Combatting the Evil Eye: Bible, Spit, and the "Fig"
The complex reasoning behind the choice of an apotropaic verse can be illustrated by examining yet another popular passage from Jacob’s blessing, Gen. 48:16 (MT): “May the angel who has redeemed me from all harm – bless the lads….And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth (NJV).” This verse is regarded as potent against the ʿayin ha-ra because of its perceived two-fold power. Exoterically, it calls for angelic protection upon the Children of Israel. But it simultaneously bears an added, esoteric association. The phrase, va-yidgu larov, “….may they be teeming multitudes….”, literally means, “.…may they multiple as fishes….” The Talmud seizes upon this, “Just as fish in the sea are covered by water so that the evil eye does not rule over them, so too the seed of Joseph is not subject the rule of the evil eye.” (b Sotah 36b). This interpretation makes the verse doubly efficacious. This may also be the rationale for selecting verses framed by the letter nûn: nûn is the Aramaic word for “fish.” The power of pun protects with phish. Pseudo-alliteration, not so much.
Amulets produced by Central Asian (Mizrachi) Jews often begin with Ps 16:8. Angels, both those named in the TaNaKH and others appearing in post-biblical traditions, are commonplace. Some verses are employed because they mention a powerful and virtuous biblical figure regarded to have power over the eye, such as Serach bat Asher (Num 26:46). Again, verses relating to Joseph are among the most often used for their presumed apotropaic power. At times charm writers thought it enough to only allude to the patriarch. Some amulets quote b Ber 55b, “I am the seed of Joseph the Righteous, who is not subject to the evil eye.” It is worth noting this is a claim all but impossible to determine by the medieval period; evidently the Evil Eye is not so perceptive in matters of lineage. Others simply read, “Joseph.”
Of course, in recent centuries, one of the most common devices is the hamsa, or protective hand symbol. Common throughout the Middle East, the open hand, often with other symbols (fish, an eye, Hebrew letters), is used to thwart the ʿayin ha-ra.