Re-envisioning the Evil Eye: Magic, Optical Theory, and Modern Supernaturalism in Jewish Thought

In: European Journal of Jewish Studies
J. H. Chajes
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This essay is a case study in the modern emergence of the “supernatural.” I argue that pre-modern understandings of the evil eye were predominantly naturalistic, based on extramissionist, haptic concepts of vision. The need to believe in the evil eye first arises when sight becomes universally understood as the result of light entering rather than emerging from the eyes. In the Jewish context, rabbis then begin to develop alternative explanations for its existence and efficacy. These novel etiologies were, for the first time, supernatural. Furthermore, an under-appreciated consequence of the emergence of the modern category of the supernatural is here revealed: rather than signifying the opprobrium of rejected knowledge, for certain religious communities, its embrace has come to represent spiritual conviction.

Humans are visual creatures.1 Neuroscientists tell us that some 50% of our brain is devoted to vision and much of the rest to its interpretation.2 From an evolutionary biological point of view, then, the human fascination with vision is hardly surprising.3 Indeed, it is “fascination” that I will discuss in what follows, athough as fascinare—a term that has been used since antiquity for the ill-tempered gaze that can inflict harm or even death upon its object. The fascinus could also refer to the remedy for the evil eye or invidia—literally a “looking upon.” This was often a phallic-shaped amulet, for reasons that will become clear.

The extensive literature on the evil eye, in Jewish culture and more universally, is folkloristic-descriptive.4 It is also rife with anachronism, with explanations that are often no more than the projections of the unreflective, a-historic presumptions of their authors. From these studies, we can learn how modern folklorists and anthropologists understand the evil eye, but almost nothing about how fascination was understood in previous eras.5 This is the lacuna I hope to fill. How indeed have Jews understood the evil eye? Have rabbis regarded it as real or imaginary, physical or spiritual, literal or metaphorical? If its veracity has been affirmed, how has it been presumed to work? Finally, how have pre-modern understandings of the evil eye fared in the modern era?

Let us begin by disposing of the central anachronism. Educated moderns typically presume the evil eye to be at most a psychological phenomenon, a form of suggestion. The presumed so-called “emic” position, however, is that the evil eye was a supernatural “belief.” So we are told in the voluminous literature on the subject, ad nauseam. Yet before the dawn of modernity only God was supernatural, literally above nature and beyond creation—meaning that everything the West has come to regard as supernatural since then was once presumed natural. As Stuart Clark explained in his lucid and comprehensive discussion:

In the late medieval system of nature (we recall) events were either natural, supernatural, or preternatural. Natural events occurred as the entirely regular, normal, uninterrupted consequences of the laws of nature, and supernatural ones as manifestations of the divine will acting above nature altogether. Preternatural events were within nature but were abnormal and deviant, and thus not part of scientia; they were either exotic but spontaneous products of the wonderful properties of natural things themselves, or they occurred when human or demonic agents practised with these properties to create artificial marvels. In the case of human agents, this was done by magia naturalis, and in the case of demons by magia daemonica. Only morality separated these two ‘magical’ technologies, not ontology or epistemology.6

“Occult” phenomena were classified as preternatural, as their (natural) mechanisms of efficacy were literally hidden from the eye. The deployment of apotropaic magical measures against the evil eye does not mean that the evil eye was conceived as operating supernaturally. These measures are forms of natural magic, and are intelligible as appropriately structured responses to the occult—i.e., invisible but real—threat posed by the hostile gaze. Premodern affirmations of the reality of fascination are therefore not expressions of “belief” in the supernatural, but rather of the presumption of its operation as a natural phenomenon, within the parameters of natural phenomena as they were then understood. It is only with the transition to modernity that the category of “the supernatural” emerges as a site for the pejorative reinscription of various forms of newly rejected knowledge.7 To understand the evil eye in the learned cultures of the premodern west, and for our purposes amongst Jews in particular, we must, therefore, begin with nature; we must look at the eye, or more precisely at how the eye and vision were seen.

Ancient symbol of omniscience, nexus of flesh and fire, the eye has been something of a privileged organ throughout history. And though most ancient Greek visual theorists “viewed light as a catalytic agent, [and] not as a visible entity in its own right,”8 biblical authors routinely linked light and the eye.9 Of all created things, light had pride of place: first creation in the biblical narrative and often conflated with the divine in later canonical literature. Yet the premodern eye was not merely the passive receptor of light we conceive of today. It was a radiating beacon; it was ready and malleable to light’s impress. Premodern optics, it should be stressed, was primarily interested in the sight of the eye rather than with light.10

So how was sight presumed to work? Allowing for unforgivable oversimplification, there were essentially two camps: the intromissionists, according to whom particles are “continually streaming off from the surface of bodies […]. And those given off for a long time retain the position and arrangement which their particles had when they formed part of the solid bodies.”11 These “replicas” enter the eye, causing visual apprehension. Extramissionists maintained that material or fiery rays streamed out from the eyes until they struck their objects. The atomists and Aristotle were leading exponents of the former view; the latter, dominant view, was held by Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, the Pythagoreans, and finally Galen. Critically, all ancient theories of vision regarded it as a haptic process; vision required physical contact between the viewer and the object being viewed.12 From this it should be clear that there could hardly be grounds for a learned scientific objection to the possibility of fascination before the seventeenth century, even amongst Aristotelians.

1 The Bloody Mirror

Aristotle’s famous discussion of the bloody mirror, which like his explanation of the rainbow in the Meteorology is unabashedly extramissionist despite his general advocation of intromission, suffices to exemplify such a possibility.13 In the bloody mirror discussion, Aristotle states as empirical fact that a menstruant woman’s gaze upon a highly polished surface results in the formation of blood spots upon it, transferred from her bloody constitution, through her eyes, to the polished surface. Sergius Kodera helpfully unpacks this idea in the following passage:

A beam of highly refined menstrual blood is emitted by pores of the body and the sense organs in general, but in particularly concentrated form by the eyes, which in the act of perception project this vapour onto the surface of all surrounding objects. In accordance with that, Aristotle maintains that the blood will become visible only on hard and polished things, such as mirrors, otherwise it is dispersed.

The story of the bloody mirror highlights the Greek idea that vision entails the exchange of material particles; to see means to enter into contact of some sort with the perceived object. Normally, this exchange is imperceptible, as the visual rays emitted by the eye are very fine; yet in the case of a very dirty, a particularly material gaze, that of a menstruating woman, the visual ray may condense on the surface of a very fine and clean mirror.14

Aristotle’s scientific authority ensured the acceptance of this assertion amongst the learned for centuries. In the late twelfth century, Alexander Neckham invoked the basilisk, the menstruant, and the bloody mirror in a presentation of Platonic and Galenic visual ray theory, a constellation of elements that would reappear in the works of thirteenth-century natural philosophers including Roger Bacon, Peter of Limoges, and Albertus Magnus.15 To give a Jewish example, we can hardly do better than Naḥmanides, the thirteenth-century preeminent rabbinic leader and scholar, who invoked the dangers of a menstruant’s gaze in his biblical commentary. One of the “wondrous works of generation,” he wrote, the phenomenon could be verified by having a woman in the early stage of her period stare at length at polished iron. Her temporarily foul, bloody constitution made her gaze as deadly as a basilisk’s.16 The menstruant, like the basilisk, emitted a poison that stuck: “for her foul [constitution] clings [to its object]”17 [ki ra’atah ro’ah mitdabbeq]. It would have been difficult for Naḥmanides to avoid encountering this tradition in the course of his medical studies. Although in 2005, during his term as an Israeli member of parliament, Roni Brizon published an essay to chastise Naḥmanides for his misogyny, identifying him as the “Orthodox” [!] woman-hating inventor of this primitive lie,18 Naḥmanides was neither the first not the last scholar to endorse this presumed Aristotelian teaching. Marcilio Ficino, the great fifteenth- century architect of Renaissance humanism, took it up in his treatment of the nature of matter. In Ficino’s view, “the blood contained in the heart is heated through emotional arousal and rises upwards to the head, in the process losing some of its material aspect. It ultimately finds its way out through the eyes, diluted into very subtle rays of light.”19 This motif would be ubiquitous in scientific works well into the seventeenth century.20

Kepler’s work on optics and vision, which definitively severed the physics of sight from its subsequent processing in the brain, or its post-sensory cognitive-psychological aspects, did not put an end to the advocation of extramission theories in some learned circles.21 (Kepler’s work obviously had negligible impact upon non-learned circles.) It is nevertheless the case that over the course of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, the extramissionist and even the “active” intromissionist theories of vision were supplanted in the discourse of the educated west by the post-Keplarian biological model, which is essentially a form of passive intromissionism. It is at this point that the extramissionist-based scientifically credible notion of the evil eye becomes a form of rejected knowledge.

