Office of the Chief Rabbi

D’var Torah: Parashat Matot-Massei

When one person’s piety caused a national disaster – a lesson for the Three Weeks. In his D’var Torah this week, the Chief Rabbi reflects on Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas role in the destruction of the Temple. 

Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas was responsible for the destruction of our Temple. Who was this Rabbi and why was such a suggestion given?

During these Three Weeks between Shivah Asar B’Tamuz and Tishah B’Av, it is common for us to study the Gemarah in Mesechet Gittin (55b), and there we find the well-known story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: A well-known man in Jerusalem, a wealthy individual, threw a party, he invited his good friend Kamtza. Unfortunately, his enemy, Bar Kamtza was invited instead. He turfed Bar Kamtza out of his home, Bar Kamtza felt humiliated in the presence of the great leaders of that time, and so he went off to Rome and he said to Caesar, ‘the Jewish people are planning a rebellion’.

Caesar said, ‘prove it!’

He said ‘Well, if you send an animal for them to sacrifice in their Temple, they will refuse to do it’.

‘Now, the dilemma that our people faced then is similar to many dilemmas that we faced throughout history. What do you do in tricky situations, such as this?’

Caesar did just that and en route to Jerusalem, Bar Kamtza inflicted a blemish on that animal. So, the animal arrived in Jerusalem and the Kohanim wanted to sacrifice it because they said, ‘if we don’t, we’re going to offend Caesar and who knows what might follow’.

Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas said, ‘You cannot sacrifice this animal, it will set a precedent’. People will say, ‘ah, it’s okay to sacrifice animals with a blemish’.

And then the Rabbis suggested, ‘well, maybe we should take Bar Kamtza’s life and as a result, he won’t be able to give a report back to Caesar about what will happen’.

Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas said: ‘No! People will say as a result: from here we learn that anybody who offers a sacrifice with a blemish is Chayav Mitah – they deserve to be killed’.

So, as a result of his view, the animal was not sacrificed, Caesar was offended, he sent his army to Jerusalem and the rest, as they say, was all history.

Rebbe Yochanan declared: Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas is responsible for the destruction of our Temple and the exile of our people.

Now, the dilemma that our people faced then is similar to many dilemmas that we faced throughout history. What do you do in tricky situations, such as this?

‘Rebbe Yochanan is telling us, that sometimes you can’t just focus on one specific issue, you have to see the bigger picture’

Rebbe Yochanan is telling us, that sometimes you can’t just focus on one specific issue, you have to see the bigger picture. And so through the ages, our Rabbis, in a Halachik context, have learned the lessons from Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas. For example, there was a chance that the Oral law would be forgotten. And so, Rebbe Yehudah HaNassi decided to break with tradition, in order to write down the Oral law, because within Halacha, he saw that he had a responsibility and Halacha dictated that it was necessary for him to do this in order to preserve it.

As a result, therefore, we need to always consider the broader, long term context of what we are deciding upon and what we are doing. In that way, we will, please God, always arrive at the right decisions, for our time and for the future.

Shabbat Shalom

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