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Why Did the Sages Remain Silent? A New Reading of the Aggadot of the Destruction

  • Rav Shimon Klein
Translated by David Strauss
In memory of Esther Leah Cymbalista z"l
Niftera 7 B'Av 5766 
Dedicated by their family.
Jeffrey Paul Friedman z"l
August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012
 ז"ל יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל 
כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב
"Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed." These words are found at the beginning of an aggada relating to the Destruction, the first in a series of such aggadot in the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Gittin. These aggadot recount how Jerusalem was destroyed, how the city of Tur Malka was destroyed, and how the Bar Kokhva revolt failed.
What is the nature of these stories? Are they historical reviews, a description of the series of facts that led to the destruction? To what extent is it right to seek meaning and symbolism in them? Our study is based on the premise that the Aggada deals with questions of the greatest importance and that it is committed to the essence, the characters, and the processes. Similar to the Midrash, which uses parables to express its ideas, the Sages utilized many tools of expression and the "art of storytelling," which allowed them to reach the essential and set aside that which is secondary to it.
Many questions will be raised in this study – linguistic questions, interpretive questions, and primarily questions concerning the heroes of the story and the choices they made. Who is the "certain man" at whose meal the Sages sat, and what is the meaning of the anonymity he is granted? What is the source of his intense hatred for Bar Kamtza? Where was the breeding ground of a man like Bar Kamtza, who, without batting an eyelash, summoned the Roman troops to Jerusalem? Based on the answers to these questions, we will seek an answer another question: Why did the Sages remain silent in the face of the injustice done to Bar Kamtza?
Once these questions are raised, we cannot content ourselves with an interpretation that does not give them serious consideration. A key tool in our study will be listening to the language of the aggada – the words, the phrases, and the movement that is created. These will serve as a kind of entrance ticket to an encounter with the inner world of the characters.
The Story
R. Yochanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: "Happy is the man who fears always, but he that hardens his heart shall fall into mischief" (Mishlei 28:14). Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed. Because of a cock and a hen Tur Malka was destroyed. Because of the shaft of a leather Beitar was destroyed.
Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed.
A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a meal and said to his servant, “Go and bring me Kamtza.”
The man went and brought Bar Kamtza.
When the man [who hosted the meal] found him sitting there, he said to him, “Surely that man is an enemy of that man; what are you doing here? Stand up and leave!”
He said to him, “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
He said to him, “No.”
He said to him, “I will give you half the cost of the meal.”
He said to him, “No.”
He said to him, “I will pay you for the whole meal.”
He said to him, “No.”
He took him by the hand, stood him up, and put him out.
He [Bar Kamtza] said, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not object, this shows that they agreed with him.
I will go and inform against them [eikhol behu kurtza][1] to the government.”
He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
He said to him, “Who says?”
He said to him, “Send them [the Jews] an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar].”
So he went and sent with him a fine calf.
While on the way, he [Bar Kamtza] made a blemish on its upper lip, or some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not.
The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. R. Zekharya ben Abkulas said to them, “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.”
They then proposed to kill him [Bar Kamatza] so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zekharya said to them, “People will say: One who makes a blemish on consecrated animals is to be put to death!”
R. Yochanan said: The scrupulousness of R. Zekharya ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burnt our Temple, and sent us into exile from our land. (Gittin 55b-56a)
Questions and Perplexities
A careful reading of this story raises many questions directed both at the storyteller and at the characters in the story.
The questions directed at the storyteller include:
• The heading, "Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed," is unclear. After all, Kamtza is not at all present in the story! We would have expected a different heading, one that sets that "certain person" who hosted the meal and Bar Kamtza in the center, given that they are the protagonists in the story.[2]
• The anonymous designation applied to the host, "a certain person," is difficult to understand. Why does he, the generator of the great hostility, remain unidentified throughout the story?
• At the beginning of the passage, R. Yochanan says that "because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed," whereas at the end of the passage he attributes the destruction to the scrupulousness of R. Zekharya ben Abkulas. What is the relationship between these two statements?
            The questions directed at the host of the meal include:
• Who is the host at whose table the Sages are sitting? The identity of the Sages is unclear, but the sharp step taken by Bar Kamtza – punishing the entire Jewish People – points to the fact that important Sages were present at the meal. It may be surmised that the rest of the attendees were also not ordinary people. Who, then, is this person, whose invitation was accepted by many distinguished people?
• What is the source of the host's burning hatred for Bar Kamtza? What brought him to reject Bar Kamtza's offer so totally and sharply?
The questions directed to Bar Kamtza include:
• It stands to reason that Bar Kamtza understood that he was not welcome at this event. Why did he not take the trouble of verifying whether he had perhaps been invited by mistake? What can we learn from this?
