Kamtza & Bar Kamtza and Zekhariah ben Avkolas: The Development of a Narrative of Destruction

The Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story (B. Gittin 55b-56a) is a well-known aggadic story about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It appears in Bavli Gittin as the first of a series of aggadic stories--spanning from 55b-58a--about persecution, destruction and military defeats. A parallel story appears in the early Palestine midrashic work Eikhah Rabbah. Exploring the historical development of the story and its various strands and comparing the two texts provides a glimpse into the values that the authors placed on the story and provides a framework for exploring the relationship of aggadah to history.

The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza begins with a gloss that links it with the stories of events leading to the destruction of Tur Malka and Beitar that follow the Kamtza story. The gloss is meant to group these three stories as a sort of trilogy, yet the stories are interrupted by others and followed by still more aggadot on the theme of destruction.

The following is the text of the Kamtza story.

אמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב (משלי כח, יד) אשרי אדם מפחד תמיד ומקשה לבו יפול ברעה אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים...אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעל דבביה בר קמצא עבד סעודתא אמר ליה לשמעיה זיל אייתי לי קמצא אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא אתא אשכחיה דהוה יתיב אמר ליה מכדי ההוא גברא בעל דבבא דההוא גברא הוא מאי בעית הכא קום פוק אמר ליה הואיל ואתאי שבקן ויהיבנא לך דמי מה דאכילנא ושתינא אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי פלגא דסעודתיך אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי כולה סעודתיך א"ל לא נקטיה בידיה ואוקמיה ואפקיה אמר הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה ש"מ קא ניחא להו איזיל איכול בהו קורצא בי מלכא אזל אמר ליה לקיסר מרדו בך יהודאי א"ל מי יימר א"ל שדר להו קורבנא חזית אי מקרבין ליה אזל שדר בידיה עגלא תלתא בהדי דקאתי שדא ביה מומא בניב שפתים ואמרי לה בדוקין שבעין דוכתא דלדידן הוה מומא ולדידהו לאו מומא הוא סבור רבנן לקרוביה משום שלום מלכות אמר להו רבי זכריה בן אבקולס יאמרו בעלי מומין קריבין לגבי מזבח סבור למיקטליה דלא ליזיל ולימא אמר להו רבי זכריה יאמרו מטיל מום בקדשים יהרג אמר רבי יוחנן ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו

R. Yohanan said, “What is meant by the verse, “Happy is the man who is cautious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune” (Prov 28:14)?

<Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. ...>

Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza:
For there was a certain man, whose friend was Kamtza and whose enemy was Bar Kamtza. [The man] held a banquet.

He said to his attendant, “Go bring me Kamtza.” He went and brought him Bar Kamtza.
[The host] came and found [Bar Kamtza] sitting [at the banquet]. He said, “Since you are my enemy what are you doing here? Get up and leave.”

[Bar Kamtza] said to him, “Since I have come, let me be and I will pay for what I eat and drink.” He said to him, “No.”

[Bar Kamtza] said to him, “I will pay for half the banquet.” He said to him, “No.”

[Bar Kamtza] said to him, “I will pay for the whole banquet.” He said to him, “No.”
He grabbed him, forced him up and threw him out.

[Bar Kamtza] said, “Since the rabbis were sitting and did not protest,” (-this implies that they approved-) “I will go and inform against them at the King’s palace.”

He said to the emperor, “The Jews have rebelled against you.”
[The emperor] said, “Who says?”
He said to emperor, “Send them a sacrifice and see if they offer it.”

[The emperor] sent a fine calf with [Bar Kamtza]. En route, [Bar Kamtza] put a blemish in its upper lip, and some say in the withered spot of its eye, a place which we [Jews] consider a blemish [and therefore unfit to sacrifice], but [the Romans] do not consider a blemish.

The rabbis considered offering it for the sake of maintaining peace with the governing power.
R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas said to them, “People will say that it is permissible to offer blemished animals on the altar.

[The rabbis] considered killing [Bar Kamtza] so that he not go and tell [the emperor]. R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas said to them, “People will say that one who causes a blemish to sacrifices is killed.”

R. Yohanan said, “The humility (patience? modesty?) of R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas destroyed our temple and burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.”

