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. Possibly all Jews enjoy this protection (see Rashi and Metzudat David [Tehillim 80:2]). If we are immune to the destructive power of the evil eye, Rav’s statement 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).
Resultant damage from the evil eye is termed hezek re’eyah – damage caused by looking at someone else’s property (Bava Batra 2b) – and the Gemara details halachot about constructing partitions to prevent it. A person is entitled to a degree of privacy on his premises and more so within his house.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l (Michtav Me’Eliyahu vol. 3: p.313) explains (citing Eruvin 64b and Rashi) that the wealthy should perform mitzvot with their wealth to protect it from the evil eye, as ostentation causes jealousy which invites ayin hara.
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Many people would be surprised at the number of everyday situations where we take ayin hara into account. For example, the Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 230:2, based on Bava Metzia 42a) rules that when one is about to measure new grain [the new season’s growth], he recites a blessing, “Yehi ratzon milfanecha Hashem Elokeinu shetishlach beracha b’chri hazeh – May it be your will O L-rd, our G-d, that You send blessing upon this pile.” When one begins to actually measure, he recites, “Baruch Hashole’ach beracha b’chri hazeh – Blessed is He who sends [His] blessing upon this pile.” If, however, he has already started measuring he shouldn’t say the blessing as it would be a prayer uttered in vain. Why? Because blessing is only found in that which is hidden from the eye.
Our sages derived this concept from the pasuk in Prashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 28:8) “Yetzav Hashem itcha et ha’beracha ba’asamecha – Hashem will command the blessing for you in your storehouses.” From the word “asamecha – storehouses,” they extrapolate that blessing applies to that which is “samui – hidden,” i.e., the quantity is yet unknown. The Maharsha (Bava Metzia ibid.) explains that the reason this is necessary due to ayin hara.
There is a dispute whether one should use the Divine name – Shem u’Malchut – when reciting this beracha. The Ritvah (novella to Bava Metzia ad. loc.) argues that one does. Ramban (novella, ad loc.), on the other hand, writes that one recites Shem u’Malchut only when separating terumot and maasarot.
We also take ayin hara into account when counting Jews for the purpose of ascertaining whether a minyan is present. We don’t count directly; rather, we count by reciting the verse (Psalms 28:9) “Hoshi’a et amecha u’varech et nachalatecha ure’em v’nas’em ad olom – Save Your nation, and bless Your inheritance, tend them and elevate them forever.” This verse (in Hebrew) contains 10 words and at the same time is a direct reference to salvation. Counting in this manner allays any fears of ayin hara that may arise when counting people directly.
The source for this concern is based on the census count in Prashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:12): “ve’lo yihyeh bahem negef bifkod otam – in order that there be no plague amongst them when they are counted.” Rashi explains that any counting of people evokes an ayin hara. Therefore, God asked Moshe top count the people via coins – a half shekel – that each qualified Jew was required to give as a gift to the sanctified domain. The people were thus counted via the coins rather than directly.
During the distribution of aliyot to the Torah reading, whether during the week, on the Sabbath or festivals, we also take the ayin hara’s potential damage into consideration. The Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 141:6) states, “We may call two brothers one after the other or a son after his father. However [based on the Maharil], we do not do so because of ayin hara.” Rema (ad loc.) adds even if one person is called up for Shevi’i and the other for Maftir (on the Sabbath, in extenuating circumstances, there will be need to call one after the other) the second person should not be called up by name because of ayin hara.
The Mishnah Berurah makes numerous distinctions regarding this halacha (sk 20). The rule not to call the second person up by name applies even though Kaddish separates the two aliyot because they will be reading from the same sefer Torah. However if the maftir reads from a different sefer (such as on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, the four parshiyot, or on a festival), they may be called up one after the other. The same is true in places that have the custom of not calling up people by name (e.g. “ya’amod maftir”). He says they can be called up one after the other even if the two aliyot are shevi’i and maftir but shishi and shevi’I, for example. The reason for not calling two brothers or a son after his father is to avoid ayin hara.
Another situation where we take ayin hara into account is at the chuppah when we break a glass. This is usually done at the conclusion of the sheva berachot that are recited under the chuppah by the chattan. A glass is wrapped in a cloth and the chattan stomps on it and breaks it to the cheers and mazel tov wishes of the wedding guests. (At some weddings a purposeful pause for a song about Jerusalem is added after the breaking of the glass before the exclamations.)
With the breaking of the glass we are also remembering that our joy is not complete as long as Jerusalem is not restored to its former glory, as the verse (Psalms 137:6) states: “Tidbak l’shoni l’chiki im lo ezkereichi im lo a’aleh et yerushalayim al rosh simchati – Let my tongue adhere to my palate, if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy.” The newly wedded couple now find themselves in what is surely the most joyous of occasions but nevertheless must never forget the desolation of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Yet the Gemara (Berachot 31a) cites two incidents at weddings where a cup was broken for a different reason. The first was at the wedding of Mar bar Rav Ashi’s son, when he saw that the rabbis were overly engaged in frivolity. Mar bar Rav Ashi took an expensive goblet worth 400 zuz and broke it. Similarly, Rav Ashi, at his children’s wedding, saw too much frivolity, took a white glass goblet and broke it (Rashi explains that it was of a clear white glass – obviously of great value). Clearly these sages were concerned about ayin hara. Tosafot (ad loc 31b s.v. “ayti casa d’zugisa chiyurta”) says the practice to break a glass cup at a wedding stems from here.
(We actually have more than one breaking at many of our weddings. After the Tenaim is agreed upon and then publicly read, the two mothers [of the bride and the bridegroom] jointly break a plate. [Some do this at an earlier date at a separate engagement ceremony called Tenaim.])
The Shelah (Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Parsashat Shoftim) cites Rikanti who explains the matter. “This is done to assuage the midat hadin – the divine attribute of justice – for when one rises to heights of greatness, this stirs in Satan a sense of anger and provokes Satan to find fault with him/her. Indeed this is what our sages (Shabbos 130a) stated, ‘There is no Ketubah [i.e., wedding or other joyous occasion] that is free of strife.’ ” So we break the cup to pacify Satan not to find fault with us, ensuring that we do not arouse an ayin hara.
Sefer Ohr Chochma (Darash, Adar) writes as follows: “The reason to break the glass at the chuppah is that the good spirit which emanates from His [Hashem’s] wisdom should rest upon the newly married couple. However, since there usually is a large gathering at the chuppah, perhaps that will be cause for ayin hara. Therefore, we break the cup in order that the ayin hara be consumed by the broken cup. The ayin hara here is due to the sitra acher – the one from the other side [a euphemistic reference to Satan] who constantly seeks destruction and strife.”
May it be His will that every Jew fill his heart with love for G-d and love for his fellow and as a consequence no strife or any other evil arise due to ayin hara. And in that merit may we witness our redemption, speedily in our days.
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.Rabbi Yaakov Klass
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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