• When asked to leave, Bar Kamtza "clings to the horns of the altar," making exorbitant offers in order to stay at the meal. These offers were made in the presence of the other people in attendance.[3] What, then, would he have gained by being allowed to remain at the meal, when it was clear to everyone that he was not at all welcome there?
• The disproportionality in his response is incomprehensible. A sharp step of revenge against the Sages who attended the event and remained silent would have been understandable, but falsely accusing the Jews of plotting to rebel against the Roman Emperor, which led to the sending of Roman troops to exterminate his people and family, is not at all reasonable. Who is the man who acts in this manner? What scale of values does he represent?  In what school was he raised?
The questions directed to the Sages of the generation include:
• Bar Kamtza accuses the Sages that they were present at the meal but failed to object to the host's conduct. As we mentioned above, the sharp step taken by Bar Kamtza, which hurt the entire people of Israel, points to the fact that we are dealing with important Sages. Why did these Sages remain silent and fail to object to Bar Kamtza's removal from the meal?
• In the dispute between the Sages and R. Zekharya ben Abkulas regarding whether to offer the sacrifice in order to maintain peaceful relations with the government or whether to reject it because of certain halakhic concerns, R. Zekharya's position is puzzling.[4] He does not rule out the offering of the sacrifice or the killing of Bar Kamtza per se, but only for fear of the erroneous halakhic conclusion that might be drawn from such a step. What is the profile of this Sage, who was concerned about a misunderstanding of the ruling, but who ignored the severe repercussions that his words might have for the Jewish People?
• Why don’t the Sages fight for their position on such a crucial matter? More generally, what brought them to defer to a Sage who was not perceived as a significant authority in their generation?[5]
Let us now go back to the story and read it in a more attentive manner. We will focus on the characters, their spiritual profile, and the logic that guided them at various stages. It is our hope that a picture will emerge that will allow us to understand what happened and why it did.
Happy is the Man Who Fears Always
R. Yochanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: "Happy is the man who fears always, but he that hardens his heart shall fall into mischief" (Mishlei 28:14). Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed. Because of a cock and a hen Tur Malka was destroyed. Because of the shaft of a leather Beitar was destroyed.
R. Yochanan points to a verse in the book of Mishlei that praises the man who is always afraid. The three destructions that took place at the end of the Second Temple period serve, in his opinion, as an illustration and application of this verse. To a great extent, the verse serves as a heading for the series of aggadot relating to the destruction, containing within it the secret of the destruction.
"Happy is the man who fears always; but he who hardens his heart shall fall into evil" (Mishlei 28:14) – constant fear is presented as an advantage, as opposed the hardening of the heart that causes one to fall into evil. Fear allows a person to properly perceive and feel life around him, to be vigilant about what is happening around him and to make decisions accordingly. In contrast, a person who hardens his heart does not feel his environment and does not respond correctly, and thus he will fall into evil.[6]
Thus, R. Yochanan implies that the three stories of the destruction involve people who hardened their hearts and ultimately fell into evil.
Why Was Jerusalem Destroyed?
Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed.
Jerusalem was not destroyed because of Rome. Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza – an internal, home-grown product. Given that Kamtza does not play an active role in the story and has no part in the event, it seems that this assertion should be understood as a kind of statement of principle. The gemara looks at the events of the Destruction and points to the existence of two prototypes in that generation – Kamtza and Bar Kamtza – that caused the destruction. As a first step, we will focus on the names of these two people and try to understand what is concealed within them.
The act of kemitza – taking a fistful – involves taking and separating. A person takes a fistful of something and holds it, while closing his hand and thereby keeping out that which is not contained within his fist. The priestly service in the Temple regarding a meal-offering included an act of kemitza. The portion remaining outside the fist is referred to by Scripture as "that which is left."[7]
In light of this, the name "Kamtza" can be understood as referring to a person who holds firm to his positions and cuts himself off from the world outside of him, working on the assumption that the entire truth lies in the palm of his hand.[8] Such closure does not necessarily stem from malice or narcissism; it may well follow from a perception that the true path must be protected from threats and distortions that threaten its existence. This description accords well with the sectarian spiritual world that prevailed in Jerusalem on the eve of the destruction.
In light of this interpretation, we can understand who Bar Kamtza was. "Bar Kamtza" is "the son of Kamtza," who symbolizes the continuation of his path, or the next generation of people who "close themselves off." In contrast to Kamtza, who chose at one point "to close himself off," to isolate himself with his opinions and reject the world outside him, Bar Kamtza is the archetype of the person who has been born into a "closed" reality and is not at all aware of the existence of another way. He lacks the tension between the worlds that "Kamtza" has, since he does not recognize the world outside of himself. For him there is but one set of ideas, upon which he stands and in relation to which everything is measured.