In short, extramission, in one form or another, was a valid scientific assumption for 2000 years, making the evil eye entirely intelligible as a natural phenomenon. In a sense, my a fortiori argument is that popular conceptions of sight during those millennia—and within “popular” I include rabbinic sages and the unlettered alike—would certainly have believed in some form of natural extramission as well.

There is nevertheless great interest in the diversity of approaches that one finds upon closer inspection of optical theories during those two millennia, as those familiar with David Lindberg’s magisterial classic Theories of Vision and the impressive recent From Sight to Light by A. Mark Smith well appreciate.22 A comparable—indeed parallel and often intertwined—diversity is to be found in the history of the conceptualization of the evil eye. A full account of this diversity in Jewish culture alone would require monograph-length treatment. As something of a prolegomenon to such a monograph—which I am not promising to write—I would like to select a few telling case-studies from the long history of the intersecting discourses of optics and the evil eye in Jewish sources. The fate of the evil eye in rabbinic thought after the revolution in optical theory will be of particular interest.

2 Eyes of Destruction

First, just a few words about our subject in the classical rabbinic literature of late antiquity.23 Talmudic sources extol the powerful heat vision of the sages Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Simeon bar Yoḥai, as well as Rabbi Yoḥanan; each of these men possessed the power to reduce people to a heap of bones or ashes with a mere disapproving glance.24 Those who speculate on the Jewish roots of Superman25 would do well to recall these ancient Jewish precedents, and not merely Superman’s theonymic Hebrew name [Kal El ben Jor El], his lost-world alienation, and his super-superego.

The ancient rabbis believed that not just anybody but anything exposed to the public eye was in danger of destruction by the evil eye. Even the first Tablets of the Covenant were fated to be broken because of their public nature; the second Tablets fared better, having been delivered to Moses discretely. Rav Abba Arikha (175–247), the most distinguished rabbinic figure of his day, was of the opinion that 99 out of 100 people met their deaths through the evil eye (y. Shabbat 14:14c; Babylonian Talmud [hereafter b.] Bava Metzi’a 107b).26

The rabbinic concern with fascination went beyond hagiography and homiletics, as the evil eye was constitutive of the legal category “sight damage” [hezeq re’iyyah]—damage done by one person looking at another’s property. In b. Bava Batra, the rabbis answer the question of whether there is true liability in the case of sight damage in the affirmative: sight damage constitutes [real] damage [hezeq re’iyyah shmay hezeq]. This conclusion would be codified by medieval and early modern authorities, as may be seen in the works of R. Jacob ben Asher (c.1269–c.1343), Maimonides (1138–1204), and R. Joseph Caro (1488–1575).27 As the talmudic discussion of this category does not explore the question of how it actually works—perhaps because it was so obvious to contemporaries—it was left for the later commentators to do so. Thus, for example, Naḥmanides’s cousin R. Jonah Gerondi (1210–1263) invokes natural philosophers to explain the mishnaic statement of Rabbi Joshua according to which the evil eye is one of three things “that remove a person from the world.” According to scientists, he writes, the hostility felt by a jealous person generates a kind of internal vapor that rises to the head and then burns those gazed upon by the hostile party, who is himself poisoned by this same noxious vapor.28

Of course the evil eye was not discussed exclusively in legal literature; it held interest for kabbalists as well. That said, it is hard to see significant new treatment of the phenomenon in the zoharic literature of the late thirteenth century.29 Most of the references to the evil eye—eina bisha in the Zohar—echo famous passages in classical rabbinics, whether associating it with Balaam, or its immunity with Joseph.30 Practical tips for safekeeping include covering your child’s head with a kerchief (sudara, from Latin sudarium) in the marketplace to protect him from the evil eye, and being alert to the fact that most ayin ha-ra is inflicted by means of excessive praise (Zohar III:211b). A kabbalistic augmentation of the ancient Joseph apotropaic (to which we will return) explains its efficacy as deriving from the identity of Joseph with the sefirah or divine attribute of yesod [foundation]. As the latter is associated in kabbalistic symbolism with the phallus, the Zohar here effectively aligns itself with the ancient notion of the phallic anti-evil eye amulet, the fascinus.31

That the eye was perceived as a spring-like source of outgoing flux can be appreciated with particular force by means of an exemplary visual artifact. In a grand kabbalistic scroll of early sixteenth-century Italian provenance, we see the infinite divinity, Ein-Sof [lit. No End] figured as an eye, encircled with an inscription that stresses the divine glance as the font of creation:

And the first created thing is the intellect, but the First Cause is not intellect—for He fashions the intellect, and He is beyond that which has no end […]. And one should not be puzzled by God’s having hastened to gaze to create the world.32

Figure 1
Figure 1

Oxford–Bodleian Library MS Hunt. Add. D (Neubauer, 1949), detail

Citation: European Journal of Jewish Studies 15, 1 (2021) ; 10.1163/1872471X-11411098

In this stunning visualization of cosmological knowledge, God is literally pictured as seeing the world into being.33 And indeed, just below the figure of the eye, in the circle representing the first liminal sefirah of keter [crown] differentiated from the simple, infinite ground of Ein-Sof we see the figure of a flowing fountain. And although the identification is far from certain, the seemingly decorative transition between the seeing eye of Ein-Sof and the first sefirah may be invoking “conjunctiva curls”—thus representing the entire first emanated sefirah as the cross-section of an eyeball (see Fig. 1 above). Behind this stunning religious symbol is, in fact, the then prevalent scientific notion of the physiology of vision.34

2.1 Fascination with Fascination

I would like to move on to a consideration of our subject in the early modern period, which saw an extensive engagement in Jewish sources with sight and the evil eye. This would seem to parallel the rise of the genre of so-called “fascination literature” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.35

A particularly rich expression of this engagement may be found in R. Elijah de Vidas’s (1518–1592) Reshit Ḥokhmah [The Beginning of Wisdom], the greatest work of kabbalistic ethics produced in sixteenth-century Safed.36 De Vidas, a leading student of R. Moses Cordovero (1522–1570), devoted a chapter of the Gate of Holiness section to the sense of sight. In this chapter, De Vidas adduced extensive zoharic material on the eye, emphasizing what might be called symbolic anatomy: the significance of eye color, of the pupil, of the eyelids. Here, for example, the eyelids, gate-keepers of the eye, are associated with the Cherubs, the gate-keepers to the divine realm in biblical literature. The eyes exhibit the divine perfection of circularity, and are seven-layered and onion-like, like the heavens. And the pupil is none other than the Shekhinah, the divine presence.37

Central to De Vidas is the eye’s microcosmic nature. Writ small, the eye is a microcosm for the entire human body. Writ large, the eye is a microcosm for the universe, its anatomical structure paralleling the cosmic spheres. In this understanding, the eyes are a veritable orbis terrarum map: the whites are the great enveloping waters; the first band of color are the inhabited lands and seas; the second color is Zion, Jerusalem; and the pupil is the Holy of Holies, the Foundation Stone from whence flows light and Torah. De Vidas spells out the practical implications of this wealth of zoharic associations: whoever is careful to sanctify the eye sustains the body and indeed the entire world. Of course, any abuse of the eye will contribute to the destruction of the body and the world. A central technique advocated for the avoidance of “eye abuse” is the downward gaze.38

And although sight is clearly understood in extramissionist terms, De Vidas’s discussion is no less concerned with the internalization of that which has been seen.

For everything seen by a person is imaged [yiṣtayyer ka-davar], and the image is in his mind. Thus when he comes to pray or study Torah, material forms will be imaged in his mind, those he has seen, and the result is a flaw and confusion in thought and an inability to intend properly. Because the eyes see only by the power of the soul [mi-koaḥ ha-neshamah] and the power of the soul goes out and captures the object [of sight] and then imagines it in the imaginative mind […]. Thus if he has seen nudity [ervah], the result is his introduction of nudity to the supernal realm.39

Seeing is thus the release of soul energy into the external environment and the introduction of the materiality of the environment back into the soul of the seer. The downward gaze is the appropriate prophylactic technique for the avoidance of such an outcome. The ultimate recommendation, particularly when engaged in prayer, is to practice “visual asceticism”—namely to keep one’s eyes closed.40

De Vidas tells his readers that when they practice the downward gaze they do not merely avoid spiritual corruption, but actively contribute to the unification of the divine. (In the Kabbalah, there is a general presumption that our broken world is a reflection of the brokenness in divinity; both can be rectified through positive thought and action.) How so? As the eyes are associated in kabbalistic symbolism with the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) and the earth with adonai [Lord], the downward glance constitutes a unification of these two primary divine names. Looking elsewhere, however, introduces a division between them. As these names are associated with the Blessed Holy One and the Shekhinah, we should not be surprised by the analogy used by De Vidas to strengthen his point:

Every seed cast into the woman is not called “wasted seed.” And sight, which is Supernal Light emitting from the pupil [bat ayin], which is the highest yud [the first Hebrew letter of the Tetragrammaton], is like the material seed that is emitted from the sign (letter/ot) of the covenant, the lower yud. And just as with regard to the physical seed we have been commanded not to emit it wastefully, so too with regard to sight we must not emit it wastefully by looking upon something unnecessarily. Rather one’s eyes should be upon the earth and then (sight) is not wasted.41

He also notes the parallelism between semen, which originates as brain matter, and the seed of the eye, which is also a form of brain matter.42 The conflation of the eye with the penis, we recall, is a hallmark of the phallic fascinum amulets of antiquity; it was also a recurring trope in kabbalistic literature, as Elliot Wolfson has amply demonstrated.43

Although other senses are treated by De Vidas as “Chariots” for the divine, the stakes for sight are significantly and qualitatively higher. De Vidas, reflecting on his anthologized materials, speculates that this is due to the fact that when one does not look with care, one does damage to the pupil, which is, in fact, the Shekhinah, “from which the light emerges” [הפוגם ראותו פוגם בשכינה שהיא בת עין שמשם האור יוצא]‎.‬44

De Vidas continues his discussion with various tiqqunim or “fixings” for sight—from gazing upon sacred fringes (Num 15:38), to reading the Torah, to shedding tears at the loss of a departed saint. He concludes by returning to the subject of praying with closed eyes, a practice emphasized by his teacher Cordovero. The ideal of closed eyes is conducive to inner vision:

The eye was not created to see material objects but to be like the eye of the prophets who gazed upon the Supernal Chariot in spiritual visions. These are only possible to obtain with a closed eye and by ignoring material objects.45

De Vidas’s richly symbolic treatment of the eye and sight may be the pinnacle of such a discourse in the golden age of Safed. A very different discourse would emerge from sixteenth-century Safed, however, in the teachings of R. Isaac Luria (1534–1572), primarily as (re)presented in the works of his primary disciple, R. Ḥayyim Vital (1543–1620).46 Luria’s approach has been characterized as “mythic” by Yehudah Liebes, meaning that Luria’s presentation of divinity was not symbolic, but 1:1, precise, and objective.47 Luria’s Kabbalah featured a divine macanthropos, a God about whom one could learn from studying oneself—in particular one’s own anatomy and physiology. Thus in the Lurianic discussions of the emanation of creation, the structure of Adam Qadmon [the Primordial Adam] and its luminary pathways are often inferred from the most prosaic of reflections on one’s own embodied experience. In the very first stages of creation, streams of light of varied qualities flow, like breath, from the facial orifices. Predictably, the breath-flow of lights from the mouth and nose is strong and tangible. Somewhat surprisingly, the ears have a distinct flow as well, which, we are told, may be confirmed simply by plugging them with one’s fingers for a moment and hearing the rushing sound. And the eyes of Adam Qadmon: these emit a subtle but critical flux, points of light called “dots” [niqqudim] after Jacob’s spotted sheep. These light-points play a central role in the unfolding of creation, but for our purposes it suffices to emphasize that Luria’s macanthropos, like all humans, had streaming eyes.

From the eye begins the aspect of dots (niqqudim), as the breath-flow (hevel) of the eye is unlike the aforementioned (ears, nose, mouth). For the light of the vowel points (neqquddot) is smaller than the cantillation marks (ṭeʿamim). Nevertheless there is still some real power of gazing in the eye (yesh qeṣat koaḥ histaklut mamashi ba-ayin), like the ostrich who gazes upon the egg and the chick is hatched. From this gazing emerged the dots (niqqudim).48

The ostrich motif invoked by Luria49 has its origins in the fourth-century bestiary Physiologus, a work that blended classical, Egyptian, and Indian sources.50 The motif is not widespread in Jewish sources, but can be found before its Lurianic invocation, for example in the works of R. Simeon ben Ṣemaḥ Duran (1361–1444).51 Duran calls the phenomenon “a wonder of nature” but notes that he has never found it discussed in the works of natural philosophers. That said, he finds it plausible given the eye’s emission of sparks [ki me-ha-ayin mitpazrim niṣuṣot], and, again, Aristotle’s authoritative discussion of the bloody mirror.

The integration of cosmology and anthropology in Luria’s treatment of the eye is apparent in his discussion of the circular, rather than linear, form of its emissions. For readers wondering why the lights of the eye emerge as points (or circles or spheres, as the languages of dimensionality are used interchangeably in this literature, as they are in the contemporary works of Giordano Bruno, for example),52 the reader is informed:

Know that the light of the eye is dissimilar to that of the other orifices. For when a person stands facing one direction, that person is able to gaze to the sides and to move (le-naʿanea) the view of the eyes without moving his body or head at all […]. This is unlike the other lights, like the light of the nose, as the breath comes out straight, and so too of the mouth and the eye. Thus the lights that go out straight become the linear aspect (beḥinat yosher) but the dots (niqqudim) that emerge from the aspect of the eyes expand to surround Adam qadmon by means of circles.53

Here it is apposite to recall that Lurianism was articulated in—and widely perceived as—a form of scientific discourse. In practice, this generally meant that Lurianism read like an application of early modern natural philosophy to the divine realm. R. Joseph Solomon Delmedigo’s work provides an interesting example of this phenomenon as well, when a discussion of the debate over the nature of light brings Delmedigo to mention, in an aside, that Luria’s teaching on the niqqudim were in fact in accordance with the correct atomist theory of early Greek scientists, as reported by Lucretius.54 Natural philosophers indeed took note of Lurianism, and the perception of Lurianism as a complementary divine science was practically de rigueur amongst learned Christians for most of the seventeenth century.55

Michael Camille points out that most learned writers had moved to the intromissionist camp by the sixteenth century.56 Kabbalists seem not to have followed suit and continued to express extramissionist views. Thus seventeenth-century R. Avraham Ḥayyim Schorr, in his talmudic novellae, explained the evil eye as “a spark and evil and harmful flow emitted from the eye and which reaches the object seen and clings to it.” Schorr continues with his own account of the bloody mirror and the basilisk (here as “flying seraf ”).57 In the first half of the eighteenth century, we find R. Isaac Lampronti (1679–1756) showing awareness of the contested status of extramission amongst natural scientists—though his authorities are Ovid and Pliny rather than the scientists of his own generation.58 Lampronti sides squarely with those classical authorities who maintained an understanding of optics that was compatible with a natural understanding of the evil eye. Even later, R. Ṣvi Elimelech Spira of Dynów (1783–1841) invoked the authority of “scientists” [ḥoqrim] in his Bnai Yissaschar, noting that researchers had studied whether light travels from the eye to its object or the reverse, and proved the former to be true.59 Even in the mid-twentieth century, R. Ben-Zion Meir Ḥai Ouziel, the first Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel (1880–1953), was asked whether conducting a census in the fledgling state was permissible, given the prohibitions against counting, grounded as they are in classical rabbinic literature in considerations of avoiding the evil eye. Although ultimately deciding that the state census could proceed, Ouziel was the relatively rare modern rabbi who remained an unrepentant extramissionist, writing “there is no denying the natural phenomenon of venomous evil eye, which gravely injures one subject to it.”60

2.2 Salvaging Extramission: Modern and Post-modern Approaches

2.2.1 Eighteenth-Century Ambivalences

When considering the scientific attitudes and education of Jews in the eigh-teenth century, one work stands out: Sefer ha-Brit [Book of the Covenant]. This famous and frequently republished scientific encyclopedia was published in 1797 by its Lithuanian rabbinic author, R. Pinhas Elijah Hurwitz.61 This work, recently treated in a fascinating study by David Ruderman, provided the “secular” educations of many rabbinic luminaries through the nineteenth century, and even today is cited as a scientific source in rabbinic responsa. Hurwitz’s work presents, in Ruderman’s words, “a systematic exposition” on the sciences of his day: “astronomy and cosmology, the elements, geography, meteorology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, embryology, anatomy, and psychology.”62

In what seems to today’s reader a rather unexpected twist, Hurwitz’s rationale for providing this up-to-date information on the physical world was that such an education was required for one who would seek to attain the Holy Spirit and prophecy. Indeed, Sefer ha-Brit declares itself a companion volume to R. Ḥayyim Vital’s Sha’arei Qedushah [Gates of Holiness], a work designed just for that purpose.

Hurwitz’s discussion of optics includes a presentation of the anatomy of the eye, which is entirely modern and includes German and Latin terms and their Hebrew equivalents.63 The scientific presentation is framed in traditional language, and introduced with such niceties as “for the sense of sight, the Blessed Holy One created eyes.” Hurwitz adopts a tactic that would be used by subsequent pietists who adopted contemporary scientific or medical theory rather than traditional views: he marvels at the wonders of these creations of the Lord, wonders only magnified by the latest revelations of their complexity. Thus in his discussion of the retina, which he describes without any of the pregnant symbolism we saw in De Vidas, Hurwitz tells his reader of its “wondrous quality” [segulah nifla’ah]: when confronted with great light it expands, while in darkness it contracts—all the while retaining its round shape. He does not miss the opportunity to remind his reader here not to strain their eyes by reading or working without proper (moderate) lighting!

