Spotlight on Talmudic Sages: Reish Lakish
By Rina Wolfson
Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish, known as Reish Lakish, was a 3rd-century Amora who lived in the town of Sepphoris. He is primarily remembered for two things: his rather insalubrious youth, during which he worked as a thief and a gladiator, and his close personal friendship with the leading scholar of his day, Rabbi Yochanan. These two factors would eventually lead to one of the most heartbreaking stories in the whole of the Talmud.
According to one source [Gittin 46b] Reish Lakish suffered a financial setback, and was forced to sell himself to a gladiator circus, where he fought a series of combats with wild beasts. Another source suggests that he supported himself as a bandit. He is elsewhere remembered as a skilled swordsman.
Perhaps appropriately for a gladiator, he was known for his impressive physicality and brute strength. It was this physicality that brought him into contact with the man who was to become his life-long friend and mentor, Rabbi Yochanan.
The story of their first meeting is unusual, to say the least, and ripples with homoerotic undertones. The Talmud [B’rachot 31a] records that Reish Lakish first spotted the handsome Yochanan bathing in the Jordan River. Thinking that he was a woman, Reish Lakish jumped into the water beside him. Somewhat stunned, Rabbi Yochanan commented that such strength would be better served in the study of Torah. Reish Lakish replied that Yochanan’s beauty would be better placed in a woman.
Recognising that a fierce intellect lay behind Reish Lakish’s brute strength, Rabbi Yochanan promised him his sister’s hand in marriage, on the condition that he give up his life as a bandit and devote his time to Torah study instead. The younger man agreed, and thanks to his natural ability and his tireless dedication, he was soon recognised as a halachic expert in his own right, on a par with Rabbi Yochanan himself.
The two men became inseparable, and were known as ‘the great authorities’. When Yochanan moved to Tiberias to set up his own academy, Reish Lakish went with him as his second-in-command. The two developed a robust system of joint study, in which Reish Lakish would challenge Yochanan’s teachings with acute legal arguments, forcing him to fine-tune his thinking. For every statement that Yochanan made, Reish Lakish would offer 24 challenges until the older man’s argument was watertight and irrefutable.
In spite of Reish Lakish’s rise from law breaker to law maker, he was never fully able to disassociate himself from his criminal past. Indeed, it was a reference that Rabbi Yochanan made to his past that pushed their friendship to its limit. The split came during a discussion about the ritual cleanliness of various kinds of knives. The two men disagreed, as they often did. However, on this occasion, rather than using the disagreement as a spur towards clarifying his own position, Rabbi Yochanan responded with the rather cruel barb, ‘A robber knows his tools!’ Wounded, Reish Lakish responded by claiming that he had learned nothing from Yochanan. Within days of the disagreement, Reish Lakish had become ill, and died.
Devastated by the loss of his friend, and guilt-stricken by his own role in his death, Yochanan was inconsolable. Other great scholars acted as his study partner, but nobody could replace Reish Lakish. Yochanan considered these new scholars little more than ‘yes men’, and he could be heard wailing, ‘Where are you, Bar Lakish?? Where are you, Bar Lakish??’ Eventually, broken-hearted and devastated by grief, Yochanan, the greatest scholar of his generation, lost his mind.