When we eye something, we impact it
y sister’s a witch.
Actually, not at all; she’s one of the biggest inspirations in my life.
But that was my initial reaction when I heard that my big sister, Mrs. Tamar Tessler, was an “ayin hara lady.” She’d been plying her craft from Bnei Brak to Johannesburg to Lawrence. She described to me what she does, and it all sounded very much like “double, double, toil and trouble.”
My rebbi, Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, didn’t encourage his talmidim to go running to ayin hara ladies. But in the words of Rav Zave Rudman shlita:
Even ayin hara had a system, in Rav Moshe’s worldview. I once approached him, after a number of incidents that had happened in the extended family, and asked whether we there was an ayin hara on my family and should we deal with the situation as such. He thought for moment and said, “No. The family should daven.” I learned from there that even ayin hara needs a “psak” from someone who understands these things. Otherwise the regular derachim of tefillah apply.
Dealing with ayin hara needs an authentic mesorah, whose credibility daas Torah must discern. In the case of my sister, Rav Moshe assured me that what she does isn’t kishuf (witchcraft). As long as she was following an authentic mesorah, I had nothing to worry about. My sister explained that she’d learned her skills from her mother-in-law, Mrs. Perel Tessler a”h, a venerable tzadeikes who came from a family of Bohusher chassidim in Romania.
The history of ayin hara goes all the way back to Gan Eden, when the snake gave Adam and Chava an ayin hara (see Yaaros Dvash, drush 9). It pops up in halachah in many surprising places. For example, relatives don’t get consecutive aliyos to the Torah because it brings attention to the family (Orach Chayim 241:6).
We have many minhagim that are based on a fear of ayin hara, which echo Yaakov Avinu’s instructions to his strikingly handsome and powerful sons to enter Mitzrayim through different gates, lest someone see them and cast an ayin hara on them (Rashi, Mikeitz 42:5). We’re careful to whom we show pictures of our children, we hide our pregnancies, and we sprinkle our compliments with bli ayin hara or kein ayin hara.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 42a) tells us that brachah can only flourish on something hidden from the eye. This is based on a pasuk in the Torah (Ki Savo 28:8).
Why is that so? And what exactly is ayin hara?
Important note: As with everything I write from what I gleaned from the Torah of my rebbi, Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, this piece is based on my understanding and written in my style, and most certainly does not convey the full depths of what he wanted to teach on the subject. This is especially the case when discussing the highly nuanced topics of ayin hara and segulos.
THE EYES OF CREATION
The story of how Hashem created the world is described in the opening words of the Torah. The creative process begins with two verbs. One is “Vayomer Elokim, ‘Yehi ohr’ — Hashem said, ‘Let there be light,’ ” which is connected to speech. The other is “Vayar Elokim es ha’ohr ki tov — Hashem saw the light was good,” which is connected to vision.
Surely Hashem wasn’t just gazing with satisfaction at His masterful work. So why did He have to “see” His creation afterward?
When Hashem “sees” His handiwork, He’s allowing something outside of Himself (what that truly means is beyond us) to be revealed, giving it form and definition. It becomes part of the reality of His creation. When Hashem determines that something is good, it then means His creation can flourish and reach its full potential.
Man is created b’tzelem Elokim, in Hashem’s image. Hashem breathed into the “earth-form” of man, and he came to life. As the Zohar tells us, breath comes from the breather’s essence, so Hashem was imparting some of His essence to man when He breathed into us. The highest angels are not endowed with Hashem’s breath, and therefore can’t reach the level that man can achieve.
These ideas are lofty and deep, but it follows that our tzelem Elokim invests us with creative powers. If Hashem creates through the medium of speech and vision, then on a certain level, so can we. Everything Hashem creates is, by definition, tov. Hashem is the epitome of goodness. Man, however, is given bechirah, free choice, so we can create something tov, and we can create something ra, evil.
The Hebrew word tov means complete (Rashi, Bereishis 1:7). When we give someone an ayin tovah, we’re looking for the true good in what we see. We want the person to flourish and reach his or her full potential.
