04 Aug The Real Meaning of Ayin Hora
“Don’t give me an Ayin Hora.”
“I’m afraid of an Ayin Hora.”
“Bli Ayin Hora.”
These are all phrases and expressions we’ve heard, and probably use, very often. But what exactly is the meaning of Ayin Hora? Is there any Torah validity to it? Is it just superstition? Is it some sort of evil force?
The first thing to establish: Ayin Hora is certainly a valid concept from a Torah point of view, and further, it can definitely pose a real threat. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos tells us, “Rabbi Yehoshua omer, ‘Ayin hora v’yetzer hora, v’sinas habrios motzi’in es ha’adom min ha’olom – Three things can cause a person’s expulsion from this world; an evil eye, evil desires, and hatred of others.’” So, the Mishna teaches us in black and white, not only is Ayin Hora real, but it can cause a person’s early demise. Even more astounding is the place in which it is mentioned in the Mishna: Rabbi Yehoshua felt that an Ayin Hora is such a perilous thing that he lists it first!
We can readily understand that the Yetzer Hora can cause a person to be expelled from the world. The yetzer hora incited us to sin, thereby giving license to the Malach HaMaves (Angel of Death) to do his job. Sinas Habrios causes anger and hatred. These feelings can cause a person to become physically ill, and can cause untimely death. They also foster loshon hora and rechilus (slander and tale bearing) which, we know, shorten a person’s life. So, by mentioning Ayin Hora first, the Tana is telling us that he considers Ayin Hora to be more deadly than either the Yetzer Hora or Sinas Habrios!
Further proof of the dangers of Ayin Hora can be found in Masechtas Baba Metzia. Rav once went to a small Beis Hak’voros (cemetery). Knowing how to divine the cause of deaths of those that had passed away, he remarked as he left the cemetery, “Tishim v’tisha b’ayin hora, v’echad b’derech ha-olom – Out of the one hundred people buried [there], ninety-nine died because of Ayin Hora, while only one died of natural causes.”
When we hear that Teflon pots may cause cancer, or that the Surgeon General warns us of the possible dangers of this product or that, we take heed; we become very wary. So it goes without saying that when the Torah cautions us about something, we really should be concerned. The posuk in Eikev tells us, “V’heisir Hashem mimcha kol choli – Hashem will remove all sickness from you.” The Gemora in Baba Metzia tells us, “Kol choli, zu Ayin Hora.” What does the posuk mean by all sicknesses? Ayin Hora! Rashi explains further that the number one cause for all diseases is Ayin Hora.
What is the nature of this deadly danger and how do we go about avoiding its lethal consequences?
The Rishonim tell us that if someone has a talent or an advantage over the average person and he flaunts it, people become upset and envious of him. Hashem sees his flaunting, and does not want this person to upset the natural flow of things, so He takes away that person’s advantage. And if that gift is ingrained within the person, Hashem, chas v’shalo-m, takes the person away. So, if a person does not take care to use any talents he may have with modesty, he is endangering his gift – and maybe even his life. This then is the threat of Ayin Hora.
Now we can clearly understand what Chana was davening for so fervently, when petitioning Hashem for a child, “V’nasata l’amasecha zera anoshim – Please, Hashem, give to your maidservant a Zera Anoshim. The Gemora [Brachos, 31b] explains, “Zera hamuv la bein anoshim – A child accepted among people.” Chana actually prayed for a son “lo chochom v’lo tipeish – Not too wise and not a fool.” How astonishing!! Doesn’t every mother want her child to be an extraordinary Talmud Chochom! Rashi explains that Chana did not want a son who was too wise, because he would stand out. People would envy him and he would be in danger of Ayin Hora.
Throughout the ages, our great ones always tried to protect themselves from Ayin Hora. When the sh’vatim (twelve tribes, in this case ten of the twelve brothers) went down to Mitzrayim to buy food, Yaakov told them to split up, and not enter the land together through the same entrance. Why? Because the sh’vatim were ten of the most perfect specimens of the human race, and if they would all come in together, they would have attracted attention to themselves. This would cause people to notice and, thus, envy them. And this would make them extremely vulnerable to an Ayin Hora. (Incidentally, this is how Yosef was able to plausibly accuse them of being spies. For, since they came in through different gates [and not together as a family would], they must have been spying on the land, seeking to identify its vulnerable points.) So, we see from this that even Yaakov Avinu was worried about Ayin Hora!
So, how can we protect ourselves from the dangers of Ayin Hora?
“V’hatz’nei-a leches im Hashem Elokecha – Walk modestly with Hashem your G-d.” Do not flaunt your advantages. Do not call attention to a special talent that you have. Or, if you’ve been given a blessing, don’t brandish it in front of those who haven’t been so blessed. For example, if you meet someone who doesn’t have any children after years of marriage, don’t start ‘carrying-on’ about how your little one is starting to walk and spend the entire afternoon with them looking over baby pictures. (This sensitivity demands a tactful sense of balance, since the childless couple does not want to feel left out of anything either.)
