In Gittin 55b-56a, we read that a fellow named Bar Kamtza was humiliated by a host of a party in public view of all, including the rabbis. Bar Kamtza received an invitation to the party by mistake, but did not know of the mistake, and assumed that the host was ending an old feud. Bar Kamtza suggested numerous compromises to avoid humiliation, but his host accepted none, and threw him out on his ear.

Bar Kamtza then said to himself: “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 then plotted to put the rabbis into a situation where they would have to choose between violating halacha and upsetting the Romans. They chose the latter course, and this, the Gemara says, led to the siege of Jerusalem and its eventual destruction by the Romans.

Question: How do the commentators view the apparent silence of the rabbis during Bar Kamtza's humiliation? Did they actually witness the event? If they did, did they have a duty to intervene and stop the host? Do any commentators take the rabbis to task for their silence? Sorry to ask multiple questions, but I think they are all related and relevant to us today.

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    "Do any commentators take the rabbis to task for their silence?" This is, indeed, how I've understood the story. The rabbis were taken to task by God and Jerusalem was sacked. But I've no source (at the moment) so am not posting this as an answer. +1, anyway. – msh210 May 13 '13 at 17:39
  • @msh210 I appreciate the addition of tags I hadn't thought of, and I know one I suggested has not been introduced yet, but I'd like to see it. I'll take it to Meta. – Bruce James May 13 '13 at 17:43
  • It would be difficult to take them to task had they not witnessed it. I think of this as a shtika k'hoda'ah situation plus a bit of hamalbin et pnei chaveiro plus lo ta'amod al dam er'echa. – rosends May 13 '13 at 17:52
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    Perhaps "the rabbis" should not be viewed as a monolith. The rabbis at the party were silent, but the greatest rabbis of the generation (probably including those whose names are actually recorded in the Talmud) might not even have attended. Consider the b'raisa (Sanhedrin 23a): "כך היו נקיי הדעת שבירושלים עושין ... ולא היו נכנסין בסעודה אלא אם כן יודעין מי מיסב עמהן." Would the greatest sages have therefore attended the party of a wicked person? (Also consider P'sachim 49a, which lambasts Torah scholars who party to excess). – Fred May 13 '13 at 18:13
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    @Fred I would have up-voted your comment three or four times if I could. Yashir koach! – Bruce James May 13 '13 at 18:32

Maharsha writes on that story:

הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מיחו בו: איכא למימר מה שלא מיחו מפני שלא היה בידם למחות אפשר שעשו כן כי החנופה היא שגברה באותו הדור כמ"ש בסוטה גבי אגריפס המלך

One could say that the reason that the rabbis didn't object was because they were not able to object. It's also possible that they did this out of flattery, which was all too common in those times, like we find by King Aggripas.

(translation mine)

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  • What does he mean that "they were not able to object"? Also, I'm not sure what he is saying when he says "they did this out of flattery." How was not objecting to a man's poor treatment "flattery"? – Bruce James Jan 13 '15 at 19:23
  • On your first point, @BruceJames, I'm not sure. That's what he says...I think it could mean that things happened so fast that they weren't able to say anything, or that there was some other factor that prevented them from getting involved, that wasn't their fault. On your second point, I think that the "flattery" mentioned is toward Kamtza, not Bar Kamtza; though I'm not certain, because I don't know what the story with King Aggripas is about. – MTL Jan 13 '15 at 19:44
  • When I translated this, I wasn't sure if the Maharsha intended two answers, or one.....I was hoping someone here would critique my translation. Do you think it would make more sense if it was one big explanation, @BruceJames? – MTL Jan 14 '15 at 16:53

1) The Chasam Sofer (Chidushei Chasam Sofer Gittin 55b) cites an explanation for the Rabbis' conduct (this is an abbreviated version of what he says): They thought the host must have witnessed Bar Kamtza engage in the type of immoral behavior that would make it halachically legitimate to act hatefully towards him. However (he continues), even according to their assumption, they still should have gone beyond the letter of the law and objected.

2) Rabbi Avigdor Miller (Torah Nation chapter 7 section 685-687) suggests that the Sages were correct to not defend Bar Kamtza - for historical documentation shows that Bar Kamtza was already aligned with the Roman enemies of the Jews, and as the Gemara notes in Sanhedrin 23a, the Sages of Jerusalem had standards for who was fit to be at a seudah together with them.

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    This shows they were consistently applying their rules, but does that make them correct? Perhaps they should have made an exception to avoid the Temple burning and thousands of Jews being murdered, raped, and exiled? – Double AA Aug 5 '16 at 1:19
  • @DoubleAA - I believe the Gemara in Gittin is clear that the destruction was still easily avoidable even after he was thrown out, so no they were quite correct not to make an exception. – Jay Aug 5 '16 at 1:33
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    More fundamentally, even though they knew Bar Kamtza wasn't exactly a great guy, they didn't realize just how diabolical he was. – Jay Aug 5 '16 at 4:59
  • @Jay So proper conduct is completely dependent on the type of person you may possibly be screwing over? – Aaron Aug 5 '16 at 6:18
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    @Aaron - I didn't mean it's a proof that they didn't err earlier. I just meant to point out that no one is saying they were incapable of making a mistake - the Gemara itself contradicts that notion. – Jay Aug 5 '16 at 18:22

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