The Placement of a Blemish and the Placement of an Aggada

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #30: The Placement of a Blemish
and the Placement of an Aggada

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Yerushalayim was destroyed due to [the incident involving] Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. There was a man who was a close friend of Kamtza and an enemy of Bar Kamtza. He made a party and told his servant to invite Kamtza. He brought him Bar Kamzta. He (the host) found him (Bar Kamtza) sitting. He said to him: "Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and leave!"

He said to him: "Once I have come, leave me be and I will pay for everything I eat and drink."


"I will pay for half the party."


"I will pay for the entire party."

"No!" He took him by the hands, picked him up and threw him out.

He (Bar Kamtza) said: "Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not protest, it seems that they were pleased with what happened. I will go slander them before the emperor."

He said to the Caesar: "The Jews are rebelling against you."

"How do you know this?"

"Send them a sacrifice and see if they offer it."

He (the Caesar) went ahead and sent with him a healthy calf. While he was on the way, he placed a blemish on the animal's upper lip; some say he caused a cataract on the eye. These things are blemishes for us (and disqualify an animal for sacrificing) but not for them (the Romans).

The Rabbis wanted to offer it (despite its disqualifying blemish) to preserve good relations with the authorities.

R. Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them: "People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar."

They wanted to kill the person who brought the animal, so he could not go and inform on them. R. Zekharya ben Avkolus said: "People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed."

R. Yochanan said: The humility of R. Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land." (Gittin 55b-56a)

Lurking in the background of this well-known story may be another famous gemara (Yoma 9b) which attributes the first temple's destruction to the sins of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality, and the destruction of the second temple to groundless hatred (sin'at chinam). Our story in Gittin certainly involves a good deal of hatred. R. Yosef Chayyim of Baghdad (the "Ben Ish Chai," in his work, Ben Yehoyada) points out that the gemara purposely identifies what initially appears to be an episode of minor importance as the cause for the destruction. Unlike the sins that led to the first churban, groundless hatred often involves a kind of low-key offense that the average person would not deem a major transgression. This gemara attempts to educate us to take the minor slights and squabbles seriously.

Maharal suggests an interesting reading of this passage's introductory sentence. Taken literally, it says that Kamtza and Bar Kamtza caused the destruction. Maharal thus asks, how could Kamtza be faulted for this sequence of events, when he was not even present at the party? Maharal explains that in an atmosphere of great enmity, people look for friends as allies in their disputes with their many enemies. Such a friendship reflects not true human warmth, but rather the calculating partnership of the hostile. If so, even the host's friendship with Kamtza was part of the corruption that characterized the Jewish society of the time.

As with any talmudic tale, we should ask whether the story's details are simply pieces of information, or have symbolic import. As Maharsha explains, the locations of the blemish clearly belong to the latter category. Blemished lips represent the terrible speech of the Jewish people prior to the churban. Slander, insults and mean-spiritedness dominated the society's discourse; the animal's blemish thus reflects the blemished lips of a people. The blemished eye suggests the pettiness with which they looked at each other. This pettiness features prominently in the decision to throw someone out of a party even after he had offered to help foot the bill.

The story includes a condemnation of the "humility" of R. Zekharya ben Avkolus. Although not explicit in R. Zekharya's statement, R. Yochanan understood that humility was his Achilles' heel. The rabbis wanted to take drastic measures to avert catastrophe, in either allowing a blemished sacrifice or in killing an individual bent on endangering them. Apparently, R. Zekharya was afraid to make such a momentous decision because he considered himself unworthy. Leadership figures must make fateful decisions in moments of crisis, and humble declarations of inadequacy cannot substitute for important decisions.

Another version of the story (Eikha Rabba 4:3) places R. Zekharya ben Avkolus at the party as one of the rabbinic authorities who stayed silent as Bar Kamtza was tossed out. If so, his excessive humility hindered him already earlier in the story's development. He thought himself unworthy of making a scene, and therefore allowed the gratuitously cruel treatment of an unwanted guest to proceed without protesting.

At first glance, it seems that this story finds its way into Massekhet Gittin due to a linguistic tangent related to the word "sikrikin," a term that appears both in the preceding mishna and later in this story. It is likely, however, that the editors of the Talmud employed associations in many tractates as a springboard for introducing this story. If so, then they perhaps had a particular reason to include the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza narrative here in Masekhet Gittin.

Indeed, Rav Tzadok H-kohen of Lublin asserted that the placement of all aggadot in the Talmud reflects deep thematic significance. In his Peri Tzaddik (Bereishit, Kedushat Ha-shabbat 3), he creatively explains this particular placement of the story of Kamtza/Bar Kamtza. Gittin deals with divorce, and the temple's destruction resembles a divorce between God and the Jewish people (note the imagery in Yirmiyahu 3:1). Yet, the name of the chapter in which this account appears is "Hanizakin," ("Damages"), a name that makes no reference to the issue of divorce. R. Tzadok explains that in reality, the destruction of the temple and the resultant exile resembles an instance of damages, more so than divorce. While the latter tends to be final, damages can be undone fairly quickly through restitution. Sefer Yeshayahu (50:1) explicitly denies that God has divorced us. On the day we prove worthy, God intends to compensate us for the damages, and the apparent divorce will turn out to have been but a temporary rift in the fabric of an enduring union.