Misplaced Modesty

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Gemara in Gittin (55b) tells the famously regrettable story of a wealthy man in the first century who sends his servant to deliver an invitation to his friend, a man named Kamtza, for an upcoming party. However, the servant mistakes the recipient as Bar Kamtza, an enemy of the wealthy man. Upon seeing the hated Bar Kamtza at his party, the host orders him to leave. Bar Kamtza, attempting to save face, thrice offers to make peace with the host, first offering to pay for the food he eats, then for half of the expenses of the party, and then for the entire party, and is each time rebuffed by the angry host. Humiliated, Bar Kamtza vows revenge against the rabbis present who did not defend him and allowed him to be publicly embarrassed. He visits the Roman Caesar who controls the region and tells him the Jews are inciting to revolt against the Roman Empire. The Caesar, unsure whether to believe Bar Kamtza, sends with Bar Kamtza an animal to be sacrificed as a peace offering in the Temple in Jerusalem. On the way, Bar Kamtza deliberately wounds the animal in a way that would disqualify it as a Jewish sacrifice but not as a Roman offering. Upon seeing the disfigured animal, the rabbis of the Sanhedrin present at the Temple have to decide how to respond in this delicate situation. Some of them advocate dispensing with the law and offering the animal anyway, to avoid war. This plan is vetoed by Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos, who fears that people will begin to bring blemished animals to the Temple to be sacrificed. They then suggest putting Bar Kamtza to death to prove that he is at fault, but Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos again refuses, because people will erroneously assume that this is the mandated penalty for intentionally disqualifying an animal designated for a korban. Rabbi Yochanan says that because of the anavah of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos, the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the land. The term anavah usually refers to humility. Many commentators are perplexed by the Gemara’s choice of the word anavah in relation to Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos.

The Maritz Chiyos suggests that the Gemara should have said “piety” or “stringency.” After all, the Gemara seems to be suggesting that it was his overly stringent ruling that started a sequence of events that led to the destruction of the Temple. Yet the Gemara singles out Rabbi Zecharia’s trait of humility as the source of the problem. Where does humility have any place in this story? The Midrash Rabbah (Eichah 4:4) also recounts the above story, but with an interesting twist. Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos was at the party that Bar Kamtza attended. He was present when Bar Kamtza was being ejected. There were many other people in attendance, but the Midrash singles out Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos for criticism because “he had the ability to protest but failed to protest.” Why didn’t Rabbi Zecharia protest against the unjust embarrassment inflicted upon Bar Kamtza? The Eitz Yosef explains that Rabbi Zecharia didn’t want to talk to the homeowner with an air of superiority. It was his nature to act with humility. To chastise the wealthy homeowner at his own party and offer directives would have smacked of arrogance. Further, he could have reasoned that there were many other people at the party who could have protested. “Let them protest because it’s not my nature to do so.” In the end, though, the Midrash singles him out for criticism. We can surmise that only his rebuke would have been effective. Humility is generally a positive trait, but it was inappropriate here. Hence, the Midrash ends off with the same statement as the Gemara: “Because of the humility of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos, the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the land.” The Pardas Shaul explains that in the Gemara’s version as well, Rabbi Zecharia is being faulted for his misplaced humility. He obviously knew that rejecting the Caesar’s sacrifice could have terrible implications.

It is true that people might erroneously assume that a blemished sacrifice can be offered, but that is a reasonable price to pay when lives were at stake. Rabbi Zecharia should have issued a conclusive ruling that it is permitted in this instance to offer a blemished sacrifice. However, he was hesitant to agree with such a radical ruling because he deemed himself unworthy. He reasoned that he was not learned enough. However, sometimes, a leader cannot afford to be humble. A decisive lenient ruling was required here, and Rabbi Zecharia is faulted for allowing his humility and selfdoubt to cause a hindrance. The Ben Yehoyada takes this one step further. In fact, there were greater rabbis around. Rabbi Zecharia, because of his humility, suggested that such a serious question needed to be presented to the Sanhedrin. He therefore directed that the animal in question be brought there. When the animal was brought out of the Temple Courtyard, the Caesar’s emissaries mistakenly assumed that the sacrifice had been rejected outright. Incensed, they immediately left to bring the news to the Caesar. The protestations of those present were of no avail. While a leader sometimes has the luxury of deferring to others greater than himself, that is not always the case. In other times, Rabbi Zecharia would have been justified in “passing the buck” (or the lamb). However, in this situation, a lenient ruling was required immediately. Rabbi Zecharia should have foreseen the result of the delayed ruling and should not have deferred to the Sanhedrin but instead should have issued the lenient ruling himself. Therefore, Rabbi Zecharia is faulted for his misplaced humility. There are times in our lives when we feel that it is not our place to act. Surely, there are others who are greater, smarter, more prepared. Yet, even if true, that may not be an excuse. Having others render our decisions is a luxury that is not always worth the price.  

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.

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