The concluding statement of R. Yohanan is curious. The use of the word anvetanuto seems not to fit the context. Secondly, the line is written in Hebrew, concluding a story that is otherwise entirely in Aramaic. Thirdly, the inclusion of the last line seems to shift the blame in the stories from the rabbis at the banquet to R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas.

Getting to R. Yohanan's statement, the careful reader is surprised. It is not entirely clear what it was that R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas did for which R. Yohanan is blaming him. Moreover, if one had stopped reading before the statement, it would seem clear that the author / editor of the story blames the rabbis for the turn of events that led to the destruction of the Temple. It was they who were responsible for allowing the hatred of the host to result in the public shaming of Bar Kamtza at the banquet of the unnamed man. In the story, Kamtza explicitly blames the rabbis who are present for his shaming and do nothing to prevent it. Moreover, the story uses a term with strongly negative connotations: הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה״" The formulation, ולא מחו—or the singular, ולא מיחה—is often used in the Talmud in the discussion of men who had the power to prevent sin but did not and were punished as a result.1

Given the severity of public shaming in the culture of the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud in particular) it makes sense that the rabbis would be presented in such a negative light, using the language of “ולא מחו” with all its implications. It is all the more surprising, then, to read R. Yohanan's statement laying the blame squarely on Zekhariah ben Avkolas while ignoring the rabbis, as well as both the host of the banquet and Bar Kamtza.

What was so bad about R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas’ behavior? Why does R. Yohanan describe
him as having an ‘anvetanut, a trait usually translated as humility, modesty, patience or gentleness? In the Babylonian Talmud and other rabbinic texts it is considered a virtue and is a quality ascribed to Moses and other biblical heroes and great rabbis.2 In the story in Gittin, though, the meaning is clearly negative; in context, it can only be understood to convey meekness or a tendency to compromise. Furthermore, who is R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas anyhow?

The only other places in rabbinic literature that mention R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas are the parallel story in Eikhah Rabbah 4:2 and a halakhic discussion found in Tosefta Shabbat 16:7. The Tosefta text reads:

ב"ה אומרים מגביהין מעל השולחן עצמות וקליפין ב"ש אומרים מסלק את הטבלא כולה ומנערה זכריה בן אבקילוס לא היה נוהג לא כדברי ב"ש ולא כדברי ב"ה אלא נוטל ומשליך לאחר המטה אמר רבי יוסי ענוותנותו של ר' זכריה בן אבקילוס שרפה את ההיכל.

The House of Hillel rules that they lift up bones and shells from the table, and the House of Shammai rules that they pick up the whole tablecloth (lit. table) and shake it off.

R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas would not act in accordance with the House of Hillel nor in accordance with
the House of Shammai, but would take [them] and throw [them] under the couch.

R. Yosah said, “The humility (patience? modesty?) of R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas burned down the sanctuary.”

The beraita presents a mahloqet between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel about mukztah on Shabbat. At issue is whether refuse such as shells, peels and bones, produced during the Shabbat meal can be removed during Shabbat, given that they have no function (muktzah mehamat gufo). Beit Hillel allows such refuse to be removed by hand in order to discard them. Beit Shammai forbids lifting the objects themselves, but permits lifting the tablecloth and shaking it out into the garbage.

To this early mahloket3 the view of R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas is added. Unlike the other two opinions, Zekhariah ben Avkolas’s is technically a non-opinion; he does not decide to choose either of the two established opinions, rather he gets around having to take a stand on the issue by circumventing the difficulty altogether. By spitting the bones into the corner rather than placing them on the table, he keeps himself from placing the bones on the table at all, so he does not have to remove them. R. Yosah’s statement about R. Zekhariah was then appended to the halakhic discussion. His statement in the Tosefta has been explained as a remnant of the historical-aggadic tradition that appears in the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story in Gittin and Eikhah Rabbah and was later appended her. But, as Pinhas Mandel notes, “there is reason to doubt the authenticity of the statement in connection to the aggadot.”4 Mandel, therefore, concludes that R. Yosah’s statement originated in the Tosefta.

