Evil Eye II: The Talmud and Midrash on the Ayin ha-Ra
By Late Antiquity the belief in a supernatural malevolent gaze had thoroughly permeated Jewish communities. The ʿayin ha-ra as spiritual phenomenon is repeatedly discussed across the tractates of the Talmud, both with and without a biblical context. Some passages assume it is inflicted unintentionally (B.T. Bava Metzia 84b). Others indicate it is deliberate witchcraft. At times, the ʿayin ha-ra is characterized as an independent demonic force, seeking its own victims. Most intriguing, several passages regard it to be a power the righteous can wield to just ends (b Shabbat 33b-34a; Bava Metzia 58a; Bava Batra 75a).
The Rabbis seemingly believe there is no end to its malicious power. One Sage goes so far as to say, “Ninety-nine perish by the evil eye; only one by natural causes” (b Baba Metzia 107b).
Seen as pervasive in their own time, the Sages assumed the ʿayin ha-ra would have a role in the lives of the biblical worthies and their antagonists.
The midrashim introduce the ʿayin ha-ra into many stories in the TaNaKH. The eye is used as a weapon in the rivalry between Sara and Hagar (Gen. Rabbah 53). Fear of attracting its attention inspires Jacob to instruct his children to each enter a city by a different gate (Gen. Rabbah 91.6).
A debate appears in the Talmud (b Sota 36b) over Joshua’s instruction to the Joseph tribes to settle in a forest (Josh 17:15). One Sage theorizes this was done to conceal their prosperity from the eye, but he is refuted by others who, citing Gen. 49:22, insist Joseph and his descendants are immune from its baneful gaze. The prooftext proffered in this pericope is derived from a word-play on Jacob’s dying blessing to his son. It plays a key role in shaping the Jewish ʿayin ha-ra tradition, and so merits detailed attention.
Characteristic of midrashic discourse, this “Josephite immunity” is derived from a philological “occasion,” a linguistic ambiguity in 49:22. First, the word ʿayin means both “spring” and “eye.” The second ambiguity is the question regarding ʿayin-lamed-yud, the word before ʿayin: what part of speech is it? Centuries after the Rabbis the Masorites would vocalize this key word as a preposition, ʿălê: “…Yôsep bēn pōrāt ʿălê ʿāyin,” “Joseph; a fruitful bough upon a spring.” But by reading it vocalized as ʿōlê, the Sages reveal a different message “…Joseph; a fruitful bough [that] transcends [the] eye.” This only slightly more fanciful reading is reiterated frequently in rabbinic sources (b Ber 20a, 55b; Baba Metzia 84a) and over the centuries beyond, earning it a central place in Jewish efforts to neutralize the eye’s power.
Another biblical text singled out as a resource against the ʿayin ha-ra is the “Priestly blessing” (Num 6:24-27) (Numbers Rabbah 12.4; Pesikta Rabbati 5).
Yet even this late in Antiquity, the term “evil eye” does not always carry a supernatural connotation, as evidenced by a passage from Tractate Pirkei Avot, “Rabbi Yehoshua said: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world” (2:16). From the context it is clear that “evil eye” has a strictly psychological connotation here.
Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050