The Hebrew word ra means incomplete, destined to failure (Rashi, Yeshayahu 24:19). We give an ayin ra to a person we want to see fail or whom we want to exploit. It may be fueled by narcissism, fear, hatred, or simple jealousy.
The Hebrew word ayin can also mean spring (Bereishis 24:29). A spring is initially hidden, and then gushes forth and reveals itself. Similarly, our ayin tovah can take anything we see and reveal another layer of greatness or potential within it.
This is why the Jewish mothers were so excited to show their children to Moshe and Aharon in the “national census” of parshas Bamidbar (Ramban, Bamidbar 1:45). What a zechus to have the tzaddikim gaze at your children! Similarly, when your mother rests her eyes on your children, rest assured that on the deepest level she is giving them vibrancy and expression.
It’s fascinating to note that Chazal speak about ayin ra and not, for example, ozen ra, an “evil ear,” or an af ra, an “evil nose.” How can an eye be evil? An eye is nothing more than the organ of the human visual system. Only a person himself can be evil. But now that we understand that just like Hashem creates with the medium of vision, similarly a human eye is a creative force that can heal or hurt.
In a very real way, an eye can be a tool for building or a weapon of destruction.
(Note: As mentioned, Hashem also creates with speech, and therefore we have creative powers with speech. We can also choose to say lashon hara, speech that is destructive. However, the dynamics are not exactly like ayin hara and a full explanation is out of the scope of this essay).
A BEIS MIDRASH OF AYIN TOVAH
The Mishnah in Avos (5:19) relates that anyone who has the following three traits is a talmid of Avraham Avinu. The first trait listed is ayin tovah. The Mishnah continues that anyone with three opposite traits is a student of the evil Bilaam. Avrahama Avinu’s students inherit Olam Haba and Bilaam’s students inherit Gehinnom.
This Mishnah is puzzling on several accounts. When we talk about “students,” we picture rebbeim and talmidim grappling with Talmudic concepts that have their roots in Har Sinai, and hear the roar of the beis midrash. Since when is there a beis midrash of “middos” seemingly unconnected to limud haTorah?
This question is compounded by the statement about the reward and punishment of Olam Haba and Gehinnom. Why are they dependent on middos? Haven’t we always learned that Olam Haba is earned through Torah study and shemiras hamitzvos?
Rav Chaim Vital (Shaar Hakedushah 1:2) asks a fundamental question: Why aren’t middos listed as part of the Taryag Mitzvos? If the Torah tells us not to steal, why can’t it tell us, for example, not to get angry? He answers that middos are the fabric of creation itself. Every part of nature has the potential for tov and ra, and the destiny of the world, whether it will go in the direction of good or evil, is in the hands of mankind. Rav Chaim Vital concludes that middos are the “hachanah ikriyos” of the Taryag Mitzvos.
In simple language, middos are the roots of the Taryag Mitzvos. That’s why, for example, the Gemara states the seemingly exaggerated dictum that “anyone who gets angry is considered as if he has worshiped idols” (Shabbos 105a). Just like a bad root affects the whole tree, a bad middah undermines all of the Taryag Mitzvos.
The founding father of the beis midrash of good middos is Avraham Avinu. Indeed, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 12:9) tells us that when the Torah (Bereishis 2:4) says, “Eileh toldos haShamayim v’haaretz b’hiboram — These are the products of the heavens and the earth when they were created,” the letters of b’hiboram are exactly the same as b’Avraham, indicating that Avraham is the foundation and bedrock of the entire world.
Avraham built the world on chesed, lovingkindness. The Mishnah teaches us that the root of his chesed was his middah of ayin tovah. That’s why he was given the power of brachah, spreading blessing around the world. The pasuk in Mishlei (22:9) says, “Tov ayin hu yevarech, let the one with the ayin tovah spread brachah.”
Hashem’s first commandment to Avraham is to go to the Land “asher areka,” which literally means “that I will show you.” This can also be understood as “that I will empower you, so you can use your ayin tovah to bring out all the goodness of the Land.” Avraham Avinu’s challenge is to bring out his tzelem Elokim and express the human equivalent of “vayar Elokim es ha’ohr ki tov.” Everything Avraham looked at prospered and was filled with blessing.
