The story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b-56a) is a hallmark of the Tisha be’Av process of mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. It elusively continues to mystify the inquisitive mind year after year, as we try to understand what led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and to our ongoing exile.
“There was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, ‘Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,’ but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead.”
“The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, ‘Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!’ Bar-Kamtza said, ‘Since I’m here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.’ “
The host responded, ‘No!’
‘I will pay for half the cost of the feast.’
‘I will pay the entire cost of the feast!’
‘No!’ And he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!
Bar-Kamtza thought, ‘Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I’ll go now, and have a little feast-of-slander with the king.Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, ‘The Jews have rebelled against you!’ Caesar responded, ‘Who said so?’
Bar-Kamtza said, ‘Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.’
Caesar sent (with Bar-Kamtza) a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar-Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal.
The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas objected, ‘People will say, ‘Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!’
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land.”
The unacceptable behaviors of the host and the guests are clearly wrong; Bar Kamtza should not have been humiliated and allowed to suffer. But Bar Kamtza’s behavior is also clearly wrong; while he was unjustly humiliated, going to the Emperor and maligning his own people was a disproportionate reaction.
The most elusive part of the story, however, is the role of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas in the story. Why did Rabbi Zechariah not allow the Emperor’s sacrifice be offered? Did he not realize that it was a matter of life and death?
Rabbi Beni Kalmanzon, Rosh Yeshiva of the Ottniel Yeshiva, in his excellent book Al Ma Avdah Ha’aretz, points out that if everyone differed from Rabbi Zechariah’s position, and yet R. Zechariah still carried the day, then he must have been the greatest rabbi of the time. How then is it possible for the leading rabbi of the time make such a terrible error of judgment? How did he not realize that he was jeopardizing the future of the Jewish people?
Rabbi Zelig Epstein explains that Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas knew all too well what was going on, and that this was the source of the tragedy.
Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas knew that the Jewish people had sinned so much that they no longer deserved to live with the Temple in their mist; he knew that the Temple would be destroyed and that the Jewish people would be exiled from their land. However, he also believed that they were so steeped in sin and hatred that there was no hope for them; he therefore decided that if the Temple would be destroyed anyway, there was no justification to violate the Halacha.
If indeed Rabbi Zecharya was correct in his analysis, that there was no more hope for the Jewish people, and hence no justification to violate Halacha, why is the Talmud critical of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas – so critical, in fact, that despite his greatness, he was literally excised from rabbinic literature? Why does the Talmud blame him so heavily, that “it is the humility of Rabbi Zechariah that destroyed the Temple and scattered God’s children among the nations”? And what does all this have to do with “humility”? Why is this mistaken judgement referred to as “humility”- a character trait that is ordinarily positive. Why is so much destruction attributed to this positive character trait?
Rabbi Epstein explains that although Rabbi Zechariah was correct in assessing the situation, that destruction was highly probable, he was wrong in his attitude. Indeed the Jewish people had descended into a situation that warranted the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, but this could still be changed; had they change their behavior for the better, the Beit Hamikdash would not have been destroyed. Rabbi Zechariah should have believed that the improbable would still transpire; he should not have lost faith in the Jewish people.
Rabbi Zechariah despaired and did not believe in his ability to change the Jewish for the better. His assessment of the sorry state of his own people ended there; things were bad, and they would remain bad. He did not believe that he, a Jewish leader, has the ability to change the Jews for the better – and this is what he is held accountable for.
Rabbi Zechariah’s failure was his “humility,” his belief that things are bad and that he could not change them. And it is for this that he goes down in Jewish history on such a negative note.
Similar to this is the failure of King Saul. King Saul was admonished by the prophet Samuel for not carrying out God’s word in the war against Amalek. His response? It was the people that did it, not me. Samuel rebuked him and said, “You are the leader of the Jewish people and you should believe in your ability to impact them.”
As we reflect on the tragedy of Tisha be’Av it is important to carry with us the positive message of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: if you see something is wrong, you must believe you can change it. Whether it was those who were present at the feast or whether it was Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, someone neglected to step up to the plate. Lack of belief in our ability to change this world lays the ground for destruction; our belief in our ability to change this world for the better is the foundation of redemption and reconciliation. We learn story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza on Tisha be’Av to remind us of this.
Published in the YU Lamdan, July 21, 2015