Taking that view, in the halakhic context of the Tosefta, the statement would be one of extreme hyperbole: R. Yosah is stressing that R. Zekhariah does not rule decisively, that he does not take any stance regarding the positions of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Rather, in an act of extreme meekness and diffidence, he runs from any mahloket rather than exercising judgement as a halakhic authority. According to R. Yosah now, R. Zekhariah refusal to take a stance in halakhic matters leads to running from the responsibility of leadership, and thus causes the destruction. This view is supported by Saul Leiberman in his Tosefta Kifshutah: as he puts it:

וכאן הכוונה שר' זכריה בן אבקולס נמנע מלהכריע בין ב"ש ובין ב"ה, ולא רצה לא להגביה את העצמות ולא לנער את הטבלא, ולפיכך הבריח את עצמו מהנחת העצמות על הטבלא, כדי שלא יבוא לידי מעשה כלל, וענוותנותו זאת היתה שיטתית אצלו ונהג בה אף במעשים אחרים. ועיין מ"ש לעיל בשם ס' יחוסי תו"א.

...This reticence was a pervasive trait, manifesting itself in other areas as well...

Reading the Gittin story in light of the R. Yosah's statement in the Tosefta, the statement in Gittin—now attributed to R. Yohanan—would imply that R. Zekhariah b. Avkolas' fault was his lack of decisiveness in the Temple. The rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud story were inclined to offer the sacrifice משום שלום מלכות5. R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas, though, objected to the options presented to him without offering any suggestions of his own. He chose to risk the very real possibility of arousing the ire of the Emperor and his subsequent retaliation out of fear that someone might come to misinterpret the situation and reach wrong halakhic conclusions in the future. He was so concerned with the theoretical misapplication, despite the fact that the particular blemishes inflicted on the animal by Bar Qamza were not even universally considered to invalidate it for sacrifice.6

It is possible that the statement about Zekhariah ben Avkolas in the Tosefta affected the authors of the story in the Bavli. Nonetheless, the statement in the context of the Tosefta is difficult. The harshness of R. Yosah’s reaction to Zekhariah’s position is inordinately harsh. As Richard Kalmin has noted, even if Zekhariah is attempting to avoid controversy, such a passive position is not unique. “Actions like it are found throughout Tannaitic literature, and it is not at all clear why Zekhariah is singled out for special opprobrium.”

The third appearance of Zekhariah is in Eikhah Rabbah parallel to the BT story. Several versions of this text exist. I will rely on the version presented by Mandel found in the Cairo Geniza in a tenth-century manuscript.

מעשה באדם אחד מגדולי ירושלים שעשה סעודה.
אמר לטלייה: זיל אייתי לי בר כמצא רחמי. אזל ואייתי ליה בר כמצורא סנאיה. על ואשכח דיתיב בין אריסטייה.
אמ' ליה: קום פוק, לך מן הכא!
אמ' ליה: לא תפקין בבוסרן.
אמר לית: לא אפשר דלא נפקת מן הכא!
אמ' ליה: אנא יהב טי מי כל הדין אריצטון ולא תפקין בבוסרן.
אמ' ליה: אנה יהב טימי דסעודתא ולא תפקין בבוסרן.
אמ' ליה: לית אפשר דלא נפקת מהכא!
והיה שם ר' זכריה בר אבקליס שהיה ספיק בידו למחות ולא מיחה.
מן דנפיק אמ': מה אנן נפק בבוסרן ושביק להון יתבין שליות? נחת ליה לגב מלכה, דכל קורבניא דהוון מקרבין מן כורש מלכא הוון. הדה היא, "די להון מהקריבין ניחוחין לאלה שמיא ומצלן לחיי מלכא ובנוהי" [עזרא, ו, י].
אזל ואמ' ליה: אילין קורבניא דאת משלח להון אינון אכלין להון. נזף בית אמ' ליה: מילא בישא אמרת דאת בעי למימר שם ביש עליהן. אמ' ליה: שלח עימי קורבניא ושלח עמי ברנש מהימן ואת קיים על קושטא שלח עימיה ברנש מהימן ושלח עימיה קורבניא קם ההוא בלילה ויהב בהון מומין דלא מינכרין.
כיון רחמא יתהון כהנא, לא קריבינון. אמ' ליה: לית אנה מקריב להון, מחר אנה מקריב להון אתא יומא ולא קרבינון, אתא יומא ולא קריבינון. מיד שלח ואמ' למלכא: ההיא מילתא דאמר לך ההוא יהודאה קשיט הוא.
מיד שלח ואחריב היכלה
היא דא דביריאתא אמרין בין כמצא ובין כמצורא חרב מקדשא.
א' ר' יוסי בר ר' אבון: עינוותנותו שלו' זכריה בר אבקליס היא שרפה את ההיכל.

