Why was the Land of Israel destroyed?
A discussion on the legends of the Talmudic destruction, Nittin Tractate 56-58
The destruction of the Second Temple was an event that changed the history of our people both nationally and spiritually-religiously.
Considerations and questions worried the people of the generation of the destruction. Why was the destruction decreed for the Second Temple? Could the destruction be seen as hiding face? (Bavli Yuma, 9) “Why was the first Temple destroyed? Because there were three things there: idol worship, incest and the shedding of blood, but regarding the Second Temple where they focussed on the Torah and the commandments and charity, why was it destroyed? Because there was unjustified hatred, to demonstrate to you unjustified hatred as compared to the three transgressions: idol worshipping, incest and the shedding of blood”.
In the time of the First Temple the prophets warned about the sins of the people and predicted the destruction that would come in their wake, thus the destruction was accepted as something that was anticipated. The Babylonian exile strengthened the faith in the Holy One Blessed Be He and this was a period of spiritual and religious prosperity which also continued for the following generations. It is therefore understandable why it is hard to justify the judgement regarding the destruction of the Second Temple. A feeling of non-acceptance prevailed in the land of Israel after the destruction and the Sages searched for answers to questions that were raised.
In the legends about the destruction we will be able to see the approach of the Sages as regards the destruction. We will see how they attempt to find the motives and the reasons that caused the destruction at the end of the day and thereby answer those who are uncertain about the question about “the justification of the judgement”.
The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is one of the series of stories throughout which various aspects of the destruction are described as described by the Sages.
The story: (translated from Bialik’s Book of Legends):
It happened this way: A certain man had a friend that he loved - Kamsa
And an enemy - Bar Kamsa.
He once made a feast
and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamsa Bar Kamsa.”
The man went and brought Bar Kamsa.
When the man who gave the feast found him sitting there
He said to him: “Look, you hate me; what are you doing here? Get out!”
He said to him:: “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
He said: “No!”
He said to him: “Then let me give you half the cost of the feast.”
He said: No!
“Then let me pay for the whole feast.”
He said to him: No. And took him by the hand and threw him out.
Said Bar Kamsa, “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 king.”
He went and said to the emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
Said the emperor, “Who said that?”
He said: “Send them an offering,and see whether they will offer it on the altar.”
So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip in a place where we consider it a blemish but they do not.
“The sages were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the king. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them: “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.”
They then proposed to kill Bar Kamsa so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
Nero the Caesar rose against the Jews. As he reached Jeruslem he shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem.
Nero said to a certain child: “Repeat to me the verse of scripture you have learnt.”
The child quoted: “And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel”. Nero the Caesar said “The Holy One Blessed Be He desires to destroy his House and to lay the blame on me . . .”
and Rabbi Meir was descended from him.
On the first reading of the story it seems as if the answer to the question as to why Jerusalem was destroyed is simple and clear. Unjustified hatred between two people caused the progression of the events that eventually caused the destruction.
Is this a sufficient answer to such an important and decisive question? Is it possible that the Sages will hang only on this reason the destruction of the Temple, the Land and the exile? If so, why was there a need to continue the story with an internal argument between Rabbi Zechariah and the sages?
Also the issue of Nero seems to us to be strange and bizarre. What is his place in the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa?
We will try to answer the questions with a short analysis of the story. Bar Kamsa is depicted as a moderate man, acting with wisdom and attempting to reach a compromise with the person providing the feast in order not to be disgraced as he was not prepared to compromise and renounce and use violence against him before all the guests.
The insult and the shame turn the moderate Bar Kamsa into a person whose desire for revenge pushes him to do acts without thinking and logic. The fact that the one who hates him banishes him in disgrace – is also a huge disgrace however the silence of the sages drives him mad. He doesn’t anticipate what will cause his revenge.
The Caesar tries to evade the oppression of the rebellion and Bar Kamsa is the one who pushes him to go up to the city. He is prepared even to use an act of cunning by blemishing the sacrifice on condition that his personal desire for revenge will be satisfied.
The confrontation between the sages and Rabbi Zachariah makes the split and the differences in the life perceptions of the various sects of the people clear to us. Rabbi Zachariah was one of the extremists who in his commentaries followed the path of the House of Shammay. The Jewish law is static and is not dependent on changing reality – therefore even if this would be considered as a rebellion no sacrifice should be sacrificed. Indeed, Yosef Ben Mattityahu in his book The War of the Jews 2:17 tells that cancellation of the sacrifice for the wellbeing of the Caesar served as a sign of the rebellion and brought about the war with the Romans in Jerusalem. The sages were in the moderate movement – following the scholars from the House of Hillel – and were prepared to reject the doubt of the blemish – due to saving a life and the risk to life.
The comment by Rabbi Yochanan even if it was written in parentheses was a kind of summary of the entire story. (Rabbi Zachariah’s humility is that which destroyed our Temple, burnt the halls and exiled us from our country).
As the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa unfolds from a simple mistake made by the holder of the feast and until the destruction, thus too Rabbi Zachariah due to his humility – his extreme meticulousness which is uncompromising – prevented the sacrifice of the sacrifice for the wellbeing of the kingdom and this brought about the destruction.
Both in the first story and in the act of Rabbi Zachariah it seems that due to shortness of vision of the people who did not see where their actions could lead Jerusalem was destroyed. This is one of the answers that the Sages are trying to give as to the difficult question – why was Jerusalem destroyed?
What is the place of Nero in the story?
Nero is presented here as a Roman Caesar who is decreed to destroy Jerusalem (if we disregard what we know about the historic Nero – it will easier for us to understand the issue). We have already seen in the story that he was pushed to go to Jerusalem; he tries to postpone the decree. He shoots arrows to all corners of the earth in order to know if he will triumph or not. The arrows all fall on Jerusalem and he understands that he has to carry out the decree.
From the verse that the child gave to us he concludes that the Holy One Blessed Be He wants to interfere from Edom – Rome by the people of Israel and the one who will fulfil the mission of the Holy One Blessed Be He and avenge him, therefore the only way left to him to flee from the mission is to convert and become one of them.
The decree should have been carried out by Nero however he and Vespasian fled and Titus was the one who executed it and therefore we see in the continuation of the destruction legends that the Holy One Blessed Be He is avenged by him.
The Sages try to show here the Roman Caesar as an enlightened leader who has no interest in a war with the Jews but rather it is enforced on him due to foolish acts of several individuals within the Jewish people – who caused the revolt against the Romans.
Unjustified hatred, shortness of vision of the extreme fanatics who survived the revolt – are those who caused the destruction and the Romans were the executors of the judgement.
Here now also, it is possible to speak the words of Isaiah (49:17) “Your destroyers and devastators will depart from you”.
Let it be that we learn from the lesson of the destruction, and we will be able to interpret the verse at face value.