Shimon ben Lakish

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Rabbinical Eras

Simeon ben Lakish (in Hebrew, Shimon ben Lakish; in Aramaic, Shimon bar Lakish or bar Lakisha), better known by his nickname Resh Lakish, was an amora who lived in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina in the third century CE. He was reputedly born in Bosra, east of the Jordan River, in around 200 CE, but lived most of his life in Sepphoris (Grätz, "Gesch." v. 240). Nothing is known of his ancestry except his father's name. He is something of an anomaly among the giants of Torah study as he was supposed to have been, in his early youth, a bandit and gladiator. He was regarded as one of the most prominent amoraim of the second generation, the other being his brother-in-law and halakhic opponent Rabbi Yochanan.

His teachers

According to the Talmud, Resh Lakish, like Yochanan, ascribed his knowledge of the Torah to his good fortune in having been privileged to see the patriarch Judah ha-Nasi (Yer. Berakhot 63a). According to Halevy ("Dorot ha-Rishonim"), he was a pupil of Judah Nesiah (grandson of Rabbi), in whose name he transmits many sayings. Bacher supposes that he was a pupil of Bar Kappara, since he often hands down sayings in his name ("Ag. Pal. Amor." i. 340). He appears also to have attended the seminary of Rabbi Hosheiah, whom he cites (Ḳid. 80a; Me'i. 7b; Bek. 13a), questions (Yeb. 57a), and calls the "father of the Mishnah" (Yer. B. Ḳ. 4c).

Physical characteristics

Many stories are told of Simeon's gigantic strength and of his corpulence. He was accustomed to lie on the hard ground, saying, "My fat is my cushion" (Gitin 46b-47a). Under the stress of unfavorable circumstances he gave up the study of the Torah and sought to support himself by a worldly calling. He sold himself to the managers of a circus ("Ludus gladiatorius"), where he could make use of his great bodily strength. He worked as a gladiator, where he was compelled to risk his life continually in combats with wild beasts (ib.) According to other sources, Resh Lakish lived for a time in the wilderness where he made his livelihood as a bandit. From this low estate he was brought back to his studies by Rabbi Yochanan.

Resh Lakish and Yochanan

It is said that Resh Lakish saw Yochanan bathing in the Jordan, and mistaking him for a woman, at one bound he was beside him in the water. "Thy strength would be more appropriate for studying the Law," said R. Yochanan; "And thy beauty for women," answered Resh Lakish. Rabbi Yochanan promised Resh Lakish his sister's hand in marriage if the latter would rejoin the yeshiva and begin his studies anew (Baba Metzia 84a). R. Yochanan might be called a teacher of Resh Lakish (Brachot 31a); but the latter, through his extraordinary talent and his exhaustless diligence, soon attained so complete a knowledge of the Law that he stood on an equal footing with R. Yochanan. They are designated as "the two great authorities" (Yer. Berakhot 12c). While R. Yochanan was still in Sepphoris, teaching at the same time as Hanina, Resh Lakish stood on an equality with him and enjoyed equal rights as a member of the yeshiva and council (Yer. Sanhedrin 18c; Yer. Niddah ii. 50b).

Independence of judgment

When R. Yochanan went to Tiberias and founded an academy there, Simeon accompanied him and took the second position in the school (comp. B. M. 117a). He exceeded even R. Yochanan in acuteness, and the latter himself admitted that his right hand was missing when R. Simeon was not present (Yer. Sanh. ii. 19d, 20a). "When he discussed halakhic questions it was as if he were uprooting mountains and rubbing them together," says 'Ula of him (Sanh. 24a). R. Yochanan was often compelled by Simeon's logic to surrender his own opinion and accept that of Simeon (Yer. Yoma 38a), and even to act in accordance with the latter's views (Yer. 'Eruvim 18c). Yet it is said in praise of R. Simeon that all his objections to R. Yochanan's conclusions were founded on the Mishnah, and that with him it was not a question of showing himself to be in the right, but of securing a clear and well-established decision, and that when he could find no support for his opinion he was not ashamed to abandon it (Yer. Gittim iii. 44d). He had a strong love of truth and an unusually courageous way of saying what he thought. He even declared to the patriarch Judah Nesiah that fear of the latter would never induce him to keep back God's word or any opinion derived from it (Yer. Sanh. 20a); and once he ventured to convey a veiled rebuke to the patriarch for avarice (Genesis Rabbah lxxviii. 16). Neither did he hesitate to revoke decisions of his colleagues, including R. Yochanan, even when action had already been taken in accordance with those decisions (Yer. Ket. 32d, 37a; B. B. 16b; Ket. 54b, 84b). On one occasion, when R. Yochanan presented a halakic demonstration before R. Yannai, and the latter praised him for it, Simeon boldly declared, "In spite of R. Yannai's great praise, R. Yochanan's opinion is not correct" (Yer. Sotah ii. 18b). He would defend his views fearlessly before the whole faculty (Kid. 44a), and sometimes he ventured to give a decision that conflicted with the Mishnah (Yer. Ter. vii. 44c; Yer. Hag. iii. 79c). Nevertheless, his opinions, when they differed from those of R. Yochanan, were not recognized as valid, except in three cases mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Yeb. 36a).

