THE ACADEMY OF RABBI JOCHANAN was open for all those who sought learning. Men of two generations prided themselves on being disciples of Rabbi Jochanan. Among these there were some who saw and heard Rabbi Jehudah ha-Nasi, but themselves remained disciples while he grew in stature to become one of the most outstanding Amoraim. Among his disciples there were also some who themselves headed academies, but who came to the academy of Rabbi Jochanan in Tiberias as often as they could in order to be able to call themselves his disciples although their circumstances did not compel them to do so.
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish was one of the most prominent of these colleagues and disciples of Rabbi Jochanan. In the Talmud he is more commonly referred to as Resh Lakish.*)Resh Lakish is an abbreviation of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish (ר״ש). The mark indicating the abbreviation was in time transformed into a Yud. We may also remark that his appelation Ben Lakish does not prove that Lakish was the name of his father, but might indicate that he was a native of a city called Lakish, possibly the biblical “Lachish.” One of the last Tanaim was also called Rabbi Jehudah ben Lakish, and in this case also the appelation may indicate the city of origin rather than the name of the father.
Very little is known definitely of the youth of Resh Lakish and numerous terrifying legends surround his early years. It was said that he befriended robbers and that he was a robber himself. While going about the banks of the Jordan armed from head to foot, he saw a woman bathing and he entered the water. But the figure which he saw bathing was not a woman. Instead it was Rabbi Jochanan who remarked to him that such unusual strength as he seemed to possess should rightfully be devoted to the Torah. Resh Lakish replied: “Such beauty as you possess, should belong to a woman.” Rabbi Jochanan is said to have told him: “If you will turn to learning, I will give you my sister, who is more beautiful than I am, for a wife.” Resh Lakish then promised to give up his occupation and to turn to learning and he married the sister of Rabbi Jochanan.1)בבא מציעא פּ״ד א׳.
The legend is highly questionable and does not agree with other accounts of the youth of Resh Lakish. Thus it was accepted as a fact that in his youth he was a companion of Rabbi Jochanan in the academy of Rabbi Jehudah which would make any such error as the legend ascribes to him out of the question. Nor is there any mention anywhere as to who the teacher of Resh Lakish had been, for although he attended the academy of Rabbi Jehudah together with Rabbi Jochanan, they were both very young at that time and could not have been direct pupils of Rabbi Jehudah, although in later life they both declared that were it not for their contact with Rabbi Jehudah, they would not have attained their status as scholars.2)ירושלמי ביצה פרק ה׳ הלכה ב׳.
It appears that both, Resh Lakish and Rabbi Jochanan, attained prominence rapidly, but Resh Lakish continued to be considered a disciple of the latter despite the fact that his importance was great enough, so that problems were brought to him for decision in the absence of Rabbi Ephes who was a disciple and a member of the household of the Nasi.3)ערובין ס״ה ב׳. In scholarship, however, the two were considered to be of the same rank by the Nasi and by Rabbi Hoshaia Raba.4)יבמות נ״ז א׳.
In the academy of Rabbi Chanina bar Chama it was customary for Rabbi Chanina to begin a lecture and for Resh Lakish and Rabbi Jochanan to finish it.5)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳. Resh Lakish was also held in great esteem at the court of Rabbi Hoshaia Raba,6)ירושלמי יבמות פרק ט״ז הלכה ה׳. and he called Rabbi Hoshaia “the father of the Mishna.”7)ירושלמי בבא קמא פרק ד׳ הלכה ז׳. Resh Lakish was also a friend of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, whom he quoted on numerous occasions. All this would indicate that Resh Lakish and Rabbi Jochanan were friends since youth. They were both considered as equals and were referred to as “the two great men of the world.”8)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ח׳ הלכה ז׳.
Some scholars considered Resh Lakish to be superior to Rabbi Jochanan in the use of clear logic. Ula, one of his pupils, declared: “He who sees Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish expounding in the academy, will imagine that he sees a man uprooting mountains and crushing them one against another.”9)סנהדרין כ״ד א׳. Rabbi Jochanan likewise said: “Whenever Resh Lakish is absent from the academy I feel as if I lacked my right hand.”10)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק ב׳ הלכה א׳. Resh Lakish was not an ordinary disciple who assents to all that is said. On the contrary, he frequently raised doubts concerning opinions that were expressed and Rabbi Jochanan complained that Resh Lakish would ask 24 (!) questions in every matter and that he had to search for replies to all these questions.11)בבא מציעא פּ״ד א׳. It is also remarkable that the questions of Resh Lakish were often of such penetrating keenness that Rabbi Jochanan was compelled to change his previous opinion,12)ירושלמי יומא פרק א׳ הלכה א׳. and in at least one instance, when the question of “Eruvin” was being discussed, the opinion of Resh Lakish prevailed.13)ירושלמי ערובין פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
Resh Lakish based all of his opinions on the Mishna and he rarely employed arguments which were not substantiated by the Mishna.14)ירושלמי גטין פרק ג׳ הלכה ב׳.
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish was known for his honesty in worldly matters, and any person with whom he had dealings was considered to be as honest as himself and to be trusted unquestioningly.15)יומא ט׳ ב׳. In his loyalty to his friends he was ready for self-sacrifice and it was told that when Rabbi Isi was captured by bandits, Resh Lakish hastened to save him, saying that he must do so even if his own life were endangered.16)ירושלמי תרומות סוף פרק ח׳. His diligence was incomparable and he was said to study every subject forty times.17)תענית ה׳ א׳. He boasted himself that even Rabbi Chiya bar Aba was not more diligent than he was.18)ירושלמי כתובות פרק י״ב הלכה ג׳.
But despite all these qualities he never attained the headship of an academy and he always remained a disciple of Rabbi Jochanan. When differences of opinion occurred the matter was always decided according to Rabbi Jochanan with the exception of three cases concerning “Halitza” which the Babylonian scholars decided according to Resh Lakish, but this was due to the fact that there was no dissenting opinion from Rabbi Jochanan.19)יבמות ל״ז א׳.
Resh Lakish was not a reserved man, and when it seemed to him that not enough attention was paid to his words, he would shout in a loud voice.20)קדושין מ״ד א׳. He also did not restrain himself from passing judgment when he saw wrong and he did not spare his colleagues, nor even the Nasi, in this respect.21)כתובות ט׳ ב׳.
Sometimes it happened that Rabbi Jochanan expressed an opinion in a matter of law and Rabbi Janai Raba praised him for it; Resh Lakish then ironically remarked that Rabbi Jochanan’s words were incorrect.22)ירושלמי סוטה פרק ב׳ הלכה ו׳.
Much time and energy was devoted by the scholars in gathering the “Baraithