Not Your Grandmother’s Ayin Haraah

What exactly is the ayin haraah (“evil eye”) mentioned so often by the Talmud, what causes it and how does it work? We will see that, once examined, the classical sources point quite clearly to a remarkably subtle and morally compelling answer.

But let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: ayin haraah is not a force in competition with God! That, if it were true, would represent a type of heresy (מינות) known as dualism – the mistaken belief that God Himself is not all-powerful and does not completely run the world (see Tosafos to Bava Metziya 107b – which we will discuss later – for an interesting application of this idea).

So just how does this force do its damage? I believe that an educated ben Torah’s gut reaction to that question is to assume that the damage somehow must come as a result of its victim’s moral weakness (would, after all, God permit harm to befall an innocent man? – See Eichah 3:38). After all, unless ayin haraah’s destructive power came from some human flaw, why would the Mishna equate it with the evil inclination and hatred:

Rabbi Yehoshua says: Ayin haraah, evil inclination and hatred of creations remove a man from the world. (Avos 2:11)

Surprisingly however, the sources seem to suggest that that’s not the whole story. Take Rabbi Yochanan as an example:

Rabbi Yochanan often went to sit near where women immersed. He said, “when Jewish daughters come out from immersing, they will look at me and their (ensuing) children will be fine like me.” The rabbis said to him, “Is the master not concerned about ayin haraah?” (Rabbi Yochana) replied, “I descend from Yosef who is not controlled by ayin haraah…”. Others (explain Rabbi Yochanan’s behavior): ayin haraah cannot control an eye that would not benefit from what does not belong to him. (Brachos 20a)

Even if his special circumstances did protect him, would Rabbi Yochanan have acted this way if it was intrinsically wrong? And would his colleagues have ignored the practice’s sinful aspect and mention only the personal risk they felt he faced? Yet, despite the fact that he did nothing wrong, had Rabbi Yochanan not enjoyed special protection (the nature of which we’ll discuss later), it seems that he would have been vulnerable to ayin haraah’s power.

And what about this:

Rav Yehuda said to R’ Avin bar Rabbi Nachman, “My brother, do not buy land that is close to the city, for Rabbi Avohu said in the name of Rav Huna in the name of Rav, a man may not stand next to his friend’s field while (the crops) stand in full ripeness.” Is that so? (But) Rabbi Abba once came upon students of Rav and said to them, “What did Rav say about these verses (Devarim 28:3,6): ‘Blessed you will be in the city, blessed you will be in the field…blessed you will be in your coming and blessed you will be in your going'”? They answered, “This is what Rav said: …’blessed you will be in the field’ that your property will be close to the city…. This (the apparent conflict between the two statements of Rav) is not a contradiction, one (i.e., where property close to the city is considered a blessing) is in a case where a wall (blocks the field from public view) and the other (i.e., Rav’s advice not to purchase fields close to town) is in a case where there is no wall. (Bava Metziya 107a)

Do not buy land – Do not buy a field near the city because people’s eyes are constantly on it. A man may not stand next to his friend’s field – so that he shouldn’t cause loss through the ayin haraah. (Rashi)

Did the farmer do anything wrong? Is it his fault that some fellow happened to walk by and notice his successful crop waiting to be harvested?

Many years ago, my rebbi, HaRav Naftali Friedler זכרונו לברכה taught that ayin haraah cannot affect a person or his wealth unless that wealth has caused someone to suffer. If, therefore, I needlessly parade my many, healthy children around in fancy matching clothes, I am ignoring the chance that a childless adult might, as a result, see, and feel his or her loneliness and sadness even more sharply. If I needlessly flaunt my wealth in the form of unnecessarily expensive furniture or cars, then someone bothered by his inability to achieve his material dreams might feel extra pain. In response to my shallow thoughtlessness, God may well remove the immediate source of the pain that I’ve caused.

What, then, could the farmer have done? He should have anticipated the way a poor, landless traveler might react to his success and bought property further out of town (or built a wall).