No one equaled Simeon ben Lakish in diligence and eagerness to learn. It was his custom regularly to repeat a section from the Mishnah forty times (Ta'an. 8a); he boasted that even Rabbi Hiyya, who was renowned for his diligence, was no more diligent than he (Yer. Ket. xii. 3). In order to urge his pupils to continual industry, he often quoted a proverb which he ascribed to the Torah: "If thou leavest me one day, I shall leave thee for two" (Yer. Ber. ix. 14d). His conscientiousness and delicately balanced sense of honor are also celebrated. He avoided association with people of whose probity he was not fully convinced; hence the testimony of any one allowed to associate with Simeon b. Lakish was accredited even in the absence of witnesses (Yoma 9a). Simeon ben Lakish was faithful to his friends, and was ever ready to render them active assistance. This is shown by the way in which, at the risk of his own life, he rescued Rabbi Assi, who had been imprisoned and was regarded as practically dead by his colleagues (Yer. Ter. 46b). Once his vigorous interference saved R. Yochanan's property from injury (ib.).

His Aggadot

The independence which Simeon ben Lakish manifested in the discussion of halakic questions was equally pronounced in his treatment of aggadic matters. In aggadah, also, he held a prominent position, and advanced many original and independent views which struck his contemporaries with amazement and which did not win respect until later. His aggadot include exegetical and homiletical interpretations of the Scriptures; observations concerning Biblical characters and stories; sayings concerning the Commandments, prayer, the study of the Law, God, the angels, Creation mythology, Israel, and Rome, Messianic and eschatological subjects, as well as other dicta and proverbs. Some of his aggadic sentences are as follows: "Should the sons of Israel find rest with the people among whom they are scattered, they would lose their desire to return to Palestine, the land of their fathers" (Lam. R. i. 3). "Israel is dear to God, and He takes no pleasure in any one that utters calumnies against Israel" (Cant. R. i. 6).

Examples of his exegesis

"The proselyte, however, is dearer to God than was Israel when it was gathered together at Sinai, because Israel would not have received the Law of God without the miracles of its revelation, whereas the proselyte, without seeing a single miracle, has consecrated himself to God and accepted the kingdom of heaven" (Tan., Lek Leka, ed. Buber, p. 32a). "The world exists only by virtue of the breath which comes from the mouths of school-children. The instruction of the young should not be interrupted, even by the building of a sanctuary" (Shab. 119b). "The words of the Torah can be remembered only by one who sacrifices himself for the sake of studying them" (Ber. 63b; Shab. 83b). "Israel took the names of the angels from the Babylonians during the period of the Exile, because Isaiah [vi. 6] speaks only of 'one of the seraphim,' without calling him by name; whereas Daniel names the angels Michael and Gabriel" (Yer. R. H. 56d). "Job never actually existed; he is only the imaginary hero of the poem, the invention of the poet" (Yer. Sotah 20d).

Simeon ben Lakish's aggadah is especially rich in maxims and proverbs: "No man commits a sin," says Simeon, "unless struck by momentary insanity" (Sotah 3a). "Adorn [i.e., instruct] thyself first; afterward adorn others" (B. M. 107b). "Greater is he that lends than he that gives alms; but he that aids by taking part in a business undertaking is greater than either" (Shab. 63a). "Do not live in the neighborhood of an ignorant man who is pious" (ib.). "Who commits the sin of adultery only with the eyes is an adulterer" (Lev. R. xxiii. 12).

His demise

In his aggadot Simeon frequently makes use of similes, some of which recall the days when he won a livelihood in the circus. In general, he spoke unreservedly of that time; yet an allusion to his earlier calling made by his colleague and brother-in-law R. Yochanan wounded him so deeply that he became ill and died. This happened as follows: On one occasion there was a dispute as to the time when the different kinds of knives and weapons might be considered in a fit state to be susceptible to ritual uncleanliness. The opinion of Simeon ben Lakish differed from that of R. Yochanan, whereupon the latter remarked, "A robber knows his own tools" (B. M. 84a). R. Yochanan alluded to Simeon's life as a bandit, in which a knowledge of sharp weapons was a matter of course. Reish Lakish responded by supposedly denying any benefit he had received from R. Yochanan; "When I was a bandit they called me 'master', and now they call me 'master.'" R. Yochanan retorted angrily that he had brought him under the wings of the shechina (Divine presence). The Talmud relates that due to R. Yochanan becoming so upset, Reish Lakish became ill and prematurely died.

Struck with guilt, R. Yochanan was in despair at the death of Simeon. When the academy sent another person to act as his study partner, R. Yochanan accused him of being a yes-man and pined for the times when Simeon would argue back-and-forth with him to get to the correct conclusion. It is said that he kept calling, "Where is Bar Lekisha, where is Bar Lekisha?" His despondency was so great, that he is recorded as eventually losing his sanity.(B. M. 84a).