The evil eye
Exodus 30 required Israelites to count the number of men who would be available for battle. The Bible states: “When you take the count of the Israelites, their number, every man must give a kopher for himself to the Lord when you count them so that there will be no plague….”
Rashi and Nachmanides and other sages were convinced that demons exist and that people can be harmed by the evil eye. They believed that counting people causes an evil eye that incites the arrival of demons that do harm. They contended that the Torah recognized this and advised Israelites not to count people, but instead, each male should give the same sum of money to the sanctuary, and the money would be counted to avert the calamity—a plague. Rashi argued that such a plague happened in the days of King David (II Samuel 24:10–15) when David foolishly counted people.
This notion, that others call superstition, still exists. Many Jews refuse to count the number of synagogue participants to ascertain if there are ten men required for some community prayers. Instead they look at each person and recite one word for each from a biblical verse with ten words. If they end the verse on the last man, they know that ten are present. Some grandmothers, when asked how many grandchildren they have, give the number, but then spit three times to ward off the evil eye, and say kein ayin hora, which is the Yiddish way of saying “without (the harm of) an evil eye.”
I analyzed chapter 30 and the story of King David in my Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets (pp. 159–162). Among other things, I wrote:
“Many people of all faiths and cultures are afraid to count people. These include highly educated individuals and rabbis. … However, more rational Bible commentators assert that the evil eye does not exist and that the Bible does not prohibit counting people. These scholars believe that Exodus 30 does not constitute proof that the Bible prohibits counting, despite the contrary view of some prominent rabbis.”
I described the practices in other cultures. I also mentioned that sages such as Saadiah Gaon, Chazkunee, Rashbam, and others explained that the kopher, usually translated “atonement,” was actually an annual tax for the maintenance of the sanctuary, unrelated to the counting. Abraham ibn Ezra explained that the comment about the plague during the reign of King David meant that the Israelites were defeated in battle because they did not properly prepare for war. The king foolishly conducted a widely-known public census to determine how many Israelites would be available to serve in the military. The enemy heard about the census, realized that King David was preparing to fight them, and mobilized their own forces in preparation for the attack. As a result, many Israelite soldiers were killed in battle that wouldn’t have died if David hadn’t made a public census.
There are many references to the evil eye in rabbinic literature, but the statements don’t give credence to this belief, it is folklore, superstition. We need to realize is that, yes, respected people believed in an evil eye, just as ancients were convinced that the earth is flat; but we shouldn’t continue believing in superstitions.
In his Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, where Maimonides showed that many of the medical advices of the famed physician Hippocrates were out of date and wrong, Maimonides wrote that God placed our eyes in front of our faces and not behind our heads to teach us to look forward and not base our thinking and behaviors on outdated ideas.