Bar Kamtza was right

We’re approaching Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of God’s Temples in Jerusalem and for nineteen centuries of Jewish exile.

And I’m wondering whether Bar Kamtza was right.

It was because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza that Jerusalem was destroyed, the Talmud says.

Here’s the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Once upon a time a man threw a party in Jerusalem. He meant to invite his friend Kamtza. Instead, the invitation was delivered to Bar Kamtza, who showed up for the party. The host asked him to leave. Bar Kamtza begged to be spared the embarrassment of being evicted. He would pay for his meal. Heck, he would pay for half of the party. Just don’t make him leave. Don’t embarrass him in front of everyone.

The host didn’t compromise. Bar Kamtza was evicted. And Bar Kamtza, seeing that the rabbis attending the party didn’t protest, plotted his revenge not against the host but against the entire Jewish people. When a Roman official sent an animal to be sacrificed in the Temple, Bar Kamtza subtly maimed it, disqualifying it as an offering.

As the Talmud tells the story, (Gittin 55b:16-56a:5), the rabbis who oversaw the Temple worship debated. Should they accept the animal nonetheless, breaking the law this one time for the greater good?

Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos was a stickler for rules. The law should not be set aside, he insisted. Instead, the sacrifice was rejected, the Romans were infuriated, and the Roman war machine moved into motion and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

For Rabbi Yochanan, who escaped Jerusalem and rebuilt Judaism after the destruction, the villain was Rabbi Zecharia.

But what about Bar Kamtza himself?

Why isn’t he declared the villain?

Could it be that his complaint against the Jewish community was not unfounded? Did not God allow Bar Kamtza’s anger to be acted out, ultimately deciding that Bar Kamtza was right: Jerusalem deserved to be destroyed because its leaders (and populace) allowed him to be shamed?

A different Talmudic passage, (Bava_Metzia.59a.7), offers some insight. In Leviticus, the Torah commands, “You shall not wrong one another.” “This refers to verbal oppression,” the Talmud explains. It elaborates that embarrassing someone is akin to killing them.

Then it tells the story of Rabbi Eliezer being shunned by his colleagues — and retaliating in shame and anger by summoning a wave of Divine devastation and death.

Why were his angry prayers answered? “All the gates of heaven are locked,” the passage concludes, “except for the gates of oppression.”

Given that God so evidently hates verbal oppression and emotional insult, why did the rabbis not speak up to defend Bar Kamtza’s honor?

The mindset of Rabbi Zechariya excuses the rabbinic inaction. Where is the halachic obligation to protest in the face of meanness? Sure, the Torah commands “you should not oppress,” which the Talmud understands to mean even through words. And the Torah commands “you should love your fellow as yourself,” which Hillel taught us means not to do to someone else something that is hateful to you. Surely Bar Kamtza’s enemy, the surly host, transgressed these commands.

But where is it written that the rabbis must protest injustice? There is no specific mitzvah, no Mishnah, no line in Tractate Sanhedrin demanding that rabbis speak out against offenses before God —- particularly against an offense that’s not happening in the name of religion. The party Bar Kamtza accidentally crashed was not held in a synagogue catering hall.

And yet: God didn’t block Bar Kamtza’s revenge against the rabbis. As the Talmud’s telling of the Temple’s destruction continues, all the auguries foretold that the Romans would conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.


This is where it’s important to remember the role played by the rabbis of the time — at least as understood by the later rabbis, who wrote the Mishna and Talmud. The rabbis were at the top of the leadership pyramid. They told the priests how to act. They effectively supervised the worship in the Temple.

In effect, with the Temple in action, with God’s miracles (as per Pirkei Avot) in constant evidence, the rabbis were giving evidence to God’s presence — and God, by being present in the Temples, were asserting to the rabbis’ leadership.

The silence of the rabbis was intolerable to God.

To have reduced God’s concerns to the blemishes on a calf and to ignore the Divine calls for justice, mercy, and empathy was blasphemy.

Better for God to evacuate the Temple than to provide false witness.

In other words, Bar Kamtza was right.

If the rabbinic leaders were unable to live up to their responsibilities, they didn’t deserve God’s presence — or God’s blessings on their institutions.

Which brings us to the question. Are our rabbis and other leaders passing the Bar Kamtza test? Are we passing it? Am I passing it?

When feelings were hurt, which side were we on?

Were we silent when bullies struck?

Did we side with the victims or the cover-up?

Did we run to help the powerful and look away when the powerless needed help?

Did we hide behind the excuse “it’s complicated” when confronted with the tears of the oppressed?

Because the lesson Bar Kamtza taught us is that out mightiest institutions can, and will, be obliterated by the grief and pain and anger of the shamed and oppressed.

By Larry Yudelson. Posted to on August 3, 2016.

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 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
§ 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. 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 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. 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. 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.