World of Judaism
Eyin Hora: Fact or Fancy
Eyin Hora: Fact or Fancy
Volume 3 , Issue 2

Street Scene: Two bubbes (grandmothers). One, A, is wheeling a stroller in which her sleeping grandchild lies. Bhas stopped to chat and admire the child.

B:"Your granddaughter? Such ugliness, k'neine hora." (B is a Galitzianer; hence her pronunciation.)"Whom does she resemble?"

A:"Her mother.K'naine hora, she was also a beauty as an infant." (B is a Litvak. This accounts for her pronunciation.)

B:"She still is a beauty, knock on wood."

A:"K'naine hora, poo, poo, poo." (She spits three times.)

B:"You really should tie a red bendel (a red string) around the baby's finger."

What's going on here?"Black magic?" Pure superstition?Legitimate belief?Surely, not the first, but perhaps a combination of the other two, legitimate belief and superstition.

First, to clarify the commonly used term "k'neina/k'naina hora."This is actually an expression which combines, through blending and elision a German-Yiddish word, "kein," meaning no/none and the Hebrew words "ayin hora," evil eye. Thus the expression literally means, "May no evil eye harm her."? In my youth, the English translation turned this into, "Don't give him a canary."

So you think this is pure superstition? You scoff, There is no such thing as an evil eye.? Hmm! Let's see what it is or what it is meant to be.

The Jewish Encyclopedia defines the term as, "a supposed power of bewitching or harming by spiteful looks attributed to certain persons as a natural endowment." (Vol.5, page 280). That would make it, apparently, a superstition. But wait, Philip Birnbaum, in A Book of Jewish Concepts, clarifies this with references to Proverbs and Avot, which would lend legitimacy to the term and the belief.

Birnbaum writes, "The terms 'ayin hora' and 'ayin ra' essentially denote envy, jealousy, grudge, greed, ill will." (p. 463) He cites Proverbs 23:6-7, which tells us not to dine with a man who has an evil eye for he is stingy, an "ayin ra," and Proverbs 22:9, which calls a generous man a "tov ayin," a good eye. Birnbaum also states that "In the course of time, it became a widespread belief that an envious or begrudging glance could work evil upon the person at whom it was directed."He illustrates this with a widely quoted Talmudic statement from Baba Metzia, 107b, that "ninety-nine out of a hundred die of an evil eye."

Orthodoxy Does Not Discount Evil Eye

Clearly, Orthodox belief does not discount the effects of the evil eye."Inanimate objects such as clothes could also be affected by it." (B.M. 30a), but children are, apparently, the subjects most prone to its influence, particularly if they are beautiful.? The sex of the child is also important.? In the Orient (among Jews and non-Jews), a woman who had only daughters would be envious of one whose first-born was a son (the prized sex) and, it was feared, might cast an evil eye on the male child.

The Talmud and the Bible contain many references to the evil eye. With few exceptions, these fall within the definition equating it with greed, envy or a grudging nature. In Pirkei Avot, V, 16, we read of the man who "ayno raah b'shell acherim," "his eye is evil with regard to others." In the same tractate, Chapter II, 14, we read, "Go out and discern which is the evil path from which a man should distance himself.? Rabbi Eliezer says: An evil eye."

Terumoth IV, 3, equates a niggardly person with an evil eye.

In Samuel I, Saul's envy of David is referred to as the evil eye entering into him.? (Lev. R. XXVI, 9)

Shab., 34a, Baba Batra 75a and Taanit, 24b all refer to rabbis who had the power of the evil eye, of causing injury simply by looking at those who had offended them.

On this subject, a footnote to Sanhedrin 93a in the Soncino Talmud, (p. 623) is especially interesting.

Q. Whither did the Rabbis go?

Raba said:? They died through an evil eye.

