Reflections in an Evil Eye


The other day I had my first-ever Zoom call with a doctor, and when he asked me how I was feeling I said, “Kinehora, I can’t complain.” And then I remembered he wasn’t Jewish and may not have had any idea what I was talking about.

I am not by nature a superstitious or spiritual person. If a lucky coin or sprinkle of salt helps you deal with anxiety or uncertainty, have at it. I just happen to have the same reaction to prayer, magic talismans and apotropaic rituals that I do toward the things Donald Trump says about the coronavirus: “Interesting, but let’s hear from the scientists.”

And yet I can’t let go of “kinehora.” A contraction of the Hebrew kayn ayin hara (against the evil eye), it’s what you say when you don’t want good news to tempt evil forces. As in “Kinehora, business is good” or “The tests came back negative, kinehora.” You could say “knock on wood,” but the wood in question is from the cross used to crucify Jesus — so, you know.

Warding off the ayin hara is an ancient Jewish impulse. The Talmud is full of references to the “evil eye” — although, interestingly, a rational understanding of the evil eye seems to precede the superstitious one. In Pirke Avot, the evil eye refers to someone who is constantly begrudging others what they have.

In the Babylonian Talmud, it’s understood in two ways, according to the mid-20th century scholar, Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg. The first is quite literal: It refers to angry or envious people who have the power to cast “rays of destruction” with a glance. (In Shabbat 34a, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai aims his eyes on a nogoodnik “and turned him into a pile of bones.”)

Then there is what Trachtenberg calls the “moral version,” when the “attention of the spirit-world is cocked to detect the least word or gesture of commendation.” When the handsome Rabbi Yoḥanan parades himself in front of young brides (it’s complicated), his students ask, “Isn’t the Master worried about being harmed by the evil eye by displaying yourself in this manner?” (Bava Metzia 84a)

The common denominator here is envy: Something there is that doesn’t like another’s good fortune. It’s the impulse, across cultures, to fool the demons by naming a beautiful child after something hideous. If you got it, don’t flaunt it, lest you tempt — what, fate? The devil? The gossip next door?

I don’t believe in imps and demons who will snatch away my good fortune if they hear me boasting. And I don’t think my neighbor is going to shoot me down with what Italians call the occhio malocchio.

My version of kinehora is rational. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in pre-state Israel, once described the evil eye in terms of an  “environment of jealousy and hatred [that] can poison not only the atmosphere but also the soul against whom they are directed.” Kook recognizes that envy among neighbors spreads its own kind of this-worldly contagion. So too does the person who is indifferent or unaware of how her own good fortune mocks the suffering or disadvantages of others.

I’ve been saying kinehora a lot lately. A pandemic has killed 90,000 people in this country, including nearly 32,000 in New York and New Jersey. Families are in mourning, usually without the comfort of time-honored traditions or even a chance to say goodbye. More than 36 million people have filed for unemployment as a result of the coronavirus, a figure that may, like the death toll, be an undercount. Others are going to work under uncertain, and unsafe, conditions. And even those enjoying good health and who still have jobs are feeling the pressures of isolation, juggling work and childcare, foregoing non-essential medical procedures and missing family milestones.

I’m luckier than most. Kinehora is both a reminder of this, and a warning to myself that I don’t take good fortune for granted.

At the small rallies demanding that states reopen their economies, protesters have waved signs reading “Selfish and proud” and “My body, my choice.” They have co-opted the language of individual liberties to disavow the responsibilities we all have, as members of a society, to one another. Like anti-vaxxers, they declare their defiance of social distancing in terms of personal choice, when in fact they are endangering others. They are like the guy in the boat, in the midrash also attributed to Rabbi Shimon, who took a drill and began boring a hole in the deck under his seat. When the other passengers complained, he said, “What do you care? I’m only drilling under my own seat.”

A rationalist kinehora ethic is essentially communal: It says, I am grateful for my lot but don’t want to suggest that I am more deserving than you. It says, I’m OK, but the world is still broken and there is work to be done. It’s a reminder that taking one’s own good fortune for granted poisons the atmosphere for all. 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.