But what about Rabbi Yochanan? He was, in his uniquely exalted way, providing a wonderful service to the families of his generation. Why, had he not been protected, could he have theoretically suffered damage? And what about these poor merchants:

The rabbis taught: merchants (who sell their wares in the open), shepherds, people who cut down good (fruit) trees (for wood) and those who always fight for the best portion (of whatever is being divided) will never see a sign of blessing. Why? Because people are shocked by them (“דתהו ביה אינשי”). (Pesachim 50a)

Shepherds – everyone screams at them (presumably for allowing their flocks to graze on private property). People who cut down good trees – to sell for wood, everyone is shocked and will gossip about them and through this the eye controls them…” (Rashi)

Perhaps we can understand that shepherds, tree cutters and overly competitive people might bear some guilt, but what have those merchants done wrong? Where else could they engage in commerce if not in public?

In the same vein, ayin haraah would also seem to have unfairly destroyed these three great tzadikim:

And the rabbis (i.e., Chananya, Mishael and Azariya) where did they go (after the events of Nevuchadnezer’s furnace – Daniel, chapter 3)? Rav said, they died of ayin haraah…” (Sanhedrin 93a)

Where did they go – once they left the furnace as they are not mentioned again in Tanach. They died of ayin haraah – that people stared at them, bewildered. (Rashi)

And even in the following we don’t see any obvious justification for potentially serious consequences:

One who says “If my wife gives birth to a boy, he will have 100 (coins)…if she gives birth to a girl, she will get 200 – which suggests that a girl is preferable to a boy. But does Rabbi Yochanan not say in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai that God is filled with anger over anyone who does not leave behind a son to inherit him…Shmuel explains that our mishna is referring to a first-born girl whose birth according to Rav Chisda, is a good sign for (future) boys…since ayin haraah has no effect. (Bava Basra 141a)

In other words, were a man to marry and then, over and above his other blessings, immediately enjoy the birth of healthy boy after healthy boy, neighbors might be jealous. If, on the other hand, their first is a girl, everyone will nod and smilingly say: “They’re just regular folk facing the normal ups and downs of life.”

But we’re surely not suggesting that parents are held responsible for the gender of their children. What blame can a family face if their first born is a boy? They’ve done nothing unnecessarily provocative! Something important appears to be missing from this, and the two previous cases. What has each of these people done to deserve to suffer?

Let’s take a closer look.

Why (will such people – including merchants – never see a sign of blessing)? Because people are shocked by them (“דתהו ביה אינשי”). (Pesachim 50a)

Why should public shock affect the wellbeing of perfect strangers? And why should the simple act of, say, a merchant going about his daily business or a family having children be shocking?

Members of the “Facebook generation” (or its social surrogates in the Orthodox community) are conditioned to vigorously expose themselves to the world. Being “different” (or, for some, trying to “fit in with the crowd”), breaking new ground, setting (or imitating) new trends are all goals that involve broadcasting one’s status to the world. We dress, act, talk and make lifestyle and career choices with at least one eye fixed on those around us. Nearly everything in our lives revolves around creating an particular public image. It’s nearly impossible for us to even imagine making decisions on matters based purely on their own virtues.

Even contemplating an ideal Torah lifestyle could generate considerable discomfort, as it requires energetically pursuing moral privacy – something our generation instinctively flees. Not only would such a lifestyle require that we seek to conceal our extraordinary activities and accomplishments, but even the simple things in life:

Micha (the prophet) came and stood (the entire Torah on three principles), as it says (Micha 6:8) “It was related to you, man, what is good and what God wants of you: only to do justice and loving kindness and to walk in private (“והצנע לכת”) with the Lord your God…” (Makkos 24a)

Why privacy is such a critical Torah value is beyond the scope of this essay. For now we’ll take it as given. But we can explore its connection to ayin haraah.

We should consider the repeated mention of “shock”. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing something unexpected and, through it, evoking a strong response. The prophets used startling imagery as a tool to drive home powerful lessons (see, for instance, I Shmuel 12:17-19). But if our overall goal is to remain in the background – because remaining in the background as much as humanly possible is integral to achieving our Divinely mandated purpose on this world – then attracting attention unnecessarily can only lead to trouble.

What kind of trouble?

