Marta Bat Beitus – A Study in a Classic Failure by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The Tanach in Sefer Melachim and Sefer Yirmiyahu provides us with an in depth description of the failures of the Jews that led to Churban Bayit Rishon (destruction of the First Temple). Chazal (Gittin 55b-58a) describe at length many stories which reflect our failures which led to the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash. In this article we analyze one of these classic stories, the story of a woman named Marta Bat Beitus whose flawed behavior illustrates why we deserved the Churban.

The Background to the Story

When the Roman Emperor was convinced by Bar-Kamtza that the Jews were indeed mounting a rebellion, he sent against Yerushalayim the great general, Nero. As Nero approached, he tried to find out what God, in whom he believed, wanted him to do. He shot an arrow to the east, and it fell in the direction of Yerushalayim. He shot another arrow to the west, and it likewise fell in the direction of Yerushalayim. He shot more arrows north and south, and they all fell pointing in the direction of Yerushalayim. He said to himself, "It must be that God Himself wants me to destroy His holy city."

To confirm whether this was true or not, he asked a young child what verse he had learned in school that day, and the child replied, “VeNatati Et Nikmati BeEdom BeYad Ami Yisrael,” "And I will give over my vengeance against Edom (Rome) into the hands of My nation, Israel" (Yechezkeil 25:14). He understood that Hashem was using Rome as a tool with which to punish His People, Israel, but that in the end, He was still on the side of the Jews, and would take drastic measures against Rome.

He said, "The Holy One, Blessed be He, wishes to destroy His House, and wants to use me to do that job, but He will ultimately punish me for doing that." He dismounted, fled and converted to Judaism, and from him descended the great Tanna, Rabi Meir.

Rome then sent Vespasian who came with a great army and besieged the city for three years. But in the City of Yerushalayim, there were three very wealthy men. Their names were Nakdimon Ben Guri’on, Ben Kalba Savu’a, and Ben Tzitzit HaKesat. They were called those names because the first meant that he was so rich and thus dominated the affairs of the city that it seemed as if "the sun shone for him." The second was called his name because he was so generous that anybody, even a "dog" who entered his house hungry, would come out satisfied. The third was called that because when he walked wearing his Tzitzit they would trail on cushions, because he could afford to always have his way padded by his servants with cushions. Others said that he was so rich and important that when he traveled to Rome, his "Kisei," or chair, would always be placed among the nobles of Rome.

These three loyal citizens of Yerushalayim each made a promise to supply the city with a necessity of its survival for as long as the siege would last. One offered to provide wheat and barley, another to provide wine and salt and oil, and the third to provide wood for the duration of the siege. And in fact, they could have supported the city for twenty-one years were it not for a group of people, non-productive and inclined only to violence. This group of people called the Biryonim wanted to fight the Romans. Chazal wanted to negotiate with the Romans. The Rabbis said to the Biryonim, the violent militants, "let us go outside and try to make peace with the Romans." The Biryonim said they would not allow it, because they insisted on fighting, although the Rabbis tried to persuade them that it would be to no avail. To exclude other options and to bring the matter to a head, the Biryonim set fire to the stores of food, bringing famine upon the city.

Marta Bat Beitus

One of the richest women in the city was named Marta, daughter of Beitus. Following her normal pattern of behavior, she sent her servant out to purchase some of the finest flour. The servant went out and, though he searched high and low, was unable to find a crumb, and so he reported to his mistress. He told her that there was no fine flour, but there was white flour. She then sent him to bring her some white flour. By the time he went, the white flour had sold out. He told her that there was no white flour, but there was dark flour. She sent him to bring her some dark flour. By the time he went, the dark flour had sold out. He told her that there was no dark flour, but there was barley flour. She sent him to bring her some barley flour. By the time he went, the barley flour had also sold out. In desperation, without even putting on her shoes, she went out to see if she could find anything to eat. She stepped in some dung and died of shock. Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai thus applied to her the Biblical verse, "The tender and delicate woman among you who would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground" (Devarim 28:56).

Some report that she ate a fig left by Rabi Tzadok, became sick, and died. Rabi Tzadok observed fasts for 40 years in order that Jerusalem might not be destroyed. When he wanted to restore himself, they used to bring him a fig, and he used to suck the juice and throw the rest away.

When Marta was about to die, she brought out all her gold and silver and threw it in the street, saying, "What is the good of this to me," thus giving effect to the verse, "They shall cast their silver in the streets" (Yechezkeil 7:19).

