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.


Post a Comment

<< Home