Recently, I found myself talking about old wives’ tales and how to theoretically avoid the Evil Eye. It was a tricky conversation because I’m never sure that in talking about the Evil Eye I’m not actually encouraging it to turn toward me. Does writing about it count, too? Excuse me for a minute as I turn and spit three times.
I know I’m not alone in feeling superstitious. Contemporary Jews in North America, as well as elsewhere, engage in syncretic practices that blend and blur traditions and ancient beliefs with our modern outlooks – so much so that we don’t always realize it.
I thought of this when discussing an upcoming baby shower. I confessed I was superstitious about giving gifts before a baby was born, “because, just in case …”
I continued: “I don’t think either of my Jewish friends has ever had a baby shower … Is that something we just don’t traditionally do?”
My non-Jewish friend’s response was logical. “But then when do you give gifts?”
“At the bris, of course!”
A brit milah or brit bat ceremony is the ideal place to give gifts to the parents of a newborn or adopted child, and these events happen after the birth.
Does the timing of these events inspire the safe delivery of a healthy child rather than inspiring the Evil Eye? The timing of eight days after birth means the new parents might have adjusted to caring for their newborn, and might tolerate having well-meaning people invade their home. But, more than that, does a bris or brit bat take place eight days after birth to account for the traumas and health concerns that may have occurred?
The Evil Eye is called ayin ha-ra in Hebrew, and it basically refers to a malevolent gaze or evil regard. In the Mishna, someone who has the Evil Eye is someone who cannot be glad for the good fortune of another; in contrast, someone with the Good Eye delights in the successes of the other.
Pagan societies were not the only ones to believe in magic and the occult, and the development of a codified, monotheistic Judaism did not mean an instant opposition to belief in the supernatural. While the rabbis of the Talmud opposed magic, Jews at that time were known to consult and use magic formulas and incantations just like the early Christians did: the Kabbalah Ma’asit is a text of mystical literature featuring formulas for achieving closeness with God mostly through meditation and recitation of holy names, and the Dead Sea Scrolls include a fragment of a formula for warding off attack by demons! During the Middle Ages, Jews were regarded as proficient magicians because many of them were scientists and trained in medicine, and Maimonides himself took the occult seriously enough to write a tractate disproving magic and astrology.
In contemporary times, modern Jews still hold onto traces of these mystical beliefs, no matter how liberal-minded and rational we are, and still engage in certain practices to protect ourselves. Many people are familiar with the hamsa, the five-fingered hand symbol worn as an amulet or displayed in a house to ward off malicious intent. “Hamsa” means “five” in Arabic and the hamsa is also referred to as the Hand of Fatima or the Hand of Miriam, and it can be pointed up or down. Sometimes a tefillah ha bayit (prayer for the household) is inscribed on a hamsa, and the hamsa itself can also include symbols such as an eye, a fish, or a Magen David. Hamsas are especially popular among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews; I myself own at least six in ornament or necklace form.
Other protections against incurring the Evil Eye include wearing a red string around your wrist or neck, and for good measure you can recite the incantation that you are “of the seed of Joseph,” because it is believed that Joseph was immune to the maleficence of the Evil Eye.
You can also say “kenahora” after praising someone. The Yiddish expression literally means “let it be without the Evil Eye.” You say “kenahora” or spit three times when you have said something good about someone, made a statement hoping for something good, or assumed a positive outcome.
So will I be attending that baby shower? Probably. Will I bring a present for the unborn child? Maybe. Will I secretly spit three times in the garden beforehand? You can count on it.