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Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza

By: Rav David Milston

As we know, on Tisha B’Av it is forbidden to learn Torah topics not relevant to the day[1]. One may learn Megillat Eicha with its commentaries, portions of the Prophets dealing with tragedy or destruction, the third chapter of Moed Katan (which discusses mourning), the story of the destruction[2] and the halachot of Tisha B’Av and mourning.[3]

Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza is one of the central episodes that we study on Tisha B’Av, as told by the Talmud in Gittin.[4] The incident is so fundamental that the Talmud identifies the story as being one of the main causes of the destruction of the Second Beit Mikdash.

Let us firstly examine the details of the story. In doing so we will reveal some of Am Yisrael’s most serious flaws of the past and present, and by doing so, perhaps through application and rectification, we will be able to bring about a more positive future.

Rabbi Yochanan remarked: What is illustrative of the verse, ‘Happy is the man who constantly fears [God] but he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief'?’ (Mishlei 28:14) [What follows illustrates the endless misery and mischief caused by hardness of heart.]

The destruction of Yerushalayim occurred because of an incident involving [the names] Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. A certain man had a friend called Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a formal banquet and asked his servant to invite Kamtza. The servant apparently misheard and accidentally summoned Bar Kamtza instead. When the host of the event arrived and saw Bar Kamtza, his enemy, seated at the table he ordered him to leave immediately. Bar Kamtza replied, ‘Since I am already here, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.’ But the host remained adamant in his refusal. Bar Kamtza then offered to pay for half the cost of the party but again he was snubbed. The humiliated Bar Kamtza even went as far as to suggest footing the bill for the entire affair but the host refused and threw him out.

Since there were Rabbis at the feast who witnessed this whole episode but chose not to intervene, a mortified Bar Kamtza concluded it must reflect their acceptance of such degrading behavior. He took his revenge by informing on the Jewish people. He told the Emperor that the Jews were rebelling against him. The Emperor demanded corroboration. Bar Kamtza advised him to send an offering and see whether the Jews would sacrifice it [on the altar] in the Beit Mikdash.

So he sent a fine calf with him. On the way, Bar Kamtza made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where the Jews consider it a blemish but the non-Jews do not.

The Rabbis were inclined to offer up the calf to avoid offending the Government. However, one of the Rabbis, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, disagreed claiming people would mistakenly conclude that one is allowed to offer blemished animals on the altar.

They then proposed killing Bar Kamtza so that he would not go and inform on them, but once again Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas argued against, claiming the masses would presume that one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals is to be put to death. [So they didn't sacrifice the offering and Bar Kamtza consequently informed on them.]

Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked, ‘Because of the humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.’[5]

In the past when discussing Tisha B’Av we referred to the Gemara in Yoma (9a-b) that identifies Sinat Chinam as the main cause of the destruction of the Second Beit Mikdash. This story seemingly supports that theory. Nevertheless, if we are to fully appreciate the importance of ‘Kamtza and Bar Kamtza’ we must delve a little deeper.

1. The Anonymous Host

The first peculiarity of the story is that the host is anonymous. Is it not strange that he remains unnamed even though it is he who triggered the whole crisis?

Perhaps we can suggest the Talmud is purposely avoiding naming the host, not in order to save him embarrassment – after all, by not naming him, we suspect the entire community in his stead – but rather so that future generations do not mistakenly identify the incident as being a one-off occurrence. Indeed, by leaving the host unnamed the Talmud is teaching us that he could have easily been anyone living at that time, indicating the frequency of this kind of behavior. It reflects an atmosphere of stubborn spitefulness and the level of purposeless hatred abounding at the time. Even when Bar Kamtza offered to cover the costs of the entire event the host refused to bend.  

Incredulously, Bar Kamtza went to inform on the Jews but he too was a Jew! Would he not suffer their common fate? Seemingly the hate was so intense that Bar Kamtza preferred revenge over any personal price he may have ultimately been forced to pay – a classic case of “cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face!”

This is a damning indictment of Am Yisrael. Senseless hate and hardness of the heart have always been the biggest failings of our nation, from the time the brothers sold Yosef to the story of Datan and Aviram informing on Moshe Rabbeinu, and from the days of the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel until this very day.

If we are to rectify the situation our objective must be unity – not uniformity – through sensitivity and tolerance. It is part of our human nature to have misgivings regarding other people – and that must be noted and rectified – but when it is nurtured into fundamental hate and becomes so widespread as to be the norm, the writing is on the wall.

2. Severity of Public Embarrassment

In a number of places, the Talmud discusses the severity of embarrassing someone in public.[6] This phenomenon reflects an absolute disregard for others and total self-absorption. In our story the host is so engrossed in his own situation he becomes oblivious to Bar Kamtza’s embarrassment, or worse still, he despises the man so much he knows he is embarrassing him but simply doesn’t care.

