(JNi.media) Tisha B’Av (Heb: 9th of the month of Av) is a fast day according to rabbinic law and tradition, commemorating the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE by the Roman army led by General Titus, as well as the sin of the spies in the desert. The 25-hour fast is the culmination of the mourning period of Three weeks that began on the 17th of Tamuz. In case Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, the fast begins Saturday night and goes through Sunday night.
Traditionally, Jews do not study Torah on the 9th of Av, because Torah study is a source of joy, and this day is devoted to mourning. However, we are permitted to learn a few stories, collected, among other places, in tractate Gittin, p. 55b to 56b, which contain much of the Rabbinical record on the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.
THE STORY OF KAMTZA AND BAR KAMTZA
The destruction of Jerusalem, like several other catastrophes, happened because of relatively trivial matters that set in motion a chain of events which finally erupted beyond control.
The Talmudic account begins with two calamities which took place years after the destruction of Jerusalem:
The destruction of Tur Malka (Heb: King’s Mountain, a Jewish town in Judea), during the Bar Kochva rebellion (132-135), happened after the soldiers of a Roman battalion stole some chickens that were intended for a wedding celebration. The locals attacked the Romans and, encouraged by their victory, launched a rebellion that ended with the destruction of their town.
The destruction of Beitar (an important city south-west of Jerusalem), also during the Bar Kochva rebellion, began over cedar trees which the locals would plant when a baby was born, and use them to make chuppa (canopy) polls for the child’s wedding. The axle of the carriage of a Roman aristocrat woman broke down near the city, and her entourage cut down one of the cedars to make a new axle. This angered the locals, who attacked the Romans, starting another rebellion that ended with the Romans annihilating the city and killing thousands of its inhabitants.
Moving back to the destruction of Jerusalem, it came through two men named Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The names mean “locust” and “son of a locust” respectively, hinting at just how minute was the cause of the eventual destruction.
There was a man in Jerusalem who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. The man planned a party and told his servant, Go and invite Kamtza. The servant invited Bar Kamtza instead. When the party host found his enemy there, he ordered Bar Kamtza to get out.
Bar Kamtza said to him, Since I am here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.
The host refused.
Then let me give you half the cost of the party, Bar Kamtza offered, to avoid public humiliation.
No, said the host.
Then let me pay for the whole party, Bar Kamtza begged.
But the host grabbed Bar Kamtza by the hand and threw him out.
The humiliated Bar Kamtza was searing with rage, both because of the way he had been treated, but also because the rabbis of Jerusalem who were guests at the party continued to sit there and did not intervene in his behalf. Bar Kamtza concluded that this meant that the Rabbis agreed with the way he had been treated, and so he decided to exact revenge by informing against then to the Roman government.
Bar Kamtza went to the Roman Emperor, and told him, The Jews are rebelling against you.
The Emperor doubted this, and demanded proof.
Bar Kamtza told him: Send them an offering and see whether they will sacrifice it on the altar in the Temple.
So the Emperor sent with Bar Kamtza a fine, fat calf. On the way to the Temple, Bar Kamtza made a nick in the calf’s upper lip, in a place where the Jews consider it a blemish—disqualifying it as a sacrifice—but the Romans do not.
The Sanhedrin was inclined to sacrifice the blemished calf in order not to offend the Emperor, but at that point an obscure rabbi named Zechariah ben Abkulas intervened with needlessly purist assertions, and since the rabbis could not argue away his concerns, the chain of minor events ended in calamity.
Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas said to the Sanhedrin: People will say that blemished animals are being offered on the altar.
The Sanhedrin, who couldn’t argue against his point, proposed to kill Bar Kamtza, to keep him from informing on them to the Emperor, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas wouldn’t have that either, asking: Since when do we execute a person for the offense of blemishing a sacrificial animal?
Once again, the rabbis could not argue with his point. The Jewish historian Josephus actually ascribes the beginning of the war to the Jews’ refusal to accept the offering of the Emperor in 66 CE.
And Rabbi Yochanan, who lived several centuries later, remarked: Because of the humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas, our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we were exiled from our land.
