"Kein ayin hara"

Sandy Shulman Montague

When you were little, did your grandmother mutter ‘pi...pi...pi’ (or ‘peh...peh...peh’ - pronunciation dependent on where she learned it), spit over you three times, and say ‘kein ayin hara’, especially when other people commented on your good looks and cleverness? Do you do much the same every time someone admires your baby or your grandchild? Did your mother tie a red ribbon to your underwear? If the answer is yes, then your family was practising magic. Jewish magic to be sure, but with its roots deep in antiquity, inextricably entwined around the superstitions and folklore of neighbouring communities.

The concept of ‘fascination’ or ‘the evil eye’ - ‘ayin hara’ - is as old as the proverbial hills. Every civilization has claimed that malignity can be transmitted merely by hostile looks; and a phrase for this belief exists in nearly all languages. The French call it: ‘mauvais oeil’, the Italians: ‘mal occhio’, the Germans: ‘boser Blick’. In Scotland it was ‘glamour’ - a word introduced into English by the novelist Sir Walter Scott. Of course, glamour and fascination conjure up entirely different images in today’s mind; but once fascination meant bewitching or enchanting in a negative manner, and derives from the Latin ‘fascinum’. It was always held that certain individuals had strange power in their eyes, particularly kabbalistic rabbis. Shimon bar Yochai was said to be able to scorch with one look. Most of us have had a teacher whose glance filled us with awe. Charisma, strength of personality, the ability to inspire respect, admiration or fear are characteristics cultivated and possessed by many political and religious leaders; and often the eyes of such people appear to radiate power.

From antiquity onwards, the belief in the ‘evil eye’ as a dangerous entity became accepted. It is not too difficult to understand how the term evolved to mean the direct causation of harm via a look of spite. Envy was the spur to this evil, so one way to escape it was not to appear enviable. Good fortune or abundance should not be displayed or boasted about. Modesty and humility provoke scant attention and therefore no danger. Deny the baby is beautiful or the possession is prized. And if misfortune did strike, once upon a time it was probably easier to blame someone’s ‘ayin hara’ than seek out the true causes over which you had no control.

In the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’, an ‘evil eye’ and a good eye are depicted as reflecting two types of human character: grudging and generous. The former results in envy of another’s good luck and may produce feelings of malice towards them. ‘He that has an ‘evil eye’, hungers for riches' declares the writer of Proverbs (28:22), and so breaks the Tenth Commandment. A grudging disposition gains satisfaction from other people's distress. Nowadays, tabloid headlines regularly gloat on the falling from grace of the rich or famous: schadenfreude, malicious pleasure in another’s misfortune, is alas a common human failing.

Christianity did nothing to counteract the belief that certain individuals had the power to harm or even kill with a glance. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century theologian and philosopher, noted that children were especially vulnerable to glances from old women. This theory was unhappily echoed by a succession of demonologists and witch hunters. This power of fascination, derived from a pact with the devil, was cited in many witch trials. A pair of so-called experts in 1486 warned ‘there are witches who can bewitch their judges by a mere look or glance from their eyes’. Poor old women were regularly sentenced to gallows or flames for causing illness or death of individuals and farm animals with a look from their ‘evil eye’ which had been given to them by Satan.

Obviously, measures had to be taken against those regarded as having the ‘evil eye’. Better to attempt to thwart the power before it manifested itself; various practices, charms and gestures, many of an obscene nature, evolved and were employed to counteract the evil. The still familiar ‘pi pi pi’ (or ‘peh peh peh’) originated when Hellenised Jews adapted God's four-letter name, replacing the Hebrew letter 'hey' with the Greek 'pi' which it resembles in shape. Read left to right in Greek, the Holy name became 'pi pi' and was a shield against evil powers. For maximum potency It was to be written on a hard-boiled egg and eaten.

Spitting is a universal counter-demonic measure; perhaps because it also promotes luck. (People sometimes spit for luck on money, found or given; boxers spit on their hands, and traders would spit on the first money taken in the day.). Greeks and Romans employed their saliva as a charm against enchantment. Pliny contended it averted witchcraft, as well as giving enemies more than they bargained for. Although officially banned by the Talmud as magic, spitting became a popular magical procedure. The spit of someone fasting was considered especially efficacious, and Maimonides even asserted it was an antidote to some poisons. Three (a specially powerful number) good spits preceded incantations or phrases recited to drive away devils and perils.

Possibly the best known counteractive phrase among European Jews is ‘Kein ayin hara' ("no evil eye’'). Praising a baby by calling it ugly is another tactic. And the clichéd phrase ‘God forbid’ has its origins in deflecting the ‘ayin hara’. There are hundreds of customs intended to give protection against the Eye that harms. Many of these come into their own during times of happiness as well as danger. Women in childbed and nursing mothers were regarded as natural targets for ill-wishers. A red ribbon ‘rote bandel’ could be tied to a new baby’s cot, or onto its clothing for protection. Red seems to have an impeding effect on those wishing or doing evil; in Scotland a thread of red wool was believed to confound any witch. Charms and amulets for personal wear are an ancient method of deflecting evil and are still popular today, although many of us now regard them as decorative rather than magical. As well as guarding against the ‘evil eye’ and the odd demon, amulets are intended to promote luck, health and fertility.

Not every Jewish sage approved of amulets. Maimonides mentioned 'the madness of amulet writers'. But, since in Jewish law the saving of life supersedes everything else, the use of amulets was permitted in illness. They were called segulot (remedies) or refuot (cures), based on the power of the Shemot. This was how the hasidic and kabbalistic rabbis met public demand for supernatural protection; understandable in an age when doctors offered few effective treatments.

The chief Jewish handbook on the subject is Sefer Raziel, written around 1230 by Eleazer of Worms, which drew on far earlier Egyptian and Babylonian traditions. It lists the best days and times for writing amulets, usually on to a parchment which was placed in a metal container. The task was regarded as pious, and the Sefer Raziel dictates that the scribe must fast in a pure state and declare his purpose which was 'to show Thy power and Thy might by means of Thy name', presumably to distinguish him from those who composed ill-wishing charms.

The texts usually start with an invocation 'in the name of', then God is addressed by one or more names, frequently Shaddai (Almighty). Next appear the names of angels, popularly Uriel. Raphael. Gabriel, Michael and Nuriel, resulting in the mnemonic 'Argaman'. An appropriate biblical verse may be added. or a magic number square included where the sum of each row and column is equal. The much used abbreviations are tricky for the non-expert to read. Inscriptions were also engraved directly onto a metal shape, but if engravers were not exactly literate in Hebrew the resulting mistakes make deciphering difficult. Amulets and amulet cases were in silver, copper or brass and can be of any shape. Amongst Jews from North Africa the Hamsa or 'Hand of Fatima’ charm is especially favoured. The cases have loops so they can be hung from the neck or arm, or from clothing.

So famous were Jewish amulets that at the end of the fourteenth century the Bishop of Salzburg actually asked a Jew for a mezuzab to place on the gate of his castle. Did that craftsman afterwards advertise himself as ‘official mezuzah maker to the clergy’?

Now when you say ‘kein ayin hara’ you know you are following an ancient custom. One word of warning: before you start expatiating on the ‘unattractiveness’ of a proud family’s newest addition, please explain your true motive.