January 15, 2004 (Ira Pilgrim)


For one that dies of natural causes ninety-nine die of the evil eye.

The Talmud (Baba Metzia), c. 200

I consider myself as devoid of superstition, yet every now and then the superstitions of my childhood rear their ugly heads. I know that it is all nonsense, but I get a twinge of the feeling that I have caused something to happen because I have been too happy. No, I don't "Step on a crack, break your mother's back," but the superstitions of my mother will haunt me until I die. She didn't invent them. They were thrust upon her by her parents and others. They are part of everyone's cultural inheritance.

The expression in Yiddish that means "No evil eye" was something that she muttered at appropriate occasions: "She is such a beautiful child, no evil eye." "He is such a bright and happy child, no evil eye." It was understood that the evil eye fell upon and cursed people who were too happy or too beautiful or too....anything.

The concept that someone or some mysterious force can curse a person is not peculiar to Jews. The Italians have a similar belief and I suspect that most cultures have a similar belief and expression. The Italian expression is "malocchio." It is used in the same way as Jews do, to ward off the evil eye. I have no idea what the evil eye is. It is enough to know that it is supposed to be evil.

I remember having celebrated, with uninhibited joy, the circumcision ceremony of a grandchild. When, several months later, that child died from sudden infant death syndrome, I felt a twinge of guilt, as if my happiness was in some way responsible for the tragedy. I had to tell myself loudly, and often, that that was nonsense.

The idea that it is possible to say something and avoid disaster, or cause it, is the basis of many everyday expressions that most of us take for granted. When a person sneezes, it is customary to say bless you, God bless you, or gesundheit or nazdarovia. This is supposed to ward off some disease. The meaning of the terms has been lost for most of us; it is just something that we say automatically, like "have a nice day." An inappropriate response to "have a nice day" could be "I have made other plans."

Yet, all of these expressions are firmly rooted in a belief in magic and witchcraft. The idea that it is possible to avoid disaster with a magical incantation like "No evil eye." No truly rational person believes that it is possible for someone to affect someone else at a long distance. You can't stick pins in a doll and cause someone else pain, or cause someone to fall ill or die because you have willed it. If that were true, almost every public figure would either be dead or writhing in agony.

We all use expressions that are essentially meaningless for the simple reason that they have become habits. Most of those habits are initiated by parents. They learned them from their parents, who learned them from their parents and so on.

Don't think about this too hard or you might get a headache. You might avoid the headache by saying "malocchio."

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