EVIL EYE (Heb. עַיִן הָרָע, ayin ha-ra; lit., "the eye of the evil"; Aram. עֵינָא בִּישָׁא, eina bisha), a widespread belief that some persons may produce malevolent effects on others by looking at them, based on the supposed power of some eyes to bewitch or harm by glance. In early Jewish literature the acceptance of the existence of the evil eye as fact precluded any theoretical explanation of this phenomenon and discussion of its origin. In post-talmudic literature, however, one of the following two explanations is generally found: (1) the evil eye contains the element of fire, and so spreads destruction (Judah Loew b. Bezalel ("Maharal") in Netivot Olam, 107d); (2) the angry glance of a man's eye calls into being an evil angel who takes vengeance on the cause of wrath (Manasseh Ben Israel in Nishmat Ḥayyim, 3:27; cf. Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. by J. Wistinetzki (19242), 242 no. 981).
As both explanations imply magic, folk beliefs governing magic and countermagic are evidenced in beliefs connected with casting and averting the evil eye.
Casting the Evil Eye
Whereas a "good-eyed" person is generous and good-hearted, the "evil eye," in biblical (cf. i Sam. 18:9; Prov. 28:22) and tannaitic (cf. Avot 2:9, 11; 5:13, 19) sources, denotes stinginess, selfishness, and jealousy; in the aggadah of Palestinian amoraim the evil eye is a prevalent motif. Furthermore, jealousy was linked with magic and with fatal consequences. Hence, talmudic and midrashic elaborations of biblical narratives represent Sarah as casting the evil eye on Hagar (Gen. R. 4.45:5), Joseph's brothers on Joseph (ibid. 84:10), Og the giant on Jacob (Ber. 54b). Likewise, the evil eye caused the breaking of the first tablets of the Law (Num. R. 12:4) and the death of Daniel's three companions (Sanh. 93a).
This magical power of the eye was not confined to biblical evildoers; folk heroes, regarded as sacred wonder-workers, were believed to have exercised it as well, but for benevolent purposes. So R. *Simeon b. Yoḥai transforms an evil person into "a heap of bones" by means of his magic endowment (Shab. 34a; (pdrk ed. by S. Buber (1868), 90a–b), and, with a look, R. Johanan, the amora, kills a man who calumniated Jerusalem (bb 75a). The magical aspect of the deed is stressed in killing by transformation (Ber. 58a).
Averting the Evil Eye
Folk beliefs and folk customs are especially evident in the attitude toward the aversion of the evil eye. All measures taken against it are either (1) preventive or (2) counteractive.
(1) The belief that the evil eye is activated by arousing the jealousy and malice of the "jettatori" (i.e., the endowed people) calls for preventive measures of self-restraint, e.g., the avoidance of any expression of praise, approbation, and of beauty, domestic or socioeconomic success, or happiness. For this reason Abraham sent his son Isaac home at night after the *Akedah (Gen. R. 56:11); Jacob advised his handsome and strong sons not to enter the same gate all together "on account of the eye" (ibid. 91:6); similarly, Joshua advised Ephraim and Manasseh to hide in a forest (Josh. 17:15; bb 118a–b). Prominent men, beautiful women, and newborn babies – all of whom are likely to attract special attention – are especially susceptible to the evil eye. If, however, the beauty is veiled, riches not exhibited, and a child covered with a dirty bag or given an ugly name, the happy event may pass unnoticed, and the evil eye thus remains passive. Therefore, a costly garment should not be spread over the bed when guests are visiting the house as "it will be burned by the eye of the guests" (bm 30a), and precious glass should be broken at a wedding. The idea that "blessing comes only upon those things which are hidden from the eye" (Ta'an. 8b) is undoubtedly connected with such preventive measures.
