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, 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).
So great is the potential damage from hezek re’eyah that the Gemara states that that one can sometimes require neighbors to construct some sort of partition to prevent hezek re’eyah.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l, famed mashgiach ruchani of the Ponevez Yeshiva in Bnei Be’rak, addresses the matter of ayin hara in a different light in his Michtav Me’Eliyahu (vol. 3, p.313). He shares some ideas from a letter his father, Rabbi Reuven Dessler, zt”l, sent him. The letter discusses the responsibility a person bears for the pain he inflicts upon others even though the pain ultimately came from Hashem as Divine justice – “mishpe’tei Hashem emet tzadku yachdav – the judgments of Hashem are true, altogether righteous” (Psalms 19:10).
Rav Eliyahu Dessler addresses his father regarding the comments in his letter: “You are alluding to that which our sages state regarding accidental killers required to flee to the cities of refuge in biblical Israel.”
The Gemara (Makkot 10b) explains their need for flight with the following parable: Two individuals each caused the death of another person. The first did so accidentally, while the second did so intentionally. Both incidents occurred without witnesses. What does the Almighty do? He causes both to meet at the same inn, which is a public place full of witnesses. The one who killed with intent will sit under a ladder while the other who killed accidentally will be at the top of the same ladder. The latter will then descend and fall, thus killing the intentional murderer. Now, the two-time accidental murderer, even though he was the instrument of divine justice, must flee to the city of refuge because this time there were witnesses. This follows the premise in Tractate Shabbos (32a): “megalgelin chov al yedei chayav – punishment is meted through a guilty person.”
Rabbi Dessler further explains (citing Eruvin 64b and Rashi s.v. “ba’al b’nichsei ishto”) that one who is blessed with wealth and seeks to protect it should perform mitzvot with it; by being charitable, one will stave off the evil eye. He notes in contrast that someone who causes his fellow to suffer pangs of jealousy by acting ostentatiously leaves himself vulnerable to punishment; he may even lose his wealth. Rabbi Dessler concludes: “There is such great import in this matter. Even though I have much more to discuss at length in this matter, now is not the time because of the lateness of the hour.”
We see that a person can potentially be the cause of his own punishment via the evil eye. Thus, we should take its potential effects into consideration.
(To be continued)
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.
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 email@example.com.
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