The belief that the eye has power to effect harm, whether through excessive admiration or astonishment, as here, or by actual malignant intent, was and is widespread among many peoples. Rav's statement here is in accordance with his dictum in Baba. Metzia. 107b (op. cit.) that ninety--nine people out of a hundred die through an evil eye.

Logically and historically, we can easily see where greed and envy have caused death and destruction to persons and nations, particularly when they flaunt their wealth and good fortune before those less fortunate than they. Indeed, one of the earliest lessons a Jewish child learns is to be humble. Throughout our lives, we are taught not to flaunt our wealth, mental felicity or acuity, physical beauty, good health, happiness, status, etc. lest someone give us an "ayin hora." Good fortune does, indeed, come from God, but the reverse of this state could come from someone's envy. It was best not to court disaster. However, should you or someone else mention your happy state, an ounce of prevention saying, "kein ayin hora" allays the powers of the evil eye.

Some Practices May Be Sacreligious

It is not the concept of the evil eye, but rather the various practices meant to counteract the effects of this malignant force that fall into the realm of superstition. These are both a product and by-product of the cultures among whom the Jewish people have always lived (and suffered).Some of the practices may, indeed, actually be sacrilegious. In his new book, What You Though You Knew About Judaism, Rabbi Reuven Bulka speaks of "knocking on wood" as being "untenable as a Jewish expression." He says that the Christians believe that the cross brings good luck." It is Christian in origin, not Jewish, and is an act to be avoided.? He says, further, "Jews are best off using the phrase 'bli ayin hora' (without an evil eye), expressing the hope that no one will cast an evil eye on that which has gone well." (p. 301)

A common practice of having a child wear something red -- a red string on the finger or a coral necklace -- is also probably of Christian origin, although the color red is almost universally though to be anti-demonic.Medieval Jewry was especially influenced by Christian practices such as these and the wearing of amulets.

It is in the wearing of amulets, however, that we find equivocation with respect to the legitimacy (religiously) of the practice. Jewish magic in the form of amulets and charms is still very much with us.Witness the wearing of the Magen David (a hexagram which is not of Davidic origin) or a ?yad, with or without the mystical Names, or jewelry charms in the shape of a mezuzah. While contemporary Jewry wears these ostensibly merely for their beauty, is there not also frequently a belief in their magical protective powers?Complex rules for wearing such amulets have evolved. Since these rules do exist, therefore, the wearing of such amulets becomes, under certain conditions, apparently permissible.

Also prevalent among some was and is the practice of reciting certain prayers and Biblical verses which are said to counteract the evil eye. Among these, according to Joshua Trachtenberg, are the Priestly Benediction and the verse in Genesis 49:22.

The verse deals with Jacob's dying blessings of his sons. Of Joseph he says, "A son of fruitfulness is Joseph, even a son of fruitfulness by a well: daughters tread on the well."

Rashi interprets the phrase "ben p'ros yosef ben p'ros olay ayin banos tzawadaw alay shur" to mean "his gracefulness attacks the eye that looks at him; daughters tread on the wall." "The daughters of Egypt used to climb up to gaze at his beauty..." He goes on to narrate the Midrashic text in which Joseph steps in front of Rachel to hide her from Esau's glance, and "therefore deserved to become great."In accordance with this Midrash, the words banos tzawadaw olay shur mean "they climbed up to get a good view of you when you went forth in the procession as Viceroy over Egypt." The Rabbis gave a further interpretation of it, taking olay ayin as oolay ayin (raised above the eye) in the sense that the Evil Eye would have no effect on his children. So, too, when he blessed Manasseh and Ephraim he blessed them praying that they should become as fishes on which the Evil Eye has no effect.

(A more detailed, fascinating, scholarly discussion of this entire topic appears in Mr. Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition.? He draws his material from both secular and Rabbinic sources.)

Now, getting back to our original meeting of the two grandmothers."Poo, poo, poo" spits out one.The words merely emphasize the act of expectorating, an old magical act which the rabbis actually forbade at one time, but later permitted within limited constraints. The leniency was merely a concession to human needs and failings rather than for logical or religious reasons.