Such an event occurred with a certain man who was among the important men of Jerusalem. He held a banquet and invited everyone.

He said to his servant, “Go and bring me my friend Ben Kamtza.” He went and brought him his enemy Ben Kamtzura.

[The host] entered and found him sitting amongst the guests. He said to [Bar Kamtzura], “Get up. Get out of here!”

[Bar Kamtzura] said to him, “I will give you the value of the [my portion of the] banquet if you do not eject me in shame.” [The host] said to him, “There is no chance that you are not leaving here [now].”

He said to him, “I will give you the value of the entire banquet if you do not eject me in shame.” He said to him, “There is no chance that you are not leaving here [now].”

He said to him, “I will give you double [the cost of the banquet] if you do not eject me in shame.”

And present was R. Zekhariah ben Avkolas who was capable of protesting but did not protest.

When he (Bar Kamtzura) left he said, “I am going to leave in shame, and leave them sitting serenely?!?” He went to the king.

[Bar Kamtzura] went and said to the king, “Those sacrifices which you send to [the Jews] - they are eating them (instead of offering them).”

He rebuked him, saying, “Your claim is egregious; you are attempting to slander them.” [Bar Kamtzura] said to him, “Send sacrifices with me, and send with me a trustworthy man.”

[The king] sent with him a trustworthy man and sent with him sacrifices.[Bar Kamztura] arose at night and gave [the sacrificial animals] unrecognizable blemishes.

When the priest saw [the blemishes] he did not offer [the animals].

[The priest] said to [the king’s agent], “I will not offer them; tomorrow I will offer them.

A day passed and he did not offer them. Another day passed and he did not offer them.

Immediately he sent to the king, saying. “What that Jew told you is true.”

Immediately [the king] destroyed the Temple.

Therefore people say, “On account of Kamtza and Kamtzura the Temple was destroyed.

R. Yosi said, “The humility (modesty? patience?) of R. Zekhariah bar Avkolas burned the Temple.

After what seems to be a conclusive end to the story, two different statements are appended summarizing the cause of the destruction. First, a saying is introduced, similar to the opening of the Bavli story, that connects the specific events of Kamtza and Bar Kamztura in the first half of the story with the national tragedy in the second half. Following that is the statement from the Tosefta of R. Yosah, attributed to R. Yosi, about R. Zakhariah and his ענוותנות (this time with a slightly different name). The latter seems out of place. The two appendixes blame different people for the destruction. This discrepancy and redundancy is noteworthy.

As in the Babylonian Talmud story, the language shifts. It is not unusual to find Palestinian stories opening with a line in Hebrew, followed by the body of the story in Aramaic. Such is the case here, except for the line in the middle about Zekhariah and the concluding statement about Zekhariah. Those changes, and the similar one in BT Gittin point to an artificial connection to the rest of the story.

While the appearance of the statement--attributed variously to R. Yosi, R. Yosa and R. Yohanan- -may appear for the first time in extant rabbinic literature in the Tosefta, it likely originated in a different context altogether. Being that Zekhariah appears so few times in rabbinic literature it makes sense that a dictum about the man would be tacked on to the Tosefta. As Kalmin writes:

...[P]erhaps it is quoted [in the Tosefta] because a later editor thought Zekhariah’s
action exemplified a consistent mode of behavior that led to the destruction of the Temple. Alternatively, it may be quoted here simply because of the Tosefta’s mention of Zekhariah ben Avkulas, an extremely obscure figure quoted elsewhere only in the context of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story.

If the attribution to Zekhariah of guilt for the destruction of the Temple did not originate in the context of any of the texts above, where did it come from?