Accordingly, the statement that "because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed" can be understood as follows: The destruction was a consequence of a social and religious process that the people of Israel underwent between these two archetypical points – "Kamtza" and his continuation, "Bar Kamtza." Jerusalem is by its very essence "a city that is joined together." It is located on the seam between the descendants of Rachel and the descendants of Leah; in its center stands the Temple, where the tribes of Israel were united. Over the course of the generations, however, it gave rise to "Kamtza," and then to "Bar Kamtza," archetypes of people who closed their hands, cleaving to a single truth while denying the world of others.
The climax of "closing" in our story is found in the position of Bar Kamtza after having been removed from the meal: If I have been removed from the meal, this is a sufficiently justified reason to inform on Israel and bring the Roman troops to Jerusalem![9] This spiritual position of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza will take on many different forms in the stories relating to the destruction that follow. We find it again in the actions of the zealots who lived in the besieged city of Jerusalem and were not prepared for any compromise; they burn the grain reserves and try to force the people into war. We find it as well in the reaction of those who beat the Roman soldiers after they harmed the rooster and the hen, where the gemara uses the phrase of Bar Kamtza: "The Jews have rebelled against you" (Gittin 57a). And it is there yet again in the story of "the shaft of the litter," where Jews took revenge against the Romans for the innocent lopping off of a branch on behalf of the Emperor's daughter; there too we find the wording: "the Jews have rebelled against you" (ibid.). According to the gemara, this inappropriate rebellion is what caused the destruction of Beitar.
Now, following this initial identification of "Kamtza" and "Bar Kamtza," let us begin to read the story.
The Beginning of the Story
A certain man
The first words of the story relate to the host, an anonymous man who is not referred to by name. What is known about him is that he is a wealthy man and that he is hosting a great feast to which certain Sages have been invited, and probably also other members of Jerusalem's elite. The storyteller's choice not to refer to him by name identifies him with a fundamental, characteristic, and typological position, as the storyteller were saying: This man represents the spirit of the times, and so his personal identity is not the issue. His conduct is an expression not of the worldview of an individual, but rather of the prevailing conceptual system of that time.[10]
If we take this insight a step further, we can view the meal to which the man sends out invitations as an expression and an example of the social situation on the eve of the Destruction. The question of who is invited and who is not is given critical weight; it means who is given a place in the public mainstream and who is ostracized and excluded from it. The host, then, wields great power; he sets the social agenda and holds the keys in his hands. He determines who is in and who is out.
A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy (ba’al devavei) Bar Kamtza.
The man's friend is Kamtza, and the man with whom he has a quarrel (the literal meaning of ba’al devavei) is Bar Kamtza. His fondness is reserved for a particular person, and in equal measure and in symmetric fashion, his hatred is reserved for a different person. This love is different from the love of the good in a person that relates to every person as having been created in the image of God. The very preoccupation with the question of "whom does he love and whom does he hate" indicates a dominant spirit of sectarianism and partisanship.
The "certain man" is fond of the man who closed his fist and chose sectarianism. For him, "Kamtza" is the man who understands, who sees the broader context, and at the same time he chooses to curl up his hands and exclude others. On the other hand, there is his hatred for Bar Kamtza, which is amplified by the term, "the man with whom he has a quarrel." Why does he hate Bar Kamtza so much? Kamtza may have chosen sectarianism, but he understands the wider context. Bar Kamtza, in contrast, does not know his place. "He has no God," he does not really have a people, and certainly not a country. He knows only the rightness of his own path and does not see others. Later in the story, we will hear of his readiness to dismantle the entire world without blinking,
The "certain man" is not prepared to tolerate the second generation of Kamtza, the narrowness in him. The truth is that his rejection of Bar Kamtza reflects a shirking of responsibility for the second generation that grew up in the world of ideas for which he and Kamtza are responsible. This attitude towards Bar Kamtza is an expression of a narrow-minded vision that does not take responsibility for its consequences. Rather than asking what caused Bar Kamtza's growth, it chooses the easy path – to condemn him and drive him out of the camp.
He once hosted a meal and said to his servant: “Go and bring me Kamtza.”
"Go and bring me" – says the host to his servant. This is not an invitation born out of friendship, but rather preoccupation with himself from a position of power. There is no friendship or connection here; what there is here is usefulness, without respect or responsibility. This is another sign that his love for Kamtza is partisan and serves primarily for the purpose of his perception of himself – as a man who loves Kamtza and hates Bar Kamtza.
The man went and brought Bar Kamtza.
