Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Evil Eye I: From Israelite Idiom to Jewish Ju-Ju

The evil eye (Heb. ʿāyin ha-ra; Ara. ʿeinaʾ bishʾ; lit. “eye of evil”) is the reification of envious desire and ill-will. Belief in the evil eye has ancient roots in the Near East and extends across many cultures. It has been the mostly widely accepted notion of witchcraft to be found in Jewish societies across time and geography. The effects of the evil eye include illness, misfortune, and even death. In all cases, believers regard those subjected to its attention to be vulnerable to harmful forces both natural and supernatural.


The Evil Eye the Hebrew Bible: Readers both ancient and modern have attempted to locate the evil eye in biblical literature. The construct phrase “eye of evil” appears in the books of Deuteronomy (15:9; 28: 54, 56) and Proverbs (23:6, 28:22). In each case it serves as an idiom for “stingy” or “parsimonious.”

More connotatively, “eyes” and “seeing” serve as a literary motif for feelings of jealousy. Rhetoric of looking appears in passages describing the rivalries between Sara and Hagar (Gen 17:4-5; 21:9) and between Saul and David (I Sam 18:9). In a more overtly magical context, the antagonistic King Balak and his wizard-for-hire Bilaam each in turn “see” and gaze upon the people Israel (Num 22-23). The leitmotif reaches its apotheosis in the sorcerer’s unintentional blessing, “No harm is in sight for Jacob/No woe in view for Israel” (Num 23:21).

None of these examples point to a belief in the witchcraft eye among Israelites. In all cases, the “eye evil” in TaNaKH is a synecdoche for greedy, jealousy, and angry people. The “eye” has no life of its own apart from the human viewer. Whether this absence from biblical literature is attributable to the absence of the belief in Israelite society or to editorial censorship is a matter of continuing - debate.

Next Entry - Ninty-Nine out of a Hundred Die by the Eye

To learn more, consult in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. Purchase it at:


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