Josephus7 identifies Zacharias b. Amphicalleus as one of the leaders of the zealots who stood with Eleazar ben Simon. According to Josephus, Eleazar ben Simon and the Zealots he led were largely responsible for the Jewish defeat in 70 CE, due to their inability to establish an unified front with other Jewish forces. The abolition of the moderate government led by the temple aristocracy in 67 CE, and the Zealots’ radical anti-Roman policies prevented any sort peaceful agreement with Rome that could have mitigated the extent of the death and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The name Zacharias b. Amphicalleus in extremely similar to Zekhariahh ben Avqilus (/Avkulas) in the rabbinic literature. Grätz and others have identified the former with the latter.8 This supports the argument that the original statement about Zekhariah predates all of its appearances in rabbinic literature. If this identification is accurate, the original statement about Zekharya ben Avkolas meant that Zealots caused the destruction. That original meaning was forgotten and the name of the subject changed over time.

The Kamtza story about the destruction most likely existed as a seperate tradition to which the statement about Zekhariah was added later since it too dealt with the cause of the destruction. But which is the original Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Kamzura) story? Eikha Rabbah was most likely edited in the 5th or 6th century.9 That Palestinian version appears to be older. Support for that claim is found in the description of the practice of the Jews of offering a sacrifice for the welfare of the emperor. Both stories tell of the emperor sending a sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem with Bar Kamtza (Kamtzura). In the BT version, though, it is an isolated event, while in the Eikhah Rabbah version it is in the context of an ongoing practice:

“[Bar Kamtzura] went and said to the king, “Those sacrifices which you send to [the Jews] - they are eating them (instead of offering them).”

The idea presented in the Eikhah Rabbah story that the Jews’ stopping to offer the emperor’s sacrifice was a central event in the start of the war that led to the Temple’s destruction is supported by Josephus, who writes in Wars, Book II, X 4:

Josephus, Wars, Book II, X 4

At the same time that [Masada was captured by the Jews] Eleazar, the son of Ananias the high priest, a very bold youth, who was at the time governor of the temple, persuaded those who officiated in divine service to receive no gift of sacrifice for any foreigner. And this was the true beginning of our war with the Romans: for they rejected the sacrifice of Caesar on this account. And when many of the high-priests and principal men besought then not to omit the sacrifice, which it was customary for them to offer for their princes, they would not prevail on them.

That the Palestinian story contains clearer references to historical events than the Babylonian likely reflects it relative proximity, geographically and temporally--to the events of the war and destruction.

This is not to say that any of the rabbinic texts should be read as historical documents. The historical-aggadic stories might contain historical content but it is usually difficult at best to glean historical facts from them. While we cannot learn history directly from the stories, we can learn a lot from how the authors and editors present the stories, particularly so about their values and worldviews.

Before discussing the different presentations of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Kamtzura) stories,
a word about their names: The names are unusual. Scholars have attempted to find meaning in their names as literary devices. Already a century and a half ago Joseph Derenbourg identified a similarity between the names of the two characters and a loyalist named Campson ben Campsos who Josephus ("Vita," § 9) describes as one of the notables of Tiberias and a strong adherent of the Romans.

If this identification is accurate, the original version of the statement at the beginning of the Bavli story, “Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” initially meant that the loyalists were responsible for the failure of the revolt. Eventually the identity of the oddly- named Campsos b. Campsos was forgotten, the protagonist became two people and a story was fleshed out to explain it.

What is fascinating is the next step: The two sayings about the cause of the destruction were combined into one story, despite their respective original meanings being opposed. The original historical references are gone. What is left is the attitudes of the authors to the destruction and its causes.

The editors of Eikhah Rabbah tacked on to the end of the story the statement of R. Y’18 about Zekhariah and then sought to fit the character of Zekhariah into the narrative, hence the Hebrew in those two lines alone. Removing the line in the center about Zekhariahh, the Eikhah Rabbah text can be read as a two-part story about how misunderstandings can lead to deep rifts and hatred, first on the interpersonal level and then on the international. Deftly, Pinhas Mandel shows how the story minus Zekhariah moves through three scenes full of “tragedies of mistakes” and misinterpretations. First, the mistake of the servant leads both the host and Bar Kamzura to believe that the other is trying to deliberately provoke him. Each misinterprets the other.