The servant makes a tragic mistake. We might even have expected that this would be noted in the story (for example, "He erred and brought Bar Kamtza"). There is, however, no such notation, and this implies that from the servant's perspective, we are not really dealing with a mistake. As stated, the focus in the story is not personal; the focus is the general atmosphere of the time, and in that context, "who is in and who is out." The servant invites people like Kamtza, but he also invites a person like Bar Kamtza. The invitation was extended with complete innocence and with a lack of awareness of the profound hatred between his master and Bar Kamtza.
Who is this servant? What is his profile? Neither the host nor his attendant are referred to by name. Both represent an archetype. The former is the "manager" who knows very well who is to be invited and who not; the latter is a simple person who assists him and enables the host to manage the meal. As opposed to the "certain man," who is responsible for who participates in the meal, the servant is not responsible for anything; he does not enter the thick of things. From his perspective, Bar Kamtza is just like Kamtza. Both are confident about their own superiority, and they say things that are indistinguishable to somebody coming from the outside.
This event is attended by six prototypes of characters: the "certain man" and his servant, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, and the Sages and Zekharya ben Abkulas. The six comprise three pairs, and the transition from the first to the second of each pair contains within it the depth of the process in which the generation finds itself.
Kamtza is the man who decided to constrict himself, alongside Bar Kamtza, the man who grew up in the sectarian reality. Both were chosen to serve as the heading for the process that took place in Jerusalem. Alongside them there are additional characters who emerge from this process: A "certain man," the friend of Kamtza, is still graced with a sort of comprehensive view of the generation. Alongside him there is the servant, his number-two man, who can no longer see the essential distinction between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The third pair is comprised of the Sages and R. Zekharya ben Abkulas. The Sages, as we will see below, try to assume responsibility. Against them, stands a Sage, R. Zekharya ben Abkulas, who embodies distancing from containment; he is concerned about the Holy, but does not take into consideration reality or the Sages' responsibility for it. The power switch for the Destruction lies in the dynamics between the first and second character on each of these fields.
Between the Host and Bar Kamtza
The man [who hosted the meal] found him sitting there.
The host of the meal does not stand at the door to receive his guests. He is too important to put himself in such a position. He "makes his entry" after Bar Kamtza has already taken a seat. This position is a continuation of the formulation of the invitation with the words "bring me," which denotes an attitude of lordship and high self-regard.
He said to him: Surely that man is an enemy of that man.
He refers both to himself and to Bar Kamtza in the third person. Speech that makes use of categorical formulation expresses a lack of directness, alienation, and distance.
“What are you doing here?”
He asks, "What are you doing here," and immediately continues, not waiting for an answer.
“Stand up and leave!”
The host does not content himself with the statement, "Leave," the meaning of which is clear. He prefaces it with the instruction to stand up. This additional command is an entry into the resolution of the physical actions that Bar Kamtza must do to get out, and it indicates the host's sense of superiority towards him.
The lines that follow contain three proposals put forward by Bar Kamtza, who seeks a way to escape the decree.
He said to him, “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
Seeing that I am already here, let me stay, says Bar Kamtza to his host, and I will for my part of the meal. We already noted a question that may be addressed to Bar Kamtza: The host does not want you! Why stay in his house reprimanded and clearly not desired? This question intensifies in the stages that follow in the face of Bar Kamtza’s continued insistence that he be allowed to stay at the meal.
It seems that Bar Kamtza never understood what that "certain man" had against him. Moreover, if the meal symbolizes the public-social field in the people of Israel and the question is who is in and who is out, Bar Kamtza sees himself as belonging inside more than anybody else. The fact that he was invited was a sign that the host had wised up and understood this.
He said to him, “No.”
With complete rejection and without any explanation.
He said to him, “I will give you half the cost of the meal.”
Bar Kamtza is prepared to finance half of the meal. Below, we will try to identify the idea behind this proposal.
He said to him, “No.”
            Once again the host of the meal rejects Bar Kamtza, without offering him any type of explanation.
He said to him, “I will pay you for the whole meal.”
I am prepared to pay the cost of the entire meal.
He said to him, “No.”
The "certain man" objects to Bar Kamtza's presence, even though he is prepared to pay for the entire meal.
He took him by the hand, stood him up, and put him out.
The "certain man" takes things to the extreme, stands Bar Kamtza up by force, and removes him from his house.
A Meal at any Cost
What brought Bar Kamtza to the point that he was willing to pay such a great sum to participate in the meal? As we have noted, this offer of payment was known to all and did not really save him from humiliation. It seems that his starting point was his clear sense that he belonged at the event. His positions expressed the pure truth, and society – even if in practice it does not cling to truth as he does – must assign him an important place and allow him to make his voice heard.
