Tisha be-Av: the story of Kamtza and bar-Kamtza

Today, on the Jewish calendar, is the 9th of Av, associated with a long litany of calamities in the history of the Jewish people. The first two were the destructions of the First Temple (in 586 BCE) and the Second Temple (in 70 CE).

There is a story in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) and in the Midrash Rabba (at Lamentations 4:3) about a man named Kamtza and his near-namesake Bar-Kamtza. (The names relate to the Hebrew word kometz, ‘fistful’.) A rich man organizes a feast and invites his friend Kamtza, but through a mix-up, his secretary invites his enemy Bar-Kamtza instead. When the latter shows up at the feast, the host makes a scene, and throws Bar-Kamtza out even when the latter offers to pay for the whole feast, to save face.

Hurt, Bar-Kamtza travels to Rome and has an audience with the Emperor, claiming the Jews were revolting against the Romans and that he would prove it. [Provincia Judea, as the Romans referred to ancient Israel, nominally had a King Agrippa II from the Herodian dynasty, but the real power lay with the Roman Procurator or governor.]

Bar-Kamtza brings three sacrificial animals to the Temple, offering to sacrifice them on behalf of the Emperor. He makes a tiny nick in their lip, a blemish that would not disqualify them for Roman sacrifices but would for the Temple.

The rabbis of the Great Sanhedrin [*] engage in debate. Some offer sacrificing the animals anyway [perhaps with a slight change in the ritual so as to indicate that the sacrifice is made under duress?]. Rabbi Zecharia vetoes the plan, citing fears people will now all bring blemished sacrifices. A plan to execute Bar-Kamtza as a scapegoat is also nixed by Rabbi Zecharia, as this is not the mandated punishment for knowingly bringing a disqualified offering.

Because of the insult to the Roman Emperor, the latter is then convinced there is a rebellion, Roman legions lay siege to Jerusalem, and eventually the Second Temple is destroyed.

Below is a short commentary by R’ Paul Lewin of the North Shore synagogue in Sydney, Australia. As he puts it, the story is an object lesson on thinking through not just the direct result of one’s actions, but also its long-term consequences, both the knowable and the potential unknowable. “Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza” can be translated as “one fist against the other” — unthinkingly, only seeing the current object of their hatred.

In Hebrew this is called sin’at chinam — literally, ‘hate gratuitous’, idiomatically: causeless hatred, pointless hatred. Not a reasoned, firm disagreement based on principles and substance, but what I would call “the original ‘cancel culture'”.

ADDENDUM: there is a story about Napoleon passing a synagogue, hearing loud lamentations inside, and entering out of curiosity.
When he asked what disaster had struck the community, he was told it was Tisha be-Av, and that they were lamenting the destructions of the First and Second Temples [Hebrew: churban beit ha-rishon and churban beit ha-sheini], and the subsequent exile of the Jewish People.

Napoleon is supposed to have answered that a people that would still mourn its loss from eighteen centuries earlier would be sure to return to its homeland one day and see its Temple rebuilt.


Bizarre coincidence, or as Sarah A. Hoyt would say, “G-d needs an editor”?

World War One officially began on 28 July 1914, with Austro-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. Germany entered that war on August 1, 1914, by declaring war on Russia. August 1, 1914 CE was also… Tisha be-Av 5674

Catastrophic as World War One was, it also sowed the seeds for even more destructive regimes, an even bloodier war, and the greatest catastrophe [literal meaning of Shoah] to befall our people.

The difference between a work of fiction (and editor) and history, is that a work of fiction has to be plausible…

[*] the Aramaic term is a corruption of Greek Συνέδριον, synhedrion, “sitting together”, i.e., “assembly”. This had also been the title of Alexander the Great’s supreme council.

One thought on “Tisha be-Av: the story of Kamtza and bar-Kamtza

  1. Napoleon is supposed to have answered that a people that would still mourn its loss from eighteen centuries earlier would be sure to return to its homeland one day and see its Temple rebuilt.

    I don’t have views either way on that fellow, but that is an oooh-rah line.

    Weird mental translation thing:
    Since “bar” means “son of,” I’ve taken to reading “Bar X” as “Mc-X” or “Mac-X.”

    So now it’s “Fist and MacFist,” IE, why you should suck it up and not be an ass when your guy screwed up, let the guy save face.

    I *know* there was probably some complicated political stuff on being invited, but dang. You invited, you suck it up….

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