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 firstname.lastname@example.org.