Lessons from this Story

One may glean manifold lessons from this brief anecdote.  The most basic objective of the story is to teach how quickly the situation went from the finest of food being available to none at all. This is the opposite of when Hashem saves our people, when the salvation often comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Examples include leaving Mitzrayim (Shemot 12:33) and Yosef being rushed to Paroh’s palace to interpret Paroh’s dreams (BeReishit 41:15 with the comments of Seforno ad. loc.).

The key to further understanding of the story is understanding the servant’s shockingly foolish behavior. Why did he not simply purchase the lower grade item before that ran out as well? Why did he not take the initiative and purchase whatever food was available before none was left at all?

The Gemara could be teaching that rigid thinking and failure to “think out of the box” could lead to disaster. The servant’s fear of doing anything his master did not directly command him to do is reminiscent of Rabi Zechariah’s failure to think out of the box when it came to dealing with the Roman emperor bringing a Korban with a subtle blemish (Gittin ad. loc.). The Gemara states that Rabi Zechariah’s rigid thinking led to the Churban. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Moshe Feinstein, by contrast, are examples of Posekim who think creatively, especially in the effort to effectively negotiate a difficult situation.

Another possibility is that Hashem deliberately caused the servant to act foolishly (see Yeshayahu 44:25) as a punishment to Marta. This may be why she decided to go herself and purchase food, because she may have realized that her trusted servant was inexplicably (to her mind) acting foolishly and the only way she would be able to procure some food was for her to get it herself. The question remains as to what was her sin that caused her to die under such pathetic circumstances.

Marta’s Sins

On a simple level the sin may be being too spoiled and tender, as is suggested by Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s comment. Indeed, the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1) relates that when Marta wished to see her husband read from the Torah in the Beit HaMikdash on Yom Kippur she had the streets leading from her home to the Beit HaMikdash lined with carpets so that she would not have to have her feet come too close to contact with the road. Such excessive finicky behavior reveals a self-centered arrogance that worships oneself without leaving much room to serve Hashem and contribute to her people.

Moreover, Marta was a woman who was used to securing what she sought to obtain. For example, after her first husband died, she became engaged to Yehoshu’a Ben Gamala (Mishnah Yevamot 6:4; Yevamot 61a.) Rav Asi said that she paid King Yannai a quantity of money equal in size to 72 eggs to nominate her husband to become the Kohein Gadol (Yoma 18a), even though the Sanhedrin had not elected him to the post (Yevamot 61a). Marta is a classic example of Kohelet’s teaching that sometimes “wealth serves to harm its possessor” (Kohelet 5:12). She permitted her wealth to make her arrogant which led to her hideous death. She could have compromised and ordered her servant to purchase whatever food was available. However, she apparently refused to purchase anything that was not the best available. Eating anything less than the finest foods would have detracted from her exalted social status. The Gemara’s wishes to convey how such counterproductive attitudes should be shunned, as it caused the downfall of Marta.

Another example of Marta’s sins is the poor choices she makes in regards to her money. In addition to using her money to secure that which she (or her husband) was not entitled to according to Torah standards, it seems that she was not generous with her wealth. Note that her name does not appear among the three wealthy Jews of Yerushalayim (Gittin ad. loc.) who made huge contributions to the Jewish people during their darkest moment, the Roman siege on Jerusalem.

Conclusion: Rabi Tzadok – the Mirror Opposite of Marta Bat Beitus

Marta dies, at least according to the first version, from eating a leftover from Rabi Tzadok. That which sustains Rabi Tzadok, even to the extent of surviving the Churban, causes Marta to die. Rabi Tzadok by fasting for nearly 40 years surely demonstrates willingness to act “out of the box.” Rabi Tzadok is the anti-Marta – he could hardly be described as “spoiled” and he is greatly dedicated to helping the Jewish people.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai completes the picture by using one of his precious wishes granted to him by the Roman Emperor to obtain a doctor for Rabi Tzadok. Surely there could have been more pressing national concerns for which Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai could have utilized his last request, instead of using it to benefit only one member of the community. The answer is that Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai sought to teach that one who expends great efforts to benefit the Jewish people will be amply rewarded. This is certainly a vital lesson for Jews beginning their long journey of exile.

The opposite is a lesson to be gleaned from the Marta story. Her lack of dedication to the Jewish people ultimately led to her sudden downfall. What a vital lesson for us to avoid narcissistic and self-centered behavior.

Tzahal/Israel Public Relations and Chilul Shabbat by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

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