Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim-Shabbat Hazon 5766/ July 29, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



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.”

The Story

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 Jerusalem, Bar-Kamza made a small blemish on the calf’s lips, a blemish that made it unacceptable for sacrifice on the altar but which is not considered by other peoples to render an offering unacceptable.  The Sages, upon receiving the calf, were inclined to sacrifice it in order to preserve peace and good will with the Roman authorities, in other words, to please Caesar so that he not march on Jerusalem and destroy it.   However, one of   the great rabbis of the time, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolos, objected.  Rabbi Zechariah argued that the Caesar’s calf should not be offered on the altar, lest the common people be led to a misimpression that blemished animals could be given as sacrifices.  The Sages had no option but to accept Rabbi Zechariah’s ruling, and therefore made an alternative suggestion:  Kill Bar-Kamza, claiming (truly so), that he had made the blemish in Caesar’s offering, and thus prevent him from telling Caesar the whole truth, namely, that the blemish on account of which the offering had been refused was a minor affair of a cut in the calf’s lip.  But Zechariah ben Avkolos also ruled out this suggestion, saying that it would cause the public to misunderstand the Halakhah and think that someone who made a blemish on an animal for sacrifice was subject to the death penalty.

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 Rome to tell on the Jews and cause the destruction of Jerusalem?   As for the Sages who had been present at the feast, they may have been insensitive to Bar-Kamza’s humiliation, but still we must ask:  Could they have imagined that Bar-Kamza’s response would be so extreme?   It seems one also cannot accuse Bar-Kamza of failing to follow this advice from Proverbs, for he was well-aware of the consequences of his actions;  coming to Rome, he intended to cause the destruction of Jerusalem.   Therefore, one can accuse Bar-Kamza of acting wickedly, but he certainly did not fail to see the consequences of his actions.  We note further that even though he behaved reprehensibly, his actions expressing true hatred, it would be difficult to call it “blind” hatred, given the caustic insult he had received (although this legend does not deal with the matter, being interested, as we have said, in the moral that lies  hidden in the verse, “Happy is the man who is anxious always, etc.”).

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 Jerusalem.   As we have seen, the introduction in the gemara (Rabbi Johanan said:  “What is the meaning of the scriptural verse, ‘Happy is the man…’?”) sheds light on the moral the tale seeks to convey, and the same holds for the concluding sentence as well.  Here, too, the gemara saw fit to insert a concluding statement which is actually not part of the story itself: “Rabbi Johanan said:   The humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolos caused our Temple to be destroyed, and our Sanctuary to be burned, and our people to be exiled from their land.”

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, [1] who 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, [2]   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 Temple was destroyed on account of the “humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolos” was Rabbi Johanan, known for making use of word plays between Hebrew and Greek in many of his homilies.  Thus, for example, the scriptural passage, “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness [Heb. mekheroteihem]” in Jacob’s blessing of Simeon and Levi (Gen. 49:5), is for the most part interpreted as complaining about the alliance [Heb. hekerut] formed between the two for a base purpose, but Rabbi Johanan’s interpretation of this (Genesis Rabbah 99.7, according to the printed version) is:   “This is a Greek word – machairai, meaning knives.”  Another illustration relates to Ezekiel’s prophecy that in the End of Days trees will grow out of water flowing from the Temple, all “their leaves for healing” (Ezek. 49:12).  The Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 6.2, 50a) comments on this passage:   “Rabbi Johanan said for therapy [Gk. therapeia = Heb. rippui].”  Rokeah claims that the Greek word Eukolos means a humble person; thus Rabbi Johanan, with his witty use of language, was decrying the “humility” (i.e., aggressiveness) of “ben Avkolos.”  Thirdly, Rokeah argues, it should be noted that even within the legend itself we observe that sometimes the characters act precisely the opposite of what their names indicate, for Bar-Kamza [Heb. kamzan = stingy] was willing to pay the entire cost of  the feast given by his host.

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 Second Temple?”   Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolos was a man deeply imbued with faith and trust in the Lord.   Presumably the words of the psalmist echoed in his ears:  “I fear no harm, for You are with me.”  Faced by the threat of Rome, he surely felt that deliverance could come from the Lord instantaneously and, as Saul’s son Jonathan said, “nothing prevents the Lord from winning a victory by many or by few” (I Sam. 14:6). Therefore, contrary to the instruction of the verse in Proverbs, he feared not; he “disregarded those things that he should fear.” 

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,” [3] and his “humility” was what led to our Temple being destroyed, our Sanctuary burned, and our nation exiled.

[1] Zion 53 (1988) pp. 53-56, 317-322.

[2] The Jewish War IV, 4.1.225.

[3] Pharaoh also “hardened his heart.”  Perhaps here, too, there is a play on words:  “He who hardens his heart falls into misfortune,” the Hebrew be-ra’ah (= misfortune) sounding similar to Pha-raoh?