Thursday, July 07, 2005

Amblyopia? No, Evil Eye.

For those of us who are familiar with the sight of seeing a bunch of Jewish ladies admiring a new child, one giving a compliment then naturally finishing off the thought with "K'nayna Harah," have you ever wondered what it was all about? Sure, it's to protect us from the Evil Eye, but what the hell is that? Some sort of boogeyman, a personified Eye, which randomly stalks neighborhoods and striking suffering upon those without a red bendel? Or perhaps it is a giant spirit of ill will which exists everywhere and nowhere like some sort of transcendent Satan.

Frankly, I don't even think people who declare "Keyn Ayin Harah" on a regular basis even know what they're talking about since they mispronounce it so regularly. I have even seen those who use the term "K'nayna Harah" as some sort of traditional baby talk. As if it means, "Isn't he cute!" So here's some info about what the Evil Eye is really all about:

The evil eye is a widely distributed element of folklore or superstition: a belief that some people, often women seen as witches, can bestow a curse on victims by the malevolent gaze of their magical eye. The effects on victims vary; some have them afflicted with bad luck of various sorts. Others believe the evil eye has even more baleful powers, that it can cause disease, wasting away, and even death.

Some cultures hold that the evil eye is an involuntary jinx that is cast unintentionally by people unlucky to be cursed with the power to bestow it by their gaze. Others hold that while it is not strictly voluntary, the power is called forth by the sin of envy. It may be that the term covet (to eye enviously) in the tenth Commandment refers to casting the evil eye, rather than to simple desire or envy.

Belief in the evil eye is strongest in the Middle East and Europe, especially the Mediterranean region; it has also spread to other areas like the Americas. In some more southern areas where light-colored eyes are relatively rare, people with blue eyes are feared to possess the power to bestow the curse, intentionally or unintentionally.

Belief in the evil eye features in Islamic mythology; it is not a part of Islamic doctrine, however, and is more a feature of Islamic folk religion. The evil eye is also significant in Jewish folklore; it is called the "ayin harah" in Hebrew. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally exclaim "Keyn aynhoreh!" meaning "No evil eye!" in Yiddish to ward off a jinx after something or someone has been rashly praised or good news spoken aloud. Some Jews also spit in order to ward off the effects of an evil gaze.


Sarah said...

"people with blue eyes are feared to possess the power to bestow the curse, intentionally or unintentionally."

wow ... who knew I had such great powers? ;)

Just a thought:
Of course the evil eye has been taken completely out of hand, but I was akways under the impression that it wasn't intended to be a magic trick. Obviously the people who used it believed in God and prayer to him. The thought was that if you were given a compliment or praised, another person would get jealous of you, God would hear their pleas, judge you and realize you weren't worthy and take whatever was praised away from you. (unlike today, when people say bli ayin hara after almost every sentence whether ornot it makes sense ... "I'm going to the store today, bli ayin hara" ... ) From what I know, the ayin hara (and chamsas and red strings) were supposed to instill in a person the quality of modesty, so that God would realize that the person wasn't trying to make others feel less about themselves.

It may not be rational (considering the God and prayer and all), but it does get accross a nice lesson of not flaunting things and being considerate of other people's feelings.


You greeks and your so-called Praxitelean (S) curves,bah-humbug.BTW, do you shop at heremes

Ben Avuyah said...

If what sarah's saying is true then it the spoken complement, and the resulting jealousy.
Evil ear...Evil mind...

Why is the eye always the fall guy ?

Orthoprax said...

Besides the "official" beliefs and practices that Judaism, the religion, endorses, there is still a ton of superstitious Jewish folk beliefs and practices which are everywhere.

Consider the expansive demonology and dybbuks which are everywhere. How about the hundred and one stories of terrible things which happen to those with faulty mezzuzahs? Or of segulah wine from a wedding or getting blessed by people on their birthdays or refusing to pour liquid into a cup with the hand tilted backwards. And what about not blowing out a havadala candle? And I've even seen a strange superstition where a guy takes some leftover wine from havdalah, wets his pinkies and touches them to his temples and back of his head. Weird.

People even tie their shoelaces and cut their toenails in a prescribed order.

I could just refer to the wholesale acceptance of gematria and kabbalah which is almost entirely superstitious nonsense. There's even a special brand of kabbalah astrology - something straight and clearly forbidden in Deuteronomy.

And even though it is commanded not to believe in lucky times in Leviticus, that doesn't stop Jews from giving the month of Adar positive reviews.

Even things today which are just seen as a nice gesture are actually fundamentally superstitious - like only giving charity in increments of $18.

Are you familiar with a Jewish wedding? Just about every step of the way is a step to protect the couple from (demonic) harm. But of course, like your explanations about red strings and the evil eye, the superstitious practices have been co-opted and re-explained as meaningful non-hypocritical legitimate monotheistic Jewish acts.

Sarah said...


My comment was really meant more as a question. That was what I've been told by people who understand how stupid these supersitions are. I really have no idea what came first: the "official" reason, or the superstitious one. Are you so sure that the superstition came first?

Either way, I think it's clear that people take these things to ridiculous lengths. Case in point:

" How about the hundred and one stories of terrible things which happen to those with faulty mezzuzahs? "

This one is perfectly explained by psychology. People tend to remember the easily remembered combinations. Thus, if someone is told that faulty mezuzah's bring bad luck, their minds basically "choose" to remember the instances where the mezuzah was faulty and they had back luck. The times when bad luck was not accompanied by the faulty mezuza somehow tends to slip people's mind. Oh, the powers of selective memory.

Orthoprax said...


"I really have no idea what came first: the "official" reason, or the superstitious one. Are you so sure that the superstition came first?"

I don't claim to be sure about anything, but the fact that the evil eye thing is so widespread and goes back to pagan times and that the explanation you gave seems so forced (it just sticks God and prayer as an intermediary) certainly leads me to believe that it has purely superstitious origins.

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