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, which mentions two reasons for this rule – 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) notes 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).
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, request protection in Joseph’s merit.
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 and enjoy his protection. The statement of Rav about a cemetery, “Ninety-nine died as a result of the evil eye, and only one naturally” (Tractate Bava Metzia 107b), perhaps refers to people who are overly ostentatious and thus more susceptible to the evil eye (Yefei Einayim).
It seems there are two types of evil eye. One is the evil eye of wicked who intend harm, which has no power over Jews and ultimately destroys the wicked person himself, even if he is a Jew (as Rabbenu Yona explains based on Avot 2:11). The other type is the evil eye of the righteous, which does affect Jews, particularly the wicked (Tractate Ketubbot 103b; see also Tractate Berachot 58a about a Sadducee who contradicted R. Sheshet and became a heap of bones, as well Tractate Shabbos 33b-34a, which records a similar incident with R. Shimon b. Yochai).
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What do we really mean when we speak of the resultant damage from the evil eye? The Gemara (Bava Batra 2b) refers to this as hezek re’eyah – damage caused by looking at someone else’s property. The Gemara forbids one to look at another person’s field when produce is growing, and Rashi (s.v. “asur l’adam she’ya’amod”) explains this is due to the evil eye. We are concerned that an ayin hara will affect the produce.
Even though the Gemara is clear that only in such or similar instances do we classify the damage as due to the evil eye, it would nevertheless seem that all hezek re’eyah has an undertone of ayin hara.
The concept of hezek re’eyah, in general, is that a person is entitled to a degree of privacy when using his own premises. If he is within his house then there is an even greater expectation of privacy (as Rashi notes, s.v.”hezeka d’bayit sha’ani”) since a person engages in matters that are more private; hence, there are issues of personal modesty which might be violated if this expected privacy is breached.
It is thus understandable that today, in the course of either the construction or renovation of a house, a large fence will be erected all about the property or, at a minimum, the houses’ windows will be covered or clouded to protect the family from unwanted viewing. Though the fence this may be required by city ordinance to protect passerby from any falling debris, we might nevertheless attribute some of this safeguard to a concern of ayin hara; we don’t want any mishap in the course of construction (just like the Gemara is concerned about the produce in the field).