Image: Cartoon of a blue eye. (Art by meri_asaro/pixabay)
If you spend much time around Ashkenazi Jews, sooner or later you will hear someone say, “Kenahora, pu pu pu.” If you play close attention to the context, you’ll notice that they said it after an optimist predicted something good or commented on something good: a new baby, a beautiful child, a future happy occasion. Ashkenazi Jews use the phrase much the same way others might say “Knock on wood.” It’s a way of warding off misfortune, aka “the Evil Eye.”
Kenahora is a combination of the Yiddish words kein [no,] and the Hebrew ayin [eye] and hara [evil.] Pu pu pu is a stand-in for spitting three times, one traditional way to avert misfortune. Together, they are the Yiddish equivalent of knocking on wood, throwing salt over one’s shoulder, and other superstitions.
The Sephardic equivalent is to say Mashallah, an Arabic greeting [May God preserve you from the evil eye] or El dyo que mous vouadre de aynara i de ojo malo [God save us from misfortune and the evil eye.]
Another tactic for warding misfortune away from children is to immediately follow a compliment with a qualifier, for example, “She’s very pretty but she is fussy” or to smear a little dirt on the child’s face. In some communities, there is a belief that the color red can ward off evil.
Folklore studies reveal that every culture has something of this sort, often centering on a belief that one can put a curse on someone by staring at them.
While the “evil eye” is indeed mentioned in the Mishnah, our teachers have usually warned us against trying to control the world via hexes and spells. A Jew is supposed to reply on God and on the good sense God gives us, not on superstitious remedies. Even some of the mentions in the Mishnah and the Talmud may suggest a certain ambivalence about the folk belief, for instance:
Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world.” Pirkei Avot 2:11
Maimonides interpreted this to mean that greed and jealousy will cause a person to isolate themselves – he was extremely opposed to superstition of any kind. A 15th century Italian rabbi known as Bartenura agreed with Maimonides and then added that some people in their greed may look with an evil eye on the children or belongings of others. Rabbi Yonah Gerondi, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, wrote that:
[The evil eye] is one who is not happy with his lot and places his eye on his fellow who is wealthier than he, [thinking] when will I be as wealthy as the great wealth of this man? And this causes evil to himself and to his fellow. – Rabbi Yonah, Commentary on Pirkei Avot 2:11
We can see that while it is possible to deal with “the evil eye” only as folklore or superstition, in the wiser parts of Jewish tradition we also take a practical lesson from it, that envy and jealousy can poison people and communities. Bragging can attract it by encouraging envy in others (what other purpose is there to bragging, other than to stir up envy in others?)
So while we may adopt the custom of saying “Kenahora, pu pu pu” the wise Jew will say it not to ward off evil spirits, but as a self-reminder that bragging is unkind and may backfire, and envy hurts the envious more than anyone else!