Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: A Fresh Look at a Familiar Story

The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is perhaps the most well known rabbinic text associated with the destruction of the Second Temple. And yet, perhaps it’s our very familiarity with the episode which causes us to gloss over important subtleties embedded in the Talmudic account.

To recap, briefly: There was a man – never identified in the story – who threw a party and intended to invite his good friend Kamtza. His servant, however, erred and mistakenly invited his enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host realized the mistake he immediately and very publicly demanded that Bar Kamtza leave the party. Obviously embarrassed, Bar Kamtza made a series of offers – even, ultimately, offering to pay for the entire party – hoping to persuade the host to allow him to remain. Unmoved, the host callously throws him out of the party. The Gemara recounts that Bar Kamtza was so offended, not only by the host, but also by the silence of the guests – some of whom were great rabbis – that he slandered the Jewish people to the Caesar. One thing leads to another and the result of this sad story is, ultimately, the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Gittin 55b-56a).

The Talmud actually introduces the account by declaring that, “Yerushalayim was destroyed due to [the incident involving] Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.” In light of the actual unfolding of events, the inclusion of Kamtza in this incriminating statement is somewhat surprising. After all, Kamtza was not even at the party; he is no more than a “shadow figure” in this tragedy. What role did he play in this ignominious incident to deserve such apparent criticism?

R. Yosef Chayim of Baghdad (19th century, in his work, Ben Yehoyada) suggests that this is actually a misreading of the introductory phrase. The Talmud does not mean to criticize Kamtza, but rather included his name to teach us the larger lesson of the story.

In the final analysis, the destruction of the Temple was caused by something as minor as the servant confusing the names Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. At the time of the initial mistake we might easily have dismissed it as nothing more than a trivial and inconsequential error that anyone could have committed. So the servant didn’t listen carefully enough, so what? After all, what are the odds of two people with such similar names? And what is the likelihood that the host had such disparate relationships with these two men?

The salient message we must take from this episode is just how important even the “small things” are. We often make the mistake of assuming that major events – such as the churban – are the result of major causes. While that may be true sometimes, the Talmud is sensitizing us to the reality that often it is minor decisions and small mistakes – such as confusing two similarly sounding names – which, in hindsight, actually lead to calamitous results. Especially in the area of interpersonal relationships, it is frequently a small gesture of kindness that makes all the difference just as it can be nothing more than a minor slight which causes the most pain.

An alternate explanation is offered by the famed Maharal of Prague (16th century). He suggests that the pre-party description that there was a “man who was a close friend of Kamtza and an enemy of Bar Kamtza” describes a social reality that was marked by divisiveness and exclusionary relationships. In an atmosphere of enmity, even friendships can be less than wholesome when they serve to further create boundaries and hostility.

In other words, this story didn’t occur in a vacuum; there was a context that led to the fateful outcome. The proverbial waters were already poisoned with hatred and jealousy before the mistaken invitation was ever issued. And Kamtza – through his cliquish friendships – was just as much a part of this problematic context as were the host and Bar Kamtza.

The Maharal’s understanding of this story beautifully – and tragically – corresponds to the Talmud’s (Yoma 9b) well known assertion that the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple was sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews. This shameless episode is just the most famous example of what was, apparently, a widespread breach of achdut Yisrael, unity among Jews.

“Yerushalayim was destroyed due to Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” – in this short declaration we are taught critically important lessons about the circumstances which led to the churban ha-bayit. We are cautioned that it is often the smallest of things which make the biggest of differences. And we are reminded that societal disunity will always be our undoing.

Learning from the mistakes of the past is the best guarantee for the glorious future we all dream of – l’shanah ha-ba’ah b’Yerushalayim!

Appeared in Amit Magazine, Summer 2007.

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15 comments to Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: A Fresh Look at a Familiar Story

  • Garnel Ironheart

    There are a few other subtle things fromthe story that might be mentioned:
    1) As noted, while the unnamed host is busy humiliating Bar Kamtza, the great rabbonim of the generation are just sitting there, not interfering. The narrative in the gemara then goes on to say that this, not the host, was the main reason Bar Kamtza went to the authorities.
    2) Another reason is given for the destructions of our Temple, and that is one of the rabbonim who refuses to allow Bar Kamtza’s defective sacrifice to be offered, an action that would have averted a Roman attack on Yerushalayim. A superficial reading of the narrative makes one scratch one’s head. Offer the sacrifice and who cares what people will say? A war will be averted. The Temple will be saved! Other commentators note that this sage refused to allow the defective sacrifice because he could see what was coming. He had been at the party in question and had stayed silent while Bar Kamtza was being humiliated. Time was up, the Romans were destined to destroy Yerushalayim. If it wasn’t this, there would shortly be something else. Better to suck it up and just get on with it.

