Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (et al): Freedom of Fault

Question guide is based on Sarah Rudolphs's WebYeshiva class, "Kamtza & Bar Kamtza: Blame and the Chorban Beit Hamikdash" (July 2020)

(יא) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מִ֚י הִגִּ֣יד לְךָ֔ כִּ֥י עֵירֹ֖ם אָ֑תָּה הֲמִן־הָעֵ֗ץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר צִוִּיתִ֛יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י אֲכׇל־מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אָכָֽלְתָּ׃ (יב) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הָֽאָדָ֑ם הָֽאִשָּׁה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָתַ֣תָּה עִמָּדִ֔י הִ֛וא נָֽתְנָה־לִּ֥י מִן־הָעֵ֖ץ וָאֹכֵֽל׃ (יג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהִ֛ים לָאִשָּׁ֖ה מַה־זֹּ֣את עָשִׂ֑ית וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה הַנָּחָ֥שׁ הִשִּׁיאַ֖נִי וָאֹכֵֽל׃
(11) Then He asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” (12) The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (13) And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”
  • Who do you think is to blame for the sin in the story of the Garden of Eden?
  • This formative story teaches us about human nature and our inclination to find guilt in others. Why do you think that is? What other texts or stories can you think of where one character blames another, justly or unjustly?

מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב? מפני שלשה דברים שהיו בו: עבודה זרה, וגלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים.

- עבודה זרה, דכתיב...

- גלוי עריות, דכתיב...

- שפיכות דמים, דכתיב...

אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים, מפני מה חרב?

מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם

- ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים.

§ The Tosefta continues with a discussion of the sins of the Jewish people over the generations: Due to what reason was the First Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there were three matters that existed in the First Temple: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed.

Idol worship, as it is written...

With regard to forbidden sexual relations, it is written...

With regard to bloodshed it is written...

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period.

This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.

  • This Gemara says that people were engaged in Torah study and acts of kindness, but that there was sinat chinam among them as well.
    • How can these two opposites coexist?
    • What does this suggest about the nature of their Torah study and acts of kindness?
אבל מקדש ב' כו' ששקולה שנאת חנם כו'. כמפורש פרק הנזקין בעובדא דקמצא ובר קמצא שהוא היה תחלת החורבן ע"ש:

...as it is explained in Perek Hanizakin in the case of Kamtza and bar Kamtza, which is the beginning of the destruction...

  • Does the Maharsha's comment suggest that sinat chinam was rampant and plagued society, or that one noteworthy instance of sinat chinam set off a chain reaction that culminated with the destruction?
אמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב (משלי כח, יד) אשרי אדם מפחד תמיד ומקשה לבו יפול ברעה אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים אתרנגולא ותרנגולתא חרוב טור מלכא אשקא דריספק חרוב ביתר 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

§ Apropos the war that led to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Gemara examines several aspects of the destruction of that Temple in greater detail: Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Happy is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief” (Proverbs 28:14)? Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. The place known as the King’s Mountain was destroyed on account of a rooster and a hen. The city of Beitar was destroyed on account of a shaft from a chariot [rispak]. The Gemara explains: Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. This is as there was a certain man whose friend was named Kamtza and whose enemy was named bar Kamtza. He once made a large feast and said to his servant: Go bring me my friend Kamtza. The servant went and mistakenly brought him his enemy bar Kamtza.

  • Why do you think the incident is described as "Kamtza and bar Kamtza"? What role does Kamtza play in this? How else might we describe the incident (is "Kamtza and bar Kamtza" just a mnemonic?), or between whom would we characterize the core of the conflict?
  • Was it a reasonable mistake for the servant to confuse Kamtza and bar Kamtza? How would our answer differ if it was a small community?
  • Do you think Kamtza and bar Kamtza are two distinct individuals with similarly sounding names? What if bar Kamtza was, as the word "bar" suggests, Kamtza's son?
    • If Kamtza and bar Kamtza were related, how much should we expect that one knows about the other's relationship with the host? How might this change our opinion of Kamtza or bar Kamtza at the party later in the story?
Cast of Characters
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

The man who was hosting the feast came and found bar Kamtza sitting at the feast. The host said to bar Kamtza. That man is the enemy [ba’al devava] of that man, that is, you are my enemy. What then do you want here? Arise and leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will give you money for whatever I eat and drink. Just do not embarrass me by sending me out.