There are many minhagim that reflect fear of Ayin Hora. In Europe, many families would never sit for a family portrait for fear of Ayin Hora. We are taught that a son shouldn’t be called up for an aliya LaTorah immediately before or after his father. One reason for this is because they are pasul l’eidus (invalid witnesses) together. But another reason is so to avoid generating an Ayin Hora. Similarly, we break a glass at a chasuna (wedding) under the chupah (canopy). Primarily this is an act that is a zecher l’churban (remembrance of the Temple’s destruction). It is to symbolize that no simcha is complete in our time as we still do not have a Beis Hamikdash. However, we also break a glass, the S’ma informs us, to dispel the perfect happiness, so all the hundreds of people watching should not become jealous – and cast an Ayin Hora on the Chasan and Kallah!
The Pele Yoetz tells us that even when we say good about a person, we should say a tefilah that no harm should befall him. From this we can see that we must protect ourselves, not only from receiving an Ayin Hora, but from giving one to others. In fact, the mitzvah of Lo Sachmod (not to covet what someone else has) includes this prohibition. For, by being envious of a neighbor’s lot, one can bring his neighbor great harm through Ayin Hora.
Now, we might ask ourselves, “If Ayin Hora is so dangerous, how can someone darshan (expound on the Torah) to the masses? How can one risk doing a good deed publicly?” The Pele Yoetz tells us that this is the exception. When a person is doing a mitzvah, he does not have to worry about Ayin Hora. “Shomer mitzvah lo yada daver ra – One who heeds a mitzvah is protected from evil.” So when they ask you to be a guest of honor at a yeshiva dinner, don’t use ayin hora as an excuse to decline. “Mitzvahs Hashem barah meeras ainayim – The commandments of Hashem are clear, brightening the eyes.” (Alluding homiletically to protecting one from the evil eye.)
There is one group among KIal Yisroel that is immune to the Ayin Hora: Shevet Yosef. “Ben paras Yosef, ben paras alei uyin – Among the tribe of Yosef there is no evil eye.” The Gemora tells us not to read it Alei Uyin, but rather Olei Ayin, above the eye. Above the evil eye, the Ayin Hora. (As an aside, the putting on of the ‘red bendela’ [a red string usually worn around the wrist], was probably adopted to serve as a ‘red alert’ to remind someone to be modest and wary of the Ayin Hora.) The Gemora in Brachos tells us that if we are afraid of an Ayin Hora, we should say, “Ana mi-zera d’Yosef ka-asina d’lo shlata bah eina bisha – I am from the seed of Yosef which is immune to the Ayin Hora.”
Why was Yosef so special that not only was he immune to Ayin Hora, but all of his descendants are as immune to it as well? If we take a look at the life of Yosef Hatzadik, we can understand why he has this special Zechus. Yosef flaunted his Kisones Pasim, his coat of many colors, in front of his brothers. This was a special gift from Yaakov, stamping upon him the first-born right to perform Temple service. Thus Yaakov gave him a special garment, similar in function to the bigedei kehunah (vestments of the priesthood). Because of this, the brothers became envious of him. He also told them about his dreams in which he played a superior role. These actions led him to being thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery.
Later, Yosef became overseer in Potiphar’s house. Once again, he began to comb his hair and bring notice upon himself. This brought him under the gaze of Potiphar’s wife – and because he wouldn’t bow to her wishes, he ended up in jail. So we see that during his early life, Yosef was plagued by Ayin Hora. He flaunted his talents, his gifts, and did not take them for what they were, G-d given. Yosef stayed in jail an additional two years because he told the Sar Hamashkim to remember him to Pharaoh. Yosef thought he could get himself out of jail, that it was within his power to do so. And so, Hashem made the Sar Hamashkim forget about him, and Yosef remained in jail two extra years. [We must note that these flaws in Yosef were actually very microscopic. They were only punishable because of the incredible lofty level he occupied.]
These are examples of the flaw in a person who finds himself under the spell of Ayin Hora. He says, “Kochi v’otzem yodi – By my doing,” and not Hashem’s. Yosef had two years allotted for intense thought to realize his error. And, with all of his suffering, he completely eradicated the flaw in his soul! After this period, we find Yosef’s attitude drastically altered. When Paroh says to him, “I hear you know how to interpret dreams,” Yosef corrects him saying, “Elokim yaneh es shlom Paroh – G-d will reveal Paroh’s welfare.” So too, when his brothers came down to Mitzrayim, Yosef told them, “Not you, but Hashem sent me here.” Because of this, he and all his descendants can never be harmed by Ayin Hora.
So, in order to avoid Ayin Hora, a very real and extremely dangerous threat to us, we should not flaunt what we have, neither our talents nor our riches, or anything we have that others do not. In this way, we will not cause others to feel badly or be envious of us, and we will be safe from the Ayin Hora.