Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, July 18, 2002
Today is the ninth of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. Today both the first and second Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians, over 2500 years ago, the second by the Romans, nearly 2000 years ago. The first of these destructions was said to have been punishment for the sin of infidelity, the worship of foreign Gods. After a 70-year exile, the people returned and the Temple was rebuilt. The second Temple was destroyed as punishment for causeless hatred between the people. This time, the return from exile took nearly 2000 years, and the Temple will not be rebuilt until the coming of the Messiah.

In Jeremiah, we read of the people, beseiged by Nebucadnezzar's troops, declaring their faith that Jerusalem would never fall - God would defend his Temple, as he did in the days of Isaiah when Jerusalem was beseiged by the Assyrians. But as Jeremiah foresaw, God did not defend, and Jerusalem was made a waste, and Lamentations records the only advice left to give a lost people: accept defeat, obey the conqueror, and wait for God's signal that the time had come to return to Zion, a signal that came in the reign of Cyrus of Persia, the conqueror of Babylon.

In the festival musaf liturgy, we say, "mi-p'nei hata'einu galinu me-artzeinu" - in the face of our sins we were exiled from our land. This is usually interpreted as causative: we sinned, therefore we have been exiled. But it is also proper to read it as descriptive: as we were exiled, our sins were in our face. This is the meaning of the line in Lamentations: it is good for man to be chastened in his youth. Suffering naturally and properly prompts us to repentance, and far better to repent while we are still young, with many years of good to do, then when we are old, with only a brief moment to reconcile ourselves to God. The Jewish people was chastened in its youth. Do we yet recall this chastening in our age?

In the Hallel, recited on festivals, we sing, "zeh ha-yom asah hashem, negilah v-nismecha vo" - this is the day the Lord made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. This day, the ninth of Av, is also a day the Lord made, and made, until the Messianic Age, for our sorrow. We must always remember that the God of Isaiah and the God of Jeremiah are the same God. The same God gave us Jerusalem and the same God destroyed it. The same God is the reason why there is life in the universe and the same God decrees the death of every living thing. We do not divide the Godhead, and if we have the temerity to approach Him, we must remember before whom we stand. On a day like today, it is best not to have the temerity. We have sixty days yet to prepare for our scheduled audience.

On the ninth of Av, it is traditional to study the following text, from the Talmud, tractate Gittin (I've cut the text off before its end; it goes on for quite a ways). I find the text endlessly fascinating. It reminds me on the one hand of the post-apocalyptic folk tales from Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. The description of the behavior of the Biryonim, the most radical of the zealot party that favored war with Rome, remind me of nothing so much as our enemies in the current war: convinced that God would fight for them, they were happy to kill their own people in order to provoke the war they thought they were destined to win. There is a great deal to say about this text, but I am a little light-headed now, so I suggest you read it yourselves. Anything is square brackets are explanatory expansions of the text written by a modern editor; anything is curly brackets and italics is a footnote by a modern editor.


R. Yochanan said: Let me give you an example of what is meant by the verse, "Praiseworthy is the man who always fears, but he who is stubborn of heart will fall into misfortune" (Proverbs 28:14). [The following story shows that a person must be extremely cautious and realize that stubbornness brings in its wake the greatest disaster.] Through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed. Because of a rooster and a hen Tur Malka was devastated. Because of a rod of a carriage Betar was ruined. [The Gemara now explains:] "Through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza Jerusalem was destroyed." [This is what happened.] There was a person who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a banquet and said to his servant, "Go and bring me Kamtza." [By mistake] the servant went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host entered and found Bar Kamtza sitting at his banquet, he said, "The person sitting here is an enemy of mine. What is he doing at my banquet? Get out of here!" So Bar Kamtza said to him, "Since I am here, let me stay. I will pay for whatever I eat and drink."

He replied, "No, I won't let you stay." "I will pay for half the banquet," Bar Kamtza pleaded. "No," was the answer. "I will pay for the whole banquet, just let me stay." He still said no, grabbed him by the arm, and threw him out.

