Kamtza and Bar Kamtza in the Age of Cancel Culture

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David Hellman


In the weeks and days leading up to Tishah Be-Av, we have become accustomed to hearing about the concept of sinat hinam and how our Sages taught that it was such “baseless hatred” within the Jewish people that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.[1] Presented as the quintessential example of this communal plague is the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, in which a wealthy host publicly embarrassed his enemy who mistakenly came to his party, seemingly for no reason at all, thus setting in motion a chain of events leading to Rome’s devastation of Jerusalem. Messages that promote interpersonal harmony and unity are of course always welcome, but, too often, these Nine Days discussions inappropriately boil down the complexity of human conflict into the catchall phrase “sinat hinam,” and the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is used as the medium to exhort us to just “be nicer.” In reality, what divides too many of us is not a generic sinat hinam. While sometimes personal fights are based on petty reasons, other times there are profound issues of principle at play. Emotions of jealousy and competition are rooted deep within the psyche and complex family and social dynamics can lead to division as well.

Our Sages, in their mastery of the Torah and profound human insight, were well aware of this. This essay, through a close reading of the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, contends that the tale is not just about petty spite, but that it recognizes the complexities of hatred and the real political and social dimensions that might engender it. Learning the lesson of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is thus about more than simply avoiding the jealousies that arise in daily life. It is not enough just to tell everyone to be nicer. To truly rid ourselves of the destructive forces that spawn hate requires us to engage deeper and more complex issues as individuals and communities. And even when we take principled stands on matters of supreme importance, it is essential that we do not lose sight of other people’s humanity.

We begin with the story. The Talmud (Gittin 55b) relates:

The destruction of Jerusalem came about through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza in this way. A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found him there he said, “See, you are mocking me; what are you doing here? Get out.” Said the other, “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” He said, “No.” “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” “No,” said the other. “Then let me pay for the whole party.” He still said, “No,” and he took him by the hand and put him out.[2]

The anonymous host and Bar Kamtza were enemies, and neither was willing to compromise. Yet the host’s escalation of the situation is somewhat puzzling. After the mistake of his servant, the host will under no circumstance allow Bar Kamtza to stay, even after Bar Kamtza agrees to pay for the entire party! For a substantial sum of money, would he not let Bar Kamtza sit at a small table on the side of the room? While hatred can enrage a person and make one act irrationally, even to the extreme and even at one’s own expense, one wonders whether there is something more that might explain the host’s unreasonableness here. Yet while it might be hard to understand the actions of the host, what Bar Kamtza does next to escalate the conflict is even more inexplicable, and it, I believe, provides the key to unlocking the story.

The Talmud continues:

Said [Bar Kamtza], “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government.” He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” He said, “How can I tell?” He said to him: “Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it.” So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say, on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah ben Abkulas to them, “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah ben Abkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?” R. Yohanan thereupon remarked: “Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah ben Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

Embarrassed by the host and the silence of the Sages present, Bar Kamtza decides to get his revenge. He goes to the Emperor (or presumably to the local Roman authority) and informs him that the Jews are rebelling and will no longer accept Roman offerings. It seems quite a jump: from being embarrassed at a party to calling in the Romans! Furthermore, wouldn’t this only result in new Roman edicts or persecutions against the Jewish community that would affect Bar Kamtza and his family as much as the host and the Sages? Additionally, we must wonder if just anyone was able to approach high level Roman officials and bring such accusations. In fact, the Roman official initially doesn’t believe him and asks for proof. But to test the report, the Romans send an animal with Bar Kamtza to be offered. Again, if Bar Kamtza was a random Jew, would he be appointed to be the official emissary of a Roman governor to offer his sacrifice?

These details in the Talmud’s telling indicate that Bar Kamtza had access to high level Roman officials and was trusted by them. It would seem reasonable to surmise that Bar Kamtza was a wealthy, prominent citizen of Jerusalem and belonged to the faction who wanted to cooperate with the Romans. Indeed, historians have suggested that the names Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are related to an individual named Compsus son of Compsus, whom Josephus records (Life 9) was a prominent leader who pushed for the Jewish community to profess allegiance to Rome.[3] Historians have also pointed out that Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas in the Talmud’s account is very likely Rabbi Zechariah son of Amphikallus, who was a leading zealot who wished to rebel against Rome, as recorded by Josephus (War of the Jews 4:4:1).[4] Thus, the existential issue of Jerusalem’s relationship to Rome—whether to fully accept its authority, to wage outright rebellion, or to find some kind of compromised coexistence—lurks in the background of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story.

With this insight, many of the details of the narrative become clearer and invested with greater consequence. The host did not hate Bar Kamtza because of an earlier slight or for some other personal reason. The host belonged to the faction in Jerusalem that was anti-Roman, as were the sages that he invited to his party. This group sought ways to limit Rome’s power and influence on the Jewish community, and some of them even wished to rebel. Bar Kamtza, though, was a leader of the group that wanted to cooperate with and more fully identify with the Romans. This great conflict was tearing apart Jerusalem from within, with nothing less than the future of the Jewish people at stake in these disagreements. Understandably, these debates were fierce and each side thought that the other was leading the nation into catastrophe. When the host saw Bar Kamtza at his party he became enraged. In his view, Bar Kamtza was nothing less than the enemy of the Jewish people, and he was persona non grata in the host’s circle. No amount of money would have calmed him down; for the host, it was a matter of principle.

