Parashat Devarim-Shabbat Hazon 5766/ July 29, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Kamza and Bar-Kamza - Who Was at Fault?
Rabbi Dr. Yehoshua Berman
Department of Bible
The tale of Kamza and Bar-Kamza is commonly thought to teach a moral about proper human relations, about the evil of blind hatred and the like. The tale of Kamza and Bar-Kamza appears in two places in Jewish sources, and only in one of them (Lamentations Rabbah 4:3) is the emphasis put on matters that concern relations between one person and another, bein adam la-havero. The tale in the better-known source (Gittin 55b-56a), it turns out, does not deal with blind hatred at all.
As it appears in the gemara in Tractate Gittin, the emphasis is shifted to another theme by the introduction to the tale. The stories there deal with the end of the Second Temple period in general, and this legend in particular is introduced with the saying of Rabbi Johanan: “What is the meaning of the scriptural verse, ‘Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune’ (Prov. 28:14)? On account of Kamza and Bar-Kamza Jerusalem was destroyed.” In other words, to correctly understand the tale, one must identify the character who failed regarding this trait of being anxious. Rashi’s commentary here explains what Rabbi Johanan had in mind: “Who is anxious – taking care to see what the consequences of his actions might be, so that no misfortune happens if he does a given thing.”
Which of the characters in the legend could be said to display the type of behavior characteristic of a person who does not look ahead to perceive the misfortune that is likely to be caused by his actions? Let us review the characters one by one, examining who is to blame. The gemara recounts that there was once a man who made a great feast and sent his servant to invite his dear friend, Kamza. The servant, however, erred in what he had been asked to do, and instead of inviting Kamza, he invited by mistake Bar-Kamza, who it so happens did not get along with the host at all. When the host saw Bar-Kamza among his guests, he sought to get rid of him. Bar-Kamza begged the host to have pity on him and not embarrass him in front of the large gathering present, and he even offered to cover the cost of his dinner. When the host refused his offer, Bar-Kamza offered to cover half the cost of the entire feast, and finally offered to cover the entire cost; but all was to no avail. The host grabbed Bar-Kamza and humiliatingly threw him out of the house.
Bar-Kamza noted that the many Sages were
present, but had not reacted to the scene, and he concluded that they had not
been perturbed by it at all.
Consequently, he decided to avenge himself on the Sages as well as the
host; and so he went to tell on them to Caesar, claiming that the Jews in
Jerusalem were rebelling against him, and to prove his assertion he suggested
that Caesar send an offering to Jerusalem and see whether or not the Jews would
be willing to sacrifice it at the Temple.
Caesar took up the idea and sent a fine calf along with Bar-Kamza.
On the way to
Judging the Consequences
Who of the characters here did not uphold the
words of Scripture, “Happy is the man who is anxious always”?
Who was it that did not foresee the
consequences of his actions, the misfortune that was likely to result from his
deeds? It would seem that the host
of the feast was not to blame.
Could he possibly have imagined that Bar-Kamza would go to
It is patently clear that the main person to
blame in this story is the saintly Sage Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolos, who did
not understand that his rulings would lead to the destruction of
The Use of Irony
The choice of word “humility” (Heb. anvetanut)
to describe the behavior of Rabbi Zechariah raises considerable
wonderment. In what way did his
behavior express humility? An apt
analysis was made by the scholar David Rokeah,
claims that this word meant exactly the opposite – his “humility” referred to
his aggressive temperament. Rokeah
supports his claim with three principle arguments:
the first is evidence from the writings
of Josephus regarding one of the leaders of the zealots during that period,
a priest by the name of Zecharia ben
Amphikaleus, who was most likely the same Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos mentioned
in the legend. Secondly, the person
who said that the
One could expand further on the comments made by Rokeah. There is a certain correspondence between the “humility” (read: aggressive temperament) of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolos, and the introductory passage of the legend: “Rabbi Johanan said: What is the meaning of the scriptural verse, ‘Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune’ (Prov. 28:14)? On account of Kamza and Bar-Kamza Jerusalem was destroyed.” We must ask how it came to pass that this saintly Sage did not foresee the consequences, the future that was so clear to other Sages in his generation?
Ralbag’s commentary on the same verse from
Proverbs seems to provide some enlightenment.
He writes the following on the latter
half of the verse: “However he who
hardens his heart and disregards those things that he should fear, he will fall
into misfortune. For do you not see
that hardening of the heart was what caused the destruction of the First and
The Need for Priorities
Rabbi Zechariah had no priorities in halakhah;
for him, everything was top priority.
He did not distinguish between things that were of little account and
things that were grave, but treated everything as grave.
His non-compromising stance was based on
the belief that if only we see to our own affairs, then everything will fall
into place. Therefore, this saintly
man was beset by fine points; he feared lest the slightest rule of Jewish law
not be correctly understood, and he did not fear that the Lord might wreak
disaster. Instead of seeing the
shaky military/political situation as a sign of the Lord’s dissatisfaction on
account of serious spiritual shortcomings among the people, he “disregarded
those things that he should have feared.”
Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolos “hardened his heart,”
 and his
“humility” was what led to our