Fallen From Grace to Gratuitous Hate

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 02, 2009, issue of September 11, 2009.
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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.

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