After presenting the anatomical features of the eye, Hurwitz briefly discusses the classical debates on vision between extramissionists and intromissionists, but notes that “recent scholars of optics have delved more deeply into this matter” and properly understood vision on the basis of a proper explanation of light and its reflection off of opaque objects. Here the eye has “shifted from being a gateway to the soul to being an instrument like the camera obscura.”64 And indeed, Hurwitz does not fail to invoke the prism and the camera obscura in his discourse on vision, as well as recent innovations in corrective lenses for improving vision, which he lauds65—despite the fact that many premodern authorities believed that putting glass in front of one’s eyes mediated vision harmfully and could lead to cognitive errors as well as damage to the objects of vision from the magnified rays of the eyes.66 Hurwitz’s au courant review is followed by a return to praising the Lord for the marvels of eyes, including those of creatures with particularly effective models. He is most enthusiastic about the discovery of microscopic creatures that for all their invisibility have still been given complex, working eyes by the Creator. “We can’t even see them, but they can see,” Hurwitz declares. He is no less grateful to the Lord for having had the good sense to sink our eyes deeply into our skulls, lest they be overly vulnerable.

Tellingly, Hurwitz concludes his treatment of optics with a discussion of fascination:

Know, my brother, that the faculty of excretion that the blessed creator put in the nature of people serves to excrete foul, putrid vapors out of the body constantly through the holes in the body called pores, which retain the good. This is true even of the eyes, which also have pores. The particles (azmiim) that go out of the eyes will harm a person who is susceptible to them and cause loss and damage to his body and property, and this is a common evil matter seen by the eyes of men and women. Thus it is even with a man right in God’s eyes (ish yashar be-einav), that sometimes even a good person, through his eyes, will cause his friend a loss and give him the evil eye even if he loves him like his own self—and he does so unaware and is not guilty, because it is the vapor that he excretes that is evil.67

The situation is of course much graver when the emission is from a person of foul character. Hurwitz’s a fortiori argument in this case leads to his conclusion that people be modest in all their actions so as not to attract the attention of such types.

Addressing himself to his educated, sophisticated reader, Hurwitz closes his chapter by imploring the latter not to be dismissive of the evil eye, nor to ridicule. After all, its veracity is attested to throughout scripture and rabbinic literature, and if that’s not good enough: it’s even in Rashi (and the Zohar).68 In a flourish that is hard to square with his vapor theory, Hurwitz leaves his readers with a tip: avoid being near windows on public thoroughfares. Why? They act as a magnifying glass for the evil eye.

Should we read Hurwitz with a Straussian hermeneutic of suspicion? Are his pietistic flourishes and clumsy, even contradictory, attempts to explain the evil eye in modern terms designed to alert enlightened readers to his critical perspectives while placating reactionary elements? David Ruderman’s recent treatment does not go this route, and makes a good case for an earnest reading Hurwitz in all of his bewildering complexity. Whatever the case, Hurwitz’s earnestness with regard to the evil eye would only be surpassed in a work that appeared in our own generation.

2.2.2 Pseudophysiology

R. Yiṣḥaq Peḥa (1940–2012), called the RI”F (!) by the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, R. Ovadiah Yosef, and the author of numerous works treating matters medical and magical, published Olei Ayin in 1990.69 The work takes its name from a Hebrew homonym in Gen 49:22, “בֵּן פֹּרָת יֹוסֵף בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי־עָיִן,” which Robert Alter translates as “A fruitful son is Joseph, a fruitful son by a spring.” In Hebrew, “spring” and “eye” are homonyms, each rendered as ayin. This homonym formed the basis for the famous rabbinic assertion that Joseph and his descendants were immune to the evil eye: “Do not read ale ayin [by a fountain] but ule ayin [overcoming (lit. above) the evil eye]” (b. Berakhot 55b).70 To this day, this verse from Genesis is the most popular inscription for use in all manner of apotropaic amulets against the evil eye sold in the Jewish world.71 Peḥa’s work is impressive in its anthological breadth. In the tradition of published works of Jewish magic, Peḥa’s book was marketed as if it itself was an amulet rather than as a work with literary or scholarly merits.72 Indeed, Olei Ayin provides a popular printed amulet against the evil eye on its cover!

Peḥa opens by asking why, given its seeming universality, has there never been scientific research into the reality of the evil eye? Is it a real, empirically verifiable phenomenon or imaginary folklore? Although the bulk of his book is devoted to anthologizing Jewish sources on the topic, Peḥa attempts to remedy the lack of scientific attention to the subject in an introductory chapter that sets out for his readers a modern, albeit popular presentation of the anatomy and physiology of sight. It is on the basis of this presentation that he advances his own theory of the evil eye. As opposed to modern rabbis who retain premodern constructs of vision in their discussions out of an ignorance unlikely to be noticed, let alone challenged by their typical readers, Peḥa accepts the anatomy and physiology of his day largely as givens. He is utterly uninterested in exploring premodern theories of vision, as understanding these would make no contribution to his attempt to disclose the mechanism of the evil eye in “reality.”

Peḥa’s modernism also takes a page from the “intelligent design” camp.73 Like Hurwitz almost two centuries earlier, Peḥa revels in the “wonders of creation” even as he presents summaries and two-tone reproductions from a vintage Israeli Time-Life book on the eye. His discussion indeed opens with the claim that “The eye cannot be reconciled with evolution, it is a known enemy of the theory, it frightens its chief exponents, and caused Darwin no little discomfort.” It is no wonder, he says in the name of Ernst Haeckel, “the sworn and zealous Darwinist,” “that so many have seen in the eye the work of a supreme craftsman, who fashioned it with wisdom according to a predetermined plan—for a specific purpose.”74

Peḥa’s rhetorical efforts to place the eye beyond comprehension even in the eyes of scientists are not merely outbursts of reactionary self-reassurance; they are calculated to set the stage for his own attempt to suggest that this incomprehensible organ can still be responsible for the evil eye, given what we know—and especially what we do not know—about optics today.

Peḥa has an almost refreshing humility about his project. He clearly informs his readers that the real science has not been done to prove his theory, but that he hopes that his efforts to learn about the subject and to construct a plausible theory will inspire scientists to apply themselves fully to discovering the mechanisms that account for the evil eye. Of course, this scientific project requires the cooperation of expert researchers working in fields including “anatomy, neurology, wave and particle physics, radiation, biochemistry, the psychology of sight, general psychology, brain and nervous system anatomy, and in addition philosophy and human behavior.” Without this massive moon-shot-style collaboration, the scientific basis of the evil eye can neither be conclusively proved nor disproved.

Peḥa knows that his theory is provisional, but he is nevertheless proud “to have lifted this topic out of the abyss of fairytales, folklore, and superstitions, and brought it closer to being recognized that there is a possibility in the reality of our world for that which is called ‘the evil eye.’”75

Now, you really need to know a lot of science (at least 16 pages worth, it would seem) to follow the theory, but here it is in a nutshell:

  1. When a person is stressed, panicked, emotional, etc., her heart rate and associated electrical nervous system impulses increase. These electrical impulses, upon contact with cells, produce acetylcholine. The acetylcholine produces a wave of electrical energy. To keep the reaction under control, the acetylcholine is broken down by the enzyme acetyl-cholinesterase. When the situation is extreme, however, the acetyl-cholinesterase is overwhelmed, causing an increasing amplification of the electrical energy.

  2. When a person feels uneasy about someone else, immediate chemical changes take place in his body, as may be witnessed in rapid heartbeat, blushing, facial contortions, and suggestive stares. These last are where the damage of the evil eye begins.

  3. Peḥa reiterates that everything a person feels is immediately manifest in specific biochemistry. When a person is emotionally overwhelmed, the regulation systems governing his biochemistry are overburdened and fail. The chemical-electrical chain reaction ultimately surges to the brain, specifically to the thalamus. Where does all this energy and destructive acidic material go that builds up there? The thalamus takes charge and sends a command to the occipital lobe, connected as it is to the retina.

  4. The excessive acidic matter escapes through the person’s eyes, which radiate the material to the object before him, causing cellular damage, which leads to weakness and destruction. In short: “The combination of acidic chemicals and the flow of energy waves are the causes of the damage of the evil eye.”76

Peḥa, like Hurwitz before him, has come to the defense of a phenomenon increasingly viewed as superstitious folklore by insisting that it may in fact be plausibly explained in terms of modern science. Hurwitz and Peḥa represent the beginning and end of “modernist” attempts to salvage the plausibility of the evil eye by insisting on its current scientific credibility.