At the first stage, he is willing to pay for his own meal. Even if you do not like me – he says to the host – my presence will not cost you anything. When Bar Kamtza sees that his offer has been rejected, he understands that the dislike for him is greater than he had thought, and he proposes that he will give something of his own. Paying for half the meal means positioning himself beneath the social stretcher. Bar Kamtza is prepared to pay more than his share of the national burden! When even this proposal to pay half of the sum is rejected, he goes all the way. He is willing to pay the entire cost of the event, provided that he be given a place at the table. It is clear to him that if he is there, even if initially as an unwanted voice, he will succeed by the power of his truth to influence others. In this sense, his bearing the burden will lead to appreciation for him and an improvement in his position.
On the other hand, the thought of his being removed from the assembled community is unbearable in his eyes. If he is not part of the story, all is lost. From his perspective, there is no future for Jerusalem and the people of Israel if and when he and his truth are rejected. His struggle to stay inside is a struggle for the whole pot, and he is therefore willing to go all the way and pay the cost of the entire meal.
How great is the distance between Bar Kamtza and the host of the meal! From Bar Kamtza's perspective, he has gone to the limit. In the eyes of the "certain man," the irrelevance of Bar Kamtza’s proposals only intensifies the rejection. Moreover, it turns out that from the host’s point of view, the last offers are worse than the first, because through them the guest would acquire the status of partner and inviter to the event. This status is manifestly impossible with respect to someone who is not even eligible to participate in the meal.
Bar Kamtza Goes to the Emperor
He [Bar Kamtza] said, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not object, this shows that they agreed with him.”
Bar Kamtza is rejected from the meal in anguish, and he points the accusing finger at the Sages who were present at the event; their silence is interpreted as a sign of their being partners in the "decree." Assuming that the story of the meal is the great story of "who is in and who is out," their silence is perceived by Bar Kamtza as their pushing him out of the camp. It was his expectation that at least they – those who are practiced in Torah study and searching for the truth – would defend him and his position. If they cooperated in his removal, concludes Bar Kamtza, they must have abandoned the path of truth.
“I will go and inform against them to the government.”
Torah scholars are supposed to understand the extent to which the truth that has been entrusted to me is the heart of the matter! If they do not understand and they are also partners in its brutal trampling, that is a good reason to go to the Emperor and inform on them.
What led him to this course of action? Why is the Emperor the appropriate address?
He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
What moved Bar Kamtza to claim that the Jews were rebelling? Was this base slander, or did he perhaps level this accusation from the depth of his heart?
He said to him, “Who says?”
The Emperor is depicted in a position of integrity and matter-of-factness; he does not jump on the information, but rather seeks proof. This account sends the ball back to the internal Jewish court.
He said to him, “Send them [the Jews] an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar].”
Bar Kamtza sends a sacrifice and calls upon the Emperor to ascertain whether the Jews will offer it on the altar. If they fail to do so, this is a sign of rebellion.
So he went and sent with him a fine calf.
The Emperor sends a fine offering. The term "he went" is puzzling. Where did he go? It seems that the reference is not to physical movement, but rather notes the new position that he adopted. In other words, Bar Kamtza succeeded in drawing the Emperor closer to his position.
While on the way, he [Bar Kamtza] made a blemish on its upper lip, or some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not.
On his way to Jerusalem, Bar Kamtza cast a physical defect on the animal that was to be offered. He caused a deformity on the animal's lip, or according to another version, the deformity was in the white of its eyes. The Jews demand greater perfection for the sacrifices that they offer, and accordingly they disqualify such an animal. The Romans, however, regard an animal with this type of defect as fit for a sacrifice.[11]
We asked above what brought Bar Kamtza to this step and why he involves the Emperor. Now we will add another question: Was his declared intention to destroy Jerusalem? Did he not consider the possibility that the Sages would offer the sacrifice in order to maintain peaceful relations with the government?
It seems that the step that Bar Kamtza took when he mutilated the offering provides a window to his motives. Bar Kamtza inflicted a wound that only the Jews regard as a disqualifying defect, and he thus emphasized the gap between the different standards of the two peoples. This gap would force the Sages to decide: Should they reject the offering and remain loyal to the truth of the Torah, or should they perhaps yield and accept the values of Rome? The fact that we are dealing with a sacrifice that was brought to the Temple and burnt on the altar turns this into a loaded question: Will the Sages obey the Emperor and waive the purity of the Holy, or will they compromise and accept "the laws of the Gentiles," which regard animals with such defects as fit for the altar, with the intention of pleasing the Romans?
