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What exactly is the meaning of “ayin hara”? Is it just superstition? Is it some sort of evil force?

Pirkei Avos tells us, “Rabbi Yehoshua said: Three things can cause a person’s expulsion from this world: an evil eye, evil desires (yetzer hara), and hatred of others (sinas habriyos).” So not only is ayin hara real, it can cause a person’s early demise. Even more astounding is that Rabbi Yehoshua lists it first. Evidently, he considers ayin hara to be more deadly than either the yetzer hara or sinas habriyos!

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Further proof of the dangers of ayin hara can be found in Masechtas Baba Metzia which quotes Rav as saying after leaving a cemetery, “Of the 100 buried, 99 died because of ayin hara, while only one died of natural causes.”

When we hear that Teflon pots may cause cancer or that the surgeon general warned of the possible dangers of a product, we become very wary. So it goes without saying that when the Torah cautions us about something, we should be very concerned.

The Torah tells us, “Hashem will remove all sickness from you.” The Gemara says sickness in this verse means ayin hara. Rashi explains that the number one cause of all diseases is ayin hara!

So how do we avoid it?

The Rishonim tell us that if someone has a talent or an advantage over others and flaunts it, people become envious and Hashem takes away that person’s talent or advantage. If it is ingrained in the person, Hashem, chas v’shalom, takes the person away.

When Chana davened for a child, she said, “Please, Hashem, give your maidservant a zera anashim, which the Gemara (Berachos 31b) says means “zera hamuv la bein anashim – a child accepted among people.”

Chana actually prayed for a son who would be “not too wise and not a fool.” How astonishing! Doesn’t every mother want her child to be an extraordinary talmud chacham! Rashi explains that Chana didn’t want her son to be too wise because, if he were, he would stand out. People would envy him and he would be in danger of an ayin hara.

Throughout the ages, our great ones always tried to protect themselves from ayin hara. When the shevatim went down to Mitzrayim to buy food, Yaakov told them to split up and not enter the land together through the same entrance. Why? Because the shevatim were 10 of the most perfect specimens of the human race, and if they all arrived together, they would have attracted attention to themselves and make themselves vulnerable to an ayin hara.

The navi tells us “V’hatzne’a leches im Hashem Elokecha – Walk modestly with Hashem, your G-d.” Do not flaunt your advantages or talents. If you’ve been given a blessing, don’t brandish it in front of those who haven’t been so blessed.

In Europe, many families would never sit for a family portrait for fear of ayin hara. A son isn’t called up for an aliya immediately before or after his father to avoid generating an ayin hara (according to one opinion). The Sma says we break a glass at a wedding under the chupah to dispel the perfect happiness in the air so all the hundreds of people watching should not become jealous – and cast an ayin hara on the chassan and kallah!

Now, a person might ask himself, “If ayin hara is so dangerous, how can I risk doing a good deed publicly?” The Pele Yoetz answers this question by telling us that a person doing a mitzvah does not have to worry about an ayin hara. “Shomer mitzvah lo yada daver ra – One who heeds a mitzvah is protected from evil.”

So when you are asked to be a guest of honor at a yeshiva dinner, don’t use ayin hara as an excuse to decline. “Mitzvas Hashem barah me’eras ainayim – The commandments of Hashem are clear, brightening the eyes” (alluding homiletically to protection from the evil eye).

As a general rule, though, we shouldn’t flaunt what we have. In this way, we will not cause others to feel badly or envious, and we will be safe from an ayin hara.

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Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss is rav of the Agudath Yisroel of Staten Island. A popular writer and lecturer his Torah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Learn mishnayos with Rabbi Weiss by dialing 718-906-6471 or Orchos Chaim l’HaRosh by dialing 718-906-6400 (selection 4 twice). To engage Rabbi Weiss as a lecturer or to order his “Power Bentching,” call 718-916-3100 or e-mail RMMWSI@aol.com. To receive a weekly tape or CD from him, send a check to Rabbi Weiss, P.O. Box 140726, Staten Island, NY 10314, or e-mail him. Attend Rabbi Weiss’s weekly shiur at the Landau Shul (Avenue L and East 9th), Tuesday nights, at 9:30 p.m. Some of his shiurim are available on his Facebook page and TorahAnyTime.com. Sheldon Zeitlin transcribes his articles.