Talmud pages

Gittin 57

Revenge fantasy.

Two days ago, we began reading one of the longest narratives in the entire Talmud, the story of how the Temple and all of Jerusalem were destroyed. Today we reach the conclusion of that sordid tale.

Back on Gittin 55b, the story of the destruction of Jerusalem opened with a surprising claim: 

Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza.

Who are they? Turns out, there was an unnamed man who was friends with Kamtza and enemies with bar Kamtza. Because their names were so similar, his servant accidentally invited his enemy (bar Kamtza) instead of his friend (Kamtza) to a feast. When the host made a scene throwing bar Kamtza out on the street, and the sages in attendance did nothing to stop him, bar Kamtza decided to go nuclear — seeking revenge by concocting a scenario to bring the wrath of Rome down on the entire Jewish people. And it worked.

What’s fascinating about this is that it places the blame for the destruction of Jerusalem not on the Romans, who besieged the city for years and cruelly slaughtered its inhabitants, but on the Jews. Indeed, additional details about the years of siege support this view that it was poor decisions by Jewish leaders, and not the cruel exercise of imperial power, that led to the largest catastrophe in Jewish history. 

The theological statement here is clear: The destruction of Jerusalem was authorized by God, and the Romans were mere instruments of punitive divine justice. There’s a moral message, too, about the destructive power of humiliation and the travesty of unwise, flaccid leadership. 

Nonetheless, as the story progresses, the rabbis cannot help but unspool some of their rage on the Romans — specifically the general (later emperor) Titus who finished war. Here’s their description, on yesterday’s daf, of Titus’ moment of victory:

What did Titus do when he conquered the Temple? He took a prostitute with his hand, and entered the Holy of Holies with her. He then spread out a Torah scroll and committed a sin (with her) on it. Afterward, he took a sword and cut into the parochet, the curtain shrouding the Holy of Holies. A miracle was performed and blood spurted forth. He mistakenly thought that he had killed himself (i.e. God), as it is stated: “Your enemies roar in the midst of Your meeting place; they have set up their own signs for signs.” (Psalms 74:4)

Fornicating with a prostitute on top of a Torah scroll in the Holy of Holies, then attempting to “kill” the Jewish God by slicing the parochet, is superlatively offensive. And yet, this account invites us to laugh at Titus for thinking he has killed God — something God encourages by causing blood to spurt out of the torn curtain.

Even Titus seems to know that killing God is not that easy, because in the Talmud’s description of the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction we see him interpret a storm at sea as an attack from Israel’s God. However, once again, he is mistakenly confident that God’s power is limited — in this case, to the domain of water. Titus taunts:

If He is really mighty, let Him go up on dry land and wage war against me.

What follows is a revenge fantasy concocted by the rabbis in which God sends the “lowliest” land creature — a gnat — to torment Titus for the rest of his days. The gnat enters Titus’ brain through his nostril and picks at it for seven years, causing him constant torment. The Talmud recounts that when Titus finally died, his head was split open to reveal that the gnat had grown to the size of a sparrow. 

Even in death, the Talmud recounts, Titus continued to fear the God of the Jews, prescribing that his ashes be scattered on the seven seas in an attempt to hide from posthumous divine judgment. (Ironic, perhaps, given that he had previously judged God as powerful only at sea.)

The revenge fantasy continues. Some years later, Titus’ nephew Onkelos decides to convert to Judaism. What inspired this decision? Onkelos raised his dead uncle from the grave and asked him which people is most important in the World to Come. And guess what the former emperor of Rome reported? The Jewish people are the most important. 

This is a long sequence devoted to a revenge fantasy, and it sits somewhat strangely with the theological statement at the beginning of the story, which places blame for the destruction of Jerusalem on the Jewish people, and in particular their leaders. If Titus is a mere instrument of God, why should the rabbis loose their venom on him? Is Rome responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem or are the Jews? Despite the long denouement that plays out on today’s daf, the rabbis return to their original stance by concluding the story with this assertion:

It is taught: Rabbi Elazar says: Come and see how great is the power of shame, for the Holy One, Blessed be He, assisted bar Kamtza, and He destroyed His Temple and burned His Sanctuary.

It is devastating to think that God can be so punitive, but perhaps less devastating than imagining God is unable to stop the Roman army.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 12th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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