Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Combatting the Evil Eye: Bible, Spit, and the "Fig"

[First Palin, then Obama. Is this the evil eye of Rep. Bachmann? Not so much, I think. She always seems happy when she looks like this. Maybe the "giddy eye"]

Use of Scriptures in Combating the Evil Eye:Jews have used folk remedies (segulot), rituals (maʿasim),* and amulets (kemiyiot) to defend against the malevolent effects of the ʿayin ha-ra. Biblical divine names, angelic names, and select biblical texts have been prominent tools in waging this fight. The verses are often chosen because of their semantic content (Ex. 15:6; Num. 6:24-27, 21:17; Ps 46:8, 12; 91:5-6), while others have been singled out based on magical criteria unrelated at all to the meaning (Num 21:17-20). One custom requires the use of verses that begin and end with the Hebrew letter nûn, such as Pss. 46:5, 77:5, and 78:2.

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.”

When Words Fail:

Of the many gestures and ritualized behaviors Jews have employed over the centuries to fend off the ʿayin ha-ra, one of the most persistent is the custom of spitting three times. As times have gotten more genteel (or gentile, perhaps both), that has evolved into a series of sharp exhalations, as immortalized in the literary exclamation found in a thousand Jewish stories - phah-phah-phah. Jews expectorating as a means of exorcism is ancient, and might provide some insight on interpreting the Christian Scriptures, specifically Jesus’ use of spit in his performances of spiritual healing (Mark 8; John 9).

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.

[Sh*t my sons say: "Why a hand? Why not a pointed stick? An eye and a pointed stick are natural enemies."]

* The most famous Talmudic gesture against the evil eye is the "fig." Here's how. Place your hands palm-to-palm, fingers pointing in opposite directions. Now slide your hands vertically so that the thumb of each hand rests in the center of the palm of the other. Now fold both hands around the thumbs. Ta-da, the fig. Add a good shake and the eye is powerless.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Evil Eye IV: Jewish Law and the Paranormal

[President Obama gives Fox the Evil Eye. Result? The Megyn Kelly show]

By the close of the medieval period, concerns about the evil eye even come to have a minor role in shaping Jewish law. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) discourages using what we would describe as supernatural or paranormal phenomena as a rationale for determining the halacha (normative pratice, literally, “the way to go”). Yet in later legal digests, concern over the over the effects of the ʿayin ha-ra become an occasional factor in determining what is permitted and prohibited. This is especially true in the influential law digest Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro (16th Century), who was writing during the peak of the Western obsession with witchcraft, spiritual possession, and diabolical attack.

In section Yoreh Deah 249:1, for example, the minimum amount of charitable donations is specified in order avoid creating an evil eye. In another section, Choshen Mishpat 378:5, a Jew is prohibited from admiring a neighbor’s farm crop for the same reason. Other examples of behavior prohibited out of concern for the ʿayn ha-ra appear in sections Orach Chayyim 141:6; 154:3; 305:11, Even ha-Ezer 63:3, and Yoreh Deah 265:5. It is notable that these rules focus entirely on preventing the unintentional generation of this witchcraft. At no point, however, is the phenomenon in any way criminalized. Medieval authorities never propose a legal proceeding related to an evil eye. Neither is any punishment laid out for an identified perpetrator.

Subsequent works of halakhah tend to repeat these rationales, having been enshrined as they were in such an influential work. But anxiety about the Evil Eye declined as modernity took hold in Jewish life.

Next entry: Combatting the Evil Eye.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Evil Eye III: Getting Medieval on Your Tuchis

Inspired by Talmudic and popular concern with the ʿayin ha-ra, both medieval midrashim and the systematic exegetes identify the presence of the evil eye at work in numerous biblical passages.

["The Evil Eye rules over counting." Former governor Sarah Palin gives one at the Iowa Straw Poll - is this one aimed at Rick Perry?]

Of all the commentators, the French exegete RaSHI gives the most attention to the ʿāyin hārā, but he is largely content to repeat and amplify rabbinic exegesis on the eye in the Abraham and Joseph cycles (Gen 16:5; 42:5), in the Balaam saga (Num 24:2), and in the conflict between David and Saul (I Sam 18:9). Yet occasionally he finds the eye present in previously overlooked narratives of the TaNaKH. The chief example is his comment that the plague that followed David’s census was a manifestation of the eye, for “…the evil eye rules over counting.” (Comment to Ex 30:11, c.f. I Sam 24:1). This idea took deep roots in Jewish consciousness, creating an aversion to counting people that persists into contemporary times.

The theme of counting related to the eye is further explored the Zohar (II:105a), though, all in all, the ʿayin ha-ra it is not a significant topic in the major works of theosophical Kabbalah. References more commonly appear in Hebrew magical literature of the period, such as Sefer haRaziel and Havdalah deRabbi Akiba.

Next Entry: The Evil Eye and Jewish law

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

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

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

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

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