3 Psychology, Spirituality, and Supernaturalism

In his 2004 publication, Body, Mind and Soul, R. Yitzchak Ginsburgh set forth his conception of “Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease, and Healing.”77 According to the work’s preface, “The conventional methodology of diagnosis and treatment has traditionally focused on determining the immediate cause of an illness by empirical observation of its symptoms.”78 In Ginsburgh’s postmodern imagination, the modern has become archaic! The limitations of modern empirically based medicine have become apparent to many, we are informed, and an “interest in the psychological and spiritual origins of disease has begun to have a great impact on the way physicians practice modern medicine.”79 Indeed, “Recent scientific research notes fundamental relationships between the mind and the body, connections that were known and described hundreds of years ago by scholars of the Torah and Kabbalah.”80 Taking a page, by now rather yellowed, from such classics as Gary Zukav’s 1979 Dancing Wu Li Masters in which tai chi elided into the new physics,81 Ginsburgh’s work would have the reader believe that the newest medical insights are to be found in his own idiosyncratic presentation of kabbalistic and ḥasidic concepts. Unlike Zukav’s attempt to facilitate the introduction of his readers to the new physics by means of a gentle Chinese-inflected poetics, Ginsburgh’s goal is chiefly the assertion of the supremacy of Kabbalistic diagnostication and treatment.

Given his position, we might have expected Ginsburgh to present his readers with an introduction to the anatomy, physiology, and the etiology of disease that were presumed by his pre-modern kabbalistic sources. Rather than do so, however, the rabbi notably retains modern western conceptions of these subjects and attempts, rather clumsily, to enhance or integrate them with kabbalistic perspectives. “The power of sight itself emanates from the inner point of the pupil. Sight occurs when external, physical light hits the eye, activating the eye’s innate power to emanate its own spiritual light, which then ‘photographs’ the scene of its field of vision.”82 “Sight occurs,” as he phrases it passively, when “external, physical light” (as opposed to inner, spiritual light) hits the eye. But the “power of sight emanates” from the inner point of the pupil, and Ginsburgh reiterates the extramission concept of vision again in his assertion that “the eye’s innate power to emanate its own spiritual light” is activated by physical light before “photographing” the scene. “Photographing” is an interesting metaphor here, as the camera is an entirely passive device: a lens admits light into a light-proof box to impress film or, nowadays, a digital sensor. “Photographing” enjoys an active connotation—think Robert Capa—but when the eye becomes a camera, it relinquishes any emanatory ambitions.

Ginsburgh’s confused presentation is the almost inevitable result of a hapless attempt to combine the pre-modern active concept of sight with the modern passive conception. The rabbi spares his reader a full account of pre-modern theories of vision. At the very least, he knows that the notion of the eye emitting a beam-like vision ray will be dubious to even his most naive new-age readers. More likely, he himself accepts the “traditional” modern scientific understanding of the organ, alongside of which he is advances a transvalued premodern understanding, making what was once physical now “spiritual.”83

4 The Passive Evil Eye

In most of the modern materials I examined, the writers evince no awareness of the historical contingency of their own conception of sight. A learned article treating the halakhic category of “sight damage” by the Israeli modern Orthodox84 rabbi Ḥaggai Dvir, who, according to the bio accompanying the article, was at the time a graduate student at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, thus opens with the declaration,

It would seem that sight has no ability to act materially, as it is simply a way of receiving data. Nevertheless, the Sages were of the opinion that even by such a passive act a person could cause damage to his environment.85

A year later, in 2013, Dvir published yet another salient article, this time focusing on the evil eye. In the essay, “Ain ha-Ra: Mysticism, Naturalism, and Spirituality,” the author distinguishes between “physical” (Dvir’s quotation marks) and “natural” explanations, while conflating the former with the “mystical.” Thus, in his words, “the explanations that are most radically mystical are those that are physical. They understand the mechanism of the evil eye literally, not just in a spiritual dimension, but in the concrete physical dimension.” These understandings he dismisses as mystical, a term he uses in the sense of “unexplained” in terms of modern science. Dvir opts instead for what he calls “spiritual-psychological” explanations, and ultimately argues that the evil eye refers to a kind of incomplete seeing, a breakdown in holistic vision, that has catastrophic consequences.86

5 The Occasionalist Evil Eye

The most prominent and recurring explanation for ayin ha-ra in modern rabbinic writing, however, is one that dramatically shifts its presumed pathway. No longer conceivable in terms of an actual noxious flow from the eye to its object, the deadly threat of fascination is now said to be a result of the implicit accusation (legitimate or not) of the beholder that arouses divine scrutiny. The heavenly ledger books of the involved parties are then opened, often to their detriment.87 We find this approach in the mid-nineteenth-century work Eyal Miluim by R. Aryeh Leib Kara of Krotoszyn.88 Taking up Rashi’s famous comment on Exod 30:12 to the effect that the census of the Israelites carried the danger of the evil eye, Kara writes that, quite frankly, he finds it difficult to accept that a person can harm another with his eyes. Kara proposes that the correct understanding of the threat is along the lines just described. This understanding persists in contemporary ḥaredi [Ultra-Orthodox] publications, as a review of weekly parsha [weekly Torah periscope] newsletters may exemplify. One such newsletter, Umqa de-Parsha [Depths of the Pericope] was circulated in the summer of 2014 in the Israeli city of Modi’in Illit in time for the annual reading of the Balaam story (Num 22–24), and, in keeping with ancient traditions linking Balaam and the evil eye, provided three extended articles on the subject by rabbis associated with the educational outreach organization Kovei Itim.89 The first article, by Rav Avraham Levy, opens with the simple declaration that “the essence of the evil eye is the matter of accusation (qiṭrug) […] and it is a supernatural matter (inyan seguli).”90 Levy presents this as the position of leading figures including R. Yitzchok Hutner (1906–1980). Although Levy notes that the Ḥazon Ish (R. Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878–1953) indicated that the evil eye was “a secret of creation,” the principle of everything being in God’s hands nevertheless was paramount. Levy’s colleague, Rav Ziv Satschlike, contributed an article that asks the question “Do eyeglasses block the transmission of the evil eye?” After reviewing a number of sources, including talmudic discussions of sight damage, he concludes that they do. Satschlike prefaces his discussion by explaining how the evil eye works: either God processes the accusation as I have described, or it is supernatural [seguli]. (Note that Levy’s presentation conflated the two options distinguished by Satschlike.) Unlike Levy, Satschlike prefers the supernatural explanation, and understands all of the historical expressions of extramission-inflicted damage as supernatural by definition. As a man of faith, accepting the veracity of a supernatural phenomenon that had been universally “believed in” by rabbis for millennia was a given, and no more theologically problematic than the “occasionalism”91 of its alternative. Satschlike’s work exemplifies an under-appreciated consequence of the emergence of the modern category of the supernatural: rather than signifying the opprobrium of rejected knowledge,92 for certain religious communities, its embrace has come to represent spiritual conviction. Thus a premodern scientific theory of sight—now naively reinscribed in the domain of the supernatural—becomes an article of faith.

6 Dismissive Demonization

Two eminent twentieth-century rabbinic authorities, R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, proposed psychological and, indeed, supernatural explanations for a phenomenon they realized could no longer sustain scientific justification. Feinstein, the leading rabbinic authority in American Orthodoxy, reassured his modern community that they need not fear the evil eye. In his responsum on the subject there is no hint that the danger could possibly be understood as a natural phenomenon. To the contrary, Feinstein links it to demons, about whom already the Sages of old opined, “if you don’t bother with them, they don’t bother with you.”93 The conflation of the evil eye with evil spirits is implicit in the very strange discussions of two other twentieth-century rabbinic giants, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (“The Steipler,” 1899–1985) and Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, (“The Ḥazon Ish,” 1878–1953).94 Kanievsky is said to have known an incantation [laḥash] against the evil eye; Karelitz referred a person for treatment to Kanievsky accordingly. More striking, however, was the rumor confirmed by Kanievsky’s son Ḥaim, according to which Karelitz had banished the evil eye from the largely Ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. This supposed banishment of the evil eye, expelled—or better, exorcised—from the city by the Ḥazon Ish continues to generate excited debate in the ḥaredi world to this day. A simple Google search will reveal ḥaredi discussion groups that consider just how the municipal borders set by a city council can possibly determine whether the evil eye will have power over the residents of a given street. And what of the various things prohibited in the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulḥan Arukh [Ordered Table], because of the evil eye, such as calling two brothers or a father and son to read from the Torah one after another? May they be done in Bnei Brak? For answers, the internet and Bar Ilan’s Responsa Project await you.95


An examination of the intersection of theories of vision and constructions of the evil eye provide an interesting example, alongside the better known cases from astronomy and chemistry, of a scientific theory thoroughly integrated in rabbinic and kabbalistic discourse, which was then discredited and eventually all but forgotten, rendering the traditional materials unintelligible without some form of transvaluation.96

I have shown how the evil eye was always understood in terms of some haptic theory of sight, and then that with the assimilation of Kepler’s optics (even on a popular level), it became something that “believers” now had to explain without recourse to extramission (and usually without awareness of the former centrality of extramission theory in its etiology). There is a key difference between the seventeenth-century revolutions in astronomy, chemistry, and optics: Kepler’s revolution remained somewhat more esoteric and removed from public discourse than did those of Copernicus and Lavoisier. Thus although today few educated Westerners would believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, or that there are four basic elements in the universe, a recent Ohio State University study indicates that no less than seventy percent of college students believe that the act of sight involves extramission from the eye.97


Research for this article was funded by the Israel Science Foundation, Grant 1259/14.