As it turned out, the position of the Sages was to offer the sacrifice, and this makes it more possible to say that Bar Kamtza took this option into consideration. If so, it was not his declared intention to destroy Jerusalem; rather, it was a test to which he invited the Sages. If they rejected the offering, this would be the first step in the declaration of a rebellion, and thus the zealots of truth would grow stronger. On the other hand, if they accepted the offering, it would become clear to all that their silence when he was removed from the meal stemmed from similar motives. Now he would have proof: The Sages adopted the Roman system of values and they were prepared to offer in the Temple an animal that the Halakha regards as physically blemished. This decision would present their weakness to all and would allow him to fight against them and their ways.[12]
The Disagreement between the Sages and R. Zekhayrya Ben Abkulas
The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government.
The Sages understand the danger inherent in refusing to offer the animal, and they maintain that the offering should be sacrificed. From their perspective, the truth is more complex than it would appear from Bar Kamtza's point of view. The Halakha includes mechanisms and considerations of "peaceful relations with the government." Accordingly, their responsibility is not limited to theoretical halakhic truth, but also to the broader contexts in which it is applied.[13]
R. Zekharya ben Abkulas said to them, “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.”
R. Zekharya ben Abkulas turns to them and presents a different position. He is concerned about the mistakes of future generations. His claim is marked by two characteristics:
• His thinking remains within the confines of the Halakha; he does not relate at all to reality and shows no responsibility to it.
• His thinking is precedent-setting, concerned with the "slippery slope," and he applies it to the prohibition of offering a blemished animal, which is stated explicitly in Scripture.[14] It is panic-driven thinking that does not trust future generations, or their ability to stand before the verses and before reality and behave properly.
The Sages think otherwise, but for some reason R. Zekharya's position is accepted.
They then proposed to kill him [Bar Kamtza] so that he should not go and inform against them.
Once again, the Sages present their position, based on their responsibility for the consequences of rejecting the Emperor's offering. They consider killing Bar Kamtza, who is about to incriminate the entire people for a rebellion that never happened.
R. Zekharya said to them, “People will say: One who makes a blemish on consecrated animals is to be put to death!”
Once again, R. Zekharya is concerned about Halakha, but not about reality. He is concerned about a distant precedent – lest the people break the law in the future. On the other hand, he does not worry about the Emperor's possible reaction to Bar Kamtza's slander. The gemara does not describe the continuation of the discussion, but from its silence and from the words of R. Yochanan that follow, it appears that R. Zekharya's position was accepted:
R. Yochanan said: The scrupulousness of Rabbi Zekharya ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burnt our Temple, and sent us into exile from our land.
R. Zekharya makes himself appear little, covering himself with a kind of humility and an excess of righteousness in the depths of which lies a position that lacks all responsibility: "It is my job to worry about the Torah. God will worry about the world and about reality." This lack of responsibility stands at the heart of this passage.[15]
The Meaning of the Sages’ Silence
At the outset, we asked about the silence of the Sages, and we raise the question once again even more strongly. In the following lines, we will invite ourselves to see the big picture of the passage. At the starting point, in the story of Bar Kamtza's removal, the Sages were silent; they similarly effaced themselves and yielded to the view of R. Zekharya ben Abkulas. But in the next stage of the passage, we suddenly encounter R. Yochanan ben Zakkai's great determination in his dealings with the biryonim, apparently a reference to the zealot bands that defended Jerusalem. The gemara tells of his sophisticated move against them, by way of which he succeeded in getting out of the city. After departing from the city, a group of Sages under his leadership meet with Vespasian, negotiate with him, and lead a brave course of relinquishing Jerusalem, requesting to build a new spiritual center in Yavneh – "Give me Yavneh and its Sages" – and instituting many enactments.
The heading for all this is R. Yochanan ben Zakkai's realistic reading of the present reality and his taking responsibility for it.[16] These descriptions present the position of the Sages as a complex position: restraint and silence in the first stages of the story, as opposed to involvement and taking responsibility in the later stages. My argument is that the degree of the involvement and leadership of the Sages in the later stages clarifies their earlier silence, for when they wanted to, they knew how to respond, and even to fight for their position.
Let us return to their initial silence: What brought the Sages to remain silent in the face of the disgraceful behavior of the "certain man" who removed Bar Kamtza from his house? Bar Kamtza presents them with a difficulty. This is a person who embodies the place to which the generation has fallen. His end attests to his beginning, and his later responses express the extent to which the man is not committed. The Sages are faced with a dilemma: The host has humiliated Bar Kamtza, and this is a reason to intervene; on the other hand, any intervening on his behalf may be interpreted as supporting almost complete spiritual anarchy, which characterized his world.
From a broader perspective, the whole reality is sectarian: Kamtza, Bar Kamtza, the "certain man," the guests at the meal who accepted Bar Kamtza's removal with peace of mind. This is a system of life in its final days, without any real possibility of rehabilitation. Any intervention on the part of the Sages was liable to upset the balances. Their choice was to remain silent.