    That’s another lesson many leaders across the whole spectrum of the Torah world could learn. A little humility like that shown 2000 years ago could lead to a lot of rapproachment within the Torah world.

  • lacosta

    one would like to hear an analysis of daas tora at that time. the rabbanim were there. was their attitude proper? and what of the machmirim that had no solution to the Roman korban with a moom?

    what does this say to the infallibility of daas tora, at least as preached by the haredi community?

    is it Hashem’s will to use this mode of Daas torah to [sometimes] bring the churban that is needed—like in Israel 2000 yr ago, and again 100 yr later, and in Europe 1900 years later?

  • Joe Socher

    R. Rakeffet has a nice vort on this: the Gemara says because of kamtza and bar kamtza the beis hamikdash was destroyed. What did kamtza do wrong, why does he share the blame? R. Rakeffet (I don’t remember if was quoting someone else or not) sais the reason is because Kamtza’s dear friend was having a party – he should have come anyway and assumed that the invitation was lost or something. And if the host had seen his friend there he might not have been so upset. Instead, Kamtza failed to come just because the invitation was misdirected, perhaps assuming that his friend had turned against him or something and thus shares the blame with the host and bar kamtza.

  • Michoel

    Joe Socher,
    That p’shat is Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz. It is a big limud that really speaks to issue of sinas chinam. So often people react with “A chutzpah! I’ve know him for years and he doesn’t invite me to his simcha!” A yid is making a simcha. Go say mazal tov! It is not about you. It is about feeling for another yid.

  • Earl

    Lacosta –
    The Gemara (Gittin 56b) discusses the criticism Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai received for only requesting that Yavneh be spared by Vespasian (and not the Beis HaMikdash). Also in that context, Rav Yoseif quotes a pasuk in Yeshaya (44:25) “…[Hashem] makes wise men retreat and makes their knowledge foolish”. Rav Soloveitchik used this to explain that when Hashem wants a certain result (in this case the churban), he would cause the chachamim to have mental lapses in order to do so. The Rav also used this idea to explain how so many rabbonim told their communities to stay in Europe when the results were disastrous.

    On the one hand, this shows that, yes, Da’as Torah can be wrong. On the other hand, we should know that in those situations, it’s ratzon Hashem that the wrong advice is followed.

    (I heard this idea in a shiur given by Rav Hershel Shachter – you can listen to it here –

    http://www.yutorah.org/showShiur.cfm/705524/Rabbi_Hershel_Schachter/Yom_Hashoah

    He says this idea around the 33:10 mark.)

  • noclue

    Who says Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are proper names. I think that Kam Tza is a contraction of Get Up [and] Go, which is descriptive of what happened, and consistent with Chazal not blaming any particular individual for the Churban, which could have only come mfnei chatoeino.

    It is also consistent with the two statements which follow in the Gemara, which blame the destruction of certain places on a rooster and chicken and the side of a carriage. Obviously, those statements are not talking about moral blame. Similarly, the moral culpabibilty for the Churban can not be placed on any one individual. This also accounts for why both Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are mentioned; i.e. not, as some suppose, that they were both to blame; but rather that neither was the cause of the Churban Habayis.

    We all were.

  • Jacob Haller

    Regarding post # 2
    “Da’as Torah” is not defined in the post. It’s often used as a term of convenience by both adherents and detractors. The reason we know that the Rabbonim stood by during Bar Kamtza’s humiliation or how to deal with the imperfect korban is because it was documented by the Amora’im in the Gemara. The Amora’im cite the mistakes of those Rabbonim in question but where is it implied in the sugya, Rashi, Tosafos or other Rishonim that “Da’as Torah” was the culprit?

