Q. Does Judaism believe in the evil eye?
A. The belief in the ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, dates back to ancient days (it may have originated amongst the Egyptians and Babylonians), and it symbolised the evil power of envy and hatred on the part of both human beings and the spirits. It is not found in the Tenach but became common in the post-Biblical period.
If you praised a child or admired a neighbour’s crops it might invite envy and you would be blamed if anything went wrong with child or crops. The belief that a look can kill was widespread: a Talmudic phrase is, “He cast his eye on him and he died” (Shabbat 34a). Rav visited a cemetery, learned what had caused the death of the people buried there, and said, “99 die through an evil eye for each one who dies from natural causes” (Bava Metzia 107b). However, “evil eye” in this context may mean overwhelming greed; people who always want more eat themselves up with aggravation.
B’rachot 20a records that the handsome Rabbi Yochanan sat outside the entrance of the mikvah so that women who looked at him would be blessed with handsome children. When asked if he was not afraid of the evil eye, he said he was a descendant from Joseph over whom the evil eye had no power. P’sachim 50b informs us that market traders whose wares everyone looks at will see no sign of blessing because of the evil eye.
The sages relate that Alexander the Great visited the Garden of Eden and was given an eyeball. He weighed it against all his gold and silver but the eye was heavier. The rabbis told him, “Put some dust on it,” and the scales tipped in favour of the eye. This shows that the human eye is never satisfied; the more it sees the more it wants, until finally the dust covers it in the grave (Tamid 32b).
But whether all this is to be taken in a superstitious sense is doubtful. The Mishnah, which has little sympathy with superstition, prefers to understand the good and the evil eye metaphorically. The good eye denotes liberality; the evil eye signifies meanness and ill will (Avot 2:13-14).
In many places, however, the people preferred to take the evil eye more literally and to concoct all kinds of antidotes and remedies. To avert the evil eye all sorts of remedies were developed. As counting people or being successful in business might create envy or hatred, you would count the people in an indirect way or play down the extent of your success. You would preface good news by saying, “No evil eye!”, and bad news by saying, “God forbid!” or “May the Merciful One protect us!” After a bad dream you would give charity.
Today some still take this seriously: others dismiss the ayin ha-ra as sheer superstition. The best approach is surely to say that it is not the way people look at you that brings you problems but the way you look at yourself. If you see yourself as neither innately superior or inferior but the way God has made you, you will be able very largely to determine your own destiny.