Perhaps the Sages agreed with the host’s decision. Or perhaps they knew it was wrong to treat Bar Kamtza in such a way but did not want to speak up. The Talmud leaves this ambiguous, and either way, Bar Kamtza was humiliated and the damage was done. Bar Kamtza, pleading to stay, seems not to have understood why he was being treated as such an outcast. He knew that he had a different opinion about Rome, but that was politics. Was he not still a citizen of Jerusalem, a neighbor and acquaintance of all those present? The coldness and cruelty of it enraged him, and he immediately devised a plan for revenge. Now his plan makes perfect sense. If they hated him because of his opinions about Rome, he would show them they were the ones making a mistake. He would use his Roman connections to remove the anonymous host, the rabbis, and the entire anti-Roman faction of Jerusalem from their positions of power with the expectation that the local authorities would protect and elevate him and the other pro-Roman Jerusalemites. However, as the Talmud tells it, his plan did not only bring about a change of leadership and power within Jerusalem, but also led to its complete destruction and subjugation.

Once we understand that Jewish-Roman relations were at the root of the hostility between the anonymous host and Bar Kamtza, it not only changes our understanding of the events and people in the story, but also impacts the lessons that we are to take from it. Of course, we must reflect and work on our own character to get over petty jealousies and overcome issues of personal competition (though that is hard enough). However, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza engages with an even greater and more complex challenge: to not allow legitimate disagreements over issues of principle—even ones of incredible consequence—to turn into conflicts filled by and fueled with hatred for the human beings on the other side of the debate. The Talmud does not critique the anonymous host for declining to invite Bar Kamtza to the party or for having a legitimate and principled disagreement with him. The tragic sin of the host was that he saw Bar Kamtza’s views as not only wrong and dangerous, but that he saw Bar Kamtza the person as contemptible, intolerable, even a monster. In the language of today, among the company at the party, Bar Kamtza had been cancelled. He was so beyond the pale that he was not even allowed to appear in the presence of the host and his guests. He was not one of them.

This is not to say that Bar Kamtza’s pro-Roman attitude and actions were viewed favorably by the Sages. According to the Talmud’s story, the Rabbis went so far as to suggest that Bar Kamtza should have been killed for endangering the Jewish people and the Temple. Indeed, R. Yohanan’s closing remark indicts Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas for convincing the Sages otherwise. Nevertheless, the Talmud also makes it clear that earlier, the host should have found some way to make room for Bar Kamtza at his party. It was a moment and setting where the great debates of the day could have been left at the door. The host, who thought he was protecting Jerusalem by making a point of kicking Bar Kamtza out, was actually setting in motion the events that led to Jerusalem’s destruction.

It is disheartening that large divisions have developed both within the Orthodox community and the greater Jewish community, and that those divisions seem to have increased in recent years. Many of these disagreements are related to issues of great import. Debates over American politics, Israeli politics, and the boundaries of Orthodoxy are, to some extent, all issues fundamental to the future of the Jewish people. Partisanship has divided us, like it has the rest of society. The most important issues of our day must be debated vigorously, and there are times when principles must take precedence over compromise and one cannot misrepresent what one believes to be true. However, the lesson of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story, according to this reading, is that we cannot let those arguments prevent us from seeing the basic humanity of those that disagree with us. When we see those we disagree with in situations that do not relate to the areas of disagreement, such as at a party—as in Bar Kamtza’s case—or if we see them at shul or on the street, we must be able to coexist with them, to be able to talk to them, and not turn them into “the other” with unnecessary and “baseless hatred.”

Perhaps this explains the similarity of the names Kamtza, the host’s friend and ally, and Bar Kamtza, the host’s rival and enemy. The resemblance implies that there was something common to them, that in some ways they were the same. The host saw them as opposites, one good and one evil, and could not imagine equating them in any way; however, the host’s servant, who was not as engaged with the politics of the day, did not see much difference between them and confused them. The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza teaches that when we not only disagree with the opinions of others, but actually negate and cancel their humanity, we are on a path that leads to destruction. The names Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which are so similar, remind us that even when we are on opposite sides of an issue, there is still so much that we share. We are bound together, and with the right perspective we can even see something of ourselves in the other.

[1] Yoma 9b.

[2] Translation is based on the Soncino Talmud with some adaptations.

[3] See Paul Mandel, “The Loss of Center: Changing Attitudes towards the Temple in Aggadic Literature,” Harvard Theological Review 99:1 (2006), 27.

[4] Mandel, ibid.

David Hellman serves as the rabbi of Young Israel of Brookline and is the current president of the Rabbinical Council of New England. He can be reached at