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Feeling Small

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Jul 19, 2009

Tisha B’av 5769

Rabbi Ari Kahn

Feeling Small

Tradition records that the Ninth of Av, the day both Temples were destroyed, has a biblical antecedent of infamy. On this date, it was decreed that the generation that left Egypt, the "generation of the desert", would not enter the Land of Israel:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף כט עמוד א

בְּט' בְּאָב נִגְזָר עַל אֲבוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁלֹּא יִכָּנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ.

On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land. Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 29a

The background was the report of the spies, a frightening report that spread through the camp and brought the people to tears:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף כט עמוד א

וּכְתִיב, (במדבר יד) "וַתִּשָׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִבְכוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא", וְאָמַר רַבָּה [אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן], אוֹתָהּ הַלַּיְלָה לֵיל ט' בְּאָב הָיָה. אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אַתֶּם בְּכִיתֶם בִּכְיָה שֶׁל חִנָּם, אֲנִי אֶקְבַּע לָכֶם בִּכְיָה לַדוֹרוֹת.

And it is further written, 'And the entire congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.' Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: That night was the night of the Ninth of Av. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: 'You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for a weeping throughout the generations to come.' Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 29a

In the words of Rabbi Yochanan, God responded to the unjustified tears shed that night by the Children of Israel as would a parent who sees their child crying for no reason: 'I will give you something to cry about'. With that, their fate was sealed for generations to come.

And yet, Rabbi Yochanan's comments are not as clear as they may seem at first glance: Why were future generations impacted by this particular sin? How are the unjustified tears shed in the desert that night connected with the hurban, the destruction? The generation of the desert did not want to enter a land they were convinced would never be theirs. In what way is this sin related to the destruction of the Temple? Surely, this is a sad, even tragic event, but it seems to have little to do with the generation of the Second Temple. Why should the impact of this particular sin still reverberate generations later? The Ramban asks this question, and quotes the Book of Psalms as his answer:[1]

תהלים פרק קו

(יט) יַעֲשׂוּ עֵגֶל בְּחֹרֵב וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְמַסֵּכָה:(כ) וַיָּמִירוּ אֶת כְּבוֹדָם בְּתַבְנִית שׁוֹר אֹכֵל עֵשֶׂב:(כא) שָׁכְחוּ אֵל מוֹשִׁיעָם עֹשֶׂה גְדֹלוֹת בְּמִצְרָיִם:(כב) נִפְלָאוֹת בְּאֶרֶץ חָם נוֹרָאוֹת עַל יַם סוּף:(כג) וַיֹּאמֶר לְהַשְׁמִידָם לוּלֵי מֹשֶׁה בְחִירוֹ עָמַד בַּפֶּרֶץ לְפָנָיו לְהָשִׁיב חֲמָתוֹ מֵהַשְׁחִית:(כד) וַיִּמְאֲסוּ בְּאֶרֶץ חֶמְדָּה לֹא הֶאֱמִינוּ לִדְבָרוֹ:(כה) וַיֵּרָגְנוּ בְאָהֳלֵיהֶם לֹא שָׁמְעוּ בְּקוֹל ה’:(כו) וַיִּשָּׂא יָדוֹ לָהֶם לְהַפִּיל אוֹתָם בַּמִּדְבָּר:(כז) וּלְהַפִּיל זַרְעָם בַּגּוֹיִם וּלְזָרוֹתָם בָּאֲרָצוֹת:

They made a calf in Horev, and worshipped the molten image. Thus they changed their glory for the likeness of an ox that eats grass! They forgot God who had saved them, who had done great things in Egypt; Wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome things by the Red Sea. Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moshe, his chosen one, stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them. And they despised the pleasant land, they did not believe his word; And they murmured in their tents, and did not listen to the voice of God. And he lifted up his hand against them, to make them fall in the wilderness; And to make their seed fall among the nations, and to scatter them in the lands. Tehilim 106, 21-27

The Psalmist understood, before the Temple was ever built, that the sin of the spies would impact the Jewish People in the future, and would result in the exile of a future generation. Rabbi Yochanan's opinion, as recorded in the Talmud, may well have been based on this Psalm. The question that remains unsolved for us is – why? What is it about this sin, above and beyond all the other sins committed by the generation of the desert, that continued to influence the Jewish People hundreds of years later?

