B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Scrolling bystanders, Part 4: Sinat Chinam

Today is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, known as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and the day on which Jews mourn the  destruction of the First and Second Temples. It is a fitting occasion for this ongoing exploration of lashon hara (“evil speech”), and specifically, Jewish teachings on the catastrophic consequences flowing from speech. For previous installments, see Introduction (2017); Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (2023).

It is a day of extremes: extreme symbolism of two Temples destroyed on the same calendar day years apart. Accounts of extreme suffering, death, and destruction, portrayed in extreme graphic detail. Fasting in its most extreme form, done only on this day and Yom Kippur.  We sit in darkness on the floor or on low seats, listening to five chapters of a book called Eicha, often translated as “the Book of Lamentations” but the word really means something closer to “How can this be?” Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 are chanted in a haunting, legato, trope whose modality is half minor and half major, a deep melancholy; the melody of chapter 3 the extreme opposite: a loud and harsh barrage of repetitive and chaotic sound.

Jewish teachings portray all this as divine punishment. In the case of the First Temple, the crimes were idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed; for the Second, the crime was sinat chinam, “baseless hatred,” rooted in lashon hara. According to the Talmud:

“[C]onsidering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred [sinat chinam] during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.”

(Yoma 9.b) Another section of Talmud often studied on Tisha B’Av illustrates this sinat chinam through a parable of a misunderstanding gone extremely wrong. Summarized:

There was a man who was friends with Kamtza and had an enemy named Bar Kamtza. One day, this man decided to host a large feast. He instructed his servant to invite his friend Kamtza to the feast. However, the servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamtza instead.

When the host saw his enemy Bar Kamtza at the feast, he was furious. Bar Kamtza, seeking to avoid a public confrontation, offered to pay for his portion of the meal. When this offer was refused, Bar Kamtza even offered to pay for half of the entire feast, and eventually the full cost of the feast, just to avoid being publicly thrown out. However, the host was adamant and had Bar Kamtza removed from the feast.

After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: “Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, [I] learn from it that they were content with what he did.” Humiliated and seeking revenge, Bar Kamtza went to the Roman authorities. He slandered the Jews, claiming that they were rebelling against Rome. The Romans asked for proof, and Bar Kamtza suggested that the Romans request an animal sacrifice; Bar Kamtza then made a blemish on the animal to be sacrificed, knowing that this made the animal unfit for sacrifice according to the priests but not the gentile authorities. 

The Jews considered various options, including making the sacrifice anyway or killing Bar Kamtza to prevent him from making further slanderous reports, but Rabbi Zakharya ben Avkolas argued that if the animal were sacrificed, it would set precedent that blemished animals were fit for sacrificed, and if Bar Kamtza were killed, the Romans would misinterpret it as a punishment for blemishing the animal. In the end, Bar Kamtza was not killed, and his report to the Romans led to the siege of Jerusalem and the eventual destruction of the Second Temple. 

The anecdote concludes: “Rabbi Yohanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.”

(summary / translation based on Sefaria source material, Gittin 55b-56a)

The connection between lashon hara and sinat chinam is self-evident. The Chofetz Chaim frequently referred to sinat chinam as a foreseeable consequence of lashon hara, also citing the destruction of the Temple.  CCDC sums it up: “The Chofetz Chaim says that if we analyze our sins, there is only one that can be so powerful as to cause Hashem not to redeem His beloved children – the sin of lashon hara. It is simple logic. If lashon hara, and the sinat chaim which it caused, had the negative spiritual power to destroy the Beit HaMikdash, then certainly it has the power to prevent the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.” (CCDC at 4). Indeed, Talmudic sources arrive at the same conclusion about lashon hara as for sinat chinam: “The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: Anyone who speaks malicious speech increases his sins to the degree that they correspond to the three cardinal transgressions: Idol worship, and forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed.” (Arachin 15b

On this day of extreme sadness and shock, we make ourselves humble, respecting that “negative spiritual power” and the havoc widespread misinformation and hatred wreaks on our Temples today; the click economy trades on lashon hara designed to inflame sinat chinam. Algorithms learn our deepest fears and desires, then develop and serve up the most effective distortions that speak to our fears and our evil inclinations. We act as inanimate vessels and do not resist, passive weapons to amplify that negative spiritual power so that it  may more easily penetrate our relationships, our communities, our souls, even the planet that each human calls home. 

Today offers no answers or comfort or hope. Today we take time to step back and face the bleakest of realities, in ourselves and in our world. 

After the fast ends and we scrape ourselves off the ground, we will sweep up with us the sparks of light amidst the dust, and gather them together. We will not desist from the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world). We will not become complacent. We will not allow the negative spiritual power to win.

More soon.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.