Mashallah :

The Evil Eye in Contemporary Sephardic Culture

By Scott L. Marks

To the Sephardic community the "evil eye" or "ojo malo" (in ladino) is a presumed power that is considered so harmful it could inflict bad luck just by an unsuspecting glance. As long as Jews have spent time in the diaspora, they have absorbed their host countries culture and folklore, and intertwined it within Jewish tradition. Jews who lived within the former Ottoman lands have for hundreds of years believed in, and still take protective action from, this suspect eye.

Folklore tells that some people are born with the power of the evil eye to cast a1 curse or a spell. These people are considered by tradition to be malevolent in that they deliberately cast the evil eye on their victims. It has its basis on that the envious "nazar" (Turkish for evil) glance of any passer-by, attracted by an immodest show of wealth, achievement, or beauty, can harm or bewitch the unprotected person. Universally it is blamed for causing everything from bad luck and toothaches, to disease and death.

This has developed into customs about how not to look at children, and in some cases not touching babies nor giving too much praise. Stating a child's name or age is thought to bring about the cursed eye, as well as whistling in the house which is thought to invite it. In some familles because of the fear of possible miscarriage from exposure to the evil eye, presents are never bought to an expectant mother until after the baby is born. The traditional admonishment "it's not polite to stare," could very well have stemmed from this fear of the eye. In modern Turkey as well as in the past, many parents keep new babies covered up in blankets for fear that their defenseless beauty will inspire a jealous glance. Its not uncommon in the Mediterranean countries for one wanting to speak of a child to say "oh, the child is so pretty - too bad he's dirty." What Sephardi has not heard the old Arabic term "Mashallah," the traditional and customary greeting to the young which translates into "may G-d preserve you from the evil eye."

Tradition states that to safely mediate the curse of the eye-is to immediately touch the victim, to "take off the eye." If the praiser fails to follow these protocols, the mother may invoke religious aid by uttering "El dyo que mous vouadre de aynara i de ojo malo" (G-d save us from misfortune and the evil eye), this is said to reduce the possibility of an evil eye incident. Family may also speak ill of children to counter damage caused by praise.

Various rituals have developed to counteract the effects of the evil eye. Common ones are putting a spot of dirt or ash on a child who has been praised, averting the gaze of strangers, spitting three times onto the fingers, and throwing some salt into the corners of a room. Others include: dripping olive oil into water with prayer, wax dripped into water with prayer, coals or match heads dropped into water with prayer, piercing a lemon with iron nails, passing a whole raw egg over the face then breaking it, breaking an egg in a dark shadowed place, or reciting verses from the Torah.

The eye has numerous names including the invidious eye or the envious eye. In Italian it's the mal occhio (the bad eye), and in Spanish the mal ojo (the bad eye). It is referred to in the Torah and believed not only by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, but by Arabs of both Muslim and Christian extraction. The epicenter of currently active evil eye belief is in nations along the Mediterranean and Aegean shores.

In Turkey, as well as Greece and most of the Middle East, an amulet to protect one from the powers of the evil eye is commonly worn around the neck. Called a "bonjuk," this blue bead or blue glass eye charm is supposed to "mirror" back the blue of the evil eye and thus "confuse" it. In these same locations there are still tendencies to view blue-eyed people as carriers of the evil eye. This is probably because few locally-born people have blue eyes, and those who do show up-such as tourists-are given to praising and cooing over babies, who are thought to be most at risk from the eye.

Another protector from the eye is the hamsa or hamesh hand (also called the hand of Miriam). It's a very old and still popular amulet for protection from the evil eye. The words hamsa and hamesh mean "five" and refer to the digits on the hand. An alternative Muslim name for this charm is the hand of Fatima, in reference to the daughter of Mohammed. The hamsa hand appears either with one or two thumbs, both having the same meaning.

In addition to a blue bead, blue eye, or hamsa, the hand-in-eye amulets is also worn to protect from its wrong doing gaze. This hand-shaped charm is usually worn as jewelry, but larger ones, inscribed with prayers of protection, are hung on the wall and are common in Morocco and Israel.

Sometimes in a Sephardic household the symbol of a fish is used to repel the eye; this originates from the Talmud where is states fish are immune from the evil eye because they are under water, and this makes fish an effective amulet.

The color red is also thought traditionally to ward it off. Many mothers and grandmothers tie red ribbons and strings to children's underwear and bedding to prevent the evil peer. The color red is significant within Jewish history because it was one of the items necessary for the building of the original Temple. Red thread and dye were used to make fabric; the red thread came from a type of worm. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch points out that the worm was the lowest form of life, and yet it was intrinsic to the building of the Sanctuary. The red thread, reminiscent of the lowly worm, can be seen as protection against this. Each time a person looks at the string he is reminded that a person is really as lowly as a worm. This humility is the ultimate weapon against the "evil eye." Today, even as we approach the year 2000, scattered amongst the diaspora this ancient custom of fearing the evil eye continues among some of our families. From the Bosphorus to Brooklyn, Larissa to Los Angeles, and Salonika to Seattle, this superstition perpetuates as a small part of traditional Sephardic culture. Mashallah!

Copyright 1999 1091

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