Jews are not the only ethnic/religious group to believe, at least a little bit, in superstitions. But maybe we put a greater stock in our superstitions because we’ve had such a tough time of it these past 5,000 years.
Perhaps the best-known superstition – one that’s been around for thousands of years and still maintains its potency – is the concept of the evil eye, the idea that certain people can cause you harm or wish you evil simply by looking at you.
The evil eye is mentioned several times in the Jewish commentary text Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a collection of quotes from ancient Jewish sages and scholars. Rabbi Eliezer reportedly said that an evil eye is “worse than a bad friend, a bad neighbor, or an evil heart.”
The concern was that bragging about one’s good fortune would anger an envious human being or the random dybbuk, golem or goblin who might be lurking about, waiting to cast their evil eye on you. That’s why Bubbes will tell you it’s wise to avoid boasting about your success, your good news, or the accomplishments of your children.
But if you slip up and brag – or if someone compliments you, what can you do? You can invoke the Yiddish phrase kineahora – “don’t give me the evil eye.” As in “I’ve felt good all summer, kineahora.” Or “You look nice today, Sylvia. Is that a new dress?” “Kineahora. I just got it. Do you like it?”
The derivation of the phrase is from the German kein, meaning no, and the Hebrew ayin ha-rah, the evil eye. The kein and ayin are blended into one word: kein or kayn – keinahora. (There are many ways to spell it, and in our dictionary we chose kineahora.) When you say the Yiddish quickly, it can sound like “canary,” which is why some people can be heard to say, “We’re supposed to leave next week for vacation, so don’t give me a canary.”
There are other ways to ward off the evil eye:
- Spit onto your fingertips three times after you say “kineahora.” This is from the days when medicines were rare and saliva was thought to have medicinal, restorative properties. Since we now know that spitting spreads germs (and has even been outlawed in some Chinese cities to stop the spread of disease), you can simply say, “Kineahora poo, poo, poo” and hope the evil eye won’t know you are just pretending to spit.
- Eat large amounts of garlic (and vampires will avoid you too).
- Wear an amulet that depicts the evil eye. On-line, the evileyestore.com sells over 1,000 styles of jewelry and charms, all featuring representations of eyes to guard the wearer against the evil wishes of others.
- Wear a hamsa, an amulet shaped like an open hand that is a popular symbol in Middle Eastern culture. It’s thought to symbolize the protective “hand of God,” which keeps the wearer safe from the evil eye. Another interpretation is that the five fingers of the hand correspond to the five books of the Torah.
Many cultures around the world are wary of the evil eye. All you have to do is look around an open-air marketplace in Greece, Brazil, Turkey or Israel and notice how many depictions of an eye – on necklaces and jewelry, pottery, or artworks – are sold as talismans to ward off the evil eye.
Superstitions comes from the belief that through our actions, we can have some influence on the mysterious workings of the world. You can imagine how in ancient times, when people were powerless against mysterious diseases and often hungry in hostile environments, they were anxious to do anything that might influence their fate. They didn’t understand it, but what could it hurt?
It’s not a bad idea. So today we’re wearing our hamsa necklaces and carrying our evil eye key chains, just to be sure. It can’t hurt, could it?
Next week: Look for Kineahora Part II. We found out so much about superstitions and did so much good research, poo poo poo, that we have a lot more to tell you.