Alt+SHIFT: On Aggadat HaHurban

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | July 20, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Benny Kalmanzon, Al Ma Avda haAretz: Iyyunim baAggadot haHurban (Yeshivat Otniel, 2009), 154 pages

Our generation has witnessed Rav Kook’s hope that, with the Jewish return to the Land of Israel, the Torah curriculum would broaden beyond Gemara and halakha. In this Alt+SHIFT series we have already profiled R. Yoel Ben-Nun on Tanakh and Dr. Ruth Calderon on Aggada—and additional such installments await. Yeshivat Hesder Otniel, with its talented staff including Rabbis Re’em Hacohen, Yakov Nagen, and Amnon Dukov, contributes greatly to this widened emphasis. In R. Benny Kalmanzon’s Al Ma Avda haAretz the recently retired Rosh Yeshiva of Otniel analyzes the aggadot in Gittin (55b-58a) about the Second Temple’s destruction.

Kalmanzon views the stories as educational messages more than historical accounts; he notes how Hazal describe the events leading up to the destruction and the aftermath but not the destruction itself. Nonetheless, he does cite historical sources including a discussion of why Gittin portrays a positive Nero and a negative Titus, in opposition to Roman historians.

[Read the book’s introduction here.]

He also makes good usage of parallel texts from Eikha Rabba. The zealots will not allow R. Yohanan Ben Zakkai to voice his true opinion about the burning of the food supplies (1:31), Marta bat Baytus has rugs placed on the floor so that she can walk to her husband, the Kohen Gadol, without her delicate feet touching the ground (1:47), and R. Zekharya ben Avkulus was actually one of the rabbis at the infamous Kamtza/Bar-Kamtza party (4:3). All these variants add important elements to the Babylonian version. Kalmanzon notes a parallel passivity in the rabbis’ silence at the party and R. Zekharya’s refusal to offer a radical but necessary ruling. Placing the latter at the party heightens the linkage.

This work incorporates a number of very sharp insights. The story offers no background as to why the party’s host hates Bar-Kamtza, nor does the host express the reason for his enmity when expelling his enemy. Perhaps this connects our tale with the well-known Gemara blaming “groundless hatred” for the Temple’s destruction (Yoma 9b). Furthermore, the almost non-existent difference between the names Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza also conveys a big deal being made over nothing. R. Yohanan ben Zakkai makes three requests of Vespasian: Yavneh and the Sages, the dynasty of R. Gamliel, and healing R. Tzadok. Kalmanzon points out that we have here the three crowns of Torah, royalty, and the priesthood (Avot 4:13).

The stories utilize opposing characters to add meaning. While many Jews of the time arrogantly continue their routines without sensing the impeding calamity, Nero and a later emperor show more humble caution. After his test with arrows reveals God’s intent, Nero decides not to lead the attack. In a later story, a Caesar prays to God not be delivered over to Bar Droma. Ironically, the Roman leaders fulfill the Talmudic mandate to be “constantly wary” that opened this aggadic section. R. Tzadok and Marta represent another form of opposition: he engages in fasting while she hopes to continue her lavish lifestyle even under siege.

Kalmanzon notes running themes through this aggadic segment. Both R. Zekharya and the zealots are afraid about what people will say. Secondly, just as R. Zekharya is stuck in his narrow halakhic world, failing to identify an emergency situation, so too Marta and her servant cannot think beyond their norm. The servant keeps returning for fresh instructions instead of realizing that he should buy any available food.

Two additional elements might have enhanced this volume. Too many talented and intelligent Israeli authors neglect to incorporate worthwhile English-language scholarship and material into their works due to their weakness in that language. For example, this work does not reference Jeffrey L. Rubenstein’s fine treatment of the same material in his Talmudic Stories (139-175). Rubinstein’s more recent excellent analysis of “The Carpenter and His Apprentice” in The Land of Truth (236-253) is also worthy of attention, but it admittedly postdates Kalmanzon’s book.

Additionally, Kalmanzon’s book would benefit from surveying more traditional commentary. Maharsha notes the symbolism in the emperor’s offering having blemished eyes and blemished lips representing the generation’s ethical flaws and Ben Yehoyada cleverly points out that the zealot’s fear of “what they will say” could refer to the Jews and not to the Romans (as Rashi would have it). Many Aharonim add interesting insights to the deathbed scene of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai (Berakhot 28b). R. Soloveitchik had earlier expressed  Kalmanzon’s idea that R. Yohanan’s uncertainty about his fate in the World to Come was a direct result of being forced to make a fateful decision with no way of knowing if it was correct (The Rav Speaks, 50-53).

These quibbles aside, R. Kalmanzon makes an important contribution to the growing world of aggadic study and the book will enhance your understanding and appreciation of these texts in advance of Tisha B’Av.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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