Our modern technological society is very suspicious of anything superstitious. Yet it seems after thousands of years the tradition of the evil eye, or “ayin harah” in Hebrew, has still not disappeared. Interestingly, while in the midst of a recent interview with Graham Fuller, Meryl Streep used the phrase “Knayna Hara,” Yiddish for “without the evil eye.” Why has the concept of an evil eye lasted so long? You can hear this phrase out of the mouth of many a Jewish grandmother. Many think of it as an example of ancient superstitions, but actually it is connected to one of the Ten Commandments, and very much a part of basic Judaism.
You can find old customs with both Ashkenazic and Sefardic Jews regarding the evil eye. Sefardim have a “Chamsa,” a hand shaped icon often found painted or carved
onto religious items. This shape is said to help ward off the evil eye. A fish is also a symbol of protection from the evil eye. Since fish live under water, they are not subject to glances of ill intent. Joseph, in the Bible, is also immune to the ayin harah, as he was blessed by Jacob in Genesis 49:22 to be “above the eye,” and his children, Ephraim and Menasseh, were blessed in 48:16 to be like fish.
The evil eye is also not an exclusively Jewish idea either. Reportedly, in Turkey, many parents keep new babies out of public view for forty days, lest their beauty invite a jealous glance. Italians call it “molocchio.” In many Italian towns you find can find a
local “expert,” usually a woman, who will remove an evil eye with an olive oil ritual. Other ancient cultures have similar superstitions.
However, our tradition of ayin harah does not seem to have been adopted by another culture. It is part of the Bible, the Talmud, and many commentaries. This poses an ideological problem since superstition is generally considered a violation of Torah values. In fact, there is a specific commandment that prohibits us from being superstitious in Leviticus 19:26. If there is a rational reason for a belief, however, then that should take it out of the realm of superstition. There are a few ways to look at ayin harah that are a logical view of how God runs the world.
First of all, if you flaunt a blessing in front of someone who lacks that blessing, you are causing him or her pain. Using a blessing God gave you to cause someone else pain
may result in you losing that blessing. Jewish karma. If that’s the explanation of ayin harah, then what does saying the phrase “knayna harah” do? It’s not a magical incantation. It’s a way of us reminding ourselves not to flaunt our blessings. Just be thankful to God. Modesty is a good insurance policy. One commentary says that when
Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to procure some provisions in a time of famine in Genesis Chapter 42, he instructed them to walk through different gates. If all the brothers, who were exceptionally handsome and strong, were to walk through one gate together, that would invite an ayin harah. In other words, that would be flaunting a blessing.
A more important consideration than losing a blessing is causing your fellow man to transgress one of the Ten Commandments. It says in Exodus 20:14, “You shall not
covet your neighbor’s house, etc.” Jealousy is a violation of one of the main principles of the Torah. To feel jealous of someone else’s blessing is like saying God doesn’t know what He’s doing. He made a mistake and gave my neighbor a new Lexus instead of me. God doesn’t make mistakes. If through your insensitivity or carelessness you cause someone else to be jealous of your blessings, you have transgressed by “putting a stumbling block before the blind.” Therefore we say “knayna harah” to remind us to be careful not to cause someone else to transgress. One last mystical thought. Its quite possible that just like someone can damage your car window with a brick, they can damage your belongings with a curse or even a look of jealousy. In Jewish law it’s forbidden to curse someone. Why is it wrong if it has no effect? It must be that words have the power to harm someone. We also say that if you bless someone or pray for someone to get well, that also has can have an effect on him or her. Why do we wish people “mazal tov” if it has no effect? It does have an effect. Getting back to ayin harah, when you look jealously at someone’s belongings, it’s as if you’re saying to God that they don’t deserve that blessing. This causes a judgment upon that person in the heavenly court. In the spiritual court case that’s brought now, they may not merit the blessing they received earlier when they did deserve it. This will cause them damage. Of course, you don’t get off scot-free either. Because you caused judgment on someone else, you will have judgment thrown back at you. Jewish karma. It’s not in your own self-interest to be jealous.
So there is logic to ayin harah, and therefore it is not merely a superstition. And a better antidote than wearing an amulet is constantly reminding yourself that God is the source of all blessings. He alone judges who gets what, and why.