And he (King Shaul) came to the Giva’ah and there was a group of prophets coming to greet him and the spirit of God was invigorating upon him and he prophesied among them. And it was, that all who had known him before, and (now) saw him prophesying among the prophets would say, each to his friend: “what is this, is it the son of Kish? Is even Shaul among the prophets?” (I Shmuel 10:10-11)

According to the Daas Sofrim’s commentary to the book of Shmuel, Shaul, while certainly a very great man, had not yet grown to deserve prophecy on his own merit. As a king, however, and especially as Israel’s first king, it was crucial that he should have the insight and spirit that only prophecy provided.1 God, therefore, gave him prophecy “unearned”. Nevertheless, the overwhelming experience contributed to the new king’s gradual emotional unraveling and led, tragically, to his downfall and early death.

But it is the surprised reaction of his former friends and acquaintances that interests us right now. Shaul was famously an extraordinarily humble and self-effacing man and he seems to have successfully deflected the attention of his peers away from his personal qualities for most of his life. But from the moment he was suddenly thrust into the limelight, elevated to both king and prophet, Shaul came under the intense scrutiny of a thousand eyes. One might say that this appraisal sparked a parallel reassessment Above, not unlike this:

A man should never put himself into a dangerous situation saying “a miracle will protect me” – perhaps there will be no miracle, and even if a miracle does materialize, it will diminish his merits. (Shabbos 32a)

How does this work? Under the normal day to day conditions of our lives, God might be said to adopt a somewhat distant attitude to our “accounts”. So even if our behavior has slipped and, technically speaking, requires a downgrade of our status, He might allow things to float along – at least until Rosh Hashana or our final judgment after death.

However, if something irregular occurs that attracts His closer attention – like the need for a miracle to rescue us from some foolishness – then God might well take the opportunity to reopen the books to take a more detailed look. Perhaps emerging – even innocently – from the ideal state of privacy could evoke a similar Divine reassessment, leading on occasion to the menace we call ayin haraah.

One more point: we have seen that descendants of Yosef are not affected by ayin haraah. Why ever not? Perhaps because Yosef excelled in his moral struggles to such a degree that deep sensitivity became a quality virtually universal among his descendants. Thus, the impact of ayin haraah as an educational tool meant to remind us to deal with this particular range of moral failings, was rendered unnecessary.

But that raises a different problem: precisely what actual benefit does such immunity offer?

“And God will remove from you all illness.” (Devarim 7:15) Rav said this (i.e., “all illness”) refers to ayin haraah and (this statement of) Rav is consistent, as he once went to a graveyard and did what he did (somehow invoking Divine inspiration) and said: Ninety-nine (die) of ayin haraah and one from natural causes… (Bava Kama 107b)

Ninety-nine die of ayin haraah – If so, then the descendants of Joseph, on whom ayin haraah has no effect, should live much longer than Jews from other tribes! We can answer that they (descendants of Joseph) died of natural causes at a higher rate and when God wants to kill them He sends them other illnesses. (Tosafos)

So if one’s relationship to Yosef doesn’t even help, then what’s the point?

I think that there is more than one class of ayin haraah: one is the result of intentionally or even carelessly causing pain to less fortunate neighbors which, according to Rabbi Friedler’s formulation, can elicit a “measure for measure” reaction. I believe that this is true regardless of one’s tribe. The other is the result of incidental and unintentional exposure and will cause harm only if none of these three limitations applies to the object of ayin haraah:

  • he descends from Yosef
  • he doesn’t descend from Yosef, but like Yosef, he has himself mastered the self-control and focus necessary to face the perils of the world around him without any thought for personal gain (as was the case with Rabbi Yochanan according to the “Others” in Brachos 20a)
  • he has a personal moral record clean enough to withstand the added scrutiny – and the reappraisal of accounts – that we mentioned before

In summary, vulnerability to ayin haraah in fact requires some moral weakness. Either a lack of sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others or a lapse in the idealized private, inward lifestyle expected of a Jew accompanied by the inability to withstand the consequent Divine scrutiny. In other words, one way or the other, we brought it upon ourselves.

In any case, it would seem clear that wearing colored strings or reciting formulations like “בלי עין הרע” would, on their own, seem to promise precious little protection.

1See the title chapter of my book, “The Royal Prophet”

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