Elsewhere, the Talmud teaches that the First Temple was destroyed because of three major sins: a breakdown of sexual mores, murder, and idolatry. This same tradition teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed due to groundless hatred:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף ט עמוד ב

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

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, and immorality, and bloodshed… But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of mitzvot, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of equal gravity to three sins, idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, together . Talmud Bavli Yoma 9b

This Talmudic axiom may, in fact, be reconciled with the Beit Halevi's teaching that the destruction of the First Temple is related to the sin of the Golden Calf, and the Second Temple to the sin of the spies.[2] At face value, the sin of the Golden Calf was an act of idolatry in its most easily-identifiable form. However, the creation and worship of the Golden Calf at the foot of Sinai involved both murder[3] and orgiastic celebration.[4] The Talmudic tradition that these three sins led to the First Temple's destruction, is closely mirrored by the behavior of the nation in the Golden Calf incident.

The second half of the Beit Halevi's formulation seems less straightforward: Whereas the Talmud identifies the cause of the second destruction as "baseless hatred", the Beit Halevi points to the sin of the spies. Perhaps the comments of the Maharal[5] and the Chafez Chaim[6], who see the sin of slander at the core of the incident of the spies, can bridge the gap:[7] Slander is a particularly effective method of perpetuating groundless hatred. Slander and groundless hatred, the sin of the spies and the sin of the generation of the Second Temple, are two sides of the same coin.

Despite this explanation, the connection between the Talmudic reference to groundless hatred and the Beit Halevi's reference to the sin of the spies seems somewhat amorphous, for there does not seem to be any hint of groundless hatred in the story of the spies. This brings us back to our earlier question: From the biblical account of the incident of the spies, we cannot understand why future generations were so forcefully impacted by this particular sin, committed by a particular generation in very particular circumstances. Let us re-examine the verses describing the incident of the spies:

When the twelve scouts returned from their mission, they began their description of the Land of Israel with glowing terms:

במדבר פרק יג

(כה) וַיָּשֻׁבוּ מִתּוּר הָאָרֶץ מִקֵּץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם:(כו) וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל מִדְבַּר פָּארָן קָדֵשָׁה וַיָּשִׁיבוּ אוֹתָם דָּבָר וְאֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיַּרְאוּם אֶת פְּרִי הָאָרֶץ:(כז) וַיְסַפְּרוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ בָּאנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הִוא וְזֶה פִּרְיָהּ:

And they returned from surveying the Land after forty days. And they went and came to Moshe, and to Aharon, and to all the congregation of the People of Israel, to the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh; and brought back word to them, and to the entire congregation, and showed them the fruit of the Land. And they told him, and said, 'We came to the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is its fruit.' Bamidbar 13:25-27

Only then did they add their own negative military analysis:

במדבר פרק יג

(כח) אֶפֶס כִּי עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם: (כט) עֲמָלֵק יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב וְהַחִתִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהָאֱמֹרִי יוֹשֵׁב בָּהָר וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי יֹשֵׁב עַל הַיָּם וְעַל יַד הַיַּרְדֵּן:

Nevertheless the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are walled, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negev; and the Hittites, and the Yevusites, and the Amorites, live in the mountains; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and by the side of the Jordan. Bamidbar 13:28,29

Calev rejects their negative prognosis; he states that the Land is attainable.

במדבר פרק יג

(ל) וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב אֶת הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ:

30. And Calev quieted the people before Moshe, and said, 'Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.' Bamidbar 13:30

Only after Calev challenges their perspective do the other members of the reconnaissance team change tactics and resort to disparaging, slanderous comments about the Land itself:

במדבר פרק יג

(לא) וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר עָלוּ עִמּוֹ אָמְרוּ לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת אֶל הָעָם כִּי חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ: (לב) וַיּוֹצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת: (לג) וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ אֶת הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק מִן הַנְּפִלִים וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם:

