Bar Kamtza – Victim or Villain?

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As the Three Weeks begin and Tisha b’Av approaches, we focus a lot on the idea of sinas chinam, baseless hatred, which the Talmud in Yoma (9b) cites as the reason the second Temple was destroyed. (Other sources in the Talmud attribute the destruction to different reasons, particularly Shabbos 119b and Baba Metzia 30b, but sinas chinam is the reason with popular staying power.)

The archetypical sinas chinam story appears in Gittin 55b and it’s ubiquitous in Jewish summer camps. It’s the story universally known as “Kamtza and Bar Kamtza,” which is the Gemara’s name for it but something of a misnomer as Kamtza appears nowhere in it. (Somewhere, the ghost of Kamtza is asking, “How did I get wrapped up in this? I wasn’t even there!”) Let’s review the story.

There was a wealthy man who lived at the time of the second Temple. (His name is not given.) This man had a close friend named Kamtza and a bitter enemy named Bar Kamtza. When throwing a big party, he instructed his servant to deliver an invitation to his dear friend Kamtza. The servant, however, made a mistake and delivered the invitation to the hated Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza must have been thrilled, assuming that the man wished to reconcile, because he did in fact appear at the party. Unfortunately, when the host saw Bar Kamtza, he flew into a rage and ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza, seeking to avoid humiliation, offered to pay for whatever he would eat at the party. When this offer was refused, he offered to pay for half of the party. When this was refused, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire party. The host angrily turned this down as well and had Bar Kamtza forcibly removed.

This is where a lot of people stop telling the story. Poor Bar Kamtza! He was horribly mistreated! If this is the way that people treated one another in those days, no wonder God permitted Jerusalem to be destroyed! But the Gemara isn’t done and Bar Kamtza’s role is very different than merely that of “injured party.”

You see, there were a number of leading rabbis at this party. When Bar Kamtza was humiliated by the host, they didn’t intervene, which Bar Kamtza took as their tacit approval, or at the very least indifference. He went full-blown supervillain and swore revenge against the rabbis. He went to the local Roman authorities and told them that the Jews were preparing for a revolt against the Roman Empire. The Roman leader asked for proof and Bar Kamtza told him that if he sent a sacrifice to be offered in the Temple, it would be rejected. The Roman consul sent a quality calf back to Jerusalem with Bar Kamtza, to be offered in the Temple. En route, Bar Kamtza sabotaged the offering with a minor blemish that wouldn’t invalidate it as a Roman sacrifice but that would disqualify it for use as a Jewish sacrifice.

When the blemished calf was presented at the Temple, the members of the Sanhedrin had to decide how to deal with this precarious situation. Some advocated overlooking the law in order to avoid offending the Romans but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas objected to the precedent, which would encourage people to bring blemished animals as sacrifices. They then contemplated executing Bar Kamtza to prevent him from reporting the sacrifice’s rejection to the Romans. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas again intervened, objecting that bringing a blemished offering to the Temple is not a capital offense. Ultimately, the sacrifice was rejected, the Romans believed Bar Kamtza’s report of rebellion, and the Temple was razed.

Quite a different picture of Bar Kamtza, isn’t it? We’ve all been embarrassed at one point or another but how many of us have been motivated by the experience to turn traitor and to sabotage an already-tense political situation? Not very many, I would wager! The fact that he was capable of this makes me wonder what kind of a person Bar Kamtza was before he was slighted; maybe the host had a good reason for objecting to Bar Kamtza’s presence at his party! (True, this would mean that the host’s hatred of Bar Kamtza wasn’t baseless, but that’s okay. The term “sinas chinam” does not appear in the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza; that’s in the Gemara in Yoma. We may take this story as an illustration of sinas chinam but that’s our assumption, not the Gemara’s stated point.)

So, having reviewed the story of Bar Kamtza, which was he: innocent victim or political instigator? Like the saying goes, “Why not both?” Or, for those expecting a higher-falutin’ quote than from a taco commercial, let us quote Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

People are complicated creatures. We are many things at once. As the verse in Koheles (7:20) tells us, “There is no one in the world who is completely righteous, only doing good and never sinning.” And yet, as complicated as we know ourselves to be, we too often look at one another as all or nothing: There’s a politician I hate, therefore everything he does must be evil. There’s another politician I love, therefore everything he does is defensible. There’s a rabbi who has a position with which I disagree, therefore everything he ever taught must be wrong. The list goes on and on.

Tanach isn’t shy about sharing our leaders’ faults. Moshe can lose his temper and still be righteous. David can sin and still be righteous. Conversely, even wicked individuals like Balaam and Esau have their redeeming moments. Because nobody is purely good or evil, we’re all just different mixtures of the two. Bar Kamtza can be both victim and villain; his mistreatment does not justify his later actions and his later actions do not retroactively justify the way he was initially treated.

This is the way we all are. You know that you’re not all one thing and I know that I’m not all one thing. Let’s stop looking at one another as if we have everything all figured out and we magically know everyone else’s ulterior motivations. Someone we hate can do good and someone we love can do bad. That’s just the way we are.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.