A most destructive sin
Keeping the faith

A most destructive sin

We are in the midst of the darkest period of the Jewish year—the period known as the Three Weeks that lead up to Tishah B’Av. This year, it begins after Shabbat on August 7.

While many tragedies befell us in this period throughout history, two events stand at its heart: the destruction (the churban) of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

Israel’s “many transgressions” led to the First Temple’s destruction (see Lamentations 1:5ff). One sin, however, led to the Second Temple’s destruction—the sin of “baseless hatred” (sinat chinam). (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 9b.)

Because history—Jewish history especially—tends to repeat itself, it is vital for us to understand that sin and the others that flow from it if we are to avoid future tragedies.

An act of zealotry was the immediate cause of the destruction, but a public act of “baseless hatred” set the tragedy in motion. That act was witnessed by Jerusalem’s elite, including a group of the city’s apparently most prominent sages, yet no one tried to intervene or even to reprimand its perpetrator. (See BT Gittin 55b-56a.) Sinat chinam, it seems, was so commonplace at that time that no one recognized it for the evil that it is, or even that it is evil.

Baseless hatred, in fact, is much too easy to engage in, but very difficult to recognize, which may explain why there is a great deal of baseless hatred in our world today. This sin manifests itself in many ways, with “bad speech” (lashon hara) topping the list, and with jealousy often at its root.

Say, for example, that someone—a family member, perhaps, or a business associate, or even someone we consider(ed) a friend—said something hurtful to us. That is an act of baseless hatred. We then went and told a third party about it because we wanted that person’s sympathy. Whether consciously or not, however, we also wanted to incline that person against the offender. While that may seem innocent and even natural—who would not want validation for feeling hurt, after all—it, too, is an act of baseless hatred. All of us—I include myself—are guilty of both versions from time to time, too often without realizing it.

If the person from whom we seek validation fails to criticize us for such lashon hara, by the way, that in itself is a sin.

If we are to avoid possible tragic consequences of sinat chinam, we need to understand how all the forms of baseless hatred work. There is only space enough in this column to barely touch one aspect of sinat chinam—that which involves “bad speech”—but I hope it leads to recognizing that baseless hatred is indeed a problem in our day and that it requires broader, more serious discussions within our community.

Several commandments found in Leviticus 19 serve as our starting point. Three of those mitzvot are found in verse 17, which tells us, “Do not hate your kinsman in your heart. Rebuke, yes, rebuke your colleague, but do not bear sin because of him [or her].” Verse 18 follows with a warning against either taking vengeance on the offender or bearing a grudge against him or her. The verse ends with that most often quoted and too often ignored admonition: “Love your fellow as yourself.”

An aside is in order. The word translated as “kinsman” actually means “brother” and is often taken to mean a fellow Jew, and no one else. As the late 19th century’s Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch correctly writes in his commentary to this verse, however, “we are all God’s children…, the children of one Father….Every man is a brother in God’s House.”

Verse 17 begins by warning us against allowing grudges to well up internally (verse 18 deals with the external kind). Not only does doing so extend that hurt, but it could lead to other serious consequences, psychological and otherwise (such as the vengeance prohibited in verse 18). The verse adds, however, that in rebuking the offender, we must “not bear sin because of him [or her].”

Therein is the catch. We are required to admonish the offender. Supposedly we are to do so in the hope of getting the offender to see the error in his or her ways. Yet we must do so in private and we “must take care to speak to that person gently, so as not to shame that person’” because that, too, is a sin. (See Shraga Silverstein’s translation of the Chofetz Chaim’s The Prohibition Against Lashon Hara, Principle 4 4:1.)

What does that mean, “speak to that person gently”?

As Hirsch explains it, the verse also refers to our “kinsman” as amitecha (our colleague, neighbor, fellow, counterpart, etc.). Therefore, says Hirsch, we “may not demonstrate even the slightest hint of superiority” in our rebuke. Rather, we must make the offender feel that we view him or her as “our equal in everything,” while taking great care not to “needlessly humiliate that person,” which Hirsch considers to be “a grave sin” even if done in private.

That is easier said than done. Responding to the person, for example, with something like “are you out of your mind?” or “what planet are you on?” or even “you do realize you just committed a sin?” is both condescending and humiliating.

This rule originates in BT Arachin 16b, which says: “One might have thought that one should continue rebuking [the offender] even if that person’s face changes [color] because of the humiliation. That is why the verse adds, ‘Do not bear sin because of that person’; the one giving rebuke may not sin by embarrassing the other person.”

That is especially the case if it is done in public. Elsewhere in the Talmud we are told that embarrassing someone in public is equivalent to spilling that person’s blood. As Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak explained, the humiliated person’s face first turns red, but then the color drains from the face and it turns pale, “which is akin to spilling that person’s blood.” That is why, we are told, “it is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly humiliate another.’” (See Bava Metzia 58b-59a.)

This needs explaining. The doubling up of the word “rebuke” in verse 17 indicates that if the offender does not accept the first rebuke, he or she is to be rebuked many times if necessary. (See BT Bava Metzia 31a.) Because we are warned not to “bear sin” by doing so, however, we may not go so far as to embarrass the offender—publicly or even privately. (See BT Arachin 16b.)

Publicly humiliating someone includes telling others about that person’s bad behavior. That is where the warning against taking vengeance comes in. Why else would we tell others about what was said or done to us if not to get others also to bear ill feelings toward the offender?

There are exceptions to this, of course. If the offender is too wrapped in him- or herself to see that what he or she did was wrong, we may turn to someone whose word we believe the offender will take seriously—a family member, say, or a respected spiritual leader, but only if no malicious intent attaches, which itself is problematic. (See the Chofetz Chaim’s Principle 4 5:1.)

The doubling up of the word rebuke clearly imposes an obligation to reprimand the offender. Yet there is an exception here, too. It is also a mitzvah to say nothing if we strongly believe that the offender will ignore the rebuke. Proverbs 9:8 is cited as the prooftext for this: “Do not rebuke a scorner, for he will hate you; but reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (See BT Yevamot 65b.)

In his commentary, Hirsch considers those who engage in baseless hatred to be “unrefined people” whose hearts are “not sensitized to Torah.” Jealousy motivates them, he says. As he explains it, these “unrefined people” see those whom they offend as “an impediment to their success” who must be belittled in order to gain some advantage over them.

If we engage in such acts, then, we fall into the category of “unrefined people” whose hearts are “not sensitized to Torah,” and that is not a category we should ever want to fall into.

Baseless hatred and what flows from it pervade our world. Sinat chinam underlies the reasons for the armed conflicts in our world, for the divisions in our societies here and globally, for the mass shootings that occur all too frequently these days, for disputes between religious sects, and so much more. It causes enmity among siblings and business associates, among others.

Baseless hatred led to the destruction of the Second Temple and to the Second Exile. Unless we—all of us, not just we Jews—recognize it for what it is and what it can cause, our world is in mortal danger.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.

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