of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Studies in Jewish religious ideology in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism
Originally published July 18th 2002 / Av 9th 5762 [Tish'ah b'Av]

Bet Midrash Virtuali

The only Torah studies that are permitted on the fast day of Tish'ah b'Av are sombre topics connected with the sadness of the day. A major aggadic source concerning the destruction of Jerusalem follows. Obviously, it is more important for its ethical content than for its strict historical accuracy. If the story about the interview between Rabban YoĤanan ben-Zakkai and Vespasian is true then these events took place in the year 68 CE, the 'year of four emperors'. Modern scholarship thinks that Yavneh was a Roman concentration camp where 'left-wing' defectors were interned.


Jerusalem was ruined because of Kamtza and bar-Kamtza. There was a man the name of whose friend was Kamtza and the name of whose enemy was bar-Kamtza. He arranged a banquet and told his steward to invite Kamtza; but he invited bar-Kamtza. When he discovered bar-Kamtza seated [at the banqueting table], he said, 'I do not like you. What are you doing here? Leave!'
[Bar-Kamtza] replied, 'Since I am already here let me stay and I will pay you for everything that I eat and drink.'
He responded, 'No!'
He said, 'I will give you half the cost of this banquet.'
He said, 'No!'
He said, 'I will refund you the whole cost of this banquet.'
He said, 'No!' And he grabbed him by the arm and threw him out.

[Bar-Kamtza] thought, 'There were rabbis present who did not protest [at the way I was treated] which means that they agreed [that such treatment is acceptable]. So I shall go and inform on them to the emperor.' He went and told the emperor that the Jews were about to revolt against him. [The emperor] said, 'Prove it!' [Bar-Kamtza] said, 'Send them a sacrifice: they will refuse to offer it.' So he sent [bar-Kamtza] with a choice calf. On the way he caused a blemish on the animal's mouth (some say it was on the animal's eyes) in a manner which we [Jews] consider as constituting a blemish but which they [the non-Jews] do not.

The sages were inclined to accept the sacrifice in order to preserve the peace [by appeasing the régime], but Rabbi Zekharyah ben-Eukolos said that people would assume that blemished animals could be offered on the altar! So they thought they should kill [bar-Kamtza] so that he could not inform the emperor, but Rabbi Zekharyah told them that people would assume that those who blemish a sacrifice must be executed.

Rabbi Yoĥanan notes that it was the [over-zealous] piety of Rabbi Zekharyah ben-Eukolos that ruined our House, burned down our Temple and exiled us from our land.

Abba Sikra was the zealot leader in Jerusalem and he was the nephew of Rabban Yoĥanan ben-Zakkai. The latter sent him a message: 'Let's meet in secret.' He came, and [the sage] said to him, 'How long can you continue like this, killing everyone off by hunger?'
He responded, 'What can I do? If I say anything they will kill me!'
He said, 'Then get me a permit to leave [the city]; maybe I can salvage something.'
[Abba Sikra] said, 'Give out that you are ill and let everyone come to visit you [and see that you are at death's door]. Hide on your person something that stinks so that people will think that you are dead. Permit only your students to pick up your bier and no one else, so that it will not be noticed how light you are (for people know that a live body weighs less than a dead one).'

And that is what he did. Rabbi Eli'ezer bore him up on one side and Rabbi Yehoshu'a on the other. When they reached the gates [the guards] wanted to stab the body [to make certain it was a corpse], but the rabbis said, 'Do you want people to say that you stabbed the sage!?' So they wanted to push him [off the bier to see how he fell], but the rabbis said,'Do you want people to say that you pushed the sage!?' So they opened the gates and thus he left [the city].

When he reached [the Roman camp and was brought before Vespasian] he cried out, 'My lord king, my lord king!' Vespasian retorted, 'Now you deserve to die for two crimes: you called me king even though I am not the king; and if I were the king why have you not waited upon me until now?'
[The sage] replied, 'You say you are not the king, but you must be, because if you were not you would not be able to take Jerusalem because a verse [Isaiah 10:4] is interpreted by the verses [Jeremiah 30:21 and Deuteronomy 3:25]as meaning that the Temple will fall only to a king. And as for the fact that I did not wait upon you until now: the zealots would not let me.'...

While they were speaking a messenger arrived from Rome to inform [Vespasian] that [Nero] was dead and that the Senate had decided to appoint him emperor... [Vespasian] said, 'Ask what you want me to give you.'
He replied, 'Give me Yavneh and its sages and the dynasty of Rabban Gamli'el.'