Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Parshat Devarim

A Re-reading of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

Parshat Devarim is always the Shabbat before Tisha Be'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of our Temple and Jerusalem, the most horrific day in the Jewish calendar.

We have noted in a previous Sedra Short the connection between the parsha and Tisha Be'Av (see below from 2006).

This week I would to like to offer a re-reading of the story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, the story behind the destruction of the Temple, as it appears in Gittin .

It begins with Rabbi Yochanan stating that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Essentially a wealthy man wants to invite his good friend Kamtza to a feast, but a mix up occurs and his enemy Bar Kamtza comes instead. The man is furious and ejects Bar Kamtza from the feast, despite long pleas, in which Bar Kamtza offers to pay for the whole feast but not suffer the humiliation of being evicted. Bar Kamtza decides that since the rabbis who attended the feast did not intervene to save him from embarrassment, he would slander the Jews to the Romans.

Bar Kamtza persuades Caesar to send a sacrifice to the Temple to test the loyalty of the Jews. He then makes a minor blemish on the animal, in order to make it unfit for sacrifice. The rabbis at the Temple debate what they should do, after all the animal came from Caesar. Some rabbis suggested that they should make the sacrifice regardless, but Rabbi ben Zecharia Avkulos objected as people would then think that it was permitted to sacrifice animals with blemishes. It was suggested that Bar Kamtza be executed so that he could not report back to Caesar. Again Rabi Zecharia ben Avkolus objected as people would say that someone who offers a blemished sacrifice is liable for execution.

The animal was therefore not sacrificed and Caesar considered this a rebellion and sent his troops to destroy the city. The story ends with Rabbi Yochanan blaming the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolus for destroying the Temple.

There are two questions we must ask:

  • Is this story actually true? Were there really two men with similar names with one being a close friend and the other an enemy of a wealthy man?
  • Rabbi Yochanan first blames Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and then at the end of the story blames Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolus. Whose fault was it really?

Firstly, I think it is likely that the story is a metaphor for the state of the Jewish people at the time. Two people, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, were pretty much the same. The only difference between them was the "Bar" – a minor difference. Yet, that very small difference, possibly in ideology, was enough for him to be hated by the other side. And despite the fact that it was only a minor difference, there could be no rapprochement whatsoever.

The Jews of Judea had so much in common with each other. Yet the minor differences between the groups became positions of such stiff hatred. They could only focus on what was different and could not see that they were one people with the same goals.

Secondly, we should note that both course of actions suggested to Rabbi Yochanan Ben Avkilus were permitted as it was an exreme situation. He was only concerned as to what people might think and was therefore, machmir, strict.

Rabbi Yochanan, therefore, is making a stunning indictment of the rabbis of the Second Temple. They were so worried about what people might think regarding ritual that they were overtly strict in keeping to the letter of the law when it came to Caesar's sacrifice. However, when it came to the feelings of Bar Kamtza, they were silent, and were unconcerned as to what others might think. Rabbi Yochanan is saying that the rabbis were not careful when it came to social laws, "Bein Adam le'Havero", yet overtly strict when it came to ritual laws, "bein Adam laMakom". It should have been the other way around.

Unfortunately, this story sounds too familiar.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: "A 38 Year Perspective" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: " Fighting in the Mountains" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Devarim, entitled: "Devarim, Chazon and Tisha Be'Av" appears

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Parshat Mattot-Massei

The Blood Avenger and Cities of Refuge

Moshe is commanded by God to set aside six cities of refuge. "These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation" (Bemidbar 35:12).

These two concepts, that of the avenger and that of the city of refuge, are strange concepts for us to understand. What are they about?

In order to understand these concepts we must try to understand ancient near eastern culture.

Family honor is still today, a very important concept. In the ancient world it was everything. To such an extent that if someone was killed, it was incumbent on a family member to avenge that person's death by killing the killer – an honor killing.

This phenomenon still exists in some eastern cultures. It was the norm in ancient Israel. However, the Torah did not approve of this form of ex-judicial justice. It believed that only the courts could decide to execute someone. However, it could not forbid it as the phenomenon was so engrained in the society. So the Torah permitted it, but put some limitations onto it that would essentially, nullify it.

The first thing it did was to say: "the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation" (ibid). When a person killed, street justice could not be performed. The person must be taken to a court. The court will decide if it was murder or accidental killing.

If it was murder then "the murderer shall be put to death" (ibid 18). However, if it was accidental killing, then the killer should flee to a city of refuge. There, he has protection from the blood avenger. If the killer does not flee, or does not flee quickly enough, then the avenger is given the legal right to take his vengeance. Once however, the killer reaches the city of refuge, the avenger must leave him be.

The Torah is therefore, permitting blood vengeance, but puts it into the judicial realm and then tries to avoid it by putting a limitation on it that makes it unworkable. This is a similar method that the Torah uses to prevent honor killings with the family (see

In this manner the Torah tries to wean Israel away from this ugly phenomenon.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Massei, entitled: "Zelofchad's Daughters Part 2 " appears a at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot, entitled: "The Combatant's Tax " appears a at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot- Massei, entitled: " Moshe and the Transjordan" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Massei, entitled: "Tribe and Tribalism" appears at

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Parshat Pinchas

The Rise of Yehoshua

In this week's parsha, we see two leaders emerge. First there is Pinchas who, despite showing decisive political leadership when he killed Zimri, is appointed a priest and eventually becomes the Kohen Gadol.

Later on the parsha, Moshe is informed that his death is near. "Go up to this mount Avarim and look at the land…when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people" (Bemidbar 27:12-13).

Moshe accepts God's decree but pleads with him to appoint a successor "so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd" (ibid 17). God tells him to appoint Yehoshua "…lay your hand upon him…before the entire congregation…You shall bestow some of your majesty upon him so that all the congregation of the children of Israel will take heed" (ibid 18:20).

Sefer Yehoshua shows how Moshe's majesty was bestowed up Yehoshua. The book begins by describing Moshe as "the servant of Lord" and Yehoshua as "Moshe's attendant" (Yehoshua 1:1). Yet by the time of his death, Yehoshua receives the epitaph "the servant of the Lord" (ibid 24:29). How did his occur?

When Moshe died, the whole people looked upon Yehoshua to see whether he could fill the leadership void.

He begins by asserting his authority on the people. He reminds the eastern tribes of Reuven, Gad and half-Menashe of their commitment to lead the military campaign in Canaan. They respond: "All that you have commanded us we shall do and wherever you send us we shall go. Just as we obeyed Moses in everything, so shall we obey you. Only that the Lord your God be with you as He was with Moses" (ibid 1:16-17).

However, he was aware that a strong display of leadership was not enough. The people needed a sign that he was indeed the true heir of Moshe. Therefore, God tells him: "This day I will begin to make you great in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that as I was with Moses, so will I be with you" (ibid 3:7).

Moshe's greatest miracle was the splitting of the Red Sea. God therefore, does a similar miracle for Yehoshua. To cross the Jordan, the people do not need a miracle. They could build a bridge or they could choose a narrow crossing and wade across. They had no enemy chasing them and there were crossing points at the river.

Yet God wanted to show the people that Moshe's majesty had indeed been bestowed upon Yehoshua – so He split the Jordan for him.

Of course, the splitting of sea is a far greater miracle than the splitting of a river, as Yehoshua is not Moshe, but he is clearly his successor, he does have his majesty.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Pinchas, entitled: " It was After the Plague” appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Pinchas, entitled: "Zelafchad's Daughters and Feminism” appears at

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Parsht Ballak

Ballak the Stubborn

Throughout this week's parsha, Ballak is pushing Bilam to curse Israel. Yet, from the very first time that Bilam was approached he responded: "the Lord has refused to let me go with you" (Bemidbar 22:13).

Yet, Ballak persists with his plan and goads Bilam to curse Israel. Why doesn't he understand that God won't let Bilam do it.

By examining the conversations between Bilam and Ballak, we will see that Ballak was constantly misled by Bilam and by others, and therefore had no reason to assume that the mission would fail.

To begin with, God told Bilam the very first time: "You shall not curse the people because they are blessed" (ibid 12). However, Bilam never relates this information to Ballak. Had Bilam done so, Ballak might have given up straight away, for he knows: "whomever you bless is blessed" (ibid 6).

All Bilam said was: "Return to your country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you (ibid 13). Yet, Ballak does not even know that God does not permit Bilam to join him. All the messengers tell Ballak upon their return to Ballak is: "Bilam refuses to come with us" (ibid14).

Therefore, Ballak legitimately assumes that Bilam won't come because he has not promised enough riches. (Note: it is very possible that this was the impression that Bilam gave the messengers.) Therefore, Ballak says: "I will honor you greatly and do whatever you tell me to do" (ibid 17) and sends "dignitaries, more and higher in rank than" the previous ones.

Indeed, that is exactly what Ballak says to Bilam when they first meet. Nevertheless, even at that point, after God had spoken twice to Bilam in dreams, and then via an angel with his donkey, Bilam still does not tell Ballak that the mission is futile. He just says: "Behold I have come to you, do I have any power to say anything? The word God puts into my mouth - that I will speak" (ibid 38). Ballak has no reason to assume that God will not allow Bilam to curse Israel.

Therefore, Ballak is truly shocked when at the first attempt, Bilam blesses Israel: "What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!" (ibid 23:11).

Bilam again says: "What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say" (ibid 12). Bilam, however, still does not say that Israel is blessed. Therefore, Ballak, with his pagan outlook, believes that if he brings many offerings to God, than God can be persuaded to change His mind.

And so, Ballak builds another seven altars, offers the sacrifices in order to tempt God. So, when Bilam returns from his meditation to God, Ballak asks: "What did the Lord speak?" (ibid 17). Bilam responds: "God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should relent (ibid 19). He then proceeds to again bless Israel.

However, Ballak still does not realize that it is a fait accompli: "Perhaps it will please God, and you will curse them for me from there" (ibid 27). He now understands that Bilam's power only comes from God, but does not yet understand that God does not change His mind. And so he tries one more time to appease Him.

If only, Bilam would have told him from the very beginning that Israel was already blessed, he could have saved everyone a lot of bother.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Bilam and his Talking Ass” appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Pinchas’ Legal Precedent” appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Balak's Fear” appears at

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