But the men who went up with him said, 'We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they slandered the land which they had surveyed to the People of Israel, saying, 'The land through which we have traveled to survey, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the Nefilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight. Bamidbar 13:31-33

It is this evil report which reduces the people to tears. The very next verse describes the fear and crying:

במדבר פרק יד

(א) וַתִּשָּׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא: (ב) וַיִּלֹּנוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן כֹּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם כָּל הָעֵדָה לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לוּ מָתְנוּ: (ג) וְלָמָה יְקֹוָק מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה: (ד) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה:

And the entire congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the People of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon; and the whole congregation said to them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And why has God brought us to this Land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be prey? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?' And they said one to another, Let us choose a chief, and let us return to Egypt. Bamidbar 14:1-4

What is still lacking is any reference to hatred that would connect the Beit Halevi's opinion to the Talmudic understanding of the causes of the destruction. The connection is supplied later, in the book of D’varim, when Moshe retells the story. He adds one critical element not recorded in the first account: Moshe reveals what the people said and how they expressed their feelings on the night the spies returned:

דברים פרק א פסוק כז

וַתֵּרָגְנוּ בְאָהֳלֵיכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ בְּשִׂנְאַת ה’ אֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיאָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לָתֵת אֹתָנוּ בְּיַד הָאֱמֹרִי לְהַשְׁמִידֵנוּ:

You grumbled in your tents and said, "Because of God's hatred of us, He took us out of the land of Egypt to put us in the hand of the Emorites to destroy us." D'varim 1, 27

Here we find “hatred” in the story of the spies. It is a hatred which the people attribute to God. While they may feel it, this does not necessarily make it real: In this case, "hatred" is in the eye of the beholder, as it were, a product of their collective imagination, existing only in the minds of the Israelites. They think that God hates them. Rashi picks up on this problem and offers an insightful explanation:

רש"י דברים פרק א פסוק כז

(כז) וַתֵּרָגְנוּ - לשון הרע, וכן (משלי יח, ח) דברי נרגן, אדם המוציא דבה

בשנאת ה' אתנו - והוא היה אוהב אתכם, אבל אתם שונאים אותו. משל הדיוט אומר , מה דבלבך על רחמך מה דבלביה עלך:

You grumbled: You spoke slanderous words…

Because of God's hatred of us: In reality, He loved you, but you hated Him. A popular proverb says, "What is in your heart regarding your friend, [you imagine] is in his heart regarding yourself." Rashi on D'varim 1, 27

The phenomenon Rashi describes is known in modern psychological parlance as projection: we ascribe to another the same feelings we have toward them. The Jews' own fear and insecurity cause them to believe that the Land of Israel is unattainable; if this is so, God took them out of Egypt to die in the desert. Ergo, God must hate them. Of course, the opposite is the case: Because of His love for the Children of Israel, God took them from Egypt and would lead them to the Promised Land. In other words, the Jews hated God for no reason; this is what we call sinat chinam – groundless hatred.[8]

Once we realize that the reaction of the people to the report of the spies was a case of projection, we are able to trace their distorted emotional and psychological state back to its source – the specific words used by the spies: While trying to dissuade the Jews from maintaining their course to the Land of Israel, the spies make a remarkable statement. It is this particular statement that immediately precedes the complaining and crying. It is this particular statement that contains dibah, the slander which the commentaries point to as the core of the sin. It is this statement which serves as the source of the Jews' emotional projection:

במדבר פרק יג

(לב) וַיּוֹצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת: (לג) וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ אֶת הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק מִן הַנְּפִלִים וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם:

And they slandered the land which they had surveyed to the People of Israel, saying, 'The land through which we have gone to spy, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the Nefilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight. Bamidbar 13:31-33

They tell the assembled crowd that they saw giants – a discouraging but understandable piece of information which may or may not be a factual report of their findings. They then go on to express their own feelings: “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers”, a sad indication of their own insecurity. But the final statement - “and so were we in their sight” - is nothing short of preposterous. While they may have a right to their own feelings of inadequacy, they have absolutely no right to project those feelings on their enemies. The spies, leaders of the Tribes of Israel, felt like grasshoppers, and they assumed that they were seen this way by others. By what right do they presume to know how the inhabitants of the land saw them? Here, then, in the very same verse that records their slander, we find projection on the part of the spies: “and so were we in their sight”!

