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By Chabad.org, based on Talmud, Gittin 55–56,
Slightly edited by Rabbi Shlomo Nachman
Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.
It happened this way: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy called 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 Bar Kamtza there he said, “See, you are my enemy; what are you doing here? Get out!” Said the other: “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
Said the host: “Absolutely not.”
“Then let me give you half the cost of the party.”
The host refused.
“Then let me pay for the whole party.”
Still the host refused, and took him by the hand and threw him out.
Said Bar Kamtza, “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.”
Said the emperor, “How can I know that this is true?”
“Send them an offering,” said Bar Kamtza, “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 count it a blemish but they do not.
The rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them: “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 Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
The emperor dispatched Nero the Caesar against the Jews. As he was coming he shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem.
He said to a certain boy: “Repeat to me the verse of Scripture you have learnt.”1 The child quoted: “And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel” (Ezekiel 25:14). Said Nero: “G‑d desires to lay waste his House and to lay the blame on me . . .” So he ran away and converted to Judaism, and Rabbi Meir was descended from him.
The Emperor then dispatched Vespasian the Caesar, who came and besieged Jerusalem for three years.
There were in Jerusalem three men of great wealth: Nakdimon ben Gurion, Ben Kalba Savua, and Ben Tzitzit Hakeseth. Nakdimon ben Gurion was so called because the sun continued shining for his sake.2 Ben Kalba Savua was so called because one would go into his house hungry as a dog (kalba) and come out full and satiated (savua). Ben Tzitzit Hakeseth was so called because his fringes (tzitzit) used to trail on cushions (keseth). Others say he derived the name from the fact that his seat (kisei) was among those of the nobility of Rome.
One of these three rich men said of the people of Jerusalem, “I will keep them in wheat and barley.” A second said, “I will keep them in wine, oil and salt.” The third said, “I will keep them in wood.” The rabbis considered the offer of wood the most generous, since Rabbi Chisda used to hand all his keys to his servant save that of the wood, for Rabbi Chisda used to say, “A storehouse of wheat requires the fuel of sixty stores of wood.” These men were in a position to sustain the city for twenty-one years.
The biryoni (Zealot bands) were then in the city. The rabbis said to them: “Let us go out and make peace with the Romans.” The Zealots would not let them, but on the contrary said, “Let us go out and fight them.” The rabbis said: “You will not succeed.” The Zealots then rose up and burnt the stores of wheat and barley (so as to force the people to fight the Romans). A famine ensued.
Martha the daughter of Boethus was one of the richest women in Jerusalem. She sent her manservant out, saying, “Go and bring me some fine flour.” By the time he went the fine flour was sold out. He came and told her, “There is no fine flour, but there is white flour.” She then said to him, “Go and bring me some.” By the time he went he found the white flour sold out. He came and told her, “There is no white flour but there is dark flour.” She said to him, “Go and bring me some.” By the time he went it was sold out. He returned and said to her, “There is no dark flour, but there is barley flour.” She said, “Go and bring me some.” By the time he went this was also sold out.
She had taken off her shoes, but she said, “I will go out and see if I can find anything to eat.” Some dung stuck to her foot and she died. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai applied to her the verse, “The tender and delicate woman among you, who would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground.”3 Some report that she ate a fig left by Rabbi Tzadok, and became sick and died. (For Rabbi Tzadok had fasted for forty years so that Jerusalem might not be destroyed, and he became so thin that when he ate anything the food could be seen as it passed through his throat. When he wanted to restore himself, they used to bring him a fig, and he used to suck the juice and throw the rest away.) When Martha was about to die, she brought out all her gold and silver and threw it in the street, saying, “What is the good of this to me?” thus giving effect to the verse, “They shall cast their silver in the streets.”4
Abba Sikra, the head of the Zealots in Jerusalem, was the son of the sister of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabban Yochanan sent to him saying, “Come to visit me privately.” When he came he said to him, “How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation?” He replied: “What can I do? If I say a word to them, they will kill me.”
Rabban Yochanan said, “Devise some plan for me to escape the city. Perhaps I shall be able to save a little.”
Abba Sikra said to him: “Pretend to be ill, and let everyone come to inquire about you. Bring something foul-smelling and put it by you, so that they will say you are dead. Let then your disciples carry your bed, but no others, so that they shall not notice that you are still light, since it is known that a living being is lighter than a corpse.”
He did so, and Rabbi Eliezer carried the bier from one side and Rabbi Joshua from the other. When they reached the gate, some men (from the Zealot party) wanted to put a lance through the bier. One of the disciples said to them, “Shall the Romans say, ‘They have pierced their master’?” They wanted to give it a push. He said to them, “Shall they say that they pushed their master?” They opened a town gate for them, and Rabban Yochanan got out.
When he reached the Roman camp he said to Vespasian: “Peace to you, O king; peace to you, O king.” Vespasian said: “Your life is forfeit on two counts: one, because I am not a king and you call me king; and again, if I am a king, why did you not come to me before now?”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: “As for your saying that you are not a king, in truth you are a king, since if you were not a king, Jerusalem would not be delivered into your hand, as it is written, ‘And Lebanon (a reference to the Holy Temple) shall fall by a mighty one.’5 . . . As for your question why, if you are a king, I did not come to you till now, the answer is that the biryoni among us did not let me.”
Said Vespasian to Rabban Yochanan: “If there is a jar of honey round which a serpent is wound, would one not break the jar to get rid of the serpent?”6 He could give no answer.
Rabbi Joseph, or as some say Rabbi Akiba, applied to him the verse, “[G‑d] turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish.”7 He ought to have replied to him: We take a pair of tongs and grip the snake and kill it, and leave the jar intact.
At this point, a messenger arrived from Rome to Vespasian, saying: “Arise, for the emperor is dead, and the notables of Rome have decided to make you head.”
Vespasian had just finished putting on one boot. When he tried to put on the other, he could not. He tried to take off the first, but it would not come off. He said, “What is the meaning of this?” Rabban Yochanan said to him: “Do not worry: the good news has done it, as it is written, ‘Good tidings make the bone fat.’8 What is the remedy? Let someone whom you dislike come and pass before you, as it is written, “A broken spirit dries up the bones.’”9 He did so, and the boot went on.
Said Vespasian to Rabban Yochanan: “Seeing that you are so wise, why did you not come to me till now?” He said: “Have I not told you?” He retorted: “I, too, have told you.”
Vespasian said: “I am now going, and will send someone to take my place. You can, however, make a request of me and I will grant it.”
Rabban Yochanan said: “Give me Yavneh and its sages, and the family chain of Rabban Gamaliel, and physicians to heal Rabbi Tzadok.”
Rabbi Joseph, or as some say Rabbi Akiba, applied to him the verse, “[G‑d] turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish.”10 He ought to have said to him: “Let the Jews off this time.” Rabban Yochanan, however, thought that so much he would not grant, and even this little would not be saved.
1. There is a tradition that asking a schoolchild to repeat a verse of Torah he had learned that day yields a prophetic answer. Mbr>
2. The story is told in the Talmud, Taanit 19b.
3. Deuteronomy 28:57.
4. Ezekiel 7:19.
5. Isaiah 10:34.
6. Meaning: So you should have broken down the walls to get rid of the Zealots.
7. Isaiah 44:25.
8. Proverbs 15:30.
9. Ibid. 17:22.
10. Isaiah 44:25.
Talmud, Gittin 55–56
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Also see my Enough With The Infighting! Remember WHY The Second Temple Was Destroyed.
Contact Rabbi Shlomo Nachman
Boycott Hatred of Jews!
Echoes From Shoah
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