A closer look at the evil eye
“What an adorable baby.”
“So I hear you got the promotion.”
“Did the doctor say your blood pressure was OK?”
There was a time not too long ago when making any positive statement in a room full of Jews elicited a chorus of voices saying, “Kinehora!”—a Yiddishized contraction of a phrase meaning “no evil eye.” The belief that focusing on the positive invites misfortune is understandable, given the history of the Jews. But does Judaism really believe in the evil eye?
“The idea pervades Rabbinic literature,” Rabbi David Kay of Congregation Ohev Shalom observes. “It seems like folklore or superstition to us. The Talmud and Midrash are not above delving into folklore—but the notion that there is some evil force lurking in the world, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting or the careless, seems rather un-Jewish.”
With its firm belief in free will, Jewish theology doesn’t include a separate source of evil. “There is a yeitzer ha-ra,” says Kay, “a human inclination to behave badly. That’s a natural part of free will. But an ‘evil eye’ suggests some external and independent source—and, as Creator of the universe, nothing is external to God.”
Even more problematic, Kay notes, is belief in demons or spirits. “In Judaism, angels are God’s creations which carry out the divine will without question or choice. A demon or evil spirit suggests conscious action, seeking out victims deliberately. Mischievous, evil or damaging beings acting independently rival God’s authority.” And yet, Rabbinic literature—and Biblical allusions—include just such beings.
These tales grow in the telling, though, and passing and sometimes cryptic references in the Talmud or Midrash take on additional dimensions through the centuries. A simple if puzzling teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua in Mishnah Avot—“The evil eye, the inclination to evil, and hatred of others take a person out of the world”—evolves into the stuff of legend.
The how and why of that evolution is the subject of a new three-part series being presented this month through Congregation Ohev Shalom’s daytime adult education program, Mondays at 1:00. On three successive Mondays, beginning April 15, Kay will teach “Demons, Spirits, and the Evil Eye.”
Mondays at 1:00 is open to the public at no charge and sessions will take place at Congregation Ohev Shalom, 613 Concourse Parkway S., Maitland. For more information or to RSVP for the series, contact Susan Sparrow at ClergyAsst@OhevShalom.org or 407-298-4650.