Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: A Fresh Look at a Familiar Story
The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is perhaps the most well known rabbinic text associated with the destruction of the Second Temple. And yet, perhaps it’s our very familiarity with the episode which causes us to gloss over important subtleties embedded in the Talmudic account.
To recap, briefly: There was a man – never identified in the story – who threw a party and intended to invite his good friend Kamtza. His servant, however, erred and mistakenly invited his enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host realized the mistake he immediately and very publicly demanded that Bar Kamtza leave the party. Obviously embarrassed, Bar Kamtza made a series of offers – even, ultimately, offering to pay for the entire party – hoping to persuade the host to allow him to remain. Unmoved, the host callously throws him out of the party. The Gemara recounts that Bar Kamtza was so offended, not only by the host, but also by the silence of the guests – some of whom were great rabbis – that he slandered the Jewish people to the Caesar. One thing leads to another and the result of this sad story is, ultimately, the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Gittin 55b-56a).
The Talmud actually introduces the account by declaring that, “Yerushalayim was destroyed due to [the incident involving] Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.” In light of the actual unfolding of events, the inclusion of Kamtza in this incriminating statement is somewhat surprising. After all, Kamtza was not even at the party; he is no more than a “shadow figure” in this tragedy. What role did he play in this ignominious incident to deserve such apparent criticism?
R. Yosef Chayim of Baghdad (19th century, in his work, Ben Yehoyada) suggests that this is actually a misreading of the introductory phrase. The Talmud does not mean to criticize Kamtza, but rather included his name to teach us the larger lesson of the story.
In the final analysis, the destruction of the Temple was caused by something as minor as the servant confusing the names Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. At the time of the initial mistake we might easily have dismissed it as nothing more than a trivial and inconsequential error that anyone could have committed. So the servant didn’t listen carefully enough, so what? After all, what are the odds of two people with such similar names? And what is the likelihood that the host had such disparate relationships with these two men?
The salient message we must take from this episode is just how important even the “small things” are. We often make the mistake of assuming that major events – such as the churban – are the result of major causes. While that may be true sometimes, the Talmud is sensitizing us to the reality that often it is minor decisions and small mistakes – such as confusing two similarly sounding names – which, in hindsight, actually lead to calamitous results. Especially in the area of interpersonal relationships, it is frequently a small gesture of kindness that makes all the difference just as it can be nothing more than a minor slight which causes the most pain.
An alternate explanation is offered by the famed Maharal of Prague (16th century). He suggests that the pre-party description that there was a “man who was a close friend of Kamtza and an enemy of Bar Kamtza” describes a social reality that was marked by divisiveness and exclusionary relationships. In an atmosphere of enmity, even friendships can be less than wholesome when they serve to further create boundaries and hostility.
In other words, this story didn’t occur in a vacuum; there was a context that led to the fateful outcome. The proverbial waters were already poisoned with hatred and jealousy before the mistaken invitation was ever issued. And Kamtza – through his cliquish friendships – was just as much a part of this problematic context as were the host and Bar Kamtza.
The Maharal’s understanding of this story beautifully – and tragically – corresponds to the Talmud’s (Yoma 9b) well known assertion that the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple was sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews. This shameless episode is just the most famous example of what was, apparently, a widespread breach of achdut Yisrael, unity among Jews.
“Yerushalayim was destroyed due to Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” – in this short declaration we are taught critically important lessons about the circumstances which led to the churban ha-bayit. We are cautioned that it is often the smallest of things which make the biggest of differences. And we are reminded that societal disunity will always be our undoing.
Learning from the mistakes of the past is the best guarantee for the glorious future we all dream of – l’shanah ha-ba’ah b’Yerushalayim!
Appeared in Amit Magazine, Summer 2007.