  • The Gemara notes that bar Kamtza was sitting when the host found him. What is the significance of bar Kamtza's physical position? How else could we imagine him behaving? Why do you think he is sitting, and how might that affect our interpretation of the events in the story?
  • Does bar Kamtza offer an excuse for being present at the party? What do you make of his excuse, or lack thereof?
  • Why do you think bar Kamtza showed up to the party, and why do you think he wants to stay?
  • At this point in the story, who do you think is "at fault"?
What would you do?

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

The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: I will give you money for half of the feast; just do not send me away. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza then said to him: I will give you money for the entire feast; just let me stay. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Finally, the host took bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out. After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did.

  • Notice that the Sages are described as "sitting", as was bar Kamtza when the host noticed him. What do you think bar Kamtza was feeling when he saw that the Sages were sitting, just as he had done earlier in the story?
    • What might the shared act of "sitting" suggest about each party's relative power in the situation?
  • Why do you think the Sages refrained from protesting here? Was bar Kamtza justified in being upset that they did not speak up?
  • This is where the story transitions from a personal dispute to a national one. What triggers this transition, and is it justified?
  • At this point in the story, who do you think is harboring hatred, and is it baseless? Is it chinam (free or limitless)? Who is justified, and who is to blame - and why?
Who's the bad guy?

ואמר הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מיחו בו כו'. איכא למימר מה שלא מיחו מפני שלא היה בידם למחות אפשר שעשו כן כי החנופה הוא שגברה באותו הדור כמ"ש בסוטה גבי אגריפס המלך:

One can say that [when we say that] they did not protest because they did not have it in their power to do so, it's possible that they did [not protest] because of false flattery that overcame that generation (i.e., they preferred to flatter the host with nice lies, rather than speak up and tell the truth)

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

I will therefore go and inform [eikhul kurtza] against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you. The emperor said to him: Who says that this is the case? Bar Kamtza said to him: Go and test them; send them an offering to be brought in honor of the government, and see whether they will sacrifice it. The emperor went and sent with him a choice three-year-old calf. While bar Kamtza was coming with the calf to the Temple, he made a blemish on the calf’s upper lip. And some say he made the blemish on its eyelids, a place where according to us, i.e., halakha, it is a blemish, but according to them, gentile rules for their offerings, it is not a blemish. Therefore, when bar Kamtza brought the animal to the Temple, the priests would not sacrifice it on the altar since it was blemished, but they also could not explain this satisfactorily to the gentile authorities, who did not consider it to be blemished.

  • What does this text teach us about what happens to us when we find fault with or negatively judge others?
  • What do you make of the emperor's response of "Who says that this is the case?" How does he serve as a foil or as a contrast with the other characters in the story?
  • The Romans do not have a problem with what the Jews see as a blemish or disqualified offering. How can holding these two different realities or standards help us understand the nature of sinat chinam, and perhaps even an approach to addressing sinat chinam?
    • Beyond the blemish being in a place the Romans would not have an issue with, what other lessons might the narrator be teaching us about the specific location (eyelid and lips) of the blemish?
What would you do??
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

The blemish notwithstanding, the Sages thought to sacrifice the animal as an offering due to the imperative to maintain peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: If the priests do that, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed as offerings on the altar. The Sages said: If we do not sacrifice it, then we must prevent bar Kamtza from reporting this to the emperor. The Sages thought to kill him so that he would not go and speak against them. Rabbi Zekharya said to them: If you kill him, people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. As a result, they did nothing, bar Kamtza’s slander was accepted by the authorities, and consequently the war between the Jews and the Romans began. Rabbi Yoḥanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.