He brought the world to the perfection of Olam Haba.
There’s an opposing “beis midrash.” This one is run by a man described as “shesum ha’ayin,” the one with the depraved eye (Balak 24:3, Rashi). Everything Bilaam looked at was filled with curses. He has the odious distinction of being the essence of ayin hara. Everything he looks at is dragged into his cursed vortex of Gehinnom.
TEARS FOR TAMMUZ
The Mishnah describes Bilaam as the anti-thesis of Avraham in how to see the world. Historically, however, Avraham Avinu’s nemesis was the Tzabah (Sabian) idolaters.
Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (3:29) describes in vivid detail the beliefs that Avraham was fighting. He includes the following bizarre story recorded in the Tzabian chronicles:
One of their prophets was called Tammuz. He tried to convince the king to worship the seven planets and twelve constellations, but instead was put to death in a gruesome and hideous way. That night all the idols from all corners of the word gathered at the hall of the great golden Sun God in Babylon. The Sun God was suspended between Heaven and Earth. It then fell into the middle of the hall surrounded by the other idols. The Sun God began to relate the tragedy of Tammuz and all night long the idols cried and lamented their loss. At dawn, the idols flew back to their sanctums across the world. This lead to a yearly ritual. On the first day of Tammuz (note: our Tammuz is named after the Tammuz of the Assyrian calendar), women would eulogize Tammuz and everyone would lament and cry.
Fast-forward to days before the Churban Bayis Rishon. Yechezkel Hanavi (Radak, Yechezkel, 8:14) describes the shocking spectacle of nashim mevakos es haTammuz, Jewish women mourning Tammuz. This grotesque ritual had endured over 1,300 years!
Sefer Yetzirah (5:2), a Kabbalah sefer attributed to Avraham Avinu, reveals that the month of Tammuz is associated with the power of vision. It also corresponds to the tribe of Reuven, whose name is connected to vision. Tammuz has the potential to be the essence of everything that is positive about vision.
Unfortunately, vision can go two ways. The Raavad (ibid) connects the tears for Tammuz the Tzabian prophet to the downfall of Tammuz, the month. Most of the Three Weeks of mourning are in the month of Tammuz. It begins with Klal Yisrael’s distorted vision of vayar ha’am (Rashi, Ki Sisa 32:1) that precipitated the Cheit Ha’eigel and ended with the distorted vision of the Cheit Hameraglim (Sanhedrin 104b).
As we approach the season that is tainted with sinas chinam, we need to work more than ever on the roots of that hatred. We must rejoin the yeshivah of Avraham Avinu. We must fill the world with boundless ayin tovah.
(Historical note: Tzabian beliefs began with Enosh, Adam Harishon’s grandson, and continued until Anshei Knesses Hagedolah removed the yetzer hara for avodah zarah after Churban Bayis Rishon. Incredibly, to this very day there is a sizeable, yet secretive Tzabian community in Iraq. However, their ancient astrolatry is meshed with Christian theology).
KEEP IT LOW
To avoid ayin hara, first and foremost, one should live a life of hatzneia leches, keeping a low profile, which is the ultimate level of modesty. As we mentioned, brachah thrives in a place that is hidden. If Hashem blesses you with wealth, don’t flaunt it, rather use it wisely to benefit the tzibbur (See Michtav MeEliyahu 3:313).
(Personal observation: I’m concerned that some of the tzaros of young married couples in recent years may come from their unfiltered sharing of personal photographs on social media. Maybe if the “like” buttons were switched to “ayin hara” buttons, they’d get the point.)
If you’re concerned about ayin hara, what should you do? Rav Moshe did not publicly give guidelines. However, as was always the case with Rav Moshe, he was sensitive to those who asked him questions about ayin hara and would answer accordingly.
One of his talmidim, a noted rosh yeshivah, relates:
I once shared with Rav Moshe that I had sent my son to Rav Aryeh Levin’s grandson on behalf of my daughter, who had difficulties with shidduchim. He had the family mesorah for a lachash (kabbalistic incantation) against ayin hara.