In fact, a strong theme in this collection of stories is the paralysis of the rabbis, who were unable to stop or even slow down the calamity.
THE SIEGE OF JERUSALEM
The Talmud next brings a fantastic tale to suggest the fate of the city had been sealed: Nero the Caesar 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 the arrow fell in Jerusalem. But Nero refused to be responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Emperor then sent Vespasian (9 – 79 CE), who came and laid siege to Jerusalem for three years.
There were three wealthy men in Jerusalem: Nakdimon ben Gorion, Ben Kalba Savua, and Ben Tzizit Hakesset. One of these wealthy men said, I will keep the people of Jerusalem in wheat and barley. Another said, I will keep them in wine, oil and salt. The third said, I will keep them in wood.
The Talmud relates that these three men could keep the city fed under a siege that lasted twenty-one years.
Then the Thugs (zealots) arrived in the city. The Rabbis said to them: Let us go out and make peace with the Romans. But the Thugs would not let them, and, on the contrary, said, Let us go out and fight the Romans.
The Rabbis said: You will not succeed.
So the Thugs then rose up and burnt the stores of wheat and barley in order to force the people of the city out of their complacency, and a famine ensued.
Some say that it was the fire set by the zealots which ate through the city until it burnt down the Temple.
THE STORY OF MARTHA
Next, the Talmud spends an unusually long paragraph relating the process by which a wealthy woman in Jerusalem is introduced to the realities of the destruction. In a different homily, we’re told of the same wealthy woman, who wanted to go to the Temple, where her husband, the High Priest, presided over the Yom Kippur ritual. We’re told that she left her house barefooted (a tradition of Yom Kippur) and her servants laid down rugs on the pavement for her, so her feet won’t chafe, but they chafed nonetheless—that’s how delicate she was.
Her bare feet are a repeated theme in the next story as well, showing the delicate nature of Jerusalem’s nobility as it confronted the harsh realities of the siege.
Martha the daughter of Beitus was one of the richest women in Jerusalem. She sent her man-servant out saying, Go and bring me some fine flour. But by the time he made it to the market, all the fine flour was sold out. He came and told her, There is no fine flour, but there is white flour. She said to him, Go and bring me some. But by the time he went, he found the white flour sold out. He came and told her, There is no white flour but there is dark flour. She said to him, Go and bring me some. But by the time he went, it was sold out. He returned and said to her, There is no dark flour, but there is barley flour. She said, Go and bring me some. But by the time he went, this was also sold out.
Martha was barefooted, but she said, I will go out and see if I can find anything to eat. When she stepped out of the house, some animal dung stuck to her foot and she died.
There are several speculations as to how stepping on dung would lead to death, from the shock such a mishap could have caused her, to getting infected. But it’s likely that the Talmud editor wanted to stress how a trivial discomfort caused the death of a noblewoman, just as trivial disagreements caused the ruin of the city.
THE STORY OF BEN ZAKKAI AND VESPASIAN
Abba Sikra (Aram: Father of the Sicarii) the leader of the Thugs in Jerusalem, was the son of the sister of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.
Ben Zakkai asked him, “How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation?”
His nephew replied: “What can I do? If I say a word to them, they will kill me.”
Ben Zakkai said: “Devise some plan for me to escape. Perhaps I’ll be able to save something.”
Abba Sikra said: “Pretend to fall ill, and let everyone come to inquire about you. Put something evil smelling by your side so that they will say you are dead. Then tell your disciples to carry your coffin out for burial.”
Ben Zakkai followed those instructions, and Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi carried his coffin.
When they reached the city gate, some Thugs wanted to run a lance through the coffin, so Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “The Romans would say, They have pierced their Master.”
They wanted to give the coffin a push, so Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “The Romans would say, They pushed their Master.”
Finally, the Thugs opened the gate and they got out.
When they reached the Roman camp, Ben Zakkai said, “Peace unto you, Oh King, peace unto you, Oh King.”
Vespasian said: “Your life is forfeit on two counts, one because I am not a king and you call me King, and again, if I am a king, why did you not come to me before?”