Neither realizes that a mistake has been made. As Mandel writes, tragically, because of a small mistake, the hatred between the two leads to misunderstandings, accusations and ultimately, vengeance. This same cycle of events is then recapitulated in reverse on a national scale: Bar Kamzura’s personal plan of vengeance is to incite suspicions, misunderstanding, hatred and finally, vengeance between the two nations, Rome and Israel. In the view of the Palestinian authors, relations are good between the two nations; the king does not believe Bar Kamzura at first. The two peoples are at peace, though one is ruled by the other. There is trust between them, until Bar Kamzura comes along.

While the story is about Kamzta and Bar Kamtzura, it uses that story as a paradigm for expressing a “deep understanding of a complicated set of relations between nations, and a realistic description of the process through which a ruler and the ruled can get dragged in to malicious relations and war without preexisting substantive provocations.”10


The Kamzta and Zekhariah traditions then were interwoven. When the story is retold in the Bavli the role of that Zekhariah played in the Eikhah Rabbah story is played by the rabbis and is more central to the plot. Zekhariah is moved to the Temple where he plays the a role similar to that of the priest in Eikhah Rabbah.

In the BT version, the relationship with Rome is downplayed. the rabbis are more prominent, both at the banquet and in the Temple. Particularly noteworthy is the replacement of the priest in the Palestinian text with a rabbi in the Babylonian text.11 This is in line with a trend that Kalmin has demonstrated extensively in Babylonian rabbinic literature: Babylonian rabbis are internally focused, and their narratives depicting the past tend emphasize the importance of rabbis more so than Palestinian narratives. They depict sages rather than kings in control of the priests and Temple cult:

Richard Kalmin, Jewish Babylonia Between Persia and Roman Palestine (2006), p. 37

Babylonian rabbis visualizes Jewish society of the distant past as dominated by rabbis, perhaps because the study house was, to a significant degree, the sum total of their experience. ...In addition, it is possible that Babylonians told these stories to strengthen their belief and the belief of their disciples that rabbis were entitled to be the leaders of Babylonian Jewish society. ...[T]he Bavli partially amends the Palestinians traditions at its disposal in accordance with Babylonian concerns while transmitting much of the Palestinian traditions without significant change.

In the context of the Babylonian Talmud, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is just the pretext for a story about failures in rabbinic leadership. When, at the banquet, they should have taken a stand to promote peace, they sit silently. In the Temple, though, suddenly they are concerned with peace, with “shelom malkhut.” Still, their shortcomings prevent them from acting. Twice the rabbis balk at what, in retrospect, are crucial moments. They can intervene at the banquet and prevent Bar Kamtza's expulsion, but they do not. They can intervene with the sacrifice and appease the Romans but, because of the rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas, they do not. The first scene shows the rabbis failing to lead morally by example. The latter scene show them failing as halakhic leaders, lacking foresight and flexibility. Zekharya ben Avkolas chooses exactly the wrong moment to be punctilious, to worry about the possibility that some theoretical Jew might learn the wrong ruling from their actions, though his concerns here are absurd. As Rubenstein puts it:

Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative, Art, Composition and Culture (1999), p.149

[T]he storyteller seems to parody... legitimate concerns by taking them to an absurd extreme. Despite the looming Roman threat the rabbis worry lest people somehow make an impossible halakhic inference based on a marginal case. While the rabbis realize what must be done and even appreciate the reasons for taking emergency measures, this excessive caution inhibit them from acting.

The Babylonian authors are reading themselves into the tragic story, blaming the destruction on failure of rabbinic leadership.

Finally, the statement about R. Zekhariah’s anvetanut, attributed to R. Yohanan, is fully integrated into the story in a way that makes sense. It hearkens back to the midrashic question of R. Yohanan that opened the story:

R. Yohanan said, “What is meant by the verse, “Happy is the man who is cautious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune” (Prov 28:14)?

The rabbis in the Bavli act with extreme caution and hardened hearts, and lose sight of their responsibility as leaders, resulting in destruction.


