Understanding the Ayin Hara

Is it Responsible for All Tragedy in the World?

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If you're familiar with the hamsa or have heard someone say "bli ayin hara," you're probably asking yourself what the ayin ​hara is, means, and why it plays such a prominent role in Judaism. 

Meaning

Ayin hara (עין הרע) literally means "evil eye." It is believed to be the cause of sickness, pain, and tragedy in the world. The most frequent cause of harm from the ayin hara is believed to be jealousy, and the origin for this is found in the commandment, "Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor."

Many Jews will say "bli ayin hara" (Hebrew, "without an evil eye") or "ken eina hara" or "keynahora(Yiddish, "no evil eye") when referencing something positive that has happened. For example, if an individual has been blessed with a grandchild, they might share the news with a friend paired with "bli ayin hara." 

Origins

Although there is no mention of the ayin hara in the Torah, there are various instances of the "evil eye" at play according to commentary by Rashi. In Genesis 16:5, Sarah gives Hagar an ayin hara, which causes her to miscarry. Later, in Genesis 42:5, Jacob warns his sons not to be seen together as it may stir up ayin hara

The evil eye is also discussed in the Talmud and kabbalah. In Pirkei Avot, five disciples of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai to provide advice on how to live the good life and avoid the bad. They responded,

Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see what is born [out of ones actions]. Said Rabbi Elazar: A good heart. Said He to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.

[Rabbi Yochanan] said to them: Go and see which is the worst trait, the one that a person should most distance himself from. Said Rabbi Eliezer: An evil eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: An evil friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: An evil neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To borrow and not to repay; for one who borrows from man is as one who borrows from the Almighty, as is stated "The wicked man borrows and does not repay; but the righteous one is benevolent and gives" (Psalms 37:21). Said Rabbi Elazar: An evil heart. Said He to them: I prefer the word of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.

Additionally, Rabbi Joshua said,

An evil eye (עין הרע), the evil inclination, and the hatred of one's fellows, drive a person from the world (2:11)

Uses

There are many ways that individuals try to "avoid" the ayin hara, although many of these arose out of variations on non-Jewish customs. These date back to Talmudic times, when Jews began wearing charms around their necks to stave off the ayin hara.

 

Some of the ways that Jews avoid the evil eye include

  • wearing a red thread around the wrist
  • wearing or hanging a hamsa in the home
  • wearing a chai (חי) around the neck, representing life

Other, more controversial and superstitious-driven actions to get rid of the evil eye once it has been provoked include

  • Throwing salt into the corners of a room
  • Piercing a lemon with iron nails
  • Putting a spot of dirt/ash on the forehead of a child
  • Placing a precious stone between the eyes
  • Spitting three times onto the fingers

Other Cultures

Belief in and fear of the evil eye is prominent in almost every culture spanning the Middle East and Asia, Europe and Central America.

The worldly presence of the evil eye has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome where it was believed to be the greatest threat to anyone who had been excessively praised or admired. The evil eye would bring physical and mental illness, and any unexplained illness was attributed to the evil eye