Why did Yaakov tell his sons to enter Egypt one at a time? What was the secret about their traveling? Rashi explains it was to prevent ayin hara. What is ayin hara? Is it, as it is commonly translated The Evil Eye? Is it something real or just old wives’ tales, and what can it do? Does it exist today? Can it actually harm people? Is its harm physical or does it bring on bad luck? Is there, as some people think, a lucky or unfortunate number? And why? Is one permitted to look upon another’s success? Can one’s friend actually harm him? What is protected from the evil eye and what can be vulnerable to it? The Gemara tells us that most people die due to the evil eye. Don’t people die because of G-d’s decree? And if it is G-d’s decree that kills, why should we protect ourselves from the evil eye? Of this, and more in the coming article.
In this week’s parasha we read: “The sons of Yisroel came to purchase among those who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan” (Bereshis 42:5). Rashi explains: “They hid themselves [in the crowd] so that they would not be recognized… so that the evil eye would have no power over them, for they were all handsome and strong [and thus would be envied].” Midrash Tanchuma adds that Yaakov warned them to walk modestly without attracting attention as the pasuk says: “Walk discreetly with your G-d” (Micha 6:8). In this week’s article we will take a close look at the concept of the evil eye – what it is, what it can do, and what we can do to protect ourselves.
The Damaging Evil Eye
Chazal mention several examples of damages caused by the evil eye:
The Torah promises in Devarim (7:15) “The Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew, He will not set upon you.” The Gemara (Bave Metzia 107a) explains that “the evil diseases” includes the most terrible diseases. The Gemara lists several opinions what exactly this disease is. According to Rav, the disease is ayin hara, the evil eye. The Gemara continues and describes that Rav visited the cemetery and when he returned, he reported that 99% of the people died due to the evil eye, and only 1% died a natural death.
The Mishna (Avos 2:11) tells us: “An evil eye, the evil inclination, and the hatred of one’s fellows, drive a person from the world.”
Midrash Tanchuma presents us with another example of the damage caused by the evil eye (Ki Tisa 31): the First Tablets, which were given amidst much fanfare – thunder, trumpets, and in public — were damaged by the evil eye and therefore broken. But the second Tablets, since they were delivered in privacy, remained. Here we learn that even things of holiness must be done without fanfare and publicity.
The Midrash (Tanchuma, Mikeitz 8) derives from the pasuk: “My eye sullies my soul more than all the daughters of my city” (Eicha 3:51) that the evil eye damages more than anything else in the world. Because Yerushalayim is said to be “the joy of the entire earth” its success was publicized, which brought about its destruction. The Midrash Zuta (Eicha 1) describes how Yaakov Avinu asked Hashem where his children are. Hashem answered: “The evil eye harmed them, and they were exiled to Babylonia.”
The Mordechai (Shabbos 385) writes that one who becomes ill on Shabbos due to the evil eye is considered dangerously ill.
The Evil Eye in Modern Terms
What is an evil eye? How does it translate into contemporary terms?
The evil eye is what we call criticism or fault finding. A critical outlook on oneself and others shrinks one’s creative abilities and diminishes his life-powers. And, as modern psychological research has shown, it is the cause of numerous psychological and physical ailments, weakens the immune system and makes both the criticized and critic vulnerable to disease. The opposite – encouragement and compliments empower others as well as ourselves, add positivity to all our surroundings and life to the world.
The Mizrachi asks (Bereshis 21:14): how could Yishmael have become ill when Avraham sent him away with his mother, Hagar, if the Gemara writes (Bave Metzia 87a) that until Yaakov Avinu’s times there was no disease in the world. The Gemara answers that it is true — until Yaakov became ill people didn’t get sick just on their own, but disease could have always been caused by the evil eye. Yishmael was sick due to the evil eye that Sarah injected in him (for trying to kill Yitzchak), and the evil eye is a natural phenomenon, functioning like a sword. Just as a sword causes injury, the evil eye harms.
The Malbim (Mishlei 23:7-8) writes that the evil eye works like poison. If one with the evil eye looks at bread long enough, the bread becomes poisoned and kills those who eat it. The Chazon Ish explains (Choshen Mishpat 21) that this is a natural reality – human thoughts make hidden wheels turn, and thoughts can cause damage and destruction in the physical world.
Evil Eye Varieties
Chazal indicate that there are three way that the evil eye can harm: physically; bring on bad luck (mazal); and arouse heavenly prosecution.
