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Evil Eye

EVIL EYE (Heb. עַיִן הָרָע, ayin ha-ra; lit., "the eye of the evil"; Aram. עֵינָא בִּישָׁא, eina bisha), a widespread belief that some persons may produce malevolent effects on others by looking at them, based on the supposed power of some eyes to bewitch or harm by glance. In early Jewish literature the acceptance of the existence of the evil eye as fact precluded any theoretical explanation of this phenomenon and discussion of its origin. In post-talmudic literature, however, one of the following two explanations is generally found: (1) the evil eye contains the element of fire, and so spreads destruction (Judah Loew b. Bezalel ("Maharal") in Netivot Olam, 107d); (2) the angry glance of a man's eye calls into being an evil angel who takes vengeance on the cause of wrath (Manasseh Ben Israel in Nishmat Ḥayyim, 3:27; cf. Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. by J. Wistinetzki (19242), 242 no. 981).

As both explanations imply magic, folk beliefs governing magic and countermagic are evidenced in beliefs connected with casting and averting the evil eye.

Casting the Evil Eye

Whereas a "good-eyed" person is generous and good-hearted, the "evil eye," in biblical (cf. I Sam. 18:9; Prov. 28:22) and tannaitic (cf. Avot 2:9, 11; 5:13, 19) sources, denotes stinginess, selfishness, and jealousy; in the aggadah of Palestinian amoraim the evil eye is a prevalent motif. Furthermore, jealousy was linked with magic and with fatal consequences. Hence, talmudic and midrashic elaborations of biblical narratives represent Sarah as casting the evil eye on Hagar (Gen. R. 4.45:5), Joseph's brothers on Joseph (ibid. 84:10), Og the giant on Jacob (Ber. 54b). Likewise, the evil eye caused the breaking of the first tablets of the Law (Num. R. 12:4) and the death of Daniel's three companions (Sanh. 93a).

This magical power of the eye was not confined to biblical evildoers; folk heroes, regarded as sacred wonder-workers, were believed to have exercised it as well, but for benevolent purposes. So R. *Simeon b. Yoḥai transforms an evil person into "a heap of bones" by means of his magic endowment (Shab. 34a; (PdRK ed. by S. Buber (1868), 90a–b), and, with a look, R. Johanan, the amora, kills a man who calumniated Jerusalem (BB 75a). The magical aspect of the deed is stressed in killing by transformation (Ber. 58a).

Averting the Evil Eye

Folk beliefs and folk customs are especially evident in the attitude toward the aversion of the evil eye. All measures taken against it are either (1) preventive or (2) counteractive.

(1) The belief that the evil eye is activated by arousing the jealousy and malice of the "jettatori" (i.e., the endowed people) calls for preventive measures of self-restraint, e.g., the avoidance of any expression of praise, approbation, and of beauty, domestic or socioeconomic success, or happiness. For this reason Abraham sent his son Isaac home at night after the *Akedah (Gen. R. 56:11); Jacob advised his handsome and strong sons not to enter the same gate all together "on account of the eye" (ibid. 91:6); similarly, Joshua advised Ephraim and Manasseh to hide in a forest (Josh. 17:15; BB 118a–b). Prominent men, beautiful women, and newborn babies – all of whom are likely to attract special attention – are especially susceptible to the evil eye. If, however, the beauty is veiled, riches not exhibited, and a child covered with a dirty bag or given an ugly name, the happy event may pass unnoticed, and the evil eye thus remains passive. Therefore, a costly garment should not be spread over the bed when guests are visiting the house as "it will be burned by the eye of the guests" (BM 30a), and precious glass should be broken at a wedding. The idea that "blessing comes only upon those things which are hidden from the eye" (Ta'an. 8b) is undoubtedly connected with such preventive measures.

(2) Once the evil eye has been activated, and the threat of danger and harm is close to realization, there is no need for preventive measures: only confrontation and war measures based on countermagic which deceive or defeat the evil eye can then save the endangered person. The use of a mirror (ornament) or a specific color (red, blue) may blight its source by reflecting the glance; an obscene gesture or a holy verse (*amulet) may avert the evil eye by frightening it; and an outstretched hand may stop its rays. According to the Talmud (Ber. 55b), whoever is afraid of the evil eye should stick his right thumb in his left hand and his left thumb in his right hand, proclaiming: "I, so and so, son of so and so, am of the seed of Joseph, whom the evil eye may not affect." The gesture (a "fig") – universally used to avert the evil eye by putting it to shame (this original meaning was probably unknown to sages who prescribed it) – took on a Jewish character by the pronouncement of the aggadic sentence that the descendants of Joseph are immune from the evil eye (Ber. 20a).

Other means of fighting and subduing the activated evil eye stem from attempts to absorb the devastating glance, and so to neutralize it. To divert the glance from the intended target, "interesting" objects may be hung between the eyes of the endangered person, e.g., precious stones, or as strange and unexpected an object as a tail of a fox between the eyes of a horse in need of protection (Tosef., Shab. 4:5).

The belief in the evil eye and the various means, both sacred and profane, of averting it, were very prevalent among East European Jews; to this day they exist in many Oriental Jewish communities. In modern times the use of blue paint and a metal amulet in the form of an open palm of the hand are still widespread in Oriental communities, and among Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, it is customary to "qualify" any praise with the phrase keyn ayen hore ("may there be no evil eye" often shortened to kaynahora). The custom of tying a red band around the wrist or neck of a newborn child also derives from a fear of the evil eye. In Yiddish, even the name "evil eye" is euphemistically called git-oyg ("good eye"). R. Lilienthal (see bibl.) lists over 80 anti-evil eye practices recorded among East European Jews. The striking resemblance to those listed in monographs on Oriental Jewish communities (cf. Ḥ. Mizraḥi, Yehudei Paras (1959), 115–7) can be explained by the universality of the motif of the evil eye, on the one hand, and its particular Jewish expression, on the other.


L. Blau, Das altjuedische Zauberwesen (in: Jahresbericht der Landes-Rabbinerschule in Budapest fuer das Schuljahr 1897–98), 152–6; F.T. Elworthy, The Evil Eye (1895); Ginzberg, Legends, index; M. Grunwald, in: MGJV, 5 (1900), 40f., 47f.; A. Loewinger, in: Menorah (Vienna), 4 (1926), 551–69; R. Lilienthal, in: Yidishe Filologye, 1 (1924); S. Seligmann, Der boese Blick und Verwandtes (1910); idem, Die Zauberkraft des Auges (1922); S. Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 2 (1956), 121 (D 993), 364 ff. (D 2071); J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939), 54–56, 283.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.