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.


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