Why the Temple Was Destroyed

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


Why was the Temple Destroyed?

A Study in the Maharal's Interpretation of Aggada

Based on a shiur by Harav Yehuda Amital



Rabbi Yochanan said: What does it mean, 'Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune' (Mishlei 28:14)? Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed; because of a chicken and a hen, Tur Malka was destroyed; because of the door of a wagon, Betar was destroyed. (Gittin 55b)


This passage opens the Gemara's depiction of the events leading to the destruction of the Land of Israel. Rashi explains the verse quoted - "Happy is the man who is anxious always" - as follows: "[This refers to a person] who is concerned enough to anticipate what might occur, to check if a calamity might happen if I do such-and-such." One must always take into account the ramifications of his actions. Even when a certain response might seem appropriate now, one needs to look a few steps ahead. Fortunate is the person capable of foreseeing how events might unfold.

The stories presented here by the Gemara illustrate the dangers of shortsightedness and a lack of understanding of how things might evolve.


"Because of a chicken and a hen, Tur Malka was destroyed." (Gittin 57a)

The custom in Tur Malka was to present chickens and hens to a bride and groom, symbolizing the guests' hope for their fertility. Once, Roman soldiers passed through a wedding in the area and seized the chicken and hen, only to suffer the vengeful blows of the insulted participants. Consequently, a bloody war ensued and Tur Malka was destroyed. Rav Asi describes the horror of the slaughter:

"Three hundred thousand armed soldiers came to Tur Malka and went around killing for three days and three nights. Meanwhile, a festive party was held on the other side of the city, and each side knew nothing of what transpired on the other."

Rabbi Yochanan testifies to the previous greatness of the city of Tur Malka:

"King Yannai had six hundred thousand towns in Tur Malka, and each one had the same number of inhabitants as those who left Egypt - except for three of them, who had double [the number of those who left Egypt]."

Chazal's exaggerated depiction underscores the city's immense population.

The destruction of Betar, continues the Gemara, began in a similar manner. In Betar they would plant a cedar to commemorate the birth of a boy, and a pine upon the birth of a girl. The tree planted at birth would later be used for the construction of the youngster's wedding canopy. Once, the emperor's daughter cut down several cedars in order to fix her broken carriage, arousing the violent reaction of the inhabitants of Betar. A war thus ensued, and the city was destroyed.

These three cities symbolize the three central components of a stable national existence:

1. Spiritual power - symbolized by Jerusalem, the "residence" of the Shekhina;

2. Population - symbolized by Tur Malka and its many inhabitants;

3. Defense - symbolized by the fortified city of Betar.

The chicken, which symbolized the large population of Tur Malka, brought about its destruction. Likewise, the cedar, the strongest of trees, caused the downfall of Betar. Chazal thus teach us that at a time of destruction, the source of strength becomes the source of failure.


Such was not the case, however, with regard to Jerusalem. Although the Second Temple lacked the presence of the Shekhina that had characterized the First Temple, it nevertheless served as a unifying force, the only place where sacrifices could be offered:

"Jerusalem built up... to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of God, as was enjoined upon Israel." (Tehillim 122)

Jerusalem fell due to a lack of its defining characteristic, not its excess. The city that fell was not a united Jerusalem, but a ruptured Jerusalem, replete with mutual animosity and baseless hatred (sinat chinam).

In the absence of prophecy, Providence transmits us messages through the occurrences around us. Undoubtedly, Jerusalem would have fallen even if not for the incident of "Kamtza and Bar Kamtza." However, this story associated with the destruction of Jerusalem symbolizes the forfeiture of the city's right to exist. The Gemara claims that "Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed." Kamtza, too, bears responsibility for the city's downfall, despite the fact that he played no role whatsoever in the story. Bar Kamtza mistakenly received Kamtza's invitation to a celebration and was then shamefully expelled when he attended. Kamtza - the intended recipient of the invitation - was not involved at all!