1 Apparently the earliest use of the formula is found in the "smaller tractate" of Derekh Eretz Rabbah 2:27. In a list of four sins that result in the misfortune of an estate holder having his assets seized by the government is found: "One who is capable of protesting (and thus preventing) [the commission of a sin] and did not protest." בשביל ארבעה דברים ממון בעלי בתים נמסרים למלכות...ועל מי שיש בידו למחות ולא מיחה. It appears in several aggadic passages in the Bavli and Yerushalmi to explain the punishment of a powerful man who could have prevented someone from sinning, but did not. For example, in ירושלמי סוטה א:ח Abner ben Ner is said to have died for not preventing Saul from destroying the priestly city of Nob. In בבלי סנהדרין כ:א Joshua the High Priest was punished for not preventing his sons from marrying women unfit for priests to marry.

2 For example, BT Shabbat 30b a baraita is quoted which states: לעולם יהא אדם ענוותן כהלל ולא יהא קפדן כשמאי. From that text we see ענוותנות contrasted with קפדנות, implying patience, harshness, strictness, and decisiveness. In BT Megillah 31a, R. Yohanan ascribes the quality to God: אמר רבי יוחנן כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אתה מוצר ענוותנותו.

3 It appears also in Mishnah Shabbat 21:3, though the positions of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are reversed, with Beit Shammai, uncharacteristically taking the lenient position.

4 Mandel, 145

5 Rubenstein, 149

6 Regarding the upper lip, see the statement of R. Papa in Bavli Hullin, 128b; regarding the eye, see the statement of R. Akiva in Bavli Zevahim 35b.

7 Josephus, War 4.225-226

8 For a discussion of the familiarity of the Babylonian rabbis with the writings of Josephus see Kalmin, ch. 7.

9 Zunz-Albeck, Hadderashot beyisrael, as cited by Mandel, 142 n. 8.

10 Mandel, 150

11 Though Zacharias b. Amphicalleus is identified in Wars as a priest, and I am assuming that he and R. Zekharya ben Avkolas are one and the same, the authors of the Bavli story know him as a rabbi only and not as a priest.


Cohen, Shaye J. D. 1982. “The Destruction: From Scripture to Midrash.” Prooftexts , Vol. 2, No. 1, Catastrophe in Jewish Literature, pp. 18-39

Kalmin, Richard. 2006. Jewish Babylonia Between Persia and Roman Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press

Leiberman, Saul. 1955–88. Tosefta Ki-Fshutah. 1955-88. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Mandel, Pinhas. 2004. “Aggadot Hahurban: bein bavel le’eretz yisrael,” Israel-Diaspora Relations in the Second Temple and Talmudic Periods, ed. I. Gafni, et al. pp. 141-158

Neusner, Jacob; Avery-Peck, Alan J. 1999. Judaism in Late Antiquity. Leiden: Brill.

Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. 1999. Talmudic Stories: Narrative, Art, Composition and Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schechter, Solomon; Ginsberg, Louis. “Derek Erez Rabbah.” Jewish Encyclopedia. V:4 pp. 526- 528.

Seligsohn, M.; Kohler, Kaufmann. “Zekhariahh Ben Abkilus (Amphikalos).” Jewish Encyclopedia. V:12 p 647.

Yisraeli-Taran, Anat. 1997. Aggadot Hahurban: Mesorot Hahurban Besifrut HaTalmudit. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame’uhad

דברים האסורים עט"ב ובו כ"ה סעיפים:
תשעה באב אסור ברחיצה וסיכה ונעילת הסנדל ותשמיש המיטה ואסור לקרות בתורה נביאים וכתובים ולשנות במשנה ובמדרש ובגמ' בהלכות ובאגדות משום שנאמר פקודי ה' ישרים משמחי לב ותינוקות של בית רבן בטלים בו אבל קורא הוא באיוב ובדברים הרעים שבירמיה ואם יש ביניהם פסוקי נחמה צריך לדלגם:
1. Tisha b'Av is forbidden for washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. It is also forbidden to read from the Torah, Nevi'im, and Ksuvim and to learn mishna and midrash and gemara and halacha and aggada, because it says, "The precepts of God are right, gladdening the heart" (Tehillim 19:9). Schoolchildren are idle on it. One may read Iyov and the bad things which are in Yirmiyah, but if there are between them passages of consolation, one must skip them.