In Memorium: Rav Amital’s Insight into the Kamtza-Bar Kamtza Story by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The Torah world lost one of its great personalities this past Tammuz/July with the passing of Rav Yehuda Amital, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Much has been written and said about the many facets of Rav Amital’s Torah scholarship and personality, and much more can be presented. We shall present some of his insights into the Kamtza-Bar Kamtza incident as a means of providing insight into some of Rav Amital’s projects and Hashkafot (Torah perspective) as well as presenting an opportunity for communal improvement during the post-Yamim Noraim season. 

 The Kamtza-Bar Kamtza Incident 

The Gemara (Gittin 55b) relates: “Rabi Yochanan said: What does it mean, 'Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune' (Mishlei 28:14)? Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.” Rav Amital was fond of quoting Rashi’s explanation of the cited verse from Tehillim – “[This refers to a person] who is concerned enough to anticipate what might occur, to check if a calamity might happen if I do such-and-such." Rav Amital explains that one must always take into account the ramifications of his actions. Even when a certain response might seem appropriate now, one needs to look a few steps ahead. Fortunate is the person capable of foreseeing how events might unfold.

The Kamtza-Bar Kamtza story is well known:

There was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,” but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead. The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, “Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!'” Bar-Kamtza said, “Since I'm here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.” The host responded, “No!" Bar Kamtza responded, “I will pay for half the cost of the feast.” “No!” was the host’s reply. Bar Kamtza desperately offered, “I will pay the entire cost of the feast!” “No!” was the final reply, and he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out. Bar-Kamtza thought, “Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I'll go now, and have a little feast-of-slander with the king.” Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, “The Jews have rebelled against you!” The Caesar responded, “Who said so?” Bar-Kamtza said, “Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.” The Caesar sent (with Bar-Kamtza) a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar-Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal. Some say that it was a blemish on the upper lip; others say that it was a blemish in the eye; in any case, a place where for us it is a disqualifying blemish while for the Romans, it is not.

 Rav Amital’s Insight

Rav Amital poses a very basic question about the initial statement in the Gemara “…Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.” It is understandable that Bar Kamtza contributed to the destruction of the Temple, since he was the one who convinced the Roman emperor that the Jews were rebelling. However, why does the Gemara place blame on Kamtza? He was not even present at the party!

Rav Amital answers by noting that the Gemara states that Kamtza's friend "made a party." This wasn't a wedding or some other festivity of religious significance; it was a party for an enclosed, self-contained clique, characteristic of a splintered society. This group, to which Kamtza belonged and from which Bar Kamtza was publicly rejected, resembles an "Egrof Kamutz" (hence the name Kamtza) - a closed fist, which safely protects everyone within, but which is impossible to penetrate or to gain entry into. Indeed, this was the sin of Kamtza - his very membership in such an exclusive clique.

Rav Amital points out that a splintered society represents the antithesis of Yerushalayim’s message. Tehillim (122) states "Jerusalem built up... to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of God, as was enjoined upon Israel." Yerushalayim, being the only place we are permitted to offer Korbanot, serves to unify the Jewish People. Indeed, for this reason the wicked Kings of the breakaway Northern Kingdom, Yeravam Ben Nevat and his wicked successors, forbade their subjects from visiting Yerushalayim. Jerusalem serves to unify the Jewish People, which in turn would undermine the separatist policies of the northern kings of Sefer Melachim.

Rav Amital cites the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:45) who wonders why Seifer Devarim does not identify the city in which the Beit HaMikdash will be located but instead refers to it repeatedly as “the place Hashem will choose.” One of Rambam’s answers is that had Hashem revealed the location of the Beit HaMikdash in advance, the Jewish People would fight regarding whose Sheveit would contain the holy city. We would not be entitled to Yerushalayim had we fought over it. Indeed, the second part of the name of Yerushalayim is peace. Thus, if Yerushalayim is splintered into factions, it is not fulfilling its mandate and deserves (heaven forfend) to be destroyed.

Indeed, Rav Amital would fondly reminisce on Yom Yerushalayim about the state of Jerusalem in the days immediately before the Six Day War. He mentioned that there was a National Unity Government. People were helping each other, and there was virtually no crime. By contrast, others observe that during the 1948 War of Independence such unity was lacking as the Jewish People were divided into factions such as Haganah, Palmach, Irgun and Lechi and thus did not merit the control of the heart of Yerushalayim, the Old City.

 Rav Amital’s Personal and National Activities

Rav Amital very much lived in harmony with this message both on a personal and communal level. On a national level, Rav Amital was deeply distressed by the secular-religious divide in Medinat Yisrael. He looked a few steps ahead and perceived this as an existential threat to the State of Israel. In my opinion, this consideration, more than any other, animated his political activities such as the founding of Meimad and serving as a minister in the government of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin in 1995.

Rav Amital’s political activism and outreach was not for naught. This was clarified when I met an Israeli relative for the first time. The very first thing she said to me was, “We in the secular community very much appreciate and value Rav Amital’s efforts to reach out and lessen the gaps between religious and secular Jews in Israel.”

On a personal level, Rav Amital was a man of great modesty who related to everyone with kindness and friendliness. When I had the opportunity of escorting Rav Amital to the airport on a few of his visits to New York, I saw how he related with without any pretensions to every individual from the ordinary Jew to VIP’s such as Ehud Barak. I fondly recall my introducing to Rav Amital a neighbor of mine and the two enjoying a friendly schmooze in Yiddish.

 Reflections about our Current Situation

Unfortunately, Jews today are to some extent a splintered society, somewhat reminiscent of the situation described in the Kamtza-Bar Kamtza incident. Rav Shmuel Goldin (Unlocking the Torah Text VaYikra p.134) observes:

Fragmented for years, we have become a people increasingly divided against ourselves as the fault lines between us, both in Israel and the Diaspora, grow into seemingly unbridgeable chasms. Charedi, Zionist, Secular, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Settlers, Peace Activists – we continue to retreat into homogenous groups, seeking the safety of those who share our ideas and our own life outlook. And the groupings grow even narrower… Even within the Orthodox community, for example, do Charedi and Religious Zionist Jews feel kinship with or antipathy towards each other as they pass on the street? Do Modern Orthodox Jews and Satmar Chasidim truly see themselves as part of the same people, with the same dreams?

This is a very dangerous situation, since when the Hamans of the world sense that we are a “separated and scattered nation,” they seize the opportunity to oppress us. In Sefer Shemuel, Amon (chapter 11) and Plishtim (chapters 23 and 28) attack when they detect dissension amongst our people.

A Modest Proposal

There is no simple remedy to this long brewing problem. However, a simple solution might constitute a good start. Pirkei Avot teaches no less than three times about the importance of “receiving everyone with a cheerful face” (1:15), “receive each person cheerfully” (2:16) and “initiate a greeting to every person” (4:20). Let us resolve this post-Yamim Noraim season to honor the teachings of Chazal and extend a warm greeting even to those outside our social group. The remedy to Haman is Mishloach Manot and Matanot LaEvyonim. The remedy to “Kamtza syndrome” is to reach out to those beyond our limited circles. Let us honor Rav Amital’s memory by following his exhortation to look a few steps ahead and take the action necessary to avoid the disaster looming ahead if we do not change our culture.  

The Championship Hockey Glove Dispute – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Who Wrote the Last Eight Pesukim of the Torah? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter