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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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