Hebrew roots of Christianity

On “Baseless Hatred”

A Ninth of Av Message to my Subscribers and Friends

Have I ever taken you to Jerusalem’s “Herodian Mansion” ? If so, you might remember the story that I want to share with you again here in honor of Tisha B’Av. That’s the annual day of mourning and fasting now upon us, when  Jews recall the destruction of both Temples and other disasters in Jewish history.

As I told you the story, we would have stood together around a heap of ash at this restored, first-century wealthy home. The ash was left by the fire that engulfed the Upper City of Jerusalem a month after the Romans burned the Temple. But read on  to see that this time, I end a sad tale on a note of optimism, one that goes to the very heart of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

The story appears in two ancient Jewish sources: Lamentations Rabbah (4:3) and the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gittin 55b-56a). That Talmudic tractate is actually devoted to divorce. And as you know, my historical novel, The Scroll, revolves around a divorce document – a real one – found in the Judean Desert in the 1950s, but issued at Masada before it fell to the Romans. In The Scroll I imagine the fate of a woman who split from her husband in the midst of one of the worst tragedies the Jewish people faced at the time, and of her descendants. One of its main themes is same as the reason the ancient Jewish sages said the Temple was destroyed: “baseless hatred” (Talmud, Tractate Yoma, 9b).

The destruction of the Temple and the Sack of Jerusalem. Nicolas Poussin, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons.

The age-old tale is about two men, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. It’s often quoted to this day as a prime example of baseless hatred.

It goes like this:

There were two men with similar names living in Jerusalem, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. When the story opens we know nothing about them except that Kamza was a friend of a wealthy man (who is not named) in Jerusalem.

Bar Kamza was the wealthy man’s enemy. One day, the ancient tycoon planned a banquet. As was the custom, all his friends everyone got a personally delivered verbal invitation. Kamza was on the list and of course, Bar Kamza was not.

But by mistake, the servant announcing the banquet went to Bar Kamza’s house instead of Kamza’s! Worse still, Bar Kamza actually showed up! The wealthy host was enraged to discover his enemy Bar Kamza at his door, about to crash his party.

Wealthy banquet, unknown painter, 1st century, Pompeii. Public Domain.

“Be gone!” he bellowed to Bar Kamza. But Bar Kamza begged to stay, just to save face. He even offered to pay for the banquet! The wealthy man refused.

Fuming, the humiliated Bar Kamza planned his revenge. He went to the Roman governor and lied that the Jews were eating the sacrifices the Romans had been sending to the Temple, considering them “blemished” and improper for sacrifice, and were substituting “pure” animals for the sacrifice.

At first, the governor did not believe Bar Kamza. And so he devised an entrapment for his fellow Jews: “If you do not believe me, send an officer and some sacrificial animals with me, and you will immediately know that I am not lying.” Bar Kamza accompanied the Roman officer and the animals to Jerusalem and at night, while the officer was asleep, Bar Kamza secretly made all the animals ritually impure.

When the animals reached the Temple, the priest in charge saw that they were blemished and indeed, he substituted others.

After this happened three days in a row, the officer reported to the emperor that Bar Kamza had told him the truth. Burning with anger, the emperor sent his legions to Jerusalem to destroy the Temple.

The Lamentations Rabbah version adds another level: “Rabbi Jose said: “The meekness of Zechariah b. Abkulas burnt the Temple.” By this the sages meant that Rabbi Jose – who was present at the feast and knew the Jewish tradition that humiliating a person was tantamount to murder – could have exerted his moral authority to stop the host from disgracing Bar Kamza. But he chose not to intervene.

But Gittin, the tractate on divorce, uses the story to explain a verse in Proverbs, 28:14: “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” What’s the connection? The late-11th-century Jewish scholar Rashi tells us that the moral of Kamza and Bar Kamza is that being “anxious always” is to be constantly aware of the ultimate outcome of your actions.

As always, I’d like to leave you with a positive thought, one at the very crossroads of our Judeo-Christian tradition. The Jewish folklore expert Esther Shekalim tells us that right on in the afternoon of the mourning and fasting day of the Ninth of Av, in the midst of sorrow, families in the Jewish diaspora of Libya the young men would, of all things, hold donkey races. Why? According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the Messiah is born on the Ninth of Av. Their donkey competitions are said to have honored of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”


Visitors at reconstructed ancient village of Kfar Kedem in the Galilee enjoying a family donkey ride. Goisrael.com.

According to our folklore expert, this old custom comes from an idea modern psychology now supports: That by imagining, symbolizing and acting out a longed-for new reality, we can make hope come true.

