Shabbat 89a: Sinai and Sin'ah

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Years ago, I heard Dennis Prager note that, while the Talmud spends six double-sided folio pages discussing the permissibility of eating an egg laid on Yom Tov, the Talmudic discussion of anti-Semitism consists of about three lines. Our great sages were concerned about how Jews are meant to live their lives, not what our enemies think of us. For the Talmud, the answer to the age-old question of anti-Semitism was as simple as it was profound. “What is [the reason for the name] Har Sinai? That hatred descended to the idolaters on it” (Shabbat 89a). Using a play on words, the similarity in sound of Sinai and sin’ah (hatred), our Sages saw the roots of Jew hatred as a result of our acceptance of the Torah. In other words, it is part and parcel of nature, and there is little that one can do about it. The Talmud does not explain why this might be so.

The Torah urges mankind to live up to their potential. It preaches a message of honesty and humility, moderation and morality, determination and discipline, and many other unpopular notions. Instead of living up to the Biblical call to holiness, and associating the Torah with the Jewish people, they prefer to “shoot the messenger”. This anti-Semitism exists, irrespective of whether Jews themselves actually live up to the ideals embodied in the Torah.

While this understanding of anti-Semitism is a bit depressing, by the Talmudic era, our Sages realized that, ultimately, we are dealing with an intractable problem. Better to concentrate on living our lives as Jews than worrying about the actions of those we cannot control. Whether this teaching reflects historical reality or prophetic insight, the rabbis understood that, try as we may, we will never be able to eradicate this problem—at least not until the Messianic age. Better to debate the status of an egg on Yom Tov than to philosophize about the root causes of anti-Semitism.

Yet this does not mean that there is nothing we can or should do ourselves. First, one cannot draw full conclusions from one Talmudic passage. The Talmud has no real beginning or end, and views on any given topic are often scattered throughout its 2,711 pages. This is especially true in dealing with the aggadic, or extra-legal, aspects of our tradition. Sinai and sin’ah is a nice play on words; but our rabbis were not oblivious to the need to do our utmost to alleviate the problem—at least in part.

While educational and diplomatic efforts are fine first steps, our rabbis concentrated on Jewish actions rather than non-Jewish reactions. They especially cautioned against showy materialism, understanding the jealousy that such may cause, regardless of whether or not it is justified. Our rabbis teach that the Torah was given on Har Sinai as that was the smallest of the desert mountains. To receive the Torah means to humble oneself—we are awed in the face of the Divine. Finite man is charged to carry out a Divine mission: becoming a link in the infinite chain of Jewish history.