The Placement of a Blemish and the Placement of an Aggada
YHE-HOLIDAY: SPECIAL TISHA BE-AV SHIUR
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.
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. The servant brought him Bar Kamzta. The host found Bar Kamtza sitting. The host said to him: "Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and leave!"
Bar Kamtza 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.
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 and 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."
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). The above story in Gittin
certainly involves a good deal of hatred. R. Yosef Chayyim of
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 whether they 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 he was 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 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 particular stories. If so, perhaps they had a particular reason to include the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza narrative in Masekhet Gittin.
Indeed, Rav Tzadok Ha-kohen of