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Kamtza & Bar Kamtza revisited

As we remember the many tragedies that befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’Av, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55B – 56A) is often cited as an example of how baseless hatred caused the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash – the Holy Temple. By reading between the lines of the story we can gain new insight into what happened 2,000 years ago and its implications for today.

A man made a feast and sent his servant to invite his friend, Kamtza. The servant erred and instead invited the master’s enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host saw Bar Kamtza he proclaimed the unwanted guest his “enemy” and ordered him evicted, even after Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire feast. Seeing that Rabbis and other distinguished individuals did not object, Bar Kamtza went to the Roman Emperor and informed him that the Jews were rebelling.

The key point here is that Bar Kamtza was politically connected and had the ear of people in the upper echelons of power in the Roman Empire. The host and Bar Kamtza may have been political not personal enemies. The feast may have been a gathering of the elites to discuss political strategy over food and drink. It is understandable that Bar Kamtza would have been persona non grata at such an occasion, even if he offered to pay for the entire feast.

When Bar Kamtza, who certainly knew of the host’s feelings towards him, received the invitation he may have seen it as a gesture of reconciliation by the host. An attempt to reach out and find common ground. Bar Kamtza responded by accepting the invitation. Bar Kamtza was quickly disillusioned when the host described him as his “enemy” rather then as an opponent or rival and ordered him evicted in a humiliating way.

The host and others at the feast must have known that Bar Kamtza was politically connected and should have thought through the ramifications of humiliating a powerful individual rather than acting impulsively by evicting Bar Kamtza.

Bar Kamtza knew that the people at the feast represented only a segment of the Jewish community, yet he blamed the Jewish people in general for the incident. He told the Romans that the Jewish people were in rebellion.

The Romans were initially skeptical of Bar Kamtza’s claim. To clarify the situation, Bar Kamtza suggested that he bring a korban – sacrifice on behalf of the Roman authorities to see whether the Jews would accept it.

The Roman Empire granted considerable religious autonomy to conquered peoples, so long as they placed a statue of the emperor and Roman gods alongside their gods in their temples. Such an arrangement was, of course, totally unacceptable to the Jews. Instead, the Romans sent sacrifices to the Beit Hamikdash. When these sacrifices were offered on the altar it was a sign of mutual respect between the Jews and the Roman authorities. Failure to accept a sacrifice from the Roman government would have been seen as a sign of rebellion.

On the way back to Jerusalem, Bar Kamtza made a small blemish in the sacrificial animal that made the offering unacceptable. The Rabbis wanted to offer the sacrifice, for the sake of maintaining good relations with the Roman authorities. Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolas objected saying that people will say that blemished animals may be offered on the altar. When the sages raised the possibility of killing Bar Kamtza to prevent him from informing on them to the Roman authorities, Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolas objected, saying that people will think that making a blemish on a sacrifice is a capitol offense. The sacrifice was not offered. The Romans saw it as an act of rebellion and sent their legions to crush the revolt.

Surely, offering the Roman sacrifice was a case of pikuach nefesh – a life threatening situation for all of the Jewish people. Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolas’ objection to offering the sacrifice was not based on the underlying question but on what the reaction of the public might be. Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolas is mentioned in only one other place in all of the Talmud. There must have been other talmedei chachamim – sages of stature who could have overruled him.

Rabbi Yohanan said; “the humility of Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary and exiled us from our land.”

Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolas stood up for the principle that blemished sacrifices can not be offered. He was standing up for Torah. The other Rabbis were afraid to overrule him because they could be accused of violating the halacha. They were more afraid of public opinion than of the consequences of defying the Roman Emperor.

Beware of taking positions that may make us feel like we are standing up for what is right but in reality, make it harder for us to achieve our goals. Act based on the public interest rather than in trying to appeal to the base. Think through the consequences before making decisions. In the end success in politics is measured not by whether our positions make us feel good but on whether they help to achieve the desired outcome.

When the siege of Jerusalem began there were three wealthy men, Nakdimon ben Gurion, ben Kalba Savua, and ben Tzizit HaKesset, who between them had enough wheat, barley, wine salt, oil, and fuel to sustain the city through a siege of twenty-one years. The Zealots, who sought confrontation with Rome, burned the store houses causing a famine in the city that would lead to inevitable destruction. What motivated the Zealots to perform such a foolish act?

If you had been in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago you would have seen the opulence of the extraordinarily rich and the abject poverty of the poor. The Zealots drew their support from the poor. Many of them resented the very wealthy. To them, the storehouses represented how the very wealthy made their fortunes at the expense of the poor. Burning down the storehouses was their way of revolting against “the billionaire class” and the “rigged economy.” In doing so, they sealed the fate of the city they claimed to be defending.

In reading between the lines of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story, we see that baseless hatred led to serious errors in judgement that brought about the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and an exile of two thousand years.

Some of the factors that led to the Churban – destruction were:

  • Regarding others as “enemies” to be defeated and humiliated instead of as compatriots to be reasoned and worked with.
  • Pushing aside opportunities for reconciliation.
  • Failing to think through the consequences of our actions.
  • Blaming an entire segment of the community for the acts of a few.
  • Acting to appeal to short term public opinion rather than long-range public interest.
  • Gaps between the rich and the poor.

How many of these factors are prevalent in Israel and America today?

Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, will eventually be transformed to a day of celebration. To transform Tisha B’Av, we first need to transform ourselves.

We can begin by taking two lessons to heart.

The Talmud (Tamid 32A) states “Who is wise, one who sees the consequences of his actions.” None of us are prophets but all of us should think through the potential consequences of our actions rather than act impulsively.

When we put the Torah away every Shabbat we recite or sing the words of King Solomon, the man who built the First Temple, and of Jeremiah, the prophet who warned of its destruction.

King Solomon described Torah in Proverbs (3:17) saying, “Her ways are the ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”

We should take these words to heart. The way to reach people is through a hand extended in love and by being a positive role model for what a life devoted to Torah and Jewish values can be.

In that way, we can merit the fulfillment of the words with which Jeremiah closed Lamentations (5:21) “Take us back Hashem to Yourself and let us come back, renew our days as of old.”

About the Author
Manny Behar is the Former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several public officials. He currently lives in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem
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