A Ninth of Av Message to my Subscribers and Friends
Have I ever taken you to Jerusalem’s “Herodian Mansion” ? If so, you might remember the story that I want to share with you again here in honor of Tisha B’Av. That’s the annual day of mourning and fasting now upon us, when Jews recall the destruction of both Temples and other disasters in Jewish history.
As I told you the story, we would have stood together around a heap of ash at this restored, first-century wealthy home. The ash was left by the fire that engulfed the Upper City of Jerusalem a month after the Romans burned the Temple. But read on to see that this time, I end a sad tale on a note of optimism, one that goes to the very heart of our Judeo-Christian tradition.
The story appears in two ancient Jewish sources: Lamentations Rabbah (4:3) and the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gittin 55b-56a). That Talmudic tractate is actually devoted to divorce. And as you know, my historical novel, The Scroll, revolves around a divorce document – a real one – found in the Judean Desert in the 1950s, but issued at Masada before it fell to the Romans. In The Scroll I imagine the fate of a woman who split from her husband in the midst of one of the worst tragedies the Jewish people faced at the time, and of her descendants. One of its main themes is same as the reason the ancient Jewish sages said the Temple was destroyed: “baseless hatred” (Talmud, Tractate Yoma, 9b).
The age-old tale is about two men, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. It’s often quoted to this day as a prime example of baseless hatred.
It goes like this:
There were two men with similar names living in Jerusalem, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. When the story opens we know nothing about them except that Kamza was a friend of a wealthy man (who is not named) in Jerusalem.
Bar Kamza was the wealthy man’s enemy. One day, the ancient tycoon planned a banquet. As was the custom, all his friends everyone got a personally delivered verbal invitation. Kamza was on the list and of course, Bar Kamza was not.
But by mistake, the servant announcing the banquet went to Bar Kamza’s house instead of Kamza’s! Worse still, Bar Kamza actually showed up! The wealthy host was enraged to discover his enemy Bar Kamza at his door, about to crash his party.
“Be gone!” he bellowed to Bar Kamza. But Bar Kamza begged to stay, just to save face. He even offered to pay for the banquet! The wealthy man refused.
Fuming, the humiliated Bar Kamza planned his revenge. He went to the Roman governor and lied that the Jews were eating the sacrifices the Romans had been sending to the Temple, considering them “blemished” and improper for sacrifice, and were substituting “pure” animals for the sacrifice.
At first, the governor did not believe Bar Kamza. And so he devised an entrapment for his fellow Jews: “If you do not believe me, send an officer and some sacrificial animals with me, and you will immediately know that I am not lying.” Bar Kamza accompanied the Roman officer and the animals to Jerusalem and at night, while the officer was asleep, Bar Kamza secretly made all the animals ritually impure.
When the animals reached the Temple, the priest in charge saw that they were blemished and indeed, he substituted others.
After this happened three days in a row, the officer reported to the emperor that Bar Kamza had told him the truth. Burning with anger, the emperor sent his legions to Jerusalem to destroy the Temple.
The Lamentations Rabbah version adds another level: “Rabbi Jose said: “The meekness of Zechariah b. Abkulas burnt the Temple.” By this the sages meant that Rabbi Jose – who was present at the feast and knew the Jewish tradition that humiliating a person was tantamount to murder – could have exerted his moral authority to stop the host from disgracing Bar Kamza. But he chose not to intervene.
But Gittin, the tractate on divorce, uses the story to explain a verse in Proverbs, 28:14: “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” What’s the connection? The late-11th-century Jewish scholar Rashi tells us that the moral of Kamza and Bar Kamza is that being “anxious always” is to be constantly aware of the ultimate outcome of your actions.
As always, I’d like to leave you with a positive thought, one at the very crossroads of our Judeo-Christian tradition. The Jewish folklore expert Esther Shekalim tells us that right on in the afternoon of the mourning and fasting day of the Ninth of Av, in the midst of sorrow, families in the Jewish diaspora of Libya the young men would, of all things, hold donkey races. Why? According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the Messiah is born on the Ninth of Av. Their donkey competitions are said to have honored of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
According to our folklore expert, this old custom comes from an idea modern psychology now supports: That by imagining, symbolizing and acting out a longed-for new reality, we can make hope come true.
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You can find a fuller version of the Kamza Bar Kamza story on my website here.
Rabbi Joshua Berman, Kamza and Bar Kamza, who was at fault?http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/devarim/ber.htmlTdajudaics.com.