractate Sanhedrin (100a) relates that a student of R. Yochanan derided his master’s teaching and was punished by R. Yochanan’s gaze.
We might therefore postulate that Jacob was seeking to protect his sons from the punishing gaze of the righteous Joseph who would be able to see the sin they had committed. But isn’t Joseph precisely the one who ultimately protects Jews from the evil eye? And is not within the power of a tzaddik to nullify Hashem’s decrees which at times seem harsh for man? Abraham sought to nullify the decree against Sodom (Genesis 18:31-32) and only could not do so because his condition that that ten righteous people be present in Sodom was not met.
Rabbenu Yona offers a different explanation for the evil eye in his commentary on the statement of R. Yehoshua (Avot 2:11): “An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred for [one's fellow] creatures put a man out of the world” (see also Avot DeRabbi Natan 16:1). Rabbenu Yona explains that when a person is not satisfied with what he has and casts his eye on his fellow’s portion, he becomes consumed with a burning desire for that which he is unable to attain. Such jealousy ultimately destroys him and thus takes him away from this world.
Based on Rabbenu Yona, we can suggest that there are clearly two different types of evil eye. One is the gaze of one who is wicked and whose intention is to cause harm, which is what R. Yehoshua is referencing. Such a gaze has no power over a Jew. Worse, the one casting such an evil gaze suffers and ultimately is the cause of his own self-destruction.
On the other hand there is the gaze of the righteous, which is so effective that it even has the power to affect a Jew. Thus, Jacob was worried since he never accepted the death of Joseph and in his subconscious related to the ruler of Egypt as his long-lost son. As such, he was concerned about Joseph’s gaze, the gaze a tzaddik, from which there is no protection.
We return to our question regarding the statement of Rav (Bava Metzia 107b) that 99 people in the cemetery died of an ayin hara and only one died of natural causes. How could this be if Jews are immune to the evil eye? Rabbi Aryeh Leib Yellin (Yefei Einayim, Bava Metzia 107b) asks this question and answers by citing the Korban Ho’eida in his commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbos 14:3 where the same statement of Rav is found), who explains that the Babylonians were unusually subject to the evil eye since they were overly ostentatious.
(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.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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