Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Shadal on ayin hara

Summary: That ayin hara is not real, but that the Torah works with the belief rather than uprooting it because it is founded on actual principles of Divine Providence, and is therefore a positive belief to maintain. And also, together with Abarbanel, that the idea of kofer was not ledoros.

PostShadal writes at the start of Ki Tisa:

"When you count -- when a person counts his silver and his gold, or when the king counts his army, the matter is likely that he would trust in his wealth and in his large army, become haughty in his heart, and say, "With my strength and the might of my hand I have accomplished this", or "will accomplish this." And then, in most instances, the wheel of fortune will turn upon him and bring him unanticipated destruction. (For indeed this is one of the laws of Providence, {Mishlei 16:18} 'Pride goeth before destruction.' And this is true and shown to be true in all the generations, both for individuals, nations, and kings.)

And from this was born in all the nations the belief in ayin hara {the evil eye}. And it appears that this belief already spread in Israel in the generations before Matan Torah. And behold, Hashem did not desire to nullify this belief entirely, since it was based on belief in Providence, and because it distanced a person from trusting in his strength and wealth, and this is the main thrust of the entire Torah.

Therefore, what did He do? He commanded that they be counted at that time, at the start of their becoming a single nation, and that they should give a kofer {redemption} of a beka per skull, and that the silver be given for the service in the Tent of Meeting, as a remembrance before Hashem to atone for their souls, in such manner that from that day and on, the would be able to be counted without fear of ayin hara, since the Mishkan which was made from the silver of the kofers {redemptions} is what would atone for them.

And behold, it said 'when you count, etc., and each man shall give a kofer for his soul, etc., etc.' And the implication of these words is that this would be something which was practices as well for generations, that any time they count, and do not give a kofer, there would be a negef upon them. But, at the end of the discussion, it states, 'and you shall take the silver of the kippurim from 

the Israelites and place it for the service of the Tent of Meeting, and it shall be for the Israelites as a remembrance before Hashem to atone for their souls." This teaches that this silver would stand as a remembrance before Hashem for the coming generations, and that they would have no further need of kofer. For though those counted would require kofer, behold, the Mishkan which was made with the silver of the kippurim would atone for them. And according to this, ki tisa is only a mitzvah for that hour alone, as is the opinion of Don Yitzchak Abarbanel.

However, in the following point I do not agree with him, in that he said that the main thrust of the commandment was to collect the silver which was needed for the construction of the Mishkan. For I think that even without this trick / strategem, they would have brought much more silver than was necessary for the word, just as they brought of gold, gems, and the other sorts of materials. Rather, the primary intention in this mitzvah was that there would be a single donation in which rich man and pauper would be equal, and that from this donation they would make the base sockets from which the Mishkan and paroches stood, in such manner that the wealthy man would not be able to say to the pauper 'my portion is greater in the Mikdash than yours.' (This is as the sages of Tosafot wrote in the sefer Daat Zekeinim.)

And this, secondarily, in order to ameliorate the fear of ayin hara when they were counted for some purpose, for the Mishkan which stood upon that silver that each person gave as a kofer for his soul would atone for them. And so do we find, that many times after this, the Israelites were counted, and kofer is not mentioned, and (yet) there was no negef. However, all of this was where they were counted for some purpose, but if they were counted not for a constructive purpose, but only because of the haughtiness of the ruler, then it is possible that a evil happenstance would reach them, as a punishment for the haughtiness, and in accordance with the ways of the Divine Providence. 

And so did they say in Midrash Tanchuma, that so long as Israel was counted for a purpose, they were not reduced; when not for a purpose, they were reduced. And behold, David, at the end of his days, had a temptation to know the count of the nation, and this was not for a need, for he was waging no further wars, but this was only by way of pride and haughtiness, and therefore Yoav feared lest there be a ketzef from Hashem, and so the word of the king was detestable in his eyes, and indeed Hashem sent a negef within the nation. And at that time, David was stirred up to establish a house for Hashem, that it would atone upon Israel, and he pledged and prepared with all his strength gold, silver, copper, bronze, wood, precious stones, and marble, and asked as well from the entire congregation that they pledge as well, and immediately they pledged with full heart a large pledge, 

and all this was to atone upon Israel for future generations. 

And I come to the heart of the matter, which is the matter of ayin hara, and I say that a few of the philosophers, such as Ralbag, sought to explain it via the laws of nature, and said that the rays which came out of the eyes of the one looking to the pace of the made peered at are able to become poisons, and to damage him or to kill him, all according to the nature of the recipient.

And the scholars of our generation are the opposite, with most of them mocking the belief in ayin hara, as well as many other things which cannot be understood via the laws of nature.

And in my opinion, both of these are erring. Rather, the world does not operate on the material laws of nature alone, but rather, there are other laws as well, which the Upper Wisdom established at the start of Creation, upon which various incidents are caused, to bring upon nation and individual person alike the good and the bad, which testify to Providence. Which the philosopher (מתפלסף) looks upon and says that it is random chance, and which the hamon (general populace) looks upon and says that it is a miraculous occurrence.

And in truth, they are from natural causes which automatically occur from natural causes, but these are from direct and indirect causes which are set up from the beginning of Creation by the Wisdom of the One Above who set them up, Yisbarach Shemo. And this is that He decreed that the cold {?} be harsh and early in the year 5573 {1813}, such that the king of Aritz {the tyrant} should fall, and to quiet the world and all in it. {Josh: He presumably is talking about the fall of Napoleon in 1813, in which the harsh winter played a role.} This was set out in terms of events happening to the community and the individual, the decree that 'pride goeth before the fall.' And from it was drawn out that when a person (or an entire nation) stands at the height of success, and becomes haughty and glorifies in it, and brings jealousy in the heart of those who see him, it will befall him that the wheel of fortune will turn upon him, and being him to unanticipated destruction. And the hamon {unschooled masses} attributed this to ayin hara, and at times attributed this to the curse of enemies, while in truth, the eye does not harm, nor do curses bring about bad things. Rather, the law is to God, and He decreed and established in the order of the causes of good and evil, {Mishlei 29:23} that the haughtiness of man lays him down low, while he of humble spirit will obtain honor.

And the French poet said:
Du triomphe à la chute il n'est souvent qu'un pas. (Volaire, La Mort de César)
[And in factions as in battles] from triumph to the fall there is often a step .
And the Maamar wrote that the men of that generation were required to give a kofer because they sinned in the golden calf and were thus deserving of obliteration. And he did not remember that this command preceded the incident of the golden calf."

A very interesting take on this subject. Shadal allows himself to acknowledge the ayin hara connection to the belief underlying the donations of the shekalim for counting. Yet at the same time, not being superstitious, and at the same time believing that the Torah is true, he assumes that this is Hashem working with the backwards contemporary beliefs of the Israelites who received the Torah, encouraging it in some ways and ameliorating it in other ways. And we see perhaps that Shadal cannot really be pigeonholed as a rationalist. Also, he believes that there are metaphysical laws as play aside from any physical laws.

In terms of beams from eyes damaging, see Ibn Ezra on seeing at a distance. This is Galenic science, as opposed to Aristotelian science. And, if I am not mistaken, contemporary Muslims still believe this to be true, such that a woman's uncovered eyes can drive a man mad from a distance.

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