Fallen From Grace to Gratuitous Hate

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 02, 2009, issue of September 11, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

From Baltimore comes this query from Stanley Cohen:

“In discussions in Israel of that country’s internal strife, one Hebrew phrase I’ve found constantly repeated is sin’at ḥinam, commonly translated as ‘baseless hatred.’ In this usage, what is the syntax and morphology of the word ḥinam? At first glance it looks like it might come from ḥen, ‘favor,’ to which the third-person plural possessive suffix has been added. But if so, how does ‘hatred of their favor’ get to be rendered ‘baseless hatred’”?

Mr. Cohen is to be commended on his Hebrew instincts. Ḥinam does indeed come from ḥen, and can be translated literally as “their favor,” although ḥen can also mean “charm” or “grace.” If you were to say to an educated Israeli about some friends, “ḥinam rav,” he might find you amusingly stilted but would correctly understand you to be telling him that “their charm is great” or “they’re very charming.”

But this still doesn’t answer Mr. Cohen’s question. For that, we have to go back to the days of the Bible.

“And Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord,” Genesis tells us — ve’Noah matsa ḥen b’eyney adonai. The idiom “to find favor [ḥen] in someone’s eyes” is a common one in the Bible and has the meaning of “to please or be liked by someone.” In a passage in Deuteronomy dealing with divorce law, for example, we find the verse, “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she found no favor in his eyes [b’eynav im lo timtsa ḥen v’eynav]… then let him write her a bill of divorcement.” Similarly, when Joseph is thrown into prison in Egypt, we read, “But the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favor [va’yiten ḥino] in the eyes of the keeper of the prison” — that is, God caused Joseph’s jailer to take a liking to him.

Ḥinam, however, does not mean only “their favor” in the Bible. It has other meanings, too, one of which is “at no cost” or “without payment.” Thus, Exodus tells us: “If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh year he shall go out free, for nothing [ḥinam].” And in Numbers, when the Israelites complain about the hardships of the desert after leaving Egypt, they say, “We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt for nothing [*ḥinam].”

How did ḥinam acquire this meaning? Almost certainly because, although it does not appear in the Bible, there originally existed the earlier form of b’ḥinam, “for their [finding] favor,” which described the giving of a gift or entitlement to others simply because they were liked, without exacting payment from them in return. Eventually, the b’ or “for” was elided, leaving only the biblical ḥinam; yet, in later Hebrew, starting with the Mishnaic period and continuing down to this day, the “for” returns, so that we find the two forms of the word, ḥinam and b’ḥinam, used interchangeably. An Israeli who informs you, “I’ve gotten a free ticket to Paris,” can say either “Kibalti kartis ḥinam l’Paris” or “*Kibalti kartis l’Paris b’ḥinam.”

We’re zeroing in on the answer to Mr. Cohen’s question. Once ḥinam meant “free of cost,” it was but a hop, skip and a jump to the meaning of “gratuitous” — an English word, interestingly, that derives from Latin gratia, “favor” or “grace,” and that is defined by my dictionary as “1. Given, bestowed, or obtained without charge or payment; free. 2. Being without apparent reason, cause, or justification: a gratuitous insult.” Ḥinam’s taking on the additional sense of “without apparent reason, cause, or justification” is also a biblical development, as in a verse in Kings I in which Solomon asks to be absolved of the “innocent blood” (d’mey ḥinam) shed by his supporter Joab.

Sin’at ḥinam, gratuitous or baseless hatred, is a rabbinic and not a biblical expression. We encounter it yearly on Yom Kippur in the list of sins that are repeated many times in the course of the day, one of which is “the sin that we have sinned before Thee in hating baselessly.” It also occurs in a number of well-known rabbinic sayings, such as the statement in the Talmudic tractate of Yoma:

“Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things that were found in its time: idol worship, sexual licentiousness, and bloodshed…. But why was the Second Temple, in whose time the commandments, the study of Torah, and the doing of righteous deeds were observed, destroyed? Because of baseless hatred [sin’at ḥinahm]. From this we learn that baseless hatred is as bad as idol worship, sexual licentiousness, and bloodshed put together.”

This passage from Yoma is the subtext of nearly every reference to sin’at ḥinam that one comes across in Israeli political discourse. The rabbis of the Talmud knew well the stories of how during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, one faction of besieged Jews fought another rather than unite against the besieger. The moral for contemporary Israel is too obvious to need belaboring.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.