Friday, July 6, 2012

Whose Fault Was It?

TOMORROW MARKS THE BEGINNING of the ‘Three Weeks.’ During this period is common to reflect on the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the events which led up to it. One of the better known stories of the Talmud on the topic is the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The Gemara relates:

אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעל דבביה בר קמצא עבד סעודתא אמר ליה לשמעיה זיל אייתי לי קמצא אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא אתא אשכחיה דהוה יתיב אמר ליה מכדי ההוא גברא בעל דבבא דההוא גברא הוא מאי בעית הכא קום פוק אמר ליה הואיל ואתאי שבקן ויהיבנא לך דמי מה דאכילנא ושתינא אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי פלגא דסעודתיך אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי כולה סעודתיך א"ל לא נקטיה בידיה ואוקמיה ואפקיה אמר הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה ש"מ קא ניחא להו איזיל איכול בהו קורצא בי מלכא אזל אמר ליה לקיסר מרדו בך יהודאי א"ל מי יימר א"ל שדר להו קורבנא חזית אי מקרבין ליה אזל שדר בידיה עגלא תלתא בהדי דקאתי שדא ביה מומא בניב שפתים ואמרי לה בדוקין שבעין דוכתא דלדידן הוה מומא ולדידהו לאו מומא הוא סבור רבנן לקרוביה משום שלום מלכות אמר להו רבי זכריה בן אבקולס יאמרו בעלי מומין קריבין לגבי מזבח סבור למיקטליה דלא ליזיל ולימא אמר להו רבי זכריה יאמרו מטיל מום בקדשים יהרג אמר רבי יוחנן ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו שדר עלוייהו לנירון קיסר.

The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtza and a Bar Kamtza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, “See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out.” Said the other: “Since I am here, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” He said, “I won't.” “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” “No,” said the other. “Then let me pay for the whole party.” He still said no, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, “Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the government.” He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” He [the emperor] said, “How can I tell?” He said to him: “Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar].” So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not. The rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. Said R. Zechariah ben Avkulas to them: “[You cannot do so, for] people will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?” R. Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land. He [the Emperor] sent against them Nero the Caesar…[1]

Many ask the question – whose fault was it? Is the Gemara trying to pin it all on the malevolent host? On the unforgiving Bar Kamtza? On the rabbis who looked away? On R. Zechariah ben Avkulas’s scrupulousness that went overboard?

There is another Gemara:

תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל כי יפול הנופל ממנו ראוי זה ליפול מששת ימי בראשית שהרי לא נפל והכתוב קראו נופל אלא שמגלגלין זכות על ידי זכאי וחובה על ידי חייב.

The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: [Scripture states: “When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof and you will not bring bloodshed on your house] should the faller fall from it [the roof]:” This person was destined to fall since the six days of creation, for Scripture called him “the faller,” but reward (zechus) is brought about through a person of merit (zakkai) and punishment (chova) is brought about through a person of guilt (chayav).[2]

This Gemara teaches us that the question “Who is at fault?” is built on a mistaken premise. Everyone involved is at fault. If Kamtza was a perfectly upstanding individual then Providence would not have arranged for this story to come about through him. Moreover,[3] when the Gemara tells us a story about what brought about a particular tragedy it isn’t simply telling us details. It wants us to realize that every single character in the story was in some way responsible for what happened, and we should learn from each of them how not to act. The way I see it, it was Kamtza’s fault, it was Bar Kamtza’s fault, it was the host’s fault, it was the guests’ fault, and it was the rabbis’ fault. Sure some may have been more directly to blame than others, but megalgelin zechus al yedei zakkai vechova al yedei chayav; reward is brought about through a person of merit and punishment is brought about through a person of guilt.


[1] Gittin 55b-56a
[2] Shabbos 32a
[3] This is my main point, for as I have discussed herethe theological implications of the Gemara in Shabbos may have significantly less relevance today than they did during the times of the Beis HaMikdash.


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