(2) Once the evil eye has been activated, and the threat of danger and harm is close to realization, there is no need for preventive measures: only confrontation and war measures based on countermagic which deceive or defeat the evil eye can then save the endangered person. The use of a mirror (ornament) or a specific color (red, blue) may blight its source by reflecting the glance; an obscene gesture or a holy verse (*amulet) may avert the evil eye by frightening it; and an outstretched hand may stop its rays. According to the Talmud (Ber. 55b), whoever is afraid of the evil eye should stick his right thumb in his left hand and his left thumb in his right hand, proclaiming: "I, so and so, son of so and so, am of the seed of Joseph, whom the evil eye may not affect." The gesture (a "fig") – universally used to avert the evil eye by putting it to shame (this original meaning was probably unknown to sages who prescribed it) – took on a Jewish character by the pronouncement of the aggadic sentence that the descendants of Joseph are immune from the evil eye (Ber. 20a).
Other means of fighting and subduing the activated evil eye stem from attempts to absorb the devastating glance, and so to neutralize it. To divert the glance from the intended target, "interesting" objects may be hung between the eyes of the endangered person, e.g., precious stones, or as strange and unexpected an object as a tail of a fox between the eyes of a horse in need of protection (Tosef., Shab. 4:5).
The belief in the evil eye and the various means, both sacred and profane, of averting it, were very prevalent among East European Jews; to this day they exist in many Oriental Jewish communities. In modern times the use of blue paint and a metal amulet in the form of an open palm of the hand are still widespread in Oriental communities, and among Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, it is customary to "qualify" any praise with the phrase keyn ayen hore ("may there be no evil eye" often shortened to kaynahora). The custom of tying a red band around the wrist or neck of a newborn child also derives from a fear of the evil eye. In Yiddish, even the name "evil eye" is euphemistically called git-oyg ("good eye"). R. Lilienthal (see bibl.) lists over 80 anti-evil eye practices recorded among East European Jews. The striking resemblance to those listed in monographs on Oriental Jewish communities (cf. Ḥ. Mizraḥi, Yehudei Paras (1959), 115–7) can be explained by the universality of the motif of the evil eye, on the one hand, and its particular Jewish expression, on the other.
L. Blau, Das altjuedische Zauberwesen (in: Jahresbericht der Landes-Rabbinerschule in Budapest fuer das Schuljahr 1897–98), 152–6; F.T. Elworthy, The Evil Eye (1895); Ginzberg, Legends, index; M. Grunwald, in: mgjv, 5 (1900), 40f., 47f.; A. Loewinger, in: Menorah (Vienna), 4 (1926), 551–69; R. Lilienthal, in: Yidishe Filologye, 1 (1924); S. Seligmann, Der boese Blick und Verwandtes (1910); idem, Die Zauberkraft des Auges (1922); S. Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 2 (1956), 121 (d 993), 364 ff. (d 2071); J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939), 54–56, 283.
Although ethnographers and folklorists have noted the frequency with which belief in the evil eye has existed, they have been less forthcoming on the most important concern for the historian of the body: where the power to do harm in this way is thought to come from and how it is exercised. Again, ideas on this matter vary between cultures, but a few general points seem clear. Many religions believe in the existence of an all-seeing deity, which links the power of vision, and hence the eye, very clearly to wider considerations of power and knowledge. These wider considerations led to such conceptualizations as that current in Christian Europe by the late Middle Ages, that the eye is not just the window of the soul, or a visible portrait of the invisible soul, but also a visible centre from which rays of sight emanate. There was proverbial wisdom in England around 1600 that the eyes were the window of the heart or the mind, for joy or anger could be seen through them.
A demonstration of how various ideas on the evil eye might run together at about that date is provided by Reginald Scot, an English gentleman who in 1584 published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a sceptical tract which denied the existence of witches. Scot devoted a chapter of his book to ‘inchanting or bewitching eies’. Here he cited such classical authors as Virgil, Theocritus, Cicero, Plutarch, and Philarchus. Some people, according to these writers, had two eyeballs, one of which was the seat of evil power which could be used to hurt young lambs or young children. Other people, it was held
‘reteine such venome in their eies, and send it foorth by beames and streames so violentlie, and therewith they annoie not onlie them with whom they are conversant continuallie; but also all other, whose companie they frequent, of what age, strength or complexion so ever they be’.
