6 Av 5776
(Reposting from three years ago.)
Revisiting Kamtza Bar Kamtza - why was the Temple really destroyed
by Yekutiel Guzofsky
If you ask the average Jew, “What was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple?”, he’ll likely answer based on the popular interpretation of the story of Kamtza/Bar Kamtza in Tractate Gittin 55b, that the destruction was brought upon us due to internal strife – and, in particular, a host who offended Bar Kamtza when he expelled Bar Kamtza from his banquet. In an article written in the Bnei Haneviim Journal of Av 5757, Rav David Cohen shatters this myth and the misinterpretation of the Aggadic story brought down in the Talmud.
As the story unfolds, our anonymous host requested of his servant to invite his friend Kamtza to his party. The servant mistakenly invited Bar Kamtza instead of Kamtza. When the host realized that Bar Kamtza, his enemy, was sitting at the banquet, he ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza pleaded to be given the opportunity to stay, offering to pay for his meal, and even for the entire banquet; but the Host remained steadfast and forcibly removed him. Bar Kamtza said: “Since the Rabbis did not protest, this is proof that they agree with what happened. I will go and become an informant to the authorities.” (There are sources that indicate that Bar Kamtza was already a known informant, and that this is why the Rabbis did not come to his defense and also why he was not invited to the banquet, see Chatam Sofer on Gittin, Maharal in Netzach Yisrael Chapter 5).
Without going into the full story, Bar Kamtza conspired to incite the Romans against the Jews and bring about the destruction of the Second Temple. During the deliberations, the Rabbis considered the possibility of killing Bar Kamtza before he could complete his evil plot. Rabbi Zachariah was opposed to this measure and the Gemorrah concludes the story: because of Rabbi Zachariah, the Temple was destroyed, the Heichal was burnt, and we were exiled from our land.
Rav David Cohen explains that Bar Kamtza, the treasonous Jewish informant, indeed played a central role in the events that caused the Temple’s destruction, however the Talmud does not focus on him or the host who insulted him, as we have always been taught. We have always been led to believe that over the small mistake in the confusion of the names Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, and over the harsh insult to evil Bar-Kamtza, the Temple was Destroyed. We are urged to accept the erroneous moral of this story, that we must show compassion for evil people such as Bar Kamtza the informant, and we must never insult even an evil Jew. While there are sources for this interpretation, Rashi and the Meiri clearly place the blame on Rabbi Zacharia for hesitating to kill Bar-Kamtza, and Rashi’s view clearly fits well within the text.
The common interpretation of the story contradicts the actual conclusion brought both in the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrash, which transfers the blame from Bar Kamtza the informant and the host who embarrassed him to Rav Zachariah ben Ifkulas! “Rabbi Yosef says: the humility of Zacharia ben Ifkulas burnt the sanctuary.” Rashi explains: “Humility – that he tolerated this and did not kill [Bar Kamtza].” This is also the conclusion of Meiri: “You learn from here that it is permissible to kill one who incites the government against the people.”
Thus, the Temple was destroyed due to the fact that the Jews were hesitant to kill an evil informant. It was this lack of bloodshed that brought about the destruction. Quite different, indeed, from the false interpertation of the Gemorrah that we were raised upon.
It is more than ironic that the common interpretation of the Talmudic story stands diametrically opposed to the basic reading of the text, and the basic explanation given by Rashi and the Meiri. We are urged to display hospitality and break bread with the Evil, in spite of the fact that the Rishonim learned the exact opposite lesson from the story, and concluded that it was tolerance of the evil Bar Kamtza and hesitation to kill him that triggered the destruction of the Temple.