A closer analysis of the Gemara will help clarify this anomaly. The Gemara states that Kamtza's friend "made a party." This wasn't a wedding or some other festivity of religious significance; it was a party for an enclosed, self-contained clique, characteristic of a splintered society. This group, to which Kamtza belonged and from which Bar Kamtza was publicly rejected, resembles an "egrof KAMUTZ" - a closed fist, which safely protects everyone within, but which is impossible to penetrate or to gain entry into. Indeed, this was the sin of Kamtza - his very membership in such an exclusive clique.

The Rambam asks in his Guide to the Perplexed (III:45) why the Torah never specifies Jerusalem explicitly, and instead only alludes to "the place that God will choose." His first two answers relate to the potential reaction of the other nations. If they had learned of the site for the Temple in advance, they would have immediately either concentrated their forces there or just destroyed the chosen city, since their war with Israel is, primarily, a cultural struggle. The third answer, though, relates to the potential reaction of Benei Yisrael themselves. Were they to have known which city was chosen as the site of the Temple, the tribes would begin fighting with one another, each demanding that the city be included in their region. Jerusalem, the symbol of national unity, has no right to exist if it causes friction and hatred among the Jewish People.


After having been publicly humiliated, Bar Kamtza then approached the Roman authorities and slandered the Jews. His vengeance was directed specifically against the rabbis who were present at the party and stood by idly while he was put to shame:

"He said, If the rabbis were there and did not object, it must be that they were pleased with what happened... He went and told the emperor, 'The Jews are rebelling against you.'"

Indeed, we must question the rabbis who themselves participate in exclusive, private clubs. But the continuation of the story presents us with yet another severe problem involving ineffective leadership.

The emperor sent a calf to the rabbis of Jerusalem to offer as a sacrifice on his behalf. Bar Kamtza inflicted a slight wound in the animal - either a slit in the eyelid or a cut on the lip, depending on one's reading of the Gemara - thus invalidating the sacrifice. The gentiles' attitude towards Jerusalem is characterized on the one hand by fear and intimidation, and on the other by a desire to be involved: the Temple is a "House of Prayer for all nations" (Yeshayahu 56:7). Thus, the emperor figured, the Jews' reaction to his offering would clarify their position towards his government.

The Gemara records the different ideas considered by the rabbis as to how to resolve the crisis. The simplest solution, though, was never even raised - to explain to the emperor why his sacrifice cannot be offered in the Temple! The Gemara explains that these slight defects invalidate the sacrifice by Torah law, but not according to the protocols of the other religions.

For the emperor, the requirement of "wholeness" in a sacrifice involves physical completeness - good health and strength. Understandably, then, a slight slit in the eyelid lip would not invalidate the sacrifice. For us, however, the laws of defects symbolize spiritual perfection. The lips signify the power of speech; the eyes represent the vision of the soul. They both allude to one's inner, spiritual quality. Any attempt by a Jewish delegation to explain this concept to the emperor would underscore our seclusion, our unique, spiritual universe that contradicts and opposes that of the Roman Empire.

The rabbis thus felt that the animal, although invalid for sacrifice, should be offered nonetheless due to the potential danger to life should the emperor's anger be aroused. Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulis opposed the idea, fearing that people will mistakenly think that animals with defects may be offered on the altar. The next suggestion was to kill Bar Kamtza so that he would discontinue spreading false rumors that threatened the Jews. Once again, Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulis expressed his disapproval: "People will then say that one who inflicts a wound on a sacrificial animal is liable for the death penalty." This inaction led to the fruition of Bar Kamtza's plan and, ultimately, the destruction of the city. This prompted Rabbi Yochanan to issue this chilling statement about Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulis: "The modesty of Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulis destroyed our house, burnt our Temple, and exiled us from our land."

This same declaration that had been made about the brutal Roman government is now applied to a scholarly rabbi who had achieved considerable stature, but simply lacked the ability to reach a conclusive decision. When the need arises to decide, to adopt a definite approach, a leader who lacks this capability brings about calamity. This frightening combination of senseless hatred, a corrupt leadership - the rabbis who sat at the party without objecting to Bar Kamtza's humiliation - and a leader who lacked the capacity to reach a final decision - this combination led to the tragic destruction of Jerusalem.


Translated by David Silverberg