Bar Kamtza now said to himself, "Since the Rabbis were there and did not protest, that shows that they approved of what he did. I will go and denounce them to the Roman authorities." He went and said to the Emperor, "The Jews have rebelled against you." "How do you know that?" the Emperor asked. He replied, "Send an offering to their Temple, and see if they will sacrifice it for you on the Altar." {If a gentile brings an offering we are allowed to accept it and bring it on the Altar (Chullin 13b).} So the Emperor sent with him a beautiful calf. On the way to the Bet Hamikdash Bar Kamtza made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say, in the white of the eye; in a place that we consider a blemish but the Romans do not. The Rabbis thought that they should bring this sacrifice [in spite of the blemish] in order to preserve the good relations with the government [and prevent the bloodshed that might result from their refusal]. Said R. Zechariah b. Avkulas, "People will say that you can bring a blemished animal on the Altar." So they considered killing Bar Kamtza [so that he should not report that they refused to offer the sacrifice]. {The rule is: If someone tries to kill you, be quick and kill him first. And Bar Kamtza through his denunciation was a mortal threat to the community.}

R. Zechariah now again said, "People will say that you killed him because he made a blemish on a sacrifice." R. Yochanan said: Through the timidity of R. Zechariah b. Avkulas [in allowing Bar Kamtza to go back and report that the sacrifice was not offered] the Bet Hamikdash was destroyed, our Sanctuary was burned, and we were exiled from our land.

The Emperor then sent Nero the Caesar to destroy Jerusalem. When he arrived, he shot an arrow toward the east, and it landed in Jerusalem. He shot another toward the west; it too landed in Jerusalem. He shot in the four directions, and every time it landed in Jerusalem [which to him was an auspicious omen that he would conquer Jerusalem]. He found a Jewish child and said to him, "Please repeat to me the verse you have learned today" [as an indication of what was in store for him]. The boy said, "I will take My vengeance on Edom [i.e., Rome] through My people Israel" (Ezekiel 25:14). Nero concluded: The Holy One, blessed be He, wants to destroy His House, and He wants to blame me for it. {Literally: He wants to wipe His hand.} He got up, ran away, and converted to Judaism, and R. Meir was one of his descendants.

He then sent Vespasian the Caesar to destroy Jerusalem. He besieged Jerusalem for three years. There were three wealthy people [in Jerusalem]: Nakdimon b. Gurion, Ben Kalba Savua, and Ben Tzitzit Hakeset. Nakdimon b. Gurion got his name because the sun continued shining [nakedah] for his sake. {See Taanit 19b.} Ben Kalba Savua got his name because whoever entered his house hungry like a dog [kelev] came out satiated [savua]. Ben Tzitzit Hakeset got his name because [he was so rich that] his tzitzit never touched the floor since he was always sitting on cushions [keset]. Others say that he owed his name to the fact that his seat [kisei] was among the prominent people of Rome.

One of these three men said to the Rabbis: I will provide the city with wheat and barley. The second said: I will provide it with wine, salt, and oil. The third said: I will supply it with firewood. [They had stored these provisions in anticipation of the Roman siege.] The Sages praised especially the one who had the foresight to put away wood, since R. Chisda would give all his keys to his servant except the key to the woodshed, for R. Chisda said: One storehouse of wheat requires sixty storehouses of wood [to process it into bread]. The three men had stored enough supplies to sustain Jerusalem for twenty-one years.

[At that time there was a civil war raging in Jerusalem among three Jewish factions: moderates who were followers of the Rabbis; the corrupt and assimilated Sadducees who were Roman sympathizers and opponents of the Rabbis and halachah; and the Zealots [Kana'im], extreme nationalists who advocated open warfare to overthrow Roman domination. The violent and militant members of the Zealot party were called Biryonim.]

The Biryonim were then [in control of] the city, [and did not allow anyone to leave the city]. The Rabbis said to the Biryonim, "Let us go out and make a truce with the Romans." They did not let them, but, on the contrary, said, "Let's go out and fight the Romans." The Rabbis said, "You will not succeed." The Biryonim then went and burned down the storehouses of wheat and barley [in order to force the people into an immediate armed confrontation with the Romans]. As a result there was a famine in Jerusalem.


Martha the daughter of Baitus was one of the richest women in Jerusalem. She sent her servant to buy fine flour. By the time he got to the market it was all sold out. He told her, "There is no fine flour, but there is white flour." "Go and get me some," she said. By the time he got there, it was all sold out. He came back and said, "There is no white flour, but there still is dark flour." "Go and get me some," she said. By the time he got there, it was all sold out. He came back and said, "There is no dark flour, but there is barley flour." She said, "Go and get me some." By the time he got there, this too was sold out. She had already taken off her shoes, but she said, "Let me go myself and see if I can find anything to eat." [She was going barefoot,] so a piece of manure stuck to her foot, and she died from the shock.

R. Yochanan b. Zakkai applied to her the verse, "The most pampered, delicate woman, who is so refined that she does not let her foot touch the ground" (Deuteronomy 28:56). Some say that she ate one of the figs R. Tzadok had thrown away, and because of her squeamishness she died. For R. Tzadok fasted for forty years that Jerusalem should not be destroyed. [He was so skinny that] when he ate something, you could see it go down his throat. When he decided to try and eat they would bring him figs, and he would only suck the juice and throw away the rest [because he could not digest solid food]. When Martha was dying she took all her gold and silver and threw it out into the street and said, "What do I need this for?" She thereby fulfilled the prophecy, "They will throw their silver in the streets" (Ezekiel 7:19).


Abba Sikra, the head of the Biryonim [the militant branch of the Zealot party] of Jerusalem was the nephew of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai. Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai sent him a message, saying, "Come to me secretly." [Risking his life,] Abba Sikra came. R. Yochanan said, "How long are you going to keep this up, [thwarting the efforts to make peace, thereby causing people to die of starvation]?" He replied, "What can I do? If I say anything [to the Biryonim about making a truce with the Romans], they'll kill me." R. Yochanan b. Zakkai said, "Find some way for me to get out of the city, [so that I can negotiate with the Romans]. Maybe something can still be saved." Abba Sikra replied, "Pretend that you are sick, and let everyone come and visit you. Then bring something that has a foul odor and put it in your bed, so that they will think that you have died. [He had to use a ruse because the Biryonim permitted no one except the dead to leave the city.] Let only your students carry your coffin, and don't allow anyone else to carry you, so that they should not notice that you are still light-for everybody knows that a live person weighs less than a corpse."

R. Yochanan b. Zakkai followed Abba Sikra's strategy. R. Eliezer carried the coffin on one side, and R. Yehoshua on the other. When they came to the gate, [the Biryonim guards who were suspicious] wanted to pierce the coffin with a spear. Abba Sikra said to them, " [Do you want the Romans] to say about you, 'They even pierce their own rabbi!'" The guards then wanted to push the coffin, but Abba Sikra said to them, " [Do you want the Romans] to say about you, 'They push their own rabbi!'" The Biryonim guards then opened the gate, and [R. Yochanan b. Zakkai] got out.

When he reached the Roman headquarters he said to Vespasian, "Peace to you, Emperor! Peace to you, Emperor!" Replied Vespasian, "You forfeit your life for two reasons: first, I am not an emperor, and you call me emperor; [you ridiculed me]; and second, if I am an emperor, why did you not come to pay your respects until now?" R. Yochanan replied, "Concerning your statement that you are not an emperor, (56b) the truth is that you will become an emperor, since if you were not a ruler, Jerusalem would not be given over into your hands. For it says, 'Lebanon will fall by a mighty one [adir]' (Isaiah 10:34). And we know that adir refers specifically to a king, as it says, ' [Israel's] king [adiro] will be from their midst' (Jeremiah 30:21). And furthermore, we know that Lebanon refers to the Bet Hamikdash, {Levanon is derived from lavan, "white." The Bet Hamikdash purifies and cleanses Israel from their wrongdoings, rendering them "white." } for it says, [Moses pleaded for permission to see] 'This goodly mountain and Lebanon' (Deuteronomy 3:25).