Ironically, when other nations do speak about the Jews, their descriptions and perceptions are vastly different to that of the spies. For example, Moav speaks to the elders of Midian in very worried tones regarding the approaching Israelite camp. Balak, King of Moav, is intimidated by both the size and the strength of the Children of Israel, and likens them to oxen rather than puny grasshoppers.

במדבר פרק כב

(ב) וַיַּרְא בָּלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל לָאֱמֹרִי:(ג) וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:(ד) וַיֹּאמֶר מוֹאָב אֶל זִקְנֵי מִדְיָן עַתָּה יְלַחֲכוּ הַקָּהָל אֶת כָּל סְבִיבֹתֵינוּ כִּלְחֹךְ הַשּׁוֹר אֵת יֶרֶק הַשָּׂדֶה וּבָלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר מֶלֶךְ לְמוֹאָב בָּעֵת הַהִוא:(ה) וַיִּשְׁלַח מַלְאָכִים אֶל בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר פְּתוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר עַל הַנָּהָר אֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹ לִקְרֹא לוֹ לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם הִנֵּה כִסָּה אֶת עֵין הָאָרֶץ וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב מִמֻּלִי:

2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 And Moav was terribly afraid of the People, because they were many; and Moav was overcome with dread because of the Children of Israel. 4 And Moav said unto the elders of Midian: 'Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.'--And Balak the son of Zippor was King of Moav at that time.-- And he sent messengers unto Balaam the son of Beor, to Petor, which is by the River, to the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying: 'Behold, there is a People come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me. Bamidbar 22:2-5

Groundless hatred of God, manifested in slander, was caused by projection. These elements are found in another notable passage associated with Tisha B'Av, an episode that has become synonymous with sinat chinam: the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. It is a tale of loathing, jealousy, insecurity and groundless hatred:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת גיטין דף נה/ב

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן… אַקַמְצָא וּבַר קַמְצָא חָרוּב יְרוּשָלַיִם. הַהוּא גַּבְרָא - דְּרַחֲמֵיהּ קַמְצָא, וּבַעַל דְּבָבֵיהּ - בַּר קַמְצָא. עָבַד סְעוּדָתָא, אָמַר לֵיהּ לְשַמְעֵיהּ, זִיל אַיְיתֵי לִי קַמְצָא. אָזַל אַיְיתֵי לֵיהּ בַּר קַמְצָא. אָתָא, אַשְׁכְּחֵיהּ דַּהֲוָה יָתִיב, אָמַר לֵיהּ, מִכְדֵי הַהוּא גַּבְרָא - בַּעַל דְּבָבָא דְהַהוּא גַּבְרָא הוּא, מַאי בָעִית הָכָא? קוּם פּוּק. אָמַר לֵיהּ, הוֹאִיל וְאָתָאִי, שַׁבְקָן, וְיָהִיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי מַה דְּאָכִילְנָא וְשָׁתִינָא:[דף נו ע"א]. אָמַר לֵיהּ, לָא! [אָמַר לֵיהּ], יָהִיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי פַּלְגָא דִּסְעוּדָתָיךְ. אָמַר לֵיהּ, לָא! [אָמַר לֵיהּ], יָהִיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי כֻּלָּהּ סְעוּדָתָיִךְ. אָמַר לֵיהּ, לָא! נָקְטֵיהּ בְּיָדֵיהּ, וְאוּקְמֵיהּ וְאַפְּקֵיהּ. אָמַר, הוֹאִיל וַהֲווּ יָתְבֵי רַבָּנָן וְלֹא מִיחוּ בֵיהּ, שְׁמַע מִינָהּ, קָא נִיחָא לְהוּ. אִיזֵיל, אֵיכוּל [בְּהוּ] קוּרְצָא בֵי מַלְכָּא:

אָמַר לֵיהּ לְקֵיסָר, מָרְדוּ בְךָ יְהוּדָאֵי. אָמַר לֵיהּ, מִי יֵימַר? אָמַר לֵיהּ, שְׁדַר לְהוּ קוּרְבָּנָא, חָזֵית אִי מְקָרְבִין לֵיהּ. אָזַל, שָׁדַר בְּיָדֵיהּ עֶגְלָא תִּילָתָּא. בַּהֲדֵי דְּקָאָתֵי, שָׁדִי בֵיהּ מוּמָא בְנִיב שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאָמְרֵי לָהּ בְּדוּקִין שֶׁבָּעַיִן - דּוּכְתָּא דִּלְדִידָן הֲוָה מוּמָא, וּלְדִידְהוּ לָאו מוּמָא הוּא. סָבוּר רַבָּנָן לִקְרוּבֵיהּ מִשּׁוּם שְׁלוֹם מַלְכוּת. אָמַר לְהוּ רַבִּי זְכַרְיָה בֶן אַבְקִילַס, יֹאמְרוּ בַעֲלֵי מוּמִין קְרֵבִין לְגַבֵּי מִזְבֵּחַ? סָבוּר לְמִיקְטְלֵיהּ, דְּלֹא לֵיזִיל וְלֵימָא. אָמַר לְהוּ רַבִּי זְכַרְיָה, יֹאמְרוּ מַטִּיל מוּם בַּקֳדָשִׁים יֵהָרֵג? אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, עַנְוְתָנוּתוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי זְכַרְיָה בֶן אַבְקִילַס הֶחֱרִיבָה אֶת בֵּיתֵנוּ, וְשָׂרְפָה אֶת הֵיכָלֵנוּ, וְהֶגְלִיתָנוּ מֵאַרְצֵנוּ.

The destruction of Jerusalem came through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza ... in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, 'Go and bring Kamtza.' The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, 'See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out.' Said the other: 'Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.' [The host] said, 'I won't.' 'Then let me give you half the cost of the party.' 'No,' said the host. 'Then let me pay for the whole party.' [The host] still said, 'No,' and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other [i.e., Bar Kamtza], 'Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government.' He went and said to the Emperor, 'The Jews are rebelling against you.' [The Emperor] said, 'How can I tell?' He said to him: 'Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar].' So [the Emperor] sent with [Bar Kamtza] a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they [non-Jews] do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah b. Avkulas to them: 'People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar!' They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah b. Avkulas said to them, 'Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?' R. Yochanan remarked: Through the scrupulousness (or modesty) of R. Zechariah b. Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.

The Talmud provides a concluding note:

…תניא, אמר רבי אלעזר, בא וראה כמה גדולה כחה של בושה, שהרי סיע הקדוש ברוך הוא את בר קמצא, והחריב את ביתו ושרף את היכלו:

It has been taught: Note from this incident how serious a thing it is to put a man to shame, for God espoused the cause of Bar Kamtza and destroyed His own House and burnt His Temple.

If it were not for the tragic consequences, this would sound like a comedy of errors: A confused invitation arrives at the home of a sworn enemy instead of the home of a beloved friend. This private situation deteriorates to the point that it becomes the trigger for destruction and exile for the entire nation. Surely this was not an isolated instance of hatred; there must certainly have been many others who did not get along. This story illuminates the general atmosphere of that society; the Maharsha describes this episode as an example used by the scholars of the Talmud to illustrate the type of hatred that caused the destruction of the Second Temple.[9]

In his comments, the Maharsha adds another dimension to this episode that sharpens the story immeasurably: Kamtza and Bar Kamtza were very likely father and son – the word bar means "son of", hence, Kamtza and the son of Kamtza.[10] The anonymous host has a best friend named Kamtza, but he detests his friend’s son. The son is accidentally invited to the party; although he is aware, as is everyone else, that the host despises him, the son arrives at the party, apparently hoping for a rapprochement. He must have assumed that the personal invitation extended to him by the host's servant was a reconciliatory gesture, which he eagerly accepted. Perhaps he imagined that his own father had interceded. When he found himself facing supreme humiliation, did he look to his own father, in vain, to salvage his honor? We are never told that he learned the cause of his mistaken invitation; perhaps he began to suspect that the host's hatred for him is shared by his own father! From here, it is a short distance indeed back to the desert, to the Jews crying in their tents because they believe that God hated them, when in reality he loved them.