Ben Zakkai replied: “As for your saying that you are not a king, in truth you are a king, since if you were not a king, Jerusalem would not be delivered into your hands.”
Then Ben Zakkai said: “As for your question, why, if you are a king, I did not come to you until now, the answer is that the Thugs among us did not let me.”
At this point, a messenger came to Vespasian from Rome saying, “Rise up, for the Emperor is dead, and the elders of Rome have decided to make you the Caesar.”
Vespasian had just finished putting on one boot. When he tried to put on the other, he could not. He tried to take off the first boot but it would not come off. He said: “What is the meaning of this?”
Ben Zakkai said to him: “Do not worry, the good news has caused it, as it says, ‘Good tidings make the bone fat.’” (Prov. 25:30)
Vespasian asked, “What is the remedy for this?”
Ben Zakkai answered, “Let someone whom you dislike pass before you, as it is written, ‘A broken spirit dries up the bones.’” (Prov. 27:22). He did so, and the boots fit.
Vespasian said: “You can make a request of me and I will grant it.”
Ben Zakkai said to him: “Give me Yavneh and its Wise Men” — meaning, let me establish the academy in Yavneh.
Rabbi Yosef, or some say Rabbi Akiva, said he should have said to Vespasian: Let the Jews off this time. But Ben Zakkai thought that he could not be granted this much, and, as a result, even that little would not have been saved.
It is also possible that Ben Zakkai wanted to start a brand new enterprise, free from the corruption and ineptitude of Jerusalem in its last few decades.
THE STORY OF TITUS
Vespasian sent Titus (39 –81 CE), who said, “Where is their God, the rock in whom they trusted?” (Deut. 32:37)
This was the wicked Titus, who blasphemed and insulted Heaven. What did he do? He took a harlot by the hand and entered the Holy of Holies and spread out a Torah scroll and committed a sin on it. He then took a sword and slashed the sanctuary’s curtain (parochet). Miraculously, blood spurted out, and Titus thought that he had slain God.
Titus then took the curtain and shaped it like a basket and brought all the vessels of the Sanctuary and put them in it, and then put them on board a ship to go and triumph with them in Rome.
A gale sprang up at sea which threatened to wreck his ship. He said: “Apparently the power of the God of these people is only over water. When Pharaoh came, He drowned him in water, when Sis’ra came, He drowned him in water. Now He is also trying to drown me in water. If He is really mighty, let Him come up on dry land and fight with me.”
A voice went forth from heaven saying: “Sinner, son of sinner, descendant of Esau the sinner, I have a tiny creature in my world called a gnat. Go up on dry land and make war with it.”
When Titus landed, the gnat came and entered his nose, and it knocked against his brain for seven years. One day as he was passing a blacksmith’s shop, the gnat heard the noise of the hammer and stopped.
Titus said: “I see there is a remedy.”
So every day his servants brought a blacksmith who hammered before him. If the blacksmith was a non-Jew, they paid him four zuzim; if he was a Jew they said, It is enough that you see the suffering of your enemy.
This went on for thirty days, but then the creature got used to the noise.
Rabbi Pinchas ben Aruba said: “I was in company with the notables of Rome, and when Titus died they split open his skull and found there something like a sparrow, two selas (40 grams) in weight.”
Another Rabbi taught: “It looked like a young dove, two pounds in weight.”
Abayeh said: “We have it on record that its beak was of brass and its claws of iron.”
When Titus died he said: “Burn me and scatter my ashes over the seven seas so that the God of the Jews should not find me and bring me to trial.”
The Rabbis’ story of destruction leads poetically from the infraction of a man named locust, all the way to a gnat that punishes the destroyer of the holy Temple. Catastrophes begin with trivial infractions, and grow, fueled by people’s inability to let go of their rage. Incompetence, corruption and excessive piety come at the expense of wisdom and decisiveness.
Finally, the day is saved by one pragmatic Rabbi, who recognizes that he cannot save Jerusalem, but hopes to at least preserve its essence for the sake of future generations.