The Abarbanel writes (Bamidbar 22) that Bilaam attempted to harm Yisroel in all three ways. He continues and explains why every form failed:
The first form, a physical one, acts like steam, pouring out of the eyes of the negative person, causing illness in the person it is directed at (see the Abarbanel, Shmuel II, 24 exactly how it damages). This power can be utilized only when standing close to the negative person but Bila’am was standing up on the mountain, far from the Jewish nation.
Bila’am also tried to find the ‘unlucky hour’ – a time when Hashem would be angry, and then curse them – i.e., bring upon them bad luck. But, as the Gemara tells us, Hashem didn’t get angry on those days and so there was no ‘unlucky hour’.
The third form, arousing prosecution through mention of their sins was also impossible, as Bila’am told Balak, because the Mishkan and sacrifices atoned for them.
Casting the Evil Eye on Oneself
The Midrash (Mikeitz, 8) learns from the pasuk (Eicha 3:51) “My eye sullies my soul more than all the daughters of my city” that the evil eye harms more than anything else. This was the power that harmed Yerushalayim, which allowed its enemies to destroy it. The Tosefos Rid (Bava Kama 83a) explains that Klal Yisrael was saying that as a result of the good that I had, I cast upon myself (Jerusalem) the evil eye, which harmed me more than the neighboring nations (the daughters of my city).
Avos D’Rabbi Natan (30) quotes Rabbi Yehoshua: Ayin hara removes one from both This World and the Next. There (addition 2) he explains that one is obligated to wish for others that which he wishes for himself. Just as he wants a nice home, he should wish it upon his friend; just as he wants to protect his wife’s good name, he should do everything to preserve his neighbor’s wife’s reputation; just as he wishes to be wise and learned, so too should he wish upon his friend. One who does not do so is considered a ba’al ayin hara – promoter of the evil eye (jealous, miserly, and critical), and is driven from This World and the Next.
The evil eye’s damage is not restricted only to those it is directed at. Its harm continues in ever-growing circles.
Midrash Tanchuma illustrates with an example:
Ayin Hara can also be the cause for tzora’as on people’s homes, the spiritual disease better known as resulting from lashon hara. How does it strike? One goes to his neighbor to borrow a sickle, but the neighbor says he doesn’t have it because he doesn’t want to lend out. His neighbor goes away cursing his stingy neighbor. The stingy neighbor’s house gets tzora’as as a result of the ayin hara that was cast by the neighbor’s curse. When the Kohen comes to determine the lesion’s status all his belongings must be taken out to the street so they don’t become impure. Then, all the neighbors see those items which they asked to borrow and which he said he didn’t have…
This, explains the Midrash, is the meaning of the pasuk “Now, [if] the lesion in the walls of the house consists of dark green or dark red sunken looking stains, appearing as if deeper than the wall” (Vayikra 14:37) – the word “sunken looking stains” (שקערורת) is a compound word, made up of two– שקע ארורות – the cursed hole. The hole caused by tzora’as is a result of the curses people threw at the owner for failing to lend out his belongings. This is the meaning of the pasuk: “The produce of his house shall go into exile; [his goods] shall flow away on the day of His wrath” (Iyov 20:28). All of one’s belongings will be revealed on the day Hashem is angry at him and punishes him with tzora’as.
Another Midrash (Shocher Tov, Tehilim 53) tells us that בליעל refers to a person who casts ayin hara on others, as the pasuk writes, “Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful [בליעל ] thought” (Devarim 15:9).
Yalkut Shimoni (Mishlei 962) explains the pasuk in Mishlei (28:22): “He who hastens to [acquire] wealth is a man with an evil eye, and he does not know that want will come upon him”: one who casts an evil eye upon his friend loses out. This is learned from Eforn, who cast the evil eye on Avraham Avinu’s possessions. As a result, he came to want — he lost a letter from his name [the letter vav] indicating a weakening of his spiritual energies.
The evil eye can also kill one’s relatives: Yalkut Shimoni (Ruth 420) tells us that Machlon and Kilyon, Elimelech’s sons, died due to Elimelech’s evil eye – his miserly conduct during the famine when he failed to support his poor neighbors.
Types of Eyes
Mahrash Elgazi (Kilorit La’ayin 35) and the Chida (Chomat Anach, Vayechi 6) write that there are two kinds of evil eyes. One is the evil eye that is cast by another person. The other is the evil eye one casts upon himself. While one can protect himself from the evil eye others cast upon him, he cannot shield himself from the evil eye he brings upon himself.
