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Clarifying Five Points About The Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Incident

The Gemara’s stories are very terse, but extremely rich. Each time we delve into them, we can uncover more and more insights and teachings from these very important incidents. Let us focus on five frequently asked questions about the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza incident (Gittin 55b).


Question Number One: Anxiety Versus Constructive Fear

The Gemara introduces the story by citing a pasuk from Mishlei (28:14), which teaches us, “Ashrei adam mephacheid tamid — happy is the one who constantly worries.” Rashi on the Gemara explains that this pasuk is teaching us that one must consider the potential long-term problems that his actions could create.

Many ask about this pasuk and the Gemara. We know that anxiety is the cause of many mental illnesses. So why does the Tanach and Chazal encourage fear?! Moreover, Tehillim (55:23) teaches, “Hashleich el Hashem yahovecha v’hu yechakilecha — cast your worries to Hashem, and He will support you.” Tehillim teaches us not to worry, and yet Mishlei urges us to worry!

To answer, we must distinguish between constructive and destructive anxiety. Productive anxiety motivates us to take proper precautions, unlike harmful stress that immobilizes us and serves no positive purpose.

The difference lies between situations we control and those we do not. We should, for example, have a healthy fear and respect for operating a motor vehicle which should motivate us to exercise caution. But, on the other hand, regarding matters beyond our control, we should place our trust in Hashem and conquer our anxieties.

In the case of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, at each stage, people acted recklessly without considering the disaster that could (and did) emerge from their actions. Therefore, regarding such behavior, a measure of anxiety can help avert disaster.


Question Number Two: The Assistant’s Mistake

I believe that the assistant of the party host who mistakenly invited Bar Kamtza — instead of Kamtza — was an example of failure to fear. It was a mistake that was easy to make, but could have been avoided with proper care and attention.

A crucial lesson emerges from this when we prepare a party for a major event, such as a wedding. Although a very joyous occasion, a wedding is a time when family members are highly emotional. One must exercise extra care and precaution at such moments, as relatively minor irritations are apt to lead to unhelpful emotional outbursts.

In the case of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the party host might have acted differently under more ordinary circumstances. Therefore, “Ashrei adam mephached tamid,” is in order at times of “emotional high tide.” The attendant’s mistake is a sober reminder of the disaster that can emerge from inattentiveness when planning a major event.


Question Number Three: The Anonymous Host

Why was the host not named? Kamtza and Bar Kamtza were named, so why wasn’t the host? If the omission was due to concern for lashon hara, then why was Bar Kamtza identified? However, one might have answered that without naming Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, we would not have known how the mix-up occurred.

One might have also answered that the anonymity suggests that the baseless hatred expressed in our story was a widespread problem. Therefore, the host was anonymous to be an “everyman” whose poor attitude and behavior reflect a pervasive societal illness.

Binyamin suggested that the Gemara named Bar Kamtza and not the host, due to the huge disparity of blame between them. While the host was not guilt-free, Bar Kamtza owned a much greater share of the responsibility for the Churban. Bar Kamtza blew matters entirely out of proportion, by reporting to the Roman Emperor that we were rebelling. Hence, the Gemara named Bar Kamtza for his wild escalation and globalization of his fight with the host.

Most interestingly, Bar Kamtza viewed the rabbis as representing the entire nation. He was correct — in a certain sense — for if the rabbis’ moral sense is skewed, then there is little hope for the nation’s moral compass to be corrected, absent a catastrophic event.


Question Number Four: Missing Context

Why does the Gemara not mention the reason for the host’s hatred of Bar Kamtza? I suggest that this omission points to it not being worthy of being mentioned. The omission highlights the unworthiness of the hatred. It is a tragic example of sinat chinam, baseless hatred for which the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed (Yoma 9a).The story portrays the intensity of the host’s hatred towards Bar Kamtza. Even when Bar Kamtza hoped to reconcile and offered a great deal of money, this deep hatred flared up ferociously.

However, the intense hatred had emerged from what our Gemara presents as nothing substantial. On the contrary, it was a sad example of a relatively small irritant that was blown totally out of proportion.Binyamin argues that whether the hatred was justified or not is irrelevant. Even if the hate was justified, the host blew it out of proportion and then again, it became completely blown out of proportion by Bar Kamtza. The Gemara does not mention the reason, since there is no “nafka mina — makes no difference,” whether it was justified. While knowing the reason might satisfy our curiosity, it serves no purpose and does not merit a place in the Gemara.


Question Number Five: Did Hashem Force These Events?

Hashem decided it was time for Churban Bayit Sheni. Did those involved in the Kamtza Bar Kamtza incident exercise free will, when they acted in a way that triggered Churban Bayit Sheini?

An answer emerges from a reflection on mechirat Yosef. While the brit bein habetarim (Bereishit, Perek 15) necessitated the sale of Yosef, the brothers exercised free will when they made the poor decision to sell Yosef as a slave.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:15) expresses the paradox of hashgacha pratis (divine intervention) and bechira chofshit (Hashem’s control of events and free will), “Hakol tzafui vereishut netuna — all is foreseen, yet the choice is granted (as to whether or not we will act properly).”

Chazal teaches us (Shabbat 32a), “Megalgelim zechut al yedei zakai, v’megalgelim chov al yedei chayav — Hashem orchestrates good things to be brought about by good people and vice versa.” We do not determine the course of events. Our responsibility is to be a zakai, a worthy individual through whom Hashem will bring about happy events.

Sadly, the protagonists in the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza episode chose to be the “chayavim,” through whose actions Hashem brought about the decree of Churban Bayit Sheni. Binyamin suggests that the host’s and Bar Kamtza’s poor choices stemmed from their free will and were the “final straw” that triggered the Churban. Once we deserved destruction, Hashem influenced the Romans to attack us.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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