At the close of the book of Bereishis (Genesis) Yaakov, approaching death, gathers together his family to bless them before he dies. His blessing to Yosef and his sons, Ephraim and Menashe, raises a mysterious and often misunderstood topic in Jewish thought; that of ‘ayin ha-ra’ (literally ‘the evil eye.’)

When Ephraim and Menashe visit the dying Yaakov he blesses them that they should be ‘like the fish of the sea.’ This blessing is 2-fold; firstly that both Ephraim and Menashe should be blessed with a multitude of offspring like fish and, secondly, that the ‘ayin ha-ra’ should have no effect on them in the same way that is has no effect on the fish of the sea. Likewise Yaakov blessed Yosef that neither he nor his offspring should be affected by the ayin ha-ra.

Three obvious questions are raised by this seemingly foreign and strange concept:

1. Most fundamentally, what is this concept of an ‘ayin ha-ra? And how can we, as rational and thinking human beings, make sense of such a concept and integrate its practical ramifications into our lives?

2. What has this concept got to do with fish? Why are fish not subject to this ‘special force’?

3. Why did Yaakov think it particularly necessary to single out Yosef and family as those most appropriate to be shielded from this ‘ayin ha-ra’?

Essentially the concept of ‘ayin ha-ra’ is that person A’s negative thoughts and words about person B’s success can actually affect person B. This is specifically the case when the success of person B is evident in a very open and public way which draws people’s attention to it. For example – Person A, having just received a very handsome bonus goes and buys a brand new sports car which he proudly parks in his driveway ensuring it is in full view of all his neighbours. The concept of ‘ayin ha-ra’ means that it is a reality built into the natural workings of creation that the negative emotions generated by the attention drawn to this sports car will endanger the success of its proud owner. Next year he may not find himself receiving such a healthy bonus.

Though we have defined this radical concept, some further explanation is needed to actually make sense of it. Can it possibly be that my thoughts alone can affect someone else’s wealth and success? 48.16 Rashi on 48.16 49.22 and rashi It is crucial to distinguish between this very public act of flaunting one’s good fortune, which is a problem, and behaving normally and modestly even if people notice one’s good fortune, which is not a problem. Whilst we are not supposed to flaunt our success, we are also supposed to live as normal functioning human beings. A wealthy person, for example, is perfectly entitled to enjoy his wealth. The problem is to flaunt such wealth attracting another’s ill-feeling

We tend to naturally view what we have as rightfully ours. If we are fortunate enough to have health, wealth and happiness we view this as natural and deserved. In reality however, everything and anything we have comes from G-d. If we have been blessed with good health, a loving family, financial security etc. this is very much a gift.

With this mindset – that all of our possessions and sources of happiness are gifts – we can begin to understand the concept of ‘ayin ha-ra’. Everything that we are given is given to us for a positive reason. Every gift comes with responsibility. If G-d gives a person wealth there must be a positive reason why this is necessary; for example, perhaps to give the person the necessary financial security to strive for growth in other areas of life free of financial worries, or to distribute the money to those in need etc… If so, the fact that a person’s good fortune is attracting attention and jealousy from others is likely to indicate a misuse of those divine gifts. Flaunting one’s good fortune in the face of others less fortunate is clearly an abuse of those gifts. As a natural consequence, G-d, so to speak, re-evaluates whether those gifts are in the right hands. If so, it is clear that the concept of ‘ayin ha-ra’ is both very understandable and practically relevant - when we receive blessings in our life, one should avoid abusing them, making others jealous. If one does abuse the gifts he has been given he will naturally render them inappropriate for him, and therefore risk having them taken away from him. And what does any of this have to do with fish?!

Fish live below the water level. As such, they go about their lives in a modest way. They do not vie for our attention, they live very privately. The blessing Yaakov gave was that Yosef and his sons would be able to enjoy their success in life without seeking and gaining the negative attention of others, and risking the damage that may result.

Yosef and his family were particularly in need of receiving such a blessing. Yosef was the most public and popular leader of his era. He was the man who single-handedly rescued Egypt from starvation. He was also renowned for his good looks and wherever he would go the local women would scale walls to catch a glimpse of their hero. If anyone was likely to attract negative attention and the jealousy of onlookers, it was Joseph. His sons, likewise, grew up surrounded by fame and success. They were also given a special standing among Yaakov’s grandsons when it came to dividing up the land of Israel. Again they were likely to attract a degree of negative attention, albeit unintentionally. If so, both Yosef and his sons were most in need of a blessing that the ‘ayain ha-ra’ would have no bearing on their fortunes.

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