Many other practices for circumventing or exorcising the powers of the evil eye are mentioned in various sources. The following entry in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia talks of several such practices.

Children in particular are regarded as the object of the evil eye and hence most in need of protection. To this end, a piece of bread and salt is put into the pocket of a child, or it wears a Shemirah, an amulet made out of a coin presented by a Zaddik. Sometimes a Havdalah candle is extinguished for this purpose before the child's open mouth. Galician Jews would spit three times after a person suspected of having an 'evil eye' had left or would turn over a glass or make a 'fig' sign to avert? the expected evil. (Vol. 4, p. 200.)

To Fig (or Not to Fig)

On the "fig" sign, Trachtenberg (op. cit.) writes as follows: "Among the most widely used anti-demonic devices in Europe is the gesture called 'to fig' (in German, die Feige weiser, in French, faire la figue, in Italian, far la ficon, in Spanish, hacer el higo), recognized as a sign of defiance and insult in ancient and modern times. It is made by closing the fist and inserting the thumb between two fingers.? Its peculiarly obnoxious character, to men and spirits alike,derives from the fact that it is meant as an obscene representation of the sexual act. Menasseh b. Israel was correct both in his explanation of the intent of this gesture, and his association of it with the Talmudic recommendation that to protect oneself against the evil eye one should place his right thumb in his left fist and his left thumb in his right fist..." (p. 161)

The use of gestures together with incantations from the Scriptures or from mystical Jewish writings is also mentioned in various sources, as is inserting into a child's pocket bread or matzoh crumbs and salt as protection against the evil eye. Another common practice is saying something negative when a compliment is intended (to fool the evil eye). See B's remark in the opening dialogue of this essay. Still another, related practice, used when counting people, is to count: ?nisht eins, nisht tzvei, etc."? (not one, not two).

When I was an awkward, partially toothless eight or nine year old, my mother, who otherwise took pride in being religious, but not superstitious, decided that her changeling (I supposedly had been a very pretty infant) must be a victim of the evil eye.

One day she decided to exorcise it, using the method described in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. How she felt about the results of her efforts is best illustrated by the jingle she always recited thereafter when someone used the expression ?k'neina hora."

"Ni hora, ni mora, ni kikere ki."

This probably translates to:? No evil, no (apparently a rhyming word she invented), no cockadoodledoo.

As we have seen, the belief in and the practices relating to the evil eye cannot easily be dismissed.They are part of our history and heritage, if only to make us aware of the need to refrain from overweening pride, what the Greeks called hubris.


1. Ausabel, Nathan, The Book of Jewish Knowledge, Crown Publishers, Inc., N.Y.. 1968.

2. The Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nizikim, Trachtate Sanhedrin,  The Soncino Press, London, 1935.

3. Birnbaum, Philip, A Book of Jewish Concepts, Hebrew Publishing Company, N.Y.,1964.4.

4. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Centenary Ed. Rev., Ivor Evans, Ed., Harper & Row, N.Y., 1981.

5. Bulka, Reuven P., What you Thought You Knew About Judaism, Jason Aronson, Inc., New Jersey, 1989.

6.? The Jewish Encyclopedia, Isidor Singer, Ph.D., Ed., Ktav Publishing House, Inc. 1 N.Y., (?)

7. Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1984.

8. Silbermann, A.. and Rosenbaum, M., Chumash with Targum Onkelos? Haphtaroth and Rashi's Commentary, The Silbermann Family, Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., Distr., Jerusalem, 5745.

9. Trachtenberg, Joshua, Jewish Magic and Superstition, Atheneum, N.Y. (c. 1939 by Behrman's book House, Inc.)

10. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Isaac Landman, Ed., The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Inc., N.Y., 1941.

Nechamah Reisel is a regular contributor to The Jewish Review.



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