They respond to R. Zekharya ben Abkulas in a similar spirit. First they present their position – to offer the sacrifice in order to maintain peaceful relations with the government – until Rabbi Zekharya ben Abkulas presents his position. In contrast to them, his position is clear and is crowned by loyalty to the Torah and Halakha. In the place where the generation was found, on the seam between the world of Kamtza and the world of Bar Kamtza, R. Zekharya's position is accepted.[17]
The Difference between the Opening and the Closing of the Passage
R. Yochanan opens the passage with the verse: "Happy is the man who fears always, but he that hardens his heart shall fall into mischief," and to illustrate those who shall fall into mischief, he points to Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. At the end of the passage, he casts the responsibility for the destruction upon R. Zekharya ben Abkulas. What is the relationship between the two?
The answer to this question seems to lie in his words: "Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed" – the city that symbolizes the spiritual and national existence of the people of Israel. In contrast, the scrupulousness of R. Zekharya ben Abkulas "destroyed our House and burnt our Temple" – it brought ruin to the Holy and the Temple our national existence – "it sent us into exile from our land." These are two occurrences, different from each other. The first is social, and it is relates to the question who is in and who is out. The second relates to the judgment of the Torah Sages and the world of the Holy. On a deeper level, the two stories tell one story about a broad world that became constricted: Spiritual riches were lost, and in their place came sects, each one sure that it was in possession of the entire truth. Alongside this, in the world of the Holy a similar process took place – a transition from seeing Halakha as it was given, in a broad context, to scrupulousness that constricts it to its four cubits. Scrupulousness that was characterized by concern about the Holy, but not about life, destroyed both the Holy and life.

[1] The verse, "You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people" (Vayikra 19:16), is translated by Onkelos as, “lo telekh kurtzin be-amekha.
[2] It can be argued that focusing on Kamtza points the finger at the servant who made the mistake of inviting Bar Kamtza instead of Kamtza. According to this reading, the destruction of Jerusalem was caused by the tragic mistake of the servant. Beyond the moral difficulty of attributing such a significant event as the destruction of Jerusalem to such a marginal error, doing so does not fit with the continuation of the passage, which repeatedly focuses on the essential factors that led to the destruction.
[3] Bar Kamtza's anger at the Sages who were present at the event and did not protest points to the public character of the confrontation between him and the host. Moreover, the host's scathing reaction toward Bar Kamtza does not accord with a scenario of a sensitive and private discussion for the purpose of removing the unwanted guest.
[4] The concern that "people will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar" is puzzling, as there is an explicit verse forbidding the offering of blemished animals. The concern that people will say that "one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals is to be put to death" is even more puzzling, as it would be clear that he was not put to death for making a blemish on consecrated animals, but rather because of the concrete danger that he would return to the Emperor, speak maliciously about the Jews, and cause the destruction.
[5] Contrary to our story, in another case in which R. Zekharya ben Abkulas took an unreasonable position, the halakha was not established in accordance with his ruling. In that context, he is similarly criticized for his responsibility for the destruction:
Beit Hillel say: One may remove from the table bones and shells. Beit Shammai say: One should remove the entire table and shake it. Zekharya ben Abkulas did not conduct himself in accordance with the words of Beit Shammai or in accordance with the words of Beit Hillel. Rather, he would take and cast behind the bed. R. Yose said: The scrupulousness of R. Zekharya ben Abkulas burnt the sanctuary. (Tosefta, Shabbat 16:7)
[6] Fear is described here as a positive trait, and the question arises as to the relationship between it and the fear described in many sources as a sin, such as, for example, the verse, "The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the ungodly: Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" (Yeshayahu 33:14). We will offer a simple and initial distinction: The fear described in the verse in Mishlei opens a person's heart so that he feels the reality around him (as opposed to one who "hardens his heart"), as a result of which he acts with responsibility. That is very different from fear that reflects softness, weakness, and stagnation.
[7] "And when any one brings a meal-offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it and put frankincense thereon. And he shall bring it to Aharon's sons the priests; and he shall take thereout his handful of the fine flour thereof, and of the oil thereof, together with all the frankincense thereof; and the priest shall make the memorial-part thereof smoke upon the altar, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor to the Lord. But that which is left of the meal-offering shall be Aharon's and his sons'; it is a thing most holy of the offerings of the Lord made by fire" (Vayikra 2:1-3).
