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.