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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Blogger Kibi said...

You wrote

>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?

It's worth knowing that kamtza is an Aramaic word which means something like a bug or an ant. There's a gemara in Yevamos (121) about children "masiach lefi tumam" [talking naturally] about a funeral (can you believe them that person X really died?) and the gemara asks "Maybe they were talking about a pet ant which they named X" - the word used is kamtza.

So the Gemara in Gittin is saying "because of an ant and the son of an ant [something really insignificant] Jerusalem was destroyed. This fits in well with the rest of the text which says "because of a rooster and a chicken Tur Malka was destroyed, because of a broken wagon-panel Betar was destroyed" - all 3 cases were incredibly petty disputes which ended up in terrible tragedies for the Jewish people.

I don't think Rabbi Yochanan blamed Kamtza and Bar Kamtza any more than he blamed a chicken or an axle - he blamed Rabbi Zecharia Ben Avkulas completely.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Kibi said...

It also doesn't make a lot of sense to shtup in "sinas chinom" to this story. There's no sinas chinom in it at all. All we know is that a man liked "Kamtza" and hated "Bar Kamtza". There's no indication the hatred was baseless or wrong. In fact - looking at Bar Kamtza's actions he seems like a ridiculously hateful fellow - for some insult he goes to destroy the Jewish people? - why shouldn't the other guy have hated him? Why shouldn't we?

The gemara in Gitin on this section says nothing at all about sinas chinom and neither of the other two stories can in any way be twisted to be to do with sinas chinom. The unifying factor in all three stories is that in each case the Jews were utterly blind to the nature of reality in front of them. In Tur Malka they got all incensed over a couple of chickens until they rioted against the Romans. In Betar they got all upset about the use of a bridal tree to fix a wagon with similar consequences. Did no one stop and think for a minute "You know, we're pretty much helpless against the Roman, maybe we'll let this one pass"? no, they were so focused on a petty minhag they went off and got themselves killed over it.

Rabbi Zecharia Ben Avkulas is blamed specifically; yet no-one mentions whether he was at the feast where Bar Kamtza got thrown out. This is NOT a contrast of bein adom laMokom and bein aom veChaeiro - it is an indictment of a man who put the tiny agenda of some small chumras over the overriding reality of life in his time. He was worried whether people would misunderstand some specific halachos of mumin in korbanot....when he should have been worried that his actions would stop all korbanot for 2000 years so that no-one knows or cares what a mum is in the first place.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Moshe Abelesz said...

two great comments, thanks -

you should your own blog!!

12:43 PM  
Blogger smoo said...

My rabbi, R. Pearl said that it was the lack of foresight on the part of the rabbis (Zechariah Ben Avkulos) that brought destruction to our people. The ramifications of his rulings were not considered. Sometimes leniencies need to be applied to save the Klal. Similarly the rabbis that sat at their tables and didn't stand up to say to HaWho Gavra (guy who made party) that, "Hey it's not the end of the world to let him stay, why embarrass him," they did not have any insight into how their inaction could effect the world. It is a sad state of affairs when our leaders act or fail to act without having the wisdom to contemplate the ends.

1:07 AM  
Blogger סֵפֶר "Bar Kamtza. 2007" said...

Here were raised intelligent and important questions - but they were asked about the literal meaning (פשט) of the legend - and it makes disaster!

We are MUST DECRYPT the literal meaning of the legends of the Talmud!

Who is Bar Kamtza??? Here is the answer:

3:09 AM  

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