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Satan, the Red Wrist Band & the Evil Eye

Prior to our week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we find in Devarim 4:6, “ You shall safeguard them (the mitzvoth) and do them for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations who shall hear all these חקים, decrees (the religious laws not the civil laws) shall say, ’Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation.’” In short, every mitzvah in the authentic system of Judaism must reflect wisdom and understanding. The antithesis of Judaism then is “Avodah Zarah,” idol worship. Maimonides makes the point throughout the “Guide for the Perplexed,” that the chief message of the Torah is to wipe away every notion of idol worship and there are many. It does not matter whether the practice takes the overt form of worshipping celestial or earthly objects or more subtle forms and vicissitudes such as the adherence to superstitions, good luck charms or using objects of mitzvot for protection. Putting a mezuzah on a door to ward off disease from the home’s inhabitants, placing messages and prayers in the Kotel (a remnant piece of the retaining Western Wall around the Holy Temple), or leaving them at the gravesites of rabbis are just a few prevalent examples that come to mind.

In our portion, Devarim 18:9-14, as well as in others like Leviticus 18:3, the Torah specifically proscribes following the foolish ways of other nations. The Oral Law, which goes hand and hand with the written Torah, identifies “tying a red string on your finger,” as an example of a Canaanite practice that is forbidden (Tosefta to Talmud Shabbat, Chapter 7). Again Maimonides spells out in detail some of these practices in the Laws of Idol Worship, Chapter 11. He concludes, “… all of these practices are false, lies, and empty of any truth. It is not befitting for Israel, who has produced the world’s greatest thinkers, scholar and scientists to follow such emptiness. All people with wisdom know with clear proofs that these practices and ideas are devoid of any truth. And so the Torah warned us, “Be wholehearted with the Eternal your God.”

The hallmark of Judaism, its uniqueness in the arena of religions, is its total rejection of following the imaginations and fantasies of the mind. This fact is announced in the Torah by none other than the non-Jewish prophet, Bilam. Although he came to destroy the Jewish religion, even he recognized, “For there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel.”

How then do we understand terms like Satan, evil inclination and the angle of death? What do we say about the oft-heard expression, “the evil eye?” Each of these terms and expressions, some found in Tanach, others in the works of our rabbis, are references to different aspects of human psychology. Chapter 2 in Part III of “The Guide,” Maimonides quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish from the Talmud, “The Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death are one and the same thing.” What does he mean? How are they all the same yet different?

To explain the statement above of Reb Shimon, my mentor and teacher, Rabbi Israel Chait, discussed that man is beset by fear. Man’s fear expresses itself when a person is exposed to external events over which there is no control. The Book of Iyov employs the term “Satan” to depict how the man Iyov is confronted with various external catastrophes. When facing internal pressures as a consequence of our instinctual makeup, the Torah and sages use the term “evil inclination.” Any decision or action made out of a purely emotional response is referred to in this way. “The angel of death,” represents our innate fear of death. So fear is the common denominator of all three. However, our literature and speech, refer to each one with its own term. In that way, each fear can be examined independently. The Torah and our sages never countenanced a force in the world other than God.

Only through the acquisition of knowledge does a person begin to shed false and ridiculous notions and begin to recognize the real workings of the various external and internal systems created by God to govern the universe. By-passing knowledge is harmful and dangerous. Such an approach leaves people to their own devices, inventing nonsensical ways to find protection and to cope with untoward events: red bands on the wrist, messages in a wall, magical objects or the extreme of worshipping another human. Man will never fully comprehend the workings of the universe since it stems from God’s infinite wisdom. But the only approach to it is via knowledge.

The “evil eye” is another term we come across. It was coined to express how people look at their successes in life. When one person achieves success in something, a certain feeling of jealousy may be brought out in the mind of another. The עין הרע, “evil or bad eye” is the term coined by our sages to indicate this psychological phenomenon. We must be aware that this sentiment exists naturally in all people. Once aroused, that feeling of jealousy can cause the jealous person to harm, often in some unconscious way, the successful person. The successful person, for his part, exercising his knowledge of psychology, must take precautions to mitigate such a response. It must be noted that these feelings of jealousy have no effect on God whatsoever. No amount of chanting or repeating the phrase בלי עין הרע, “no bad eye,” will accomplish anything. And if a person really believes there is some “bad force” out there, that is idol worship, albeit in a more disguised and subtle way.

As we approach the coming New Year, let us use this month of Elul to reflect and refocus our thoughts and actions. If the action and/or explanation seem nonsensical after reflection, then most likely it is. When in doubt, keep in mind the words of the psalmist in Psalm 19, “The commands of Hashem are clear, enlightening the eyes.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan