I am haunted by Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avqulos.
R. Zekharia is not a very well known figure in the Talmud. Indeed, his name hardly appears only three times in all of rabbinic literature. Yet, despite ( or perhaps because ) of this, his impact on Judaism and upon Jewish history looms large.This is the first of a series of reflections on his problematic legacy.
R. Zekharia is best known for his role in the denouement of the famous tale of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza which is recounted in the Talmud ( Gittin 56a). According to the story, a certain individual named Bar Qamtza travelled to Rome and claimed to the Emperor Nero that the Jews were in revolt or (or at least planning one) against him. In order to verify this claim, Nero chose to test the Jews by sending a sacrificial animal to be offered up on his behalf in the Temple in Jerusalem. The concept was simple. If the Jews offered the animal, it was a sign that they remained loyal and if not, their refusal would be a clear declaration of rebellion.
The situation, however, was not to be so simple. Bar Qamtza, owing to his
deep resentment of a slight he felt he had received at the hands of the rabbis ( as recounted at the start of the story) was intent upon proving the Jews to be in rebellion and thereby to have his revenge upon them. Hence he sought at all costs to prevent the offering of the sacrificial animal in the Temple. This he achieved by splitting the lip of the animal, thereby rendering it blemished ( ba'al mum ) and hence unfit according to Halakhah. His choice of blemish was, moreover, ingenious. For, as the Talmud notes, while such a physical imperfection was recognized as such according to Jewish Tradition, it did not disqualify a sacrficial animal according to pagan lore. Hence, reasoned Bar Qamtza, the Jews would refuse to offer the sacrifice for reasons which Nero would take to be unsatisfactory at best and disingenuous at worst. In any event, Roman retaliation would be assured and Bar Qamtza's lust for vengeance satisfied.
The Talmud recounts, that upon receiving the animal from Nero and quickly realizing how Bar Qamtza had maneuvered them into a corner, the Sages expressed their determination to offer the animal in any case in order to avert the Emperor's wrath and vindictive reaction. Only one man stood against them, Rabbi Zekharia b. Avqulos. Eloquently he countered each and every argument marshalled in favor of offering the animal. The crux of his argument? Halakhah must stand pristine under any and all circumstances. No other considerations may prevent the precise implementation of an established halakhic ruling. In a word, 'Let the Law bore through the mountain!' ( Yiqov HaDin et HaHar). And so, the animal was not offered. Rome attacked and the rest is history.
Yet, looking back on the events of 66 CE, the second century scholar R. Johanan ruefully observed, 'The punctiliousness ( anv'tanuto ) of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary and exiled us among the nations!'
What was wrong with the position of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos? Rashi offers that he should have allowed the Sages to put Bar Qamtza to death as a traitor. Others, on the other hand, suggest that the Sages should have been allowed to sacrifice the calf in question, despite its being disqualified, out of considerations of Piquah Nefesh, viz. to save the lives of those who would die in the inevitable war should the animal not be offered.
What is common to both of these opinions, however, is that R. Johanan was convinced that R. Zekharia erred on two counts. First, he failed ( or refused) to take into consideration the larger implications of of the situation being addressed. Second, he obstinately disallowed the implementation of other legitimate halakhic responses to a difficult, even untenable, situation and instead held tenaciously to a narrow, literalist and unimaginative 'strict constructionist' approach.
For his error ( and that of the Sages who gave in to him), concluded R. Johanan, the Jewish People paid ( and are still paying ) a terrible price.