In order to halt this trend, we need to become more conscious of the consequences of our actions and of those around us and their feelings. In recent years, with the advancement of technology and the flood of personal electronic devices, our sensitivity and awareness of those around us has become minimal. Real face-to-face communication is limited and thus our sensitivity to other people's reactions or emotions has been severely hindered. We are so engrossed in ourselves with our "I" phones and our "I" pads, we have simply forgotten that other people are around. People walk through the streets listening to music with earphones on or speaking on their mobile phones totally oblivious of the rest of the world. Western society has become increasingly selfish, making the challenge of correcting the mistakes of the past even more formidable. 

3. The Obligation to Rebuke

It is evident that the final straw for Bar Kamtza was the passivity of those leaders who stood by while all of this was taking place. When something clearly wrong is happening in front of our very eyes and we choose to remain silent we are effectively accomplices to the crime.  

To correct this flaw we have to be ready to stand up and do the right thing. For example if any of us is a witness to a street attack or worse we may not be able to stop it but there are many options available which would reflect our total objection to the act. I hope none of us would consider carrying on as if nothing had happened.

The Rabbis at the party (who interestingly also remain unidentified) may well have been unable to stop the argument between the two men but they surely had the option to leave the party in protest, or intervene in some manner or other. Halacha certainly affords leaders a variety of tools with which to ensure that their communities clearly understand where they stand on any particular issue. For example they could have put the host into ‘cherem’ which would have emphatically diminished his social rights and clearly clarified their stance to the community.[7]

Moreover, the inaction of the leadership indicates weakness at best or corruption at worst. The role of leadership is to lead and not be led. If our leaders "kowtow" to men of wealth and influence, forgoing principle in order to appease them, they cease to be true leaders. And if they are driven by bribery they are no more than common criminals. The Talmud leaves the passivity of the Rabbis unexplained so we cannot know what motivated their silence, but the narrative does not criticize Bar Kamtza’s anger (though he was of course wrong to take revenge) and so I think it is fair to assume that the flaw in leadership was very real.

Has anything changed over the centuries? In our generation too there is a real lack of true leadership. The Western World has been inundated with dynamic and charismatic ‘leaders’ over the last decades but they seem much more interested in pleasing the public than in doing what is right; their statements and political stands emanate from poll studies not fundamental belief . Indeed, one often wonders who is leading who when policies change in direct relation to opinion polls. Leadership has to be molded around truth and ideology. Leaders have to be prepared to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, whenever a leader of such quality surfaces it doesn't take long for them to resign on a matter of principal, leaving us with their opponents who more often than not have removed ideology from their lexicon.

4. The Humility of Zecharia Ben Avkulas

By deciding in favor of Rabbi Zecharia Ben Avkulas, the leadership demonstrates an apparent lack of initiative and long-term perspective. It could be argued that no condemnation of Zecharia Ben Avkulas is intended in the Gemara – it is merely a statement of fact. However, one could equally argue that the underlying tone is critical of his inability to comprehend the severity of the predicament and act accordingly.

Together with his colleagues (after all, they ultimately follow his advice) he appears unable to apply Halacha to extenuating circumstances. Of course, one cannot simply change the "game-rules" because a situation is uncomfortable but here his argument was essentially one of ‘marit aiyin’ (people seeing things and wrongly deducing that what is prohibited is actually permitted) with seemingly no appreciation of the grave danger looming over the entire Jewish people.

In such instances, religious leadership has to take the initiative to avoid large scale disaster. The role of religious Jewry is to lead the way for Am Yisrael by dynamic application of the Halacha. If we fail to do so, the vacuum will be filled by others who have different objectives. Responsibility and broad shoulders are the order of the day and to realize that objective we need a combination of vast Torah knowledge and an incisive perception of our developing reality. Both are essential, for if either is lacking disaster will ensue. Religious leadership should in no way compromise on fundamental halacha, but our leaders do need to be aware of the reality that is developing around them, and work creatively and positively within the parameters of halacha when confronting common difficulties in society.

I write to you on the 7th day of Menachem Av from my office in the Old City of Jerusalem. When I arrived at work three hours ago, I saw no immediate signs of impending redemption, though of course redemption can occur at the blink of an eye. We have had another difficult year, and though we never forget the miracles that we have merited in seeing a return to Zion and Jerusalem, we are regularly reminded that we are still not at the final redemption.

If we are to finally put an end to this self-inflicted exile of two millennia, we must replace needless hate with genuine love once and for all. We must become sensitive and tolerant of our brothers and sisters, proactive and outspoken when there are problems in our society and – as God’s ambassadors in this world – we must take the initiative and stringently apply and adapt Halacha while never losing sight of our global perspective.