  • Do Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas' concerns, calculus, and reasons for acting or not acting seem reasonable to you? What other plausible arguments could he have made?
    • Why didn't anyone else contradict Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas' positions?
    • Don't we usually think of humility as a positive trait? In what way is humility problematic here?
  • How does the conclusion of this story connect to Rabbi Yohanan's opening statement citing the book of Proverbs? What fear, might we say, is constructive fear and which is debilitating, and which kind(s) do we see in our story? What inspires constructive fear and what inspires debilitating fear?
  • Rabbi Yohanan at first blames the incident between Kamtza and bar Kamtza for the destruction and concludes that it was due to Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas' humility. Why the shift? Do you think Rabbi Zekharya is as responsible as Bar Kamtza (or the other rabbis at the party who sat idly by)?
    • In what ways does seeking to place blame on specific individuals (Kamtza and bar Kamtza) risk impugning even good people or those who might not play major roles in the chain of tragic events (Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas)?
    • How else can we frame or respond to past tragedies, beyond assigning blame?
Can we really blame Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas?

אמרי' במס' תמיד איזהו חכם הרואה את הנולד ולא אמרו הרואה העתיד לבוא...כי כל כסיל ועצל ידאג על הבלים הרבה. אך חכם הוא מי שבא לידו או בימים קדמונים וזמנים שעברו מעשים. ומהם דן בשכלו מה שאפשר שיהיה עוד זהו החכם. והנה אמרו חז"ל במס' הנודר מן הנולדים משמע שכבר נולדו כדכתיב שני בנים הנולדים לך טרם בואי אליך משמע נמי שעתיד להולד כדכתיב הנה בן נולד לבית דוד יאשי' שמו. ע"כ תנן במתני' איזהו חכם הרואה את הנולד כבר מימים קדמונים ממעשה כיוצא בזה ואת אשר עתיד להולד ממעשה שלעכשיו והיינו נולד הכולל תרווייהו העבר והעתיד. ע"כ אין להאשים ר' זכריה בן אבקולס כי עד הזמן עדיין לא נשמע כמוהו שעל דבר קטן כזה יתחמץ לב איש ישראלי למסור בהמ"ק וכל ישראל בידי גוים ולא היה לו לר' זכרי' לדאוג על זה אך מכאן ואילך שכבר נעשה מעשה כזה נאמר על כל כיוצא בזה אשרי אדם מפחד תמיד:

...We say in Tractate Tamid, "Who is wise? The one who see the nolad (i.e., who has foresight)." And it doesn't say, "the one who sees the future to come." And we use the language of "nolad" (lit. "that which was born"), for King Solomon, of blessed memory, said, "The lazy man says, 'There’s a lion in the street; I shall be killed if I step outside,'" for these are the words of “the lazy one who buries his hands in the bowl and is afraid of things which never happened and never existed. Therefore, it doesn't say, "Who is wise? The one who sees the future" because any foolish and anxious/lazy person will worry about many vapors/vanities. But the wise one is one to whom something happened in the past, and from these he judges with his intellect what will potentially happen in the future - this is the wise one. And behold, the Sages said, "ha-nolad" (lit. "that which was born), i.e., from all those things which were born, which implies that these things were already born, as it is written (Genesis 48:5), "the two sons who were born to you” before “I came to you" - this also implies that they would be born in the future, as it written, behold, "a son shall be born [nolad] to the house of David, Josiah by name" (I Kings 13:2). Therefore, we learn in our mishnah, "Who is wise? The one who sees the nolad” – that was already “born” from [that which] already happened in early days, and from similar events, and they see what will be born in the future from that which is happening now, and this is to say, the "nolad" which includes both: the past and the future. And, therefore, one should not find guilt in Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas, because until this moment, nothing like this had ever been heard of - that such a small thing would embitter a Jewish person's heart to the extent that they'd hand over the Temple and all of Israel into the hands of the non-Jewish oppressors, and Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas had no reason to worry about this. But from then onwards, when an event like this has already happened, we say about all similar incidents, "Happy is the one who fears always" (Proverbs 28:14).

  • What do you make of the Chatam Sofer's interpretation here, that Rabbi Zekharya could not have imagined his "small" acts would lead to such destruction?
  • Taking the Chatam Sofer's lesson from the incident with Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas to heart, what lessons of history have we yet to grasp? How can we move beyond thinking "this happened once, but it will never in my generation," to "actually, this could happen in my generation." What are those events, and how are we to address them? How can we identify when we are unnecessarily worried about the possibility of such events repeating, and when our concerns are realistic and valid?