Now, regarding your question that if you are an emperor, why I did not come until now? The answer is that the Biryonim among us did not allow it." Vespasian said, "If you had a barrel of honey, and there was a snake coiled around it, wouldn't you break the barrel in order to rid yourself of the snake?" [Although you would lose much of the honey, you would at least salvage some of it. Similarly, you should have burned down Jerusalem to get rid of the Biryonim and save the people from starvation.] R. Yochanan b. Zakkai was silent and did not know what to answer. R. Yosef, some say R. Akiva, said: We can apply to R. Yochanan b. Zakkai the verse, "Who makes wise men retreat, and makes their knowledge foolish" (Isaiah 44:25). He should have said to him: We take a pair of pliers and grab the snake and kill it, and leave the barrel undamaged. [I would rather get rid of the Biryonim and leave Jerusalem intact.]

Just then, a messenger arrived from Rome saying: Arise, for Caesar is dead, and the senators in Rome have decided to appoint you as the Head of State. Vespasian had just put on one shoe and wanted to put on the other, but it did not fit anymore. He tried to take off the other one, but it did not come off. [Thinking that his feet were swollen, he exclaimed:] What is the meaning of this? R. Yochanan b. Zakkai calmed him: Don't worry. You just received good tidings, and it says, "Good news will fatten a bone" (Proverbs 15:30). What should you do to remedy the condition? Let someone whom you dislike pass before you, as it says, "A broken spirit will dry up the bone" (ibid. 17:22). Vespasian did so, and he was able to put on the other shoe. He then said to R. Yochanan b. Zakkai: Since you are so wise, why didn't you come to me until now? He replied: Didn't I tell you, [because of the problem with the Biryonim]? Vespasian shot back: I also answered you [that you should have burned down Jerusalem].

Vespasian then said: I am going back to Rome, and I will send someone else to take my place. However, go ahead and ask me a favor, and I will grant it. [Seeing that Jerusalem was lost, R. Yochanan wanted to preserve the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people,] so he said: Give me the city of Yavneh and its Torah scholars [at least the Torah will survive and continue to flourish], {R. Yochanan b. Zakkai's request to set up a yeshivah in Yavneh was of crucial importance. It was the instrument through which God ensured the continued existence of the Jewish people during the long exile.} and the family of Rabban Gamliel [who are the leaders of the Jewish people and descendants of David], and give us some of your physicians to heal R. Tzadok. R. Yosef, some say, R. Akiva, applied to him this verse, "Who makes wise men retreat and makes their knowledge foolish" (Isaiah 44:25). He should have said to him: Let the Jews go this time altogether [and lift the siege of Jerusalem]. However, R. Yochanan b. Zakkai thought that he would not grant him that much, and so he would not be able to save even a little.

How did the doctors heal R. Tzadok? The first day they gave him water in which bran had been soaked; the next day water that had bran and a little flour mixed into it; the next day water mixed with flour, so that his stomach gradually expanded.


Vespasian went back to Rome and sent the wicked Titus [to destroy Jerusalem]. Titus said, "Where is their God, the Rock in whom they trusted?" (Deuteronomy 32:37). This is the same wicked Titus who blasphemed and cursed God. What did he do? He grabbed a prostitute by the hand and entered into the Holy of Holies and spread out a Torah scroll and sinned with her on it. He then took a sword and slashed the curtain. Miraculously, blood gushed forth from the curtain, and he thought that he had killed God, as it says, "Your enemies have roared inside Your meeting place [i.e., the Bet Hamikdash], they take their signs for true signs" (Psalms 74:4). [They construed their success as a sign that their cause was just.] Abba Chanan said: "Who is like You, O Strong One, God?" (ibid. 89:9). Who is like You, mighty in self-restraint, that You heard the blaspheming and cursing of that wicked man and keep silent? In the yeshivah of R. Yishmael they expounded: "Who is like You among the powers, [eilim] God?" (Exodus 15:11). Who is like You among the silent ones [illemim]. [God has the strength to remain silent in the face of Titus's provocation.]

What did Titus do? He took the curtain, shaped it like a basket, and took all the vessels of the Bet Hamikdash and put them in it. He then put them aboard a ship to sail to his city to glorify himself with them, as it says, "And then I saw the wicked buried and newly come while those who had done right were gone from the holy place and were forgotten in the city" (Ecclesiastes 8:10). [The Gemara expounds the verse as refrring to Titus:] Don't read kevurim, "buried," but kevutzim, "gathered"; don't read veyishtakechu, "were forgotten," but veyishtabbechu, "and glorified." [The verse now takes on a new meaning: The wicked Titus gathered all the vessels; he came from the Bet Hamikdash, and glorified himself with them in their city.]

Some say that kevurim means "buried" because even things that were buried were revealed to Titus [so that he was able to loot the Bet Hamikdash completely]. A storm blew up that threatened to sink the ship. Titus said: Evidently the God of the Jews has power only over water. When Pharaoh came He drowned him in the sea. Sisera was overcome by water, 25 and now He wants to drown me also in water. If He is a great warrior, let Him come up on dry land and wage war against me. A voice came forth from Heaven and said: Wicked one, son of a wicked one, descendant of the wicked Esau, I have an inferior creature in My world called a gnat.-Why is it called inferior? Because it only eats but does not excrete.-Go up on the dry land and wage war against it! When Titus landed a gnat came and entered his nose, and kept knocking against his brain for seven years. One day, as he was passing a blacksmith's shop, the gnat heard the noise of the hammer and stopped knocking.

Titus said: I see, there is a remedy. So every day he brought a blacksmith to hammer for him. If he was a non-Jew he would pay him four zuz for doing this; if he was a Jew, he would say: It should be enough of a reward for you to see your enemy [suffer so much]. He did this for thirty days; then the gnat got used to the noise and resumed the knocking. We learned in a Baraita: R. Pinchas b. Aruva said: I was together with the public figures of Rome, [and from them I found out that] when Titus died they opened his skull and they found something the size of a swallow weighing two sela. Alternately, it has been taught: the size of a year-old dove 26 weighing two pounds. Abaye said: We learned: It had a copper beak and iron claws. When he was dying he said: Burn me, and scatter my ashes over the seven seas, so that the God of the Jews should not be able to find me and bring me to trial.

Onkelos son of Kalonikos who was Titus's nephew wanted to convert to Judaism. He went and, through sorcery, raised Titus from the dead. He asked him: Who is most highly respected in the World to Come? Titus replied: Israel. He further asked him: What about me joining them? Titus replied: They have many commandments, and you will not be able to fulfill them. Go and fight them, and you will gain prominence, for it says, "Her tormentors become her master" (Lamentations 1:5); whoever makes the Jews suffer gains prestige. He asked him:

How are you being punished [in the hereafter]? Titus replied: With the punishment I decreed on myself. Every day my ashes are collected, and sentence is passed on me, and I am burned, and my ashes are scattered over the seven seas. Then Onkelos went and raised Balaam from the dead through sorcery. He asked him: Who is most highly respected in the World to Come? He replied: Israel. What about me joining them? He replied, "You must never seek peace or good relations with them, as long as you exist" (Deuteronomy 23:7). Onkelos then asked: How are you being punished?

He replied: I am being cooked in boiling semen [in retaliation for giving the advice that led Israel to behave immorally with the Moabite girls]. 27 He then went and raised other sinners of Israel from the dead through sorcery. He asked them: Who is most highly respected in the World to Come? They replied: Israel. What about me joining them? They replied: Seek their welfare, and don't seek to harm them. Whoever touches them touches the apple of God's eye. He asked: How are you being punished? They replied: We are being cooked in boiling manure, for a Rabbi has said: Whoever ridicules the words of the Sages is punished in Gehinnom with boiling manure. [The Gemara observes:] Go and look at the difference between Jewish sinners and the prophets of the nations that worship idols. [The Jewish sinners told Onkelos to convert; whereas the prophets of the heathen nations, although they knew the truth, still told him not to associate with Jews.] We learned in a Baraita: Look how serious are the consequences of putting a person to shame. God stood up for Bar Kamtza [who had been humiliated] and made him the instrument with which He destroyed the Bet Hamikdash.