If we can do all of this then surely Tisha B’Av will become the happiest day in our calendar! Let this be our last Tisha B’Av fast (it is not a matter of hope, it is in our hands, and always has been – Har HaBayit BeYadeinu!), let us place our kinot in geniza after the fast with the hope and prayer that next year we will be opening our new machzorim for a chag. Bezrat Hashem next year we will all be together here in Yerushalayim!

David Milston

Jerusalem – Menachem Av 5776


ביאור הלכה סימן תקנג

סעיף ב

* ולכן אם חל בשבת א"א פרקי אבות - עיין במ"ב וז"ל המאמר מרדכי הוראה זו תמוה היא וכבר ראיתי לקצת מן האחרונים דצווחו עלה אמנם הרב מ"א קיים דברי הרמ"א ז"ל וכו' והאריך בזה ולבסוף סיים ואיך שיהיה נלענ"ד דאין לחוש לזה לפי שאין לנו טעם נכון לאסור הלימוד בשבת כלל ומש"כ הרב מ"א להחמיר מטעם דיכול ללמוד דברים המותרים בט"ב אומר אני שאין זה מספיק לפי שאין אדם לומד אלא מה שלבו חפץ ועינינו הרואות דכמה ת"ח מתרשלים בלימוד המותר ביום ט"ב עצמו משום דצער הוא להם ללמוד במה שאינם רגילין וגם אני בעוה"ר כאחד מהם ולכן איני חושש לסברא זו ודעתי נוטה להתיר אפילו בחול עד סמוך לביה"ש ואי לאו דמיסתפינא מחברייא הו"א דאפילו ביום ט"ב עצמו היה לנו להקל דבעוה"ר נתקלקלו הדורות וביום ט"ב מטיילין בשווקים ומשיחין שיחת חולין ואפילו היודעים ספר וקצת הלומדים מקילין בזה ופשיטא דבאופן זה טפי הוי עדיף להו ללמוד וכיוצא בדבר מצינו בירושלמי א"ר אבא בר ממל אלו היה מי שיתמנה עמי הייתי מתיר מלאכה בחוה"מ כלום אסרו אלא כדי שיהא אוכלין ושותין ושמחין ועוסקין בתורה וכדון אינון אוכלין ושותין ופוחזין ע"כ ואף אנו נאמר כלום אסרו הלמוד אלא כדי שיהיו יושבין בעניני צער ואבילות ומתוך כך זוכרין ודואגין על חורבן הבית והנה מטיילין ומשיחין שיחת חולין ומסיחין דעתן מן האבלות ומתוך כך באים לידי שחוק והיתול אלא דמאחר שאיסור ברור הוא בש"ס ופוסקים פשיטא דאין לנו כח להקל ושומר נפשו ירחיק עצמו משחוק והיתול וטיול והשם יכפר בעד השוגגים אמנם בעט"ב יש להקל כיון שלא הוזכר בש"ס ופוסקים וכן אני נוהג אף בחול וסמיכנא בהא על מהרש"ל ז"ל ומ"מ מי שמרגיש בעצמו שיוכל לדחוק וללמוד דברים המותרים ולא ימעט מפני זה בלימודו קדוש יאמר לו ואחר כונת הלב הן הדברים עכ"ל:


[1] I would nonetheless refer you to the מאמר מרדכי as quoted by the ביאור הלכה at the end of our sicha, who is clearly frustrated at the alternatives that people choose due to the limitations on learning. With that in mind, even though the author does not subscribe to changing the halacha regarding Tisha BeAv itself, he is extremely lenient regarding erev Tisha BeAv especially when it falls on Shabbat – as it does this year.

[2] In Gittin 55b-58a, Sanhedrin 104 and in Josephus.

[3] See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 554:1-2 and also Mishna Berurah Se’if Katan 2-4.

[4] 55b-56a.

[5] See also Josephus, Wars, II, 17, 2, in which he ascribes the beginning of the war with the Romans to the refusal of the Jews to accept the offering of the Emperor in 66 C.E.

[6] In Bava Metzia 58b – embarrassing a person in public is compared to murder whereas in Sanhedrin 107a we are told such a person has no portion in the World to Come.

[7] Cherem is the term for excommunication as employed by the Rabbis during Talmudic times and the Middle Ages. Its aim was to preserve Jewish solidarity. The Rabbis gradually developed a system of laws through which this power was limited and it became just one of the modes of legal punishment available to rabbinic courts. While it did not entirely lose its arbitrary character, it chiefly became a legal measure employed by judicial courts for certain prescribed offenses.


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