Sensing Rav Moshe’s surprise that I had taken that path, I tried to explain the gravity of her situation that pushed me in this direction. I mumbled the words, “I just felt like after years of unanswered tefillah and kivui [emunah in Hashem’s Rachamim]…”
I couldn’t finish my words and trailed off. Rav Moshe graciously finished my statement for me saying, “You couldn’t leave any stone unturned. Zeh b’seder.” Of course, he himself wouldn’t have suggested doing that. But that was Rav Moshe, instead of questioning, he was respectful and accepting.
Rav Moshe, as always, looked at everyone with the warm and compassionate eyes of ayin tovah.
Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women & Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, bli ayin hara.
In Real Life
THE SECRET OF SEGULOS
No matter how well we knew Rav Moshe, he always remained elusive, hiding layers and layers of depth. He was also the quintessential mechanech, which meant you could ask him a question about why he did something and he’d answer you, but someone from a different background would ask the exact same question and get a different answer. And the true reason for his responses he’d keep for himself.
With that in mind, I’d like to share with you a few anecdotes about Rav Moshe and segulos and conclude in trepidation with a suggestion on his overall viewpoint.
The sun was shedding its golden rays over Machaneh Yehudah, and Reb Shlomo Gershenfeld was catching a late Minchah at the bustling Zoharei Chamah “Sundial” minyan factory on Rechov Yafo. He watched as an elderly Yid was giving out copies of parshas hamahn. Two days earlier had been the “Tuesday of parshas B’Shalach” which in recent years had become famous for the segulah of the chassidic master, Reb Menachem Mendel of Riminov. He recommended saying parshas hamahn on that day as a segulah for parnassah. It was the new trend.
In those days, Rav Moshe was teaching in the nearby Eitz Chaim Yeshivah, and he too had just davened Minchah. To Rav Gershenfeld’s surprise, he saw Rav Moshe take a copy.
Fearless, Reb Shlomo approached Rav Moshe and said, “Anachnu osim devarim k’eileh? We recite a parshah in the Torah and then magically we don’t have to worry about parnassah for a year?”
Rav Moshe said, “Lama lo?” He explained that a segulah is a kli, a vessel that can contain shefa (abundance of goodness) coming down from Shamayim. But here is the catch: The kli can only work if you’ve worked very hard to bring down the shefa.
Rav Moshe explained that segulos are not a magical shortcut. The avodah (hard work) for parnassah includes tefillah, maasim tovim, and working on emunah. If you’ve worked on these things, the Heavenly shefa can come pouring down. The segulah can then be a vessel to contain them.
Reb Shlomo pressed on. “What did Rav Moshe think of the new custom where Ashkenazi men do pesichah (opening the Ark) when their wives are in their ninth month?” Reb Shlomo’s great grandfather, Rav Shimon Schwab ztz”l, did not approve of the custom. (Note: The custom is mentioned in the Chida Avodas Hakodesh 1:90.)
Rav Moshe replied that pesichah all year round unleashes rachamim min haShamayim. However, to do so without kavanah and tefillah is a maaseh kof b’alma, nothing more than the actions of a monkey.
Not all my friends received such positive responses. When asked about the Yerushalmi segulah of going to the Kosel for 40 days, Rav Moshe responded with, “Why can’t you just daven?” When a close talmid suggested a certain segulah, Rav Moshe gave him a piercing look and said, “Why don’t you just hang up a horseshoe?”
He was once driving home from Bnei Brak with a talmid who was also a doctor. Rav Moshe mentioned that his pregnant daughter was seriously overdue, which could be dangerous. The talmid suggested the segulah of drinking mother’s milk, citing that it had medical backing. Apparently the oxytocin hormones found in mother’s milk have been shown to induce labor. Rav Moshe responded that the relevant hormones can just as easily be found in a small pill!
He did, however, prescribe classic segulos for talmidim going through difficult situations. My brother-in-law, Reb Dovid Brown z”l of Memphis, learned at Ner Israel in Baltimore. On Purim night he died in a car crash. I was traumatized and shared my pain and fear of travel with my rebbi. He told me to start saying Shir shel Pegaim (Tehillim 91), adding that he had heard about the importance of this perek from the Chazon Ish (Shevuos 15b, Chazon Ish letters, 1:204). Subsequently we heard him recommend this perek to other talmidim who had gone through tzaros.
