5761 - #38


T.B. Gittin 55b, 56a presents the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza as the precursor to the destruction of the Second Temple.1 Within the story, the issue arises whether to sacrifice the Emperors animal even though it had a blemish which normally would render an animal unfit for sacrifice. As the story relates, this blemish - a cut on the animals upper lip - was actually inflicted upon the animal in the hope of fostering hostility between Rome and the Jewish people. The Rabbis were contemplating the allowance of this sacrifice in consideration of the potential loss of life if Rome was angered. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolus interjected that nonetheless the sacrifice should be rejected lest people will say that a blemished animal can be sacrificed on the alter. The animal was not sacrificed and the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, concludes that because of the humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolus our House was destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.2

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:101 considers the use of the word humility in describing the view of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolus. Why would Rabbi Zechariahs position reflect humility? Indeed the Soncino Translation of this text chooses the word scrupulousness, rather than the word humility, in defining Rabbi Zechariahs view.3 In

response, Rav Moshe quotes Maharitz Chayot, Gittin 56a who explains that Rabbi Zechariah was concerned that he was not qualified to render a decision of this magnitude. Clearly, in a situation of great need, especially to protect the nation from a conqueror like Rome, it would be permitted, in order to avoid bloodshed, to violate the law and sacrifice a blemished animal. There is the need, however, for one to assume the responsibility, evaluate the facts and render the appropriate decision. Of course, not everyone is able to render such decisions in Jewish Law; it is a matter for only those with great knowledge of Halacha. Yet, one must also not shy away from such decisions when the matter is pressing and necessary. Rabbi Zechariah was too humble; he felt himself unqualified to render a decision that the specific situation called for the sacrifice of this animal. His humility in this situation was inappropriate.

This conclusion is most interesting especially when one considers the famous statement of T.B. Yoma 9b that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinum, purposeless hatred.4 Humility, one would think, is the solution to hatred. One only hates if one has an ego, if one thinks highly of oneself and thereby feels competent to judge and condemn another. If one is humble and lacks an ego, it would seem that hatred towards another would be much more difficult to develop. It is thus surprising that, in the context of the Second Temple, humility is also challenged.

Psychologically, one could argue that hatred may also be the result of pathologically poor self-esteem which manifests itself in the character of humility but does not represent true humility. It is thus possible for one who seems to be humble to demonstrate hatred for another. It is difficult, though, to contend that the Talmud is declaring that Rabbi Zechariah was demonstrating a false humility. The Talmud is attacking the manifestation of humility itself when inappropriate. Essentially the Talmud is demanding a healthy ego and that one know oneself. In this regard one must know ones capabilities and, when necessary, must accept the responsibility that comes with exceptional capabilities. To deny ones capabilities is not correct humility but foolish and irresponsible. In the same vein, one must also know ones weaknesses.

We often think of morality in terms of inequality. We demand of ourselves that we be givers rather than takers. We argue for selflessness and thus for consideration of the other even at our own expense. We project the correctness of respect of those in a higher position. All these manifestations of morality are built upon a structure of inequality. We declare that it is moral to reduce our stature in the presence of the other. In the same way, we argue against hatred of the other for hatred is a projection of oneself above the other. If we call, under the banner of morality, for the reduction of self in the presence of the other, we invariably challenge the presence of hatred.

The lesson of Rabbi Zechariah lies in the importance of the model of equality in the development of morality. The healthy ego reflects a healthy recognition of self - both ones strengths and ones weaknesses. It also recognizes the essential ego of the other - with its strengths and weaknesses. It is when we see each other equally as human beings that we are able to build the strongest bonds of community. It is also with this recognition that we can develop a proper perspective of others, without purposeless hatred. Seeing myself should mean seeing the other.5 It is correctly seeing my ego - my being, my strengths and my weaknesses - that leads to correctly recognizing the ego of the other and removing the destructive force of hatred.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 The story recounts how an individual, by mistake, received an invitation to a party hosted by one who was in fact an enemy of this individual. Thinking that he was truly invited, this individual attended only to be confronted by the host who demanded that this individual leave. This individual begged, to no avail, to be allowed to remain, even offering to pay a substantial amount of the cost of the party, rather than be embarrassed by being forced to leave. After being thrown out, in that the Rabbis in attendance also did not intervene on his behalf, this individual sought revenge not only against the host but against the entire Jewish community. He developed a plot whereby he initiated, in the ear of the Roman Emperor, the rumbling that the Jews were intent on rebelling and that this will be indicated by a refusal to accept a sacrifice from the Emperor in the Beit HaMikdash. This individual then preceded to cut the upper lip of the Emperors sacrificial animal thereby rendering it unfit for sacrifice in the Temple. The subsequent rejection of the Emperors animal for sacrifice led to a breakdown in Roman-Jewish relations and the resultant rebellion with its tragic conclusion.

2 Translation from the Soncino Talmud.

3 Although it footnotes that the literal translation of the word used in the text is humility.

4 The definition of sinat chinum as purposeless hatred, rather than baseless hatred, was developed in my Defining Sinat Chinum, Parts 1 and 2, Nishma Insight 5757 - 22,23.

5 See, further, Maharsha, T.B. Shabbat 31a who applies this concept to the definition of vahavta lreiacha kamocha, love your neighbour as yourself.

Return to top