Question: I know there is a dispute in the Gemara regarding ayin hara, the evil eye. Can you discuss the origin of it?
The Halacha: The Mechaber (Choshen Mishpat 267:18) rules: “If one found a wool garment he is to shake it once in 30 days [as long as it is in his safekeeping pending its eventual return to its rightful owner], but he should not shake it by means of a stick [i.e. by hitting it] nor should it be done with two people holding it. He should spread it on a bed only for its own need but not for its need and his need. Should he happen to have guests, he should not spread it, even for its own need, for perhaps it will be stolen.”
The Discussion: The above halacha is based on a mishnah (Bava Metzia 29b). The mishnah states: If one found a garment, he should shake it once in 30 days. He should shake it for its own need but not for his honor (benefiting from both its beauty and utility – to use it as a bedspread or even a wall hanging). The Gemara (infra 30a) states that if shaking it helps the garment and him at the same time, it is permitted. Indeed, the Gemara notes that if he spreads it on a bed or on a frame, it is prohibited if he does so solely for his own need but permitted if he does so for its need (in order that it be aired out properly). However, if houseguests arrive, it is prohibited because of ayin hara or possible theft.
The Rambam (Hilchot Gezela v’Aveidah 13:11) codifies this halacha and explains that someone who finds a lost object is required to examine it in order that it not become destroyed due to lack of use, as the verse states in Parshat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 22:2): “Ve’im lo karov achicha elecha velo yedato va’asafto el toch beitecha ve’haya imcha ad drosh achicha oto va’hashevoto lo – If your brother is not near you and unknown to you, then you are to gather it into your house and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it and you return it to him.” It states “and you return it to him,” which means take care of it and keep it in returnable condition. How so? If one found a garment of wool, he should shake it once every 30 days but not with a stick nor together with someone else. He may place it on a bed for its need but not for its need and his need. If houseguests arrive he is not to spread it out before them lest it be stolen.
We see that both the Rambam and the Mechaber cite only the Gemara’s second reason – fear of theft – and make no mention of the Gemara’s first reason – fear of the evil eye.
The Aruch Hashulchan (Choshen Mishpat, Hilchos Hashavat Aveidah 267:11) similarly cites the halacha, but he adds that the founder may leave it spread out when guests come if he knows they are people of integrity since there is no concern for theft or an evil eye. Thus, we see that an evil eye is perhaps a matter of concern.
Indeed, the Bach to the Tur (C.M. ad loc.) explains that the Rambam and the Mechaber only mention theft and not ayin hara because the former concern is easier for the general populace to understand. (The Rif and the Rosh mention both reasons of the Gemara in their codification of the halacha.)