Parshas Balak: Ayin Hara – A Halachic Perspective


eyeBy Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Balak knew what he was doing when he hired Bilaam to fix his ayin hara (evil eye) on the Jewish people (Bamidbar 24:2). Bilaam had already established a fearsome track record as an expert in the art of harnessing evil forces for destructive purposes. His potent curses had enabled Sichon to conquer the Emorite cities (Bamidbar 21:27). The danger was real, but fortunately Hashem in his mercy protected us from Bilaam’s evil gaze.

What would happen if a modern-day disciple of Bilaam (albeit not on Bilaam’s level, but a malicious sort nonetheless), would try to cast an evil eye against another? Let’s say a person tells his enemy, “I’m going to put my eye on your house and it’s going to burn down,” and then, that night, a lightning bolt strikes the house and it burns down. Would Jewish monetary law consider the person monetarily responsible for the damage? In other words, did he do anything?

The Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, zt”l, discusses this issue (Kehilos Yaakov, Bava Kamma, Siman 45). He is of the opinion that an evil eye can do real damage, and, theoretically, a person who damaged by means of an evil eye can be held monetarily responsible. It is considered that the damage occurred as a direct result of his physical action, i.e., his gaze. However, practically speaking, the victim in our scenario would find it difficult indeed to prove to a bais din a causal relationship between the burning gaze of his enemy and the burning of his house. After all, who can measure the potency of any particular person’s evil eye? Maybe his enemy’s evil eye really was not evil enough to hurt a fly, and certainly not enough to burn down a house. Why then did the house burn down? Only Hashem knows.

However, supernatural methods of causing damage are not discounted categorically. The Shulchan Aruch (378:5) teaches that “if there is harm in it [his vision] to his friend, it is forbidden to stare at him…” Chaza’l called this type of damage hezek re’iah, damage caused by visual trespassing. The Sm”a explains that there are two reasons for this prohibition. The first reason he gives is that Chaza”l were concerned for the damaging effect of the ayin hara. So in fact, the evil eye does have halachic repercussions.

The second reason is more down-to-earth. Staring at your neighbor can infringe on his ability to use his property. Since people are typically uncomfortable doing their work under the scrutiny of others, the person may not use the part of his property exposed to his neighbor’s view.

The halacha forbids not only the act of looking into a neighbors home, but also prohibits one from maintaining the ability to do so. Therefore, in many cases, a bais din can force the building of a wall or fence to block one neighbor’s view of another. The severity of hezek re’iah can be illustrated by the following. Normally, when a person remains silent in the face of a neighbor’s encroaching or impinging behavior, it indicates that he has agreed to the behavior and is willing to lose his right to stop it. However, many Rishonim maintain that the damage of hezek re’iah is so great that remaining silent does not indicate acceptance of it.

Clearly, given the seriousness of hezek re’iah, one should do all in his power to refrain from eyeballing his neighbor. Although the damages caused may not be retrievable in bais din, that is only do to lack of sufficient evidence. The Bais Din Shel Maalah, the Heavenly Tribunal, has significantly better evidence-gathering techniques.

The question remains then, what can we do to protect ourselves from an evil eye? HaRav Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l, offers us some good advice. He suggests that those who wish to safeguard themselves against ayin hara should strive to be the kind of person who is a giver, not a taker. Such a person, ever occupied with chesed, will give no cause for jealousy and will not be on the receiving end of an ayin hara. Such a person, filled with thoughts of blessing for others, will also deserve to be counted in the ranks of “the disciples of Avraham Avinu,” who were known for their ayin tova, their good and generous eye for all (Pirkei Avos 5:22).

{Bais HaVaad Institute of Talmudic Law}

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  1. According to some people I know, it can only work damage on you believe in it 🙂

    Seriously, though, the advice he brings down from R’ Dessler zatzal is right on target – not just because it “avoids the evil eye” but because following it makes us better people and the world a better place.