Visual areas occupy the posterior 50% or so of the cerebral cortex. See Semir Zeki, A Vision of the Brain (Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1993), 94–114. See also A. David Milner and Melvyn A. Goodale, The Visual Brain in Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).


The biological veracity of my assertion is hardly assailable, but many contemporary cultural critics have nevertheless argued that the sense of vision has been over-privileged in Western cultures in order to control and oppress. See, e.g., David Michael Levin, Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).


See, e.g., Rivka Ulmer, The Evil Eye in the Bible and in Rabbinic Literature (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1994). More generally, see Clarence Maloney (ed.), The Evil Eye (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976); Alan Dundes (ed.), The Evil Eye: A Case Book (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 95, 109–111, 152, 283–284. For an ethnographic account focusing on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Palestine, see, for example, Lydia Einzsler, “Das böse Auge,” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 12 (1889): 200–222.


A recent study of amulets thus introduces a section on the evil eye with the declaration that “the source of this universal belief in the Evil Eye is in the presumption that the gaze reveals magically the evil intentions of the person’s soul, as the eye is the window of the soul.” Ḥen Avizohar, Three Apotropaic Amulets for the Mother and Newborn Against Lilith and Other Malicious Spirits (M.A. thesis, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 2014), 68 [Hebrew].


Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). See especially his discussion on pp. 165–178, 261–280. The citation here is on p. 262.


For a recent exploration of these issues and basic bibliography see J. H. Chajes, “Entzauberung and Jewish Modernity: On ‘Magic,’ Enlightenment, and Faith,” Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 6 (2007): 191–200. On “rejected knowledge,” see Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). The category of “rejected knowledge” was first developed by James Webb in The Occult Underground (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974).


A. Mark Smith, From Sight to Light: The Passage From Ancient to Modern Optics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 72.


See e.g., 1 Sam 14:27; Ps 28:11; Prov 15:30. These examples are all implicitly extramissionist, referring in some fashion to the light of the eyes.


See most recently and extensively Smith, From Sight to Light.


Diogenes Laertius citing the theory of Epicurus (341–270 BCE), as cited in ibid., 30.


See Berthold Hub, “Material Gazes and Flying Images in Marsilio Ficino and Michelangelo,” in Spirits Unseen: The Representation of Subtle Bodies in Early Modern European Culture, eds. Christine Göttler and Wolfgang Neuber (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 93–120, at 93.


For a discussion of the rainbow explanation and a general consideration of Aristotle’s inconsistency in these matters, see Smith, From Sight to Light, 26–35. On the bloody mirror, see Aristotle, De insomniis, 459 b 24–28, 460 a 24–27; and the discussion in Berthold Hub, “Aristotle’s ‘Bloody Mirror’ and Natural Science in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in The Mirror in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: Specular Reflections, ed. Nancy Frelick (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016), 31–71. Hub, not unlike Smith, downplays the significance of the contradiction between Aristotle’s positions. From the point of view of reception history, the bloody mirror was believed to be an Aristotelian position until the twentieth century when some questioned its authenticity. Beyond that, Hub notes that Aristotle presented the extramission theory in undisputed works including Meteorologica, De caelo, and De generatione animalium.


Sergius Kodera, “Narcissus, Divine Gazes and Bloody Mirrors: The Concept of Matter in Ficino,” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, eds. Michael J. B. Allen and Valery Rees with Martin Davies (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 285–306, at 304.


Hub, “Aristotle’s ‘Bloody Mirror.’”


The danger of a niddah’s glance is mentioned by Naḥmanides in his commentary in a number of locations. The characterization here is based on his commentary on Lev 18:19. On Naḥmanides’s conception of menstruation, see the pioneering essay by Sharon Faye Koren, “Kabbalistic Physiology: Isaac the Blind, Nahmanides, and Moses De Leon on Menstruation,” AJS Review 28(2) (2004): 317–339, at 325–332. See also Hannah Davidson, “Like a Viper that Kills with Its Glance: Naḥmanides’s Conception of Menstruation,” Hispania Judaica 5 (2007): 1–41 [Hebrew]. Davidson has also published a recent essay in which she specifically examines the texts of Naḥmanides pertinent to the evil eye. These she explains as deriving from his medical studies and consequent familiarity with mind-body theories prevalent in Greco-Arabic as well as Latin traditions. Davidson does not dwell upon the significance of extramission in her analysis, and oddly emphasizes the “belief” in the evil eye by Naḥmanides (as well as by R. Nissim Gerondi), thus belying her broader thesis that these ideas were perfectly scientific at the time. See Ḥannah Davidson, “The Mind-Body Connection: Physiognomy and the Evil Eye in the Writings of Nachmanides and Nissim Gerondi,” Sefunot 25 (2017): 287–316, esp. 302–308 [Hebrew].


This usage is attested to in medieval Hebrew translations of Galen, for example. See Jacob Klatzkin, Thesaurus Philosophicus (Berlin: Eschkol, 1933), IV, 46.


Roni Brizon, “On the Impurity of Woman and Kashrut Business of the Haredim”, [Hebrew]. All websites were accessed on 22 May 2018, unless otherwise mentioned.


In Theologia Platonica (1482), Ficino “postulated the existence of ocular rays made out of invisible ‘spirits.’” See Thijs Weststeijn, “Seeing and the Transfer of Spirits in Early Modern Art Theory,” in Renaissance Theories of Vision, eds. John Hendrix and Charles H. Carman (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 149.


Hub’s aforementioned article traces the motif in detail through 1600, and points to its persistence well into the nineteenth century. For the later period see Katharina Weisrock, Götterblick und Zaubermacht: Auge, Blick und Wahrnehmung in Aufklärung und Romantik (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1990). The trope recurs in rabbinic writings as well, often apropos discussions of menstruation (as we find in the case of Naḥmanides and Baḥya ben Asher), sight damage, or the evil eye. It is invoked as good science in the eighteenth century in Jonathan Eibeschütz, And I Came This Day unto the Fountain, ed. Paweł Maciejko (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2014), 15 [Hebrew].


For a ground-breaking study of Kepler’s optics, see Raz Chen-Morris, Measuring Shadows: Kepler’s Optics of Invisibility (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016).


See David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); Smith, From Sight to Light.


Since I began work on this topic, a book has appeared that undertakes a sophisticated analysis of the rabbinic material on sight, albeit with relatively little focus on the evil eye: Rachel Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).


See Sinai Turan, “Wherever the Sages Set their Eyes, there is Either Death or Poverty: On the History, Terminology and Imagery of the Talmudic Traditions About the Devastating Gaze of the Sages,” Sidra: A Journal for the Study of Rabbinic Literature 23 (2008): 137–205 [Hebrew]. Richard Kalman distinguishes between such “punitive gazes” and the evil eye in Richard Kalmin, “The Evil Eye in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity,” in Judea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity, eds. Benjamin Isaac and Yuval Shahar (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 111–138. See also Yuval Harari, Early Jewish Magic: Research, Method, Sources (Jerusalem: Bialik & Ben-Zvi Institutes, 2010), 297–301 [Hebrew].


Going back to Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (New York: Dial Press, 1965), and frequently revisited, including by Feiffer himself in his “The Minsk Theory of Krypton,” The New York Times Magazine 29 (1996): 14–15. A recent book-length treatment may be found in Harry Brod, Superman is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way (New York: Free Press, 2012).


I should like to note that biblical and rabbinic traditions also present powerful images of beneficent and even creative seeing, from the desire to gaze at God’s face and the “reciprocal gaze” of the climactic moment of pilgrimage, to the valorization of gazing upon sages. God also gazes, for example upon the primordial Torah before creating the world. Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture, 51–52, 202–252. Daniel Boyarin’s astute revision of the unexamined axiom of biblical and rabbinic hostility to the vision of God is still well worth reading. “A powerful case can be made that only under Hellenic influence do Jewish cultures exhibit any anxiety about the corporeality or visibility of God; the biblical and Rabbinic religions were quite free of such influences and anxieties.” Daniel Boyarin, “The Eye in the Torah: Ocular Desire in Midrashic Hermeneutic,” Critical Inquiry 16(3) (1990): 532–550, at p. 533.