Scot wrote of more general beliefs, which held that spirits emerging from the eye could infect the hearts of those against whom they were directed. He also noted that occult powers were ascribed to the gaze of
‘old women, in whome the ordinarie course of nature faileth in the office of purging their naturall monethlie humors’.
Froth would therefore be left on mirrors which post-menopausal women had looked at.
These sorts of belief were clearly widespread, as was another set of beliefs, those in sympathetic magic or occult forces more generally. Thus it was easy to accept that malicious power could be transmitted through the eye, the window into the soul of the malevolent person. Some traditions gave a more elaborate explanation: post-Talmudic Jewish literature held variously that the evil eye contained the element of fire, and hence spread destruction, or that the glance of an angry man called into being an angry angel who took vengeance on the object of wrath. Belief in the evil eye also connected with a broader folklore about the eye. One very relevant belief, again seemingly widespread, was that meeting a person with a squint might lead to misfortune or loss. Here the connection is clear enough: an obvious physical deformity is linked with a supposed inner deformity, the willingness to do harm. But, at the very least, this widespread belief in the power of the evil eye demonstrates how one of the human senses, and the organ connected with it, could be seen as a channel for spreading harm, and also provides an interesting way of exploring some aspects of the folklore of the human body.
J. A. Sharpe
See also witchcraft.
Belief in the evil eye is a universal phenomenon and is attested to from the remote past. It is found, for example, in ancient Babylonia, Egypt, in the Greco-Roman world, and Talmudic Judaism. The eye is looked upon not only as the window of the soul, but as its visible center from which the rays of sight emanate. Certain human beings (and animals; for example, the serpent) are reputed to be endowed with a glance whose fluid is capable of causing even mortal hurt, deliberately (on the part of sorcerers) or not, to men, especially to young children, to animals (cattle, primarily), and to things (dwellings, harvests, and personal property). The evil eye causes harm through its envy, the venom of which it projects by its glance and thus poisons its object or victim. There are sovereign remedies, which may be permanent (such as representations of the evil eye vanquished by more powerful forces, inscriptions, or amulets of ludicrous or obscene character) or instantaneous (such as an obscene gesture, or spitting). In the early Christian centuries, the evil eye was expanded as the action of the devil, the Invidus or Envious One par excellence, and the forms of protection became progressively Christianized (cruci-form amulets, Christian abbreviations, inscriptions, invocations to God, to the angels, and to various saints).
Bibliography: f. t. elworthy, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 1908–27) 5:608–615. b. heller, "Böser Blick," Encyclopaedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Berlin 1928–34) 4:979–982. d. frey, Dämonie des Blickes (Wiesbaden 1953). b. kÖtting, "Böser Blick" Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1941 –) 2:473–482, with bibliog. s. thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Bloomington, Ind. 1955–58) v.6,s.v. "Evil Eye." s. seligmann, Die Zauberkraft des Auges und das Berufen (Hamburg 1922).
[g. m. sanders]
Belief in the malevolent effects of the evil eye is ancient and universal. A common form of this belief held that people with unusual eyes could cause harm by looking at other people, and such defects as squinting, a cast, or even cataracts were thought to be signs of an evil eye. Others attributed the evil eye to conscious malice on the part of witches or magicians.
The evil eye could, it was believed, bring about illness, poverty, or other afflictions and even death. An outgrowth of the evil eye notion was the belief that praise of children could have an adverse effect; hence, parents discouraged praise of their children's appearance or talents. Traditional ways of averting the evil eye were by wearing amulets or charms, or reciting counterspells.
DiStasi, Lawrence. Mal Occhio (Evil Eye): The Underside Vision. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.
Elworthy, F. T. The Evil Eye. London, 1894. Reprint, New York: Julian Press, 1958.
MacLaglan, R. C. The Evil Eye in the Western Highlands. London: David Nutt, 1902.
This whole concept is disapproved of by orthodox Islam since it seems to deny or bypass the absolute divine power and decree, but it is virtually impossible to eradicate, and survives today in folklore, on the fringes of religion and medicine.