(In modern terms we might suggest that shutting off an external critic is quite easy – just walk away from him. But one who is constantly self-critical must focus his thoughts on other things)
Chazal mention several types of ayin hara, all which harm people:
- A stingy person who sees others in a negative light causes harm, first and foremost, to himself.
- Others who look upon him negatively cause him damage. The damage can be physical, bring about bad luck, or arouse heavenly prosecution against him.
- A successful person causes others to be jealous of his success, thus creating an ayin hara that hampers his success.
- An inanimate object (such as a field) can be harmed by the evil eye which is cast upon it when people admire its blessing of bounty.
- The Tablets of Covenant or the utensils in the Mishkan could have been harmed by the evil eye, despite their holy status.
The Number 400
Rabbenu Bachye (Bereshis 15:13) writes that the number 400 symbolizes the evil eye. The Egyptian exile lasted 400 years; Eisav – who stands for judgment and was a perpetuator of the evil eye — came out to meet Yaakov with 400 men; Ephron, who cast the evil eye upon Avraham’s possessions asked for 400 silver shekels for the field; the final letter in the alphabet, Tav, has the numerical value of 400, representing the end – a blockage that hinders plenty, blessing, and expansion.
A Friend’s Evil Eye
The Akeidas Yitzchak (Tazria 61) writes that while the main damage of the evil eye can be caused by people who are jealous of another’s success, even a loving friend can introduce the evil eye. Therefore, one is forbidden to go out and admire a field laden with produce, even if it is his friend’s field and he is genuinely glad for his good crop.
On the day the Mishkan was inaugurated there was none prouder than Elisheva, Aharon Hakohen’s wife. Her husband, the most beloved person in the nation, had just been appointed high priest. Her brother-in-law was Moshe; both her sons, Nadav and Avinu, were junior high priests. Her brother, Nachshon, was prince of the Tribe of Yehuda; and her grandson, Pinchas — a priest of war. This was enough reason for the evil eye to harm her family: on that day her two sons were burned to death, turning her joy to mourning.
The Gemara (Ta’anis 8b) informs us that only things that are hidden from the eye can be blessed — even from the eye of their owner. Therefore, before going in to measure one’s grain crop, he should pray: “May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d, that You send blessing in the work of our hands.” Prayer after counting, though, is worthless, because everything is already counted and weighed.
Similarly, Rashi explains (Shemos 30:12) the reason for the prohibition to count the Jewish nation – it invites the evil eye to be cast upon them. And indeed, during King David’s reign an epidemic killed 100 people every day as a result of the census he conducted.
The Maharal explains (Shemos 38, Gur Aryeh) that the Mishkan and Temples were destroyed because everything there was counted and accounted for. Since the evil eye can rest upon things that are counted, they could be destroyed.
Reasons for Death
The Chazon Ish (Choshen Mishpat 21) asks: if according to Rav’s opinion 99% of humanity die due to the evil eye, does that mean that people don’t die as a result of sin or heavenly decree? He answers that if Hashem decrees one will be saved or successful, even the worst evil eye won’t harm him. And one who is decreed to die, the direct cause me be the evil eye, but the reason it was able to harm is G-d’s decree.
Similarly, the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed in reaction to the accumulating sin of the Jewish nation, but the catalyst for it was the evil eye as stated before.
The Chazon Ish continues: in that case, why we should try to protect ourselves from the evil eye – if Hashem decrees how harmful it is, what difference do our efforts make? He answers with two reasons: one – when in danger, the Satan prosecutes. The evil eye places one in a precarious situation, allowing the Satan to prosecute. And the second – at times one doesn’t have the merit to be saved by miracles, and although he may not have been deserving of death or harm, he is vulnerable to the natural powers of the world. Then if he endangers himself, he may be harmed, but if he has protective measures in place – he won’t.
The Chofetz Chaim writes (Nefutzos Yisroel chapter 2) that nothing harms more than the evil eye — being judgmental of others and ourselves.
The way in which we look at others can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A positive outlook on another can actually raise that individual’s level and empower him or her be the good person we see in them. However, a negative outlook can result in devastating damage.
One must find good points not only in others, but in oneself as well, empowering him to live up to his potential. One who is glad with whatever Hashem sent him and rejoices in his lot will live pleasantly in this world and the next spreading positivity and blessing to himself and his surroundings. About him the Mishna (Avos 5:22) writes: “Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and moderate desire for physical pleasure are among the disciples of our forefather Avraham.” May we merit living up to it.