For references and discussion, see Ḥaggai Dvir, “To Gaze at a World that is Not His Own: A Realistic Examination of Sight Damage,” Netiva 2 (2012): 26–44, at 30 [Hebrew].


In Dvir’s subsequent article on the evil eye, he adduces this passage—with bowdlerizing ellipses—to argue that Rabbenu Yonah understood the evil eye as symbolizing lack of contentment with one’s lot. Ḥaggai Dvir, “Ayin ha-Ra: Mysticism, Nature, and Spirituality,” Asufot 4 (2013): 183–184 [Hebrew].


For a general introduction to zoharic literature, see Isaiah Tishby and Yeruham Fishel Lachower, The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Littman Library, 1989).


For a discussion of the power of sight in the Zohar as part of a treatment of the “visionary model” of Jewish mysticism, see Jonathan Garb, Manifestations of Power in Jewish Mysticism: From Rabbinic Literature to Safedian Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005), 171–173 [Hebrew].


On the eye and the phallus in kabbalistic symbolism, see Elliot R. Wolfson, Through the Speculum that Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 366 (143); idem, “Weeping, Death, and Spiritual Ascent in Sixteenth Century Jewish Mysticism,” in Death, Ecstasy, and Other Worldly Journeys, eds. John J. Collins and Michael Fishbane (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), 209–247, esp. 220–228.


On this family of manuscripts, see Giulio Busi, Qabbalah visiva (Turin: Einaudi, 2005), 384–388; J. H. Chajes, “The Kabbalistic Tree,” in The Visualization of Knowledge in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, eds. Marcia Kupfer et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020), 449–473.


The passage recalls the famous opening of Genesis Rabbah 1:1, according to which God gazed upon the Torah and then created the world. See n. 26 above; and the source at Sefaria, “Bereishit Rabbah,”


See the salient remarks of Hava Tirosh-Samuelson in her “Kabbalah and Science in the Middle Ages,” in Science in Medieval Jewish Cultures, ed. Gad Freudenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 476–510, esp. 507 and note 167 there.


See Weststeijn, “Seeing and the Transfer of Spirits,” 152.


Elijah de Vidas, Reshit Ḥokhmah (Venice: 1579). For an introductory treatment of the popular abridgement of this work, see Lawrence Fine (ed.), Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety, The Beginning of Wisdom (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).


This is exegetically emphasized through a charming false etymology that associates another Hebrew term for pupil, אישון, with the diminutive “little man” that is said to be visible under certain circumstances in its darkness.


De Vidas, Reshit Ḥokhmah, 238a–b. The instruction, loosely based on a verse from Job on the salvation of those with downcast eyes, was widely advocated.


Ibid., 238b.


For the term, see Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture, 129–146. It is, however, recommended to gaze upon one’s teacher as a rectification for the eyes and as a technique for illuminating the soul. See also Elliot R. Wolfson, “Iconic Visualization and the Imaginal Body of God: The Role of Intention in the Rabbinic Conception of Prayer,” Modern Theology 12(2) (1996): 137–162, at 147–149. For kabbalistic consideration of the lights seen behind closed eyes, see Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 140–141.


De Vidas, Reshit Ḥokhmah, 239a. On “wasted seed,” see Shilo Pachter, Shemirat ha-Brit: The History of the Prohibition of Wasting Seed (unpublished PhD diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2006) [Hebrew]. Pachter discusses De Vidas’s Reshit Ḥokhmah on pp. 193–196, but does not explore the connection to the eye.


See Danielle Jacquart and Claude Alexandre Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), 52–56.


Elliot R. Wolfson, “Circumcision, Vision of God, and Textual Interpretation: From Midrashic Trope to Mystical Symbol,” History of Religions 27(2) (1987): 189–215; Elliot R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 93. See also Boyarin, “The Eye in the Torah.”


De Vidas, Reshit Ḥokhmah, 241a.


Ibid., 242a. Cf. Tirosh-Samuelson, “Kabbalah and Science in the Middle Ages,” 507.


For a general introduction to Luria, see Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). Vital’s representation of Luria’s Kabbalah, to which he devoted decades of writing and rewriting after Luria’s premature death in 1572, is often conflated with “Lurianic Kabbalah”; the volumes called “Kol Kitvei ha-ARI” [The Collected Writings of Luria] were almost exclusively authored by Vital. At the same time, the degree to which Vital’s own perspectives are expressed in the works he authored over those decades has been increasingly recognized. This trend began with Ronit Meroz, “Faithful Transmission Versus Innovation: Luria and His Disciples,” in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism 50 Years After: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism, eds. Peter Schäfer and Joseph Dan (Tübingen: Mohr, 1993): 257–274. The recent study of Lurianic Kabbalah by Asaf Tamari consciously confines itself to a reading of Vital’s oeuvre. Apropos to the present essay, Tamari’s work provides unprecedented insight into the medical and bodily discourse at the heart of Vital’s Kabbalah. See Assaf M. Tamari, The Body Discourse of Lurianic Kabbalah (unpublished PhD diss., Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2017).


Yehuda Liebes, “Myth vs. Symbol in the Zohar and in Lurianic Kabbalah,” in Essential Papers on Kabbalah, ed. Lawrence Fine (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 212–242. See also J. H. Chajes, “Kabbalah and the Diagrammatic Phase of the Scientific Revolution,” in Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of David B. Ruderman, eds. Richard I. Cohen et al. (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2014), 109–123, esp. 111.


Ḥayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Drushim (Jerusalem: Ahavat Shalom, 1996), 16a.


It seems safe to ascribe this to Luria given that it features in the parallel accounts of two leading students, Ḥayyim Vital and Joseph ibn Tabul. See Yosef Avivi, Kabbala Luriana (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, 2008), vol. 3, 1360 [Hebrew].


See Martin Kemp, “Science in Culture: Eggs and Exegesis,” Nature 440 (7086) (2006): 872. The section on the ostrich heating her eggs by her gaze was apparently a later accretion to the work. It is thus absent from Michael J. Curley’s 1979 edition. The online Byzantine edition has a weak form of the description: “The struthiocamelon is a large bird. When he lays an egg, he lays it in water. Then he stands in the water and looks at his eggs.” See “Comparative Study of the Medieval South Slavic Physiologus, Byzantine Recension,”


Simeon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran, Magen Avot (Jerusalem: Hotsaat Mekhon ha-Ketav, 2006), 441. Most of the later invocations of this motif are based on the Lurianic passages, though there do seem to be some independent sources, such as Eliyahu ben Shlomo Avraham Hakohen, Midrash Talpiot (Izmir, 1736), 72c.


For a fascinating discussion of Giordano Bruno’s Pythagorean reasoning, “which so recklessly drifts from three-dimensional spheres to two-dimensional circles,” see Christoph Lüthy, “Bruno’s Area Democriti and the Origins of Atomist Imagery,” Bruniana and Campanelliana 1 (1998): 59–92, esp. 74.


Vital, Sefer ha-Drushim, 51b.


Joseph Solomon Delmedigo, Novelot Ḥokhmah (Basel [actual place of printing: Hanau]: 1631), 11a. My thanks to Eliezer Baumgarten for bringing this text to my attention. On Delmedigo’s atomism, see Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo’s Engagement with Atomism,” in Jewish Culture in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of David B. Ruderman, eds. Richard I. Cohen et al. (Pittsburgh: Hebrew Union College Press, 2014), 124–133. Delmedigo’s en passant endorsement of Lurianism in this passage may be considered a counter-argument to Langermann’s conclusion that Delmedigo was ultimately hostile to the kabbalah and duplicitous in his valorizing expressions. Prof. Langermann graciously responded to my e-mail query about this passage, which he believed was no less “sly” than Delmedigo’s other references to the Kabbalah. A consideration of the compatibility (or contradiction) between Delmedigo’s atomism and his endorsement of Lurianic extramission is beyond the scope of the current study, but certainly a desideratum for an expanded treatment.


See Andreas B. Kilcher, “Scientia Cabalistica as Scientia Universalis: Kabbalism and Encyclopaedism in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” Kabbalah 5 (2000): 129–154; Chajes, “Kabbalah and the Diagrammatic Phase,” 111–113.


Michael Camille, “Before the Gaze: The Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing,” in Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance, ed. Robert S. Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 197–223.


Torat Ḥayyim on b. Bava Metzi’a 84a and b. Bava Batra 118b.


Lampronti’s views of the science of his own time were examined in David B. Ruderman, “Contemporary Science and Jewish Law in the Eyes of Isaac Lampronti of Ferrara and Some of His Contemporaries,” Jewish History 6(1–2) (1992): 211–224. See also Debra Glasberg Gail, Scientific Authority and Jewish Law in Early Modern Italy (unpublished PhD diss., Columbia University, 2016). Ovid did not discuss optics per se but his language at times suggests extramissionism. Pliny’s extramissionism is discussed in Lindberg, Theories of Vision, 88.


See Ṣvi Elimelech Spira, Bnai Yissaschar (New York: 1946), 74d.


Mishpetei Uziel, General Manners, §2. Cited in Dvir, “Ayin ha-Ra,” 181.


Elijah Pinhas Hurvitz, Sefer ha-Brit ha-Shalem (Jerusalem: Yerid ha-sefarim, 1990).


David B. Ruderman, A Best-Selling Hebrew Book of the Modern Era: The Book of the Covenant of Pinhas Hurwitz and Its Remarkable Legacy (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2014), 44.


Hurvitz, Sefer ha-Brit ha-Shalem, 254–257.


Robert S. Nelson, “Introduction: Descartes’s Cow and Other Domestications of the Visual,” in Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw, ed. Robert S. Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1–21, esp. 7.


Isaac Satanow (1733–1805) offered a kabbalistic interpretation of the camera obscura’s reversed images, as well as of the rainbows produced by the prism in his Imrei Binah (Berlin: 1784), 16b. My thanks to Elke Morlok for bringing this material to my attention. On the optical experiments of Solomon Aviad Sar Shalom Basilea (c. 1680–1749), see David B. Ruderman, Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 222.


As recently as 2014, a rabbinic author devoted an essay to this subject, concluding that a person wearing eyeglasses cannot harm by the evil eye. Ziv Satschlike, “Evil Eye Damage via Eyeglasses,” in Umqa de-Parsha (Parshat Balaq), 2014, [Hebrew]. His conclusion was based on a principle articulated in the talmudic commentary of R. Avraham Ḥayyim Schorr (d. 1632).


Hurvitz, Sefer ha-Brit ha-Shalem, 257.


Rashi (RAbbi SHlomo Iṣḥaqi, 1040–1105) was a medieval rabbinic commentator whose stature and authority in the traditional Jewish world was without equal. Cf. J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 133.


Yizhak Peḥa, Olei ayin. Mekhil Kol Inyene Ayin ha-Ra (Jerusalem: ha-Makhon le-ḥeḳer ha-refuʼah ba-halakhah, 1990).


For a discussion that explores other reasons for the rabbinic assertion of Joseph’s immunity to the evil eye, see Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture, 163–165. The Zohar (III:130a) reads the ayin of “spring” as “the good eye.” In Zohar III:137a the second part of the verse is expounded by the yenuqa, a fanciful zoharic character, to emphasize the connection between the language of multiplication with which the descendants of Joseph are blessed [va-yidgu le-rov] and the immunity of fish to the evil eye. Various midrashic works also use the homonym to link eye tears and spring water, as in Midrash Sekhel Tov, Bereshit 16:7.


See, e.g., Google, picture results for “בן פורת יוסף תכשיטים,”


Cf. J. H. Chajes, “‘Too Holy to Print’: Taboo Anxiety and the Publishing of Practical Hebrew Esoterica,” Jewish History 26(1–2) (2012): 247–262.


It might be noted that Galen too was a believer in intelligent design, and his expressions of marvel at “nature’s foresight” are particularly prominent in his functionalist treatment of the eye. See Smith, From Sight to Light, 37. For a recent discussion of intelligent design, see Lloyd Strickland, “The ‘Who Designed the Designer?’ Objection to Design Arguments,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 75 (2014): 87–100.


Peḥa, Olei Ayin, 2. Peḥa’s familiarity with Haeckel’s work is strictly second-hand, and based on a tendentious 1987 article that appeared in the Ultra-Orthodox journal Niṣoṣot [Sparks]. In fact, the introduction to Peḥa’s book is lifted almost word for word from this article. On Haeckel, who coined the term “ecology” in the 1860s, and his theory of evolution, see Emanuele Serrelli and Ilya Tëmkin, “Ecology and Evolution: Neither Separate nor Merged,” in Evolutionary Theory: A Hierarchical Perspective, eds. Niles Eldredge et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 227–242.


Peḥa, Olei Ayin, 4.


Ibid., 23.


Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Body, Mind and Soul: Kabbalah on Human Physiology, Disease and Healing (Jerusalem: Gal Einai Publications, 2004) [Hebrew].


Ginsburgh, Body, Mind and Soul, 1.






Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1979).


Ginsburgh, Body, Mind and Soul, 37. Here Ginsburgh notes: “According to all of the Torah’s classical commentaries […] and the masters of Kabbalah and Hassidism […].”!


Ginsburgh’s representation of just how sight works is most directly indebted to a seminal discussion of the topic by none other than Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164). In his short commentary on Exod 23:20–21, this eminent medieval scholar renowned for his scientific and medical expertise, explained the rather esoteric verse in question by means of an analogy to the sense of sight.


“Modern Orthodox” is an imprecise but efficient description. Dvir works in a special program that combines military service and rabbinic (yeshiva) studies. Wikipedia explains this program, known as Hesder, as one that “combines advanced Talmudic studies with military service in the Israel Defense Forces, usually within a Religious Zionist framework,” Wikiwand, “Hesder,”


Dvir, “To Gaze at a World that is Not His Own,” 26.


Dvir, “Ayin ha-Ra,” 185, 195–196.


On heavenly ledger books, see J. H. Chajes, “Accounting for the Self: Preliminary Generic-Historical Reflections on Early Modern Jewish Egodocuments,” Jewish Quarterly Review 95(1) (2005): 1–15.


Aryeh Leib Kara, Eyal Miluim (Krotoszyn: Dov Ber Munish & Sons, 1845), 40b.


Publications of the organization are available online, including via Many were published with funding provided by the local city council of Modi’in Illit.


In contemporary aredi discourse, the phrase inyan seguli is opposed to meṣiuti [real]—the latter in the sense of natural. See, e.g., the discussion on the ḥaredi internet forum “Be-Ḥadrei Ḥaredim, Although literally one might translate inyan seguli as “a matter dependent on the (mysterious) virtue/property [of the eye],” rendering the phrase as “supernatural” captures the implied point of view.


Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1714) was the foremost exponent of western philosophical occasionalism, which was the doctrine that “God is the only causal agent, and that creatures merely provide the ‘occasion’ for divine action.” Tad Schmaltz, “Nicolas Malebranche,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2016 ed., See also Sukjae Lee, “Occasionalism,” in ibid.,


For a brief discussion of the Jewish context, see Chajes, “Entzauberung and Jewish Modernity,” for a broader treatment, see Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy.


“With regard to the Evil Eye, certainly there is place for caution, but one should not be too careful because in these matters the general rule is that one who doesn’t care too much [about them, they] don’t care much about him, as we have found with regard to ‘pairs’ in Pesaḥim […].” Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe: Even ha-Ezer 3 (New York: Moriah, 1973), 448–449 (§26).


A. Halevy Horowitz, Orḥot Rabbeinu (Bnei Brak, 1998), vol. 3, 103.


Here again, discussions on the ḥaredi internet forum “Be-Ḥadrei Ḥaredim” are illuminating. See, e.g.,


With few exceptions (such as Sefer Yeṣirah), Jewish thought since antiquity presumed the axiomatic nature of the four elements, both physically and symbolically. The chemical revolution brought this longue durée idea to an end, and in so doing posed a real challenge to tradition. On the rabbinic responses to this revolution, see Ruderman, Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery, 237–238; Maoz Kahana, From the Noda Beyehuda to the Chatam Sofer: Halakha and Thought in Their Historical Moment (Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 2015), 237–238 [Hebrew]. On the reception of Copernicus, see, e.g., Hillel Levine, “Paradise Not Surrendered: Jewish Reactions to Copernicus and the Growth of Modern Science,” in Epistemology, Methodology and the Social Sciences, eds. R. S. Cohen and M. W. Warofsky (Boston: D. Reidel, 1983), 203–225.


See Gerald A. Winer et al., “Conditions Affecting Beliefs about Visual Perception among Children and Adults,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 61 (1996): 93–115. See also Ziying Yang, Learning Experiences and Misconceptions (Senior Honors Thesis, Ohio State University, 2007),, accessed 4 May 2018. These university students are not alone; a late-twentieth-century yeshiva publication includes an article in which the author, R. Moshe Albas, writes, “it is known that there is a power in the sight of the eye to act concretely, as natural scientists have said regarding birds that warm their eggs with the glance of their eyes until the chicks hatch, for the rays of sight go out from the eye and strike the thing seen until it acts upon it. Thus the rays of light are means of connecting the seer and the seen.” Moshe Albas, “Maamar le-Hitḥazqut ha-Talmidim,” Dvar ha-Hitaḥdut 15 (1977): 49. It is instructive to contrast these remarks to those of Ẓemaḥ Duran in the fifteenth century, cited above. Who said they don’t study science in the yeshiva world?

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