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Why is "chinam" translated as "baseless"?

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Everywhere that the term חנם appears, as far as I can tell, it always means "without personal benefit": a שומר חנם (Bava Metzia 7:8) watches an object without receiving anything in return; a Jewish slave leaves at the end of his or her term חנם, without having to pay anything more (Shemos 21:2 and Shemos 21:11); Lavan said to Yaakov that he refused to allow him to work חנם, without receiving wages (Bereishis 29:15); Yonasan plead to his father Sha'ul that he not kill David חנם, for no benefit (Shmuel I:19:5); David says to Aronah that he will not take the future Har HaBayis חנם, without paying for it (Shmuel II:24:24); Yeshaya promises that just as we were sold חנם, we will be redeemed without paying (Yeshayahu 52:3); etc.

Yet when the term חנם is used in relation to Tisha B'av, the term tends to be translated as "baseless." The second Churban was caused by שנאת חנם (Yoma 9b.8); the term seemingly should mean "hatred without benefit," not "hatred without cause." The Jews in the desert cried upon the Spies' report a בכיה של חנם (Taanit 29a.7); the term seemingly should mean "crying without benefit," not "crying without cause."

Yet "without cause" is exactly how these phrases tend to be translated (ex. Aish, Chabad). Where does this translation of חנם come from?

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8 comments

self-promotion time... https://rosends.blogspot.com/2020/07/free-hate.html ‭rosends‭ about 2 months ago

@rosends טובים שנים יותר מן האחד. I’m glad I’m not alone in noticing this. ‭DonielF‭ about 2 months ago

Doesn't חנם mean free? As in, without anything with it? So sinas chinam is just hatred, no motivation with it (in English: baseless) ‭robev‭ about 2 months ago

@robev Free in the sense of nothing in return, not free in the sense of nothing prompting it. Lavan asked Yaakov why the fact they were brothers should mean he should work חנם – but if it means free from motivation, the fact that they’re brothers itself is motivation and thus חנם could not apply. ‭DonielF‭ about 2 months ago

Your're right, I think I'll be adopting wanton hatred going forwards: https://www.sefaria.org/Kad_HaKemach%2C_Wanton_Hatred.1?lang=en ‭Dr. Shmuel‭ about 2 months ago

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2 answers

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The Hebrew Academy often discusses the origins of various words in its articles. The article on parashat Dvarim says the following:

כמו המילה לַיְלָה, גם המילה יוֹמָם נגזרה בהוספת סיומת לשם עצם: יוֹם + ־ָם. יש גם מילים מקראיות אחרות בעלות משמעות תיאורית שנוצרו באופן זה: רֵיקָם ('בידיים ריקות'), דּוּמָם ('בדממה', 'בשקט'), חִנָּם ('בעבור חן', כלומר 'שלא בעבור תשלום'), אָמְנָם ('בדרך אֹמֶן', כלומר בדרך אמת). ויש שמתווספת לשם עצם הסיומת ־וֹם לאותה תכלית בדיוק, כגון פִּתְאוֹם ('בדרך פתע' – בשינוי מעי"ן לאל"ף). כל אלה תוארי פועל, ותפקידם התחבירי המובהק תיאור אופן.

Hence, it seems that the meaning of the word can be translated as "for the beauty of it", which can be understood as "without anything in return". A comparison can be drawn to the modern Hebrew slangish phrase "בשביל היופי" (lit: for beauty's sake) which means "pointless".

According to the Hebrew Wiktionary entry for חנם, the use of חנם as "for no purpose/reason" can be seen in Psalms (Tehilim) 35:7:

כִּי-חִנָּם טָמְנוּ-לִי, שַׁחַת רִשְׁתָּם; חִנָּם, חָפְרוּ לְנַפְשִׁי.

Perhaps there is more to be said here, but even based on the above it should come as no surprise that חנם is translated to some form of "for no particular reason", like baseless.

See also: the article on חן.

4 comments

Is חן normally translated as beauty? ‭robev‭ about 2 months ago

@robev I suppose a better translation would be "grace", but in modern Hebrew it's most often understood as "beauty" (even if that's not the correct meaning). Morfix says "grace, charm, attractiveness". ‭Dev-iL‭ about 2 months ago

Why use modern Hebrew to understand a talmudic phrase? Isn't that backwards? ‭robev‭ about 2 months ago

Not really. According to this study on the origins of words in a corpus of modern Hebrew, it was found that only 1 in about 11 words of talmudic origin found in modern Hebrew had its meaning changed. So the modern meaning is typically indicative of the original meaning. Unfortunately, I am only familiar with modern Hebrew (been speaking it for the past 30y) so the info might be inaccurate... ‭Dev-iL‭ about 2 months ago

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This is based on a class given by one of the rabbis at my yeshiva:

Consider the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, often brought as an example of Sinat Chinam. Arguably, the hatred there wasn't without benefit: The rich man didn't want to be associated with lowly riff-raff such as Bar Kamtza. Associating with such an am ha'aretz would have tarnished his reputation as someone who could host talmidei chachamim without them worrying about becoming tameh from amei ha'aratzot.

What it was, was without cause: It's true that in laws of tumah and taharah, if an am ha'aretz's spit touched you or something, you would be tameh and need to go to the mikveh - but that's not really a sin. We know this from the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah:

The Sages taught a similar baraita: Once there was a certain matter needed by Torah scholars. They wanted to discuss an issue with a certain matron whose company was kept by all the prominent people of Rome. The Torah scholars wanted to address the government on behalf of the Jewish people, and they sought the matron’s advice. They said: Who will go? Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: I shall go. Rabbi Yehoshua and his students went to her. When he arrived with his students at the entrance of her house, he removed his phylacteries at a distance of four cubits from the door, and entered, and locked the door before them. After he emerged, he descended and immersed in a ritual bath, and taught his students. Here too, this was conduct that could arouse suspicion that something improper transpired...Rabbi Yehoshua asked: When I descended and immersed, of what did you suspect me? They said to him, we said: Perhaps a bit of spittle sprayed from her mouth onto the rabbi’s clothes. The Sages decreed that the legal status of a gentile is like that of a zav; their bodily fluids transmit ritual impurity. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: I swear by the Temple service that it was so. And you, just as you judged favorably, so may God judge you favorably. (Shabbat 127b)

In other words, though RYB"C knew that he may be touched by the non-Jewish woman's spittle, he still 'risked' it because the issue at hand was considered more important than that particular din of tumah.

Likewise, in the case of the sages at the meal, rather than nod along with the rich man, they should have calmed him down explained to him that having Bar Kamtza around wouldn't be the end of the world and would not destroy everyone's status as "chaverim" - those that meticulously follow dinei tumah and taharah - because there are just some things that are more important than having to go the mikveh over a bit of spit. It was without cause because the people in the meal - the sages and the rich man - should have realized that it was most certainly not the end of the world if they associated with an am ha'aretz, rather than completely destroying his honor.

So too in the case of Bnei Yisrael - crying without cause: they certainly had benefit: not endangering themselves by going into the land of giants to wage war upon them. But it was without cause, considering that they had seen the might of Hashem time and again prior to that event - they should not have feared entering Israel, at least not so much that they demanded returning to Egypt.

I hope this makes sense.

2 comments

This is very insightful, but it doesn't seem to answer the question at hand — I'm not asking for a unified definition of חנם, but rather where the translation of חנם as baseless originates. ‭DonielF‭ about 2 months ago

@DonielF are you asking who was the first person to translate it as such? ‭Harel13‭ about 2 months ago

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