Why Was the Temple Destroyed?

Image: Banquet scene from the first century CE. At such a dinner party the host might have had his fateful disagreement with Bar Kamtza. (Photo by Ian Scott, some rights reserved.)

A famous story about the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE:

A wealthy resident of Jerusalem gave a party. He told his servant to deliver an invitation to Kamtza. The servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to Bar Kamtza, whom the master disliked.

The master saw Bar Kamtza at the feast. He went up to Bar Kamtza and said, “You are not my friend! Scram!” Bar Kamtza said, “Look, I’m already here. I’ll pay you for what I eat and drink, but don’t embarrass me by throwing me out.”

The master said, “No. Get out!” Bar Kamtza replied, “I will pay for half the feast, if you will just allow me to stay.” The host seized Bar Kamtza by the hand and dragged him out the door.

Bar Kamtza was humiliated and angry. He had seen several of the Sages at the feast, and none of them defended him or expressed any sympathy. He vowed revenge upon them. He decided to tell the Roman authorities that they were plotting a revolt.

He went to the ruler and said, “The Sages are getting ready to revolt against you, sir.” The ruler was cautious and hoped to smooth things over. He sent Bar Kamtza back to the Sages with a three-year-old calf for a sacrifice. Bar Kamtza took the calf aside and gave it a blemish, a tiny wound, so that it would be unfit for sacrifice.

The Sages debated whether to go ahead and sacrifice the calf, to get along with the Romans. However, Rabbi Zachariah said, if you do that, everyone will think it is OK to bring blemished animals for sacrifice! Then the Sages said, we should execute Bar Kamtza then, so that he will not go and slander us to Caesar! But Rabbi Zachariah said, if you do that, everyone will think that blemishing animals is a capital crime! So they did nothing, and Bar Kamtza reported to the Romans that the Sages rejected their gift to insult them.

The Romans believed the slander of Bar Kamtza, and the Romans sent armies to surround Jerusalem. The story concludes:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The humility of Rabbi Zachariah ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land! – Gittin 56a

Thus the internal squabbling among the Jews – sinat chinam, baseless hatred – was what actually caused the destruction of the Temple.

  • Identify all the various people who were indulging in pointless strife, that is, arguments that were not for the sake of heaven.
  • Rabbi Yochanan blames Rabbi Zachariah. Why?
  • Bar Kamtza wants revenge on the Sages. What had they done to him? Was it bad enough to merit reporting them to the Romans as rebels?
  • What do you think of the original disagreement between the host and Bar Kamtza? Should the host have allowed him to stay? Was Bar Kamtza wrong to try to bargain with him?
  • All this started with a mistake by a servant. At what point could someone have kept it from turning into a disaster?

Yoma 9b also makes a comment on the story, although it does not retell it:

Why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b.

What lessons, if any, do you think we moderns could learn from this story?

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