  • Reuvein Wolfson

    lacosta
    I do not know the answers to your questions. Perhaps the entire episode was indeed a manifestation of Divine Providence (as the Gemara in Gittin 56b seems to indicate). But one thing I do know. Had you and I been present when the Rabbis debated whether or not to offer the korban, they would not have asked for our opinion, and they would not have taken our opinion seriously had we offered it on our own. Why? Because we lack the halachic competence necessary to offer a serious opinion on complex halachic questions. The rule that “pikuach nefesh” (preservation of life) overrides most prohibitions is also a halachah. Only those with a comprehensive knowledge of halachah, as well as a true appreciation of the gravity of the prohibitions involved, can determine when and if it applies in a given case. [This is doubly so when the issue is not one of “pikuach nefesh” but rather of proposed “solutions” to problems that are sociological in nature.]

    I might add that by definition, a chumrah is the more stringent of two views both of which are firmly rooted in halachah; it cannot be characterized as a chumrah when the opposing view has no basis in halachah. Do you really think a layman can make a determination as to whether or not a given view is truly based in halachah?

    Our nation has survived the churban of 2000 years ago, the one 100 years later and also the one 1800 years after that. But I doubt we can survive a situation in which any Tom, Dick or Harry feels qualified to decide halachic questions that affect the future of Klal Yisrael.

    BTW, what did the “infallibility of daas Torah as preached by the Haredi community” have to do with the Holocaust? Pleae clarify.

  • joel rich

    Lacosta – The Gemara (Gittin 56b) discusses the criticism Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai received for only requesting that Yavneh be spared by Vespasian (and not the Beis HaMikdash). Also in that context, Rav Yoseif quotes a pasuk in Yeshaya (44:25) “…[Hashem] makes wise men retreat and makes their knowledge foolish”. Rav Soloveitchik used this to explain that when Hashem wants a certain result (in this case the churban), he would cause the chachamim to have mental lapses in order to do so.
    ======================================
    Interesting since R’YBS also darshaned that Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai went to his grave unsure as to whether he had made the right decision (see brachot 28b)
    ====================================
    Only those with a comprehensive knowledge of halachah, as well as a true appreciation of the gravity of the prohibitions involved, can determine when and if it applies in a given case. [This is doubly so when the issue is not one of “pikuach nefesh” but rather of proposed “solutions” to problems that are sociological in nature.]
    ========================================
    Interesting given your parenthetical addition that you didn’t add comprehensive knowledge of the political/sociological facts and human nature/reactions

    KT

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Earl: The Gemara (Gittin 56b) discusses the criticism Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai received for only requesting that Yavneh be spared by Vespasian (and not the Beis HaMikdash).

    Ori: If Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai were to ask for the temple to be spared, would Vespasian had done that? It seems to be that Vespasian wanted to keep leadership that will not rebel against Rome. But he wouldn’t have been able to look weak or forgiving of rebellion.

  • Jewish Observer

    kudos to Rabbi Gottlieb for his excellent essay on daas torah

  • kar

    “Ori: If Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai were to ask for the temple to be spared, would Vespasian had done that? It seems to be that Vespasian wanted to keep leadership that will not rebel against Rome. But he wouldn’t have been able to look weak or forgiving of rebellion.”

    that’s the other explanation in the gemara

  • Earl

    Ori – what you’re suggesting is actually the 2nd of the 2 answers given in the Gemara to defend Rav Yochanan; my comment was regarding the 1st.

  • Earl

    At the end of the day, I agree with the comments above – this post has pretty much nothing to do with Da’as Torah. I just felt someone should give an answer to what lacosta was suggesting.

  • sarah elias

    Joe Socher:

    My grandfather’s pshat was the opposite: From this story we learn not to go to parties without being invited. Bar Kamtza was no fool; he knew the host was no friend of his and he also knew of the existence of Kamtza. He figured, rightly, that the servant had gotten confused and invited him by mistake. But in the back of his mind he thought, “What if the host wants to make peace and really did invite me?” What to do? He decided to go to the party and see whether Kamtza was there. If he wasn’t there, that meant that his invitation should have gone to Kamtza. If he was there, however, that meant that the host had really invited him as a peace gesture.

    Meanwhile, back at the Kamtza ranch, Kamtza heard about the party but didn’t receive an invitation. He and the host were such good friends that he knew that he must have been invited, so he decided not to stand on ceremony and went to the party without an invitation.

    Bar Kamtza arrived at the party, peeked in through the window and saw Kamtza there….and the rest is sad history.