The Humility of Rabi Zecharyah

The tragic story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is one of the most infamous episodes in our history. From our earliest childhood we are taught how a man — who has remained unidentified — sought to invite a friend named Kamtza to a banquet he was making and his servant erroneously invited his enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host discovered Bar Kamtza sitting among the guests, he proceeded to throw him out — ignoring his pleas and offer to pay for the entire banquet.

Infuriated over the fact that the Rabbanim present at the banquet failed to protest his humiliation, Bar Kamtza was determined to take revenge. He went to tell the Caesar that the Jews had rebelled against him and suggested the monarch send an animal as a korban to the Beis Hamikdash. Bar Kamtza then inflicted a blemish on the animal — one that would make it unfit according to the Torah but not according to Caesar.

The Rabbanim considered offering the animal anyway in order to ensure peaceful relations with the Romans. Rabi Zecharyah ben Avkulas objected, saying that people “will say that animals with blemishes can be offered on the mizbei’ach.”

The Rabbanim, judging Bar Kamtza to be a rodeif, considered putting him to death so that he would be unable to inform on them.

Once again Rabi Zecharayah objected, saying that people will “say that one who blemishes kodshim is put to death.”

Chazal quote Rabi Yochanan as saying “anvasuniso of Rabi Zecharyah ben Avkulas” destroyed the Beis Hamikdash, burned down the Heichal, and caused us to be exiled from our land.

The word anvasuniso usually means “his humility.” Many meforshim wonder: In what part of the story is Rabi Zecharayah’s humility evident? Why is this particular attribute — which is generally a most pious and proper one — to blame?

The Pirchei Nissan (quoted by the Kehillas Yitzchak) suggests that this refers to the halachah that when a beis din considers a case, it is forbidden for the Dayanim of lesser stature to argue with the Dayan who is greater than they. Therefore, when offering opinions, one always began with the least of the Dayanim and concluded with the Rosh Beis Din.

In his great humility, Rabi Zecharyah considered himself the least worthy of all those present, and offered his viewpoint first. In the eyes of the other Rabbanim, however, he was the most respected of the Tanna’im present at the deliberations, and though they disagreed with him, they remained silent. Were it not for his humility, the others would have stated their view, and since they were in the majority, their position would have been implemented.

The Chasam Sofer points out that Rashi explains anvasuniso to mean “savlanus” — tolerance.

He goes on to explain that the reason Rabi Zecharyah was so opposed to offering the korban was because he feared that by doing so, people would speculate as to why it was necessary for a blemished animal to be offered, and the entire story of the treatment of Bar Kamtza would emerge. When the common folk learned that the Chachamim remained silent while Bar Kamtza was publicly shamed, it would cause a chillul Hashem, something to be avoided at all costs.

In the eyes of the other Rabbanim, Bar Kamtza — as proven by his subsequent actions — was a very disreputable personality and had he stayed, the Chachamim, who could not have tolerated sitting at the same banquet with him, would have left. Therefore, the host felt that he had no choice but to throw him out, and word of his ejection was not to be considered a chillul Hashem.

In his great humility, Rabi Zecharyah himself was able to tolerate sitting with someone like Bar Kamtza, and therefore in his eyes — and because of his tolerance — it was a chillul Hashem that must be avoided.

In the sefer Yismach Lev, the Me’or Einayim offers a fascinating answer that also explains a related question:

Since antagonizing the Romans was a matter of pikuach nefesh, why indeed did Rabi Zecharyah feel that worrying that people will draw erroneous conclusions about the halachos came first?

He explains that Rabi Zecharayah saw with ruach hakodesh that it had been decreed that the Beis Hamikdash would be destroyed. He therefore reasoned that since the destruction would come in any case — if not via the actions of Bar Kamtza, it would be through a different means.

He therefore felt that since offering the korban wouldn’t prevent the destruction, why should a blemished korban be offered?

In his great humility, Rabi Zecharyah chose not to reveal that he knew through ruach hakodesh what others didn’t know, and didn’t reveal the full reason for his objection.

Had he, however, done so and informed the other Chachamim of the impending Churban, they would have found ways to abolish the terrible decree through tefillos and teshuvah.

Therefore, it was because of the humility of Rabi Zecharyah that the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed.

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We have no inkling of the greatness of Rabi Zecharyah ben Avkulas. What is incumbent on us, however, is to learn from these teachings how vital it is to use every attribute properly and recognize that even the harshest decrees can be annulled through teshuvah and tefillah.