We are modern, rational, reasonable people and yet there are Jewish superstitions, the most powerful of which has to do with our fear of the evil eye.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the evil eye is: “A supposed power of bewitching or harming by spiteful looks. . . .” Certain people are thought to have this power and can damage life and property through a look. The fear of the evil eye is ancient and not confined to Judaism and it isn’t hard to see how such a superstition developed. Staring is an aggressive behavior. From my time in the New York City subways when I was at seminary, I know that staring at a stranger can be interpreted as a challenge, even if that isn’t the intent.
The Talmud, in a combination of superstition and halakhah, prohibits people from standing in neighbor’s field when crops are due to prevent the evil eye. The idea of not counting how many people are present for a minyan [a quorum of 10 adults needed to recite prayers] using actual numbers, is to avert the evil eye.
In fact it is this idea that counting attracts the evil eye that is reflected in a commentary on this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei. Moses and the Israelites finish all of the construction of the mishkan, the portable Wilderness Tabernacle. In Exodus 38 Moses does an accounting of the gold, silver and copper used in the construction and then gives a list of all of the pieces of the Tabernacle. If anything could be seen to attract the unwanted, destructive attention of the evil eye, this combination of abundance and counting would be it.
David R. Blumenthal in his book, God at the Center, quotes the Chasidic rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
For, when a wicked person casts his eyes upon something, he separates it from its root above, from the source of vitality. Because of the desire of the wicked person for it, the object of his or her regard becomes “counted.” . . . .But the [good] Jews of each generation sees and looks with the power of the Creator which is within him or her and, in so doing, attaches the object to its origin in the divine world.”
For Levi Yitzchak, what differentiates the evil eye from eyes of blessing is the intent of the individual. If a person is seen as an object and not a person; if an object is looked at with envy and desire, then that look separates the person or the object from the Divine, and degrades and harms the person or object.
Moses is able to count and list all of the pieces of the mishkan without attracting the evil eye because he looks with eyes of blessing, which is confirmed in Exodus 39:43: “Moses saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so they had done it, and Moses blessed them.” In his really seeing all of the work, how well it has been done and how well it fulfills God’s instructions, Moses is able to see the connections to the Divine and therefore bless the Israelites.