So what was Rav Moshe’s approach to segulos?
I think the rule number one is, in his emphatic words, “Al techapeis segulot! Don’t go searching for segulos.” There’s no question he was aghast at the culture of our generation where every few months a new segulah becomes fashionable. We live in a world where on any minor holiday in our calendar our neighborhood WhatsApp group will flood us with “important segulos to make the day meaningful!”
It’s is bizarre to see someone come to shul and daven a three-minute Shemoneh Esreh containing Chazal’s brachah for prosperity (bircas hashanim). He then turns his eyes heavenward and says, with deep kavanah, Tehillim, parshas hamahn and parshas haketores from a klaf (parchment) all as segulos for parnassah!
Segulos must never be a substitute for real avodah.
However, this does not negate the efficacy of segulos as a kli for shefa. But they should either be your ancestral mesorah or, as it always was with Rav Moshe, firmly rooted in Chazal. Such is the case with pesichas ha’aron and Shir shel Pegaim. The daily recital of parshas hamahn is based on a Yerushalmi and is mentioned in the very first chapter of Shulchan Aruch (1:5).
In Real Life
The first “human story” of ayin hara in the Torah is at first glance shocking. Hagar married Avraham Avinu and became immediately pregnant. Sarah Imeinu gave the pregnancy an ayin hara and Hagar lost her child (Lech Lecha, Rashi, 16:5). Hagar had been flaunting her pregnancy and gave the childless Sarah tremendous pain. Nevertheless, it still seems unbecoming that the noble Sarah would do something so disturbing.
The Chida (Pnei Dovid, Lech Lecha) explains that Sarah Imeinu was, as always, thinking about her future progeny. She saw with ruach hakodesh that Hagar’s first child would be completely evil. She also saw that Yishmael, Hagar’s second child, would eventually do teshuvah and submit himself to Yitzchak Avinu. Sarah’s evil eye ensured the survival of Klal Yisrael.
We’re anxiously waiting for that day when Yishmael’s children do teshuvah!
A beloved talmid of Rav Moshe’s cried to him that his wife had gone through three miscarriages in a row. Rav Moshe was visibly upset and thought for a while before he spoke. Three times in a row is a “chazakah” of “pisuk chayim” (roughly translated as a “consolidation” of “the removal of life”) he told him. “You need to involve yourself with promoting life.”
What’s life? On the most basic level, it means to be alive. Rav Moshe told his talmid to adopt a family struggling to survive financially and buy them chickens for Shabbos for a year so they should have what to eat.
On a deeper level, life is Torah. Although his talmid was already a noted marbitz Torah, Rav Moshe encouraged him to teach more shiurim and spread the Eitz Chayim in more directions.
Within a year they had a healthy son!
Interestingly, Rav Moshe told me that it is a mistake to think that a miscarriage is a random neshamah that came down for a tikkun. The neshamah is a child that on a deeper level belongs to the parents. Furthermore, the suffering of the parents, especially the mother, is an intrinsic part of the tikkun of the child. Of course, we have no idea what these things really mean. Nevertheless, the knowledge that there is a real connection to the fetus and that the suffering was not in vain is in itself a comfort.
Our story is consistent with Rav Moshe’s approach to react to a specific tzarah or sickness by focusing on a mitzvah that corresponds to what you’re going through.
Before Rav Zave Rudman had brain surgery for a rare condition of epilepsy, he went to his rebbi for a brachah. Rav Moshe told him that since he had been working on the writings of the Sfas Emes, he should take on himself to write up the ma’amarim of the Sfas Emes on tefillin, with specific focus on the tefillin shel rosh.
When Rav Moshe was diagnosed with a brain tumor, we noticed that he started wearing tefillin for Minchah. We speculated that he, too, wanted his tefillin shel rosh as a zechus for his condition.
Please continue to daven for the refuah shelaimah of Zave Chaim ben Chaya Aidel.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 650)
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