The conclusion of this episode offered by the Talmud is not what we would expect: Rather than placing the blame with the truly guilty party - the nameless, implacable host who humiliated the hapless Bar Kamtza and had him bodily thrown out of his home; rather than admonishing the humiliated Bar Kamtza for betraying his People in his desire for revenge, the Talmud concludes that it was the “anvetanut” of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas that destroyed the Temple.

The description of Rabbi Zechariah's character is translated variously as modesty, patience[11], or scrupulousness. In any case, we are somewhat nonplussed by this peculiar, seemingly anti-climactic conclusion. Rabbi Zechariah was presented with two choices, neither of which were true to the letter of the law: he could either rule to bring the blemished offering, which would have been an affront to ritual law, or to kill the man who created the crisis that threatened the entire Jewish community. We might be tempted to say that Rabbi Zechariah was guilty only of taking a myopic view, adhering to the letter of the law while ignoring the larger issues involved in the case. Rabbi Yochanan's summary of the entire Bar Kamtza affair places things in inescapable perspective for us: "Due to the 'modesty' of Rav Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land."

We began our inquiry with a statement by this same Rabbi Yochanan, drawing a line from the sin of the spies to the destruction of the Second Temple on the Ninth of Av. The same Rabbi Yochanan who points an accusing finger at Rabbi Zechariah also[12] taught that Jerusalem was destroyed because the jurists of that generation judged strictly by the letter of the law:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף ל/ב

דאמר רבי יוחנן לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על שדנו בה דין תורה אלא דיני דמגיזתא לדיינו אלא אימא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין.

For Rabbi Yochanan said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments therein in accordance with Biblical law— But say thus: because they based their judgments [strictly] upon Biblical law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law. Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 30b

The Chatam Sofer reconciles these seemingly divergent ideas: The masses were guilty of groundless hatred, while the rabbinic leadership was guilty of literalism, of judging according to the letter of the law: Bar Kamtza was guilty of groundless hatred, while Rabbi Zechariah was guilty of judging according to the letter of the law, a type of halachic stringency which led to spiritual paralysis.[13]

The Chatam Sofer points out that Rabbi Zechariah's behavior in the case of the Emperor's offering was not an isolated incident; the same sort of reasoning, the same modus operandi, is evident in the only other instance in which Rabbi Zechariah is mentioned in the Talmud[14]. The other case involved a seemingly mundane point of Shabbat law; the question concerned the proper way to dispose of bones at the Shabbat table. [15]

תוספתא מסכת שבת (ליברמן) פרק טז הלכה ז

בית הלל אומ' מגביהין מעל השלחן עצמות וקלפין בית שמיי אומ' מסלק את הטבלה כולה ומנערה זכריה בן אבקילס לא היה נוהג לא כדברי בית שמיי ולא כדברי בית הלל אלא נוטל ומשליך לאחר המטה אמ' ר' יוסה ענותנותו של ר' זכריה בן אבקילס היא שרפה את ההיכל

Beit Hillel[16] said, lift the bones and shells from the table; Beit Shammai said, remove the entire tray (or tabletop) and shake off the refuse. Zechariah ben Avkulas did not follow the opinion of Beit Shammai or that of Beit Hillel, rather he spat the bones out behind the couch. Rabbi Yosa taught, 'The "modesty" of Rav Zechariah ben Avkulas burnt the Temple.' Tosefta Shabbat 16:7

In the context of this halachic debate, the concluding statement is completely baffling; whereas this same statement was somewhat of a surprise ending to the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza episode, in this halachic passage, it seems completely out of context. And yet, there is a disturbing common denominator between the two cases: Apparently Rav Zechariah, though quite learned, was afraid to state his opinion. He felt inadequate, and was unwilling to take sides in the halachic debate. He seems, in both stories, incapable of making a decisive ruling of his own.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chiyus explains:

מהר"ץ חיות בגיטין דף נ"ו

ואולם מפני גודל ענוותנותו של ר' זכריה בן אבקולס לא הרהיב בנפשו עוז לעשות בזה הלכה למעשה וחשש שיחשדו אותו שעשה שלא כהלכה, ולא החשיב עצמו לגדול ולקבוע בדעתו להיות עושה הלכה למעשה ולתלות בהוראת שעה. וחישב כי הדבר נמסר רק לגדולי הדור. והוא אינו ראוי לזה לעשות גדולות שלא כתורה ולתלות כי עושה למען לגדר גדר ולעמוד בפרץ. ומפני זה אמרו לשון ענוותנותו, היינו, במה שלא רצה לעמוד על דעתו זאת היתה הסיבה לחורבן הבית.

Because of the great "modesty" of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, he did not presume himself to be spiritually entitled or emboldened enough to rule in practical matters of law.[17] He was afraid that people would suspect him controverting the halacha, and did not see himself as prominent enough to hand down rulings based on his own opinion (even) in these extenuating circumstances (of Bar Kamtza and the Emporer's offering). He thought only the really great Rabbis of the generation could make such decisions…. Therefore the word "modesty" is used, because he did not trust his own opinion. And that was the reason that the Temple was destroyed. Maharatz Chiyus, Commentary to Gittin 56a[18]

Rabbi Zechariah did not trust himself; even worse, he was afraid of what people would say. Therefore, he could not or would not choose between the divergent opinions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Likewise, his handling of the Bar Kamtza fiasco was indecisive: He felt small, inadequate. And this was the very crux of the matter: In telling the story of Bar Kamtza, the Talmud makes it very clear that what bothered Bar Kamtza more than anything else – more than his humiliation, more than his own father's passivity or possible complicity - was the inaction of the Rabbis. In another case of emotional projection, Bar Kamtza began to hate the entire Jewish People, and not just the individual who had disgraced him, because he thought the Rabbis hated him:

Bar Kamtza said: “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agree with him.”

Another version of the Bar Kamtza story, found in Midrash Eicha, reveals one more critical detail:

מדרש רבה איכה פרשה ד פסקה ג

מעשה שהיה באדם אחד בירושלים שעשה סעודה אמר לבן ביתו לך והבא לי קמצא רחמי אזל ואייתי ליה בר קמצא שנאיה עאל וישב בין האורחים עאל אשכחיה ביני אריסטירא אמר לו את שנאי ואת יתיב בגו ביתאי קום פוק לך מיגו ביתאי אמר לו אל תביישני ואנא יהיב לך דמי דסעודתא אמר לו לית את מסובה אמר לו אל תביישני ואנא יתיב ולית אנא אכיל ושתי אמר לו לית את מסובה אמר ליה אנא יהיב דמי כל הדין סעודתא אמר ליה קום לך והיה שם ר' זכריה בן אבקולס והיתה ספק בידו למחות ולא מיחה מיד נפיק ליה אמר בנפשיה אילין מסביין יתבין בשלוותהון אנא איכול קרצהון מה עבד הלך אצל השלטון אמר לו אילין קורבנייא דאת משלח ליהודאי למקרבינהו אינון אכלין להון ומקרבין אוחרנים בחילופייהו נזף ביה אזל לגביה תוב אמר ליה כל אילין קורבניא דאת משלח ליהודאי למקרבינהו אינון אכלין להון ומקרבין אוחרין בחילופייהו ואם לא תאמין לי שלח עמי חד איפרכו וקורבנייא ואת ידע מיד שאיני שקרן עד דאתייא באורחא דמך איפרכו קם הוא בליליא ועשאן כולן בעלי מומין בסתר כיון שראה אותן הכהן הקריב אוחרנין תחתיהון אמר ההוא שליחא דמלכא למה לית את מקריב אילין קורבניא אמר ליה למחר אתא יום תליתאה ולא קרבהון שלח ואמר למלכא ההוא מילתא דיהודאה קאמר קושטא קאמר מיד סליק למקדשה והחריבו הדא דבריאתא אמרין בין קמצא ובין בן קמצא חרב מקדשא אמר ר' יוסי ענותנותו של ר' זכריה בן אבקול



Shiur for Tisha Bav, Kamza and Bar Kamza

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