[8] A stingy person (kamtzan) embodies a similar trait of taking for himself, closing his hand toward others. The Yemenite and Ashkenazic pronunciation of the kamatz in Hebrew is closed, whereas the pronunciation of the patach is open. Finally, in Aramaic, the word kamtza means locust or ant, and sometimes it denotes smallness. Thus, for example, Onkelos renders the verse, "And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nefilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers (ka-chagavim), and so we were in their sight" (Bemidbar 13:33) as ve-havina be-einei nafshana ke-kamtzin.
[9] In the section, "Bar Kamtza Goes to the Emperor," we will try to understand the thinking underlying this step.
[10]  This form is common in the Bible. For example, in the story in which Shaul searches for the asses, he meets "young maidens," who remain anonymous and unnamed. Through them, the people's attitude toward him and toward Shemuel finds expression (I Shemuel 9). In similar fashion, the young lad who accompanies him is also unnamed; he reflects the typical attitude of a young man in the days of Shaul.
[11] According to the simple understanding, Bar Kamtza planned to return the animal to the Emperor, claiming that the Jews were not willing to sacrifice it. It does not appear that he intended to hide the defect that he had made in it or the difference between the Jews and the Romans regarding such a defect. What this means is that the issue was whether or not the Jews respected the laws of the Romans.
[12] In light of this interpretation, we can attribute significance to the location on the animal's body where Bar Kamtza chose to make the defect. According to the first version, the defect was on the animal's lip, alluding to the difference between the values of the Romans and the values of the Jews in connection with speech. For the Romans, deceitful speech or hypocrisy is not considered a defect. In contrast, Bar Kamtza alludes that in the Jewish value system, speaking the truth is a supreme value. Language that is not faithful to the truth is seen as a defect. If the Sages accept an offering that has a deformity on its lip, it is a sign that they themselves have this defect. This would be a direct continuation of their silence at the meal, which Bar Kamtza understood as flattery directed at the host.
According to the second version in the gemara, the defect was in the white of the animal's eye, alluding to the Sages’ disregard of his removal from the meal. Their silence while Bar Kamtza was being removed could be interpreted as an adoption of the Roman norms that allowed trampling over another person, turning a blind eye to his distress, and reaping social benefit from it. According to the Romans, such behavior was legitimate, but by Jewish standards it is wrong, certainly when it is used to harm others. According to this possibility as well, if the Sages accepted the sacrifice, they would be accused of having ignored the animal's defect, and it thus would become apparent that they too suffered a defect in the whites of their eyes.
[13] Shalom malkhut is a value that strives to maintain proper relations with the government in situations in which Jewish existence is in jeopardy. Shalom malkhut also refers to the honor shown to human kings, and it symbolizes the honor shown to reality as it is, as God chooses to lead it.
[14] "But whatever has a blemish, that shall you not bring; for it shall not be acceptable for you. And whoever brings a sacrifice of peace-offerings to the Lord in fulfilment of a vow clearly uttered, or for a freewill-offering, of the herd or of the flock, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish therein. Blind, or broken, or maimed, or having a wen, or scabbed, or scurvy, you shall not offer these to the Lord, nor make an offering by fire of them upon the altar to the Lord. Either a bullock or a lamb that has anything too long or too short, that may you offer for a freewill-offering; but for a vow it shall not be accepted. That which has its stones bruised, or crushed, or torn, or cut, you shall not offer to the Lord; neither shall you do thus in your land. Neither from the hand of a foreigner shall you offer the bread of your God of any of these, because their corruption is in them, there is a blemish in them; they shall not be accepted for you" (Vayikra 22:20-25).
[15] R. Yochanan describes the lack of responsibility in the generation of the Destruction also from another direction: "For R. Yochanan said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments therein in accordance with Biblical law. Were they then to have judged in accordance with untrained arbitrators?! Rather say thus: Because they based their judgments [strictly] upon Biblical law and did not go beyond the requirements of the law" (Bava Metzia 30b). "Beyond the requirements of the law" means seeing reality, understanding it, and exercising discretion, not in accordance with the law.
[16] During the siege, the faction of Sages led by R. Yochanan ben Zakkai had a clear position – to surrender to the Romans – but due to the biryonim, they had difficulty implementing it. After R. Yochanan departed from the city, his position became clear: "Give me Yavneh and its Sages," while relinquishing Jerusalem. After the Destruction, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai and other Sages led the reality in Yavneh, with the enactments of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, and later the enactments of Rabban Gamliel. They assume responsibility for their situation and lead with great courage.
[17] In the margins of this section, we wish to note: This interpretation of the Sages' behavior illuminates the question about them in a different light. In retrospect, it turns out that their silence pushed Bar Kamtza to the extreme, where anarchy met with despair, and both together moved him to break all the rules. Perhaps, had the Sages objected to the host's behavior and made it possible for Bar Kamtza to remain for the meal and voice his opinion, he would have been directed to another position, and everything would have followed a different course.