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Want to read more?

You can find a fuller version of the Kamza Bar Kamza story on my website here.

Rabbi Joshua Berman, Kamza and Bar Kamza, who was at fault?http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/devarim/ber.htmlTdajudaics.com.


Women of the Bible

Their messages of endurance span the millennia

Some women of the Bible are so well known that we name our daughters after them – Sarah, Deborah, Mary, Martha. Others have left us familiar names, but less familiar stories, like Joanna of the New Testament, who put all her considerable resources at the disposal of Jesus. There’s fascination with the misdeeds of the infamous ones, like Jezebel and Delilah, as well as those of heroines like Rebekah. And there are some whose names we’ll never know, but whose stories still touch us – Jepthah’s daughter, the wise woman of Tekoa, the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and was healed.

Mary and Elizabeth meet. Detail of a mural at the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As seekers of inspiration from Scripture, we try to imagine ourselves walking a mile in the sandals of these female Bible characters, especially women of faith like Hannah and Ruth. Many of the strong women of the Bible, like the midwives Shifrah and Puah, the matriarch Rachel, or Queen Esther (and her predecessor, Vashti, for that matter) possessed the secret of finding power in a society that thrived on taking it from them. And let’s recall Michal, David’s wife, who, like many of her scriptural sisters, had to resort to subterfuge to reach her goals.

Some of the women of the Bible became “leading ladies.” Miriam, for example, was both leader and prophet. Her impression on Jewish history was so great that legend has portrayed her as part of Jewish experience for millennia after her death. And then we have Mary Magdalene, whom Christian scholars like Mary R. Thompson consider an early leader in the Judeo-Christian community.

The Rape of Tamar, by the 17th-century artist Le Sueur.

We painfully recall Tamar, a rape victim of her own half-brother, and Dina, raped as part of a biblical political drama. These are women who had everything taken from them. The biblical telling, or rather not-telling, leaves us to imagine that they must never have gotten over their tragedy, a fate that pursues all too many of their modern-day sisters.

The barren women of the Bible teach us special lessons in faith and strength. There’s Manoah’s wife, Samson’s future mother, who believed more strongly than her husband in the angel’s message, and Hannah, Samuel’s mother; both dedicated their sons to divine service.  Hannah in her praise poem gloriously presages Mary’s song when she met Elizabeth, another barren-fruitful, faithful woman.  Both these paeans point to unifying aspects of our Judeo-Christian tradition and lead to a deeper understanding of the Hebrew roots of Christianity.

Woman kneading dough, terracotta, 12th century BCE, from the cemetery at Akhziv, Israel. Courtesy of Palphot

We are fortunate in the gift that archaeology has given us in unearthing the tools of their everyday existence. Real archaeological finds bring these women alive!  Most of them (like us) worked from dawn to dark. Perhaps the first multi-tasker in biblical history was the indomitable “woman of valor” of Proverbs 31.

Cover of The Scroll, depicting a woman marching from darkness into light.

In my historical novel, The Scroll, I sought to make the spirit of the strong women of the Bible pivotal in my plot. which begins with the fall of Masada. According to the historian Josephus there were two women survivors of Masada. One is my heroine in the first generation of The Scroll. She brings a message of female empowerment down through the generations. With it comes striving the for the elusive goal of Jewish unity, with which we still struggle today.

Delve into the stories of the women of the Bible and don’t be surprised to discover that in their stories, you’ll find your own.

I gratefully acknowledge the publisher of my book Women at the Time of the Bible, Palphot, for permission to use material from it for this article.



Interview About The Scroll on Hebrew Nation Radio

Click here to listen to my recent radio interview! Thanks to the hosts on the Hebrew Nation Radio morning show “The Remnant Road,” who gave me an opportunity to discuss my books, especially The Scroll. The audience at Hebrew Nation Radio wants to learn more about the Jewish roots of their faith, and so I was able to tell interviewers Mike Clayton, Al McCarn and Barry Philips about episodes in The Scroll where I brought Jews and early Judeo-Christians together. The interview was a golden opportunity to discuss all the subjects I love to write about, including the strong women of the Bible. But best of all, I was able not only to discuss the women survivors of Masada and the future I imagined for them and their descendants, but also the Hebrew roots of Christianity and the beginnings of Christianity,  My aim in bringing Jews and early Christians together in The Scroll,  as I told the interviewers, was to show how each community faced the harsh challenges of  its times.  To this day, we can and must face the enormous challenges of our times together, celebrating and building upon what unites us rather than what divides us.