The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
YHE-HOLIDAY: SPECIAL TISHA BE-AV SHIUR
is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.
The Placement of a Blemish
and the Placement of an Aggada
was destroyed due to [the incident involving] Kamtza
and Bar Kamtza. There was a man who was a close
friend of Kamtza and an enemy of Bar Kamtza. He made a party and told his servant to invite Kamtza. The servant brought him Bar Kamzta.
The host found Bar Kamtza sitting. The host said to
him: "Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and
said to him: "Once I have come, leave me be and I
will pay for everything I eat and drink."
"I will pay for half the
"I will pay for the
"No!" He took him by
the hands, picked him up and threw him out.
said: "Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not protest, it seems
that they were pleased with what happened. I will go and slander them before
He said to the Caesar:
"The Jews are rebelling against you."
"How do you know
"Send them a sacrifice
and see if they offer it."
The Caesar went ahead and sent
with him a healthy calf. While he was on the way, he placed a blemish on the
animal's upper lip; some say he caused a cataract on the eye. These things are
blemishes for us (and disqualify an animal for sacrificing) but not for them
The Rabbis wanted to offer it
(despite its disqualifying blemish) to preserve good relations with the
ben Avkolus said to them:
"People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the
They wanted to kill the person
who brought the animal, so he could not go and inform on them. R. Zekharya ben Avkolus
said: "People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice
should be killed."
said: "The humility of R. Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple,
burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land." (Gittin 55b-56a)
Lurking in the background of this well-known
story may be another famous gemara (Yoma 9b) which attributes the First Temple's
destruction to the sins of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality, and the
destruction of the Second Temple to groundless hatred (sin'at
chinam). The above story in Gittin
certainly involves a good deal of hatred. R. Yosef Chayyim of Baghdad
(the Ben Ish Chai,
in his work, Ben Yehoyada) points out
that the gemara purposely
identifies what initially appears to be an episode of minor importance as the
cause for the destruction. Unlike the sins that led to the first churban, groundless hatred often involves a kind of
low-key offense that the average person would not deem a major transgression.
This gemara attempts to
educate us to take the minor slights and squabbles seriously.
an interesting reading of this passage's introductory sentence. Taken
literally, it says that Kamtza and Bar Kamtza caused the destruction. Maharal
thus asks: how could Kamtza be
faulted for this sequence of events, when he was not even present at the party?
Maharal explains that in an atmosphere
of great enmity, people look for friends as allies in their disputes with their
many enemies. Such a friendship reflects not true human warmth, but rather the
calculating partnership of the hostile. If so, even the host's friendship with Kamtza was part of the corruption that characterized the
Jewish society of the time.
As with any talmudic
tale, we should ask whether the story's details are simply pieces of
information, or whether they have symbolic import. As Maharsha
explains, the locations of the blemish clearly belong to the latter
category. Blemished lips represent the terrible speech of the Jewish people
prior to the churban. Slander, insults and
mean-spiritedness dominated the society's discourse; the animal's blemish thus
reflects the blemished lips of a people. The blemished eye suggests the
pettiness with which they looked at each other. This pettiness features
prominently in the decision to throw someone out of a party even after he had
offered to help foot the bill.
The story includes a condemnation of the
"humility" of R. Zekharya ben Avkolus. Although not explicit
in R. Zekharya's statement, R. Yochanan
understood that humility was his Achilles' heel. The rabbis wanted to take
drastic measures to avert catastrophe, in either allowing a blemished sacrifice
or in killing an individual bent on endangering them. Apparently, R. Zekharya was afraid to make such a momentous decision
because he considered himself unworthy. Leadership figures must make fateful
decisions in moments of crisis, and humble declarations of inadequacy cannot
substitute for important decisions.
Another version of the story (Eikha
Rabba 4:3) places R. Zekharya
ben Avkolus at the party –
he was one of the rabbinic authorities who stayed silent as Bar Kamtza was tossed out. If so, his excessive humility
hindered him already earlier in the story's development. He thought himself
unworthy of making a scene, and therefore allowed the gratuitously cruel
treatment of an unwanted guest without protesting.
At first glance, it seems that this story finds
its way into Massekhet Gittin
due to a linguistic tangent related to the word "sikrikin,"
a term that appears both in the preceding mishna
and later in this story. It is likely, however, that the editors of the Talmud
employed associations in many tractates as a springboard for introducing
particular stories. If so, perhaps they had a particular reason to include the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza narrative in Masekhet Gittin.
Indeed, Rav Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin asserted that the
placement of all aggadot in the Talmud
reflects deep thematic significance. In his Peri
3), he creatively explains this particular placement of the story of Kamtza/Bar Kamtza. Gittin deals with divorce, and the Temple's destruction resembles a divorce between
God and the Jewish people (note the imagery in Yirmiyahu
3:1). Yet the name of the chapter in which this account appears is "Ha-nizakin," ("Those who are damaged"), a
name that makes no reference to the issue of divorce. R. Tzadok
explains that in reality, the destruction of the Temple and the resultant exile
resemble an instance of damages more than they resemble divorce. While
the latter tends to be final, damages can be undone fairly quickly through
restitution. Sefer Yeshayahu
(50:1) explicitly denies that God has divorced us. On the day we prove worthy,
God intends to compensate us for the damages, and the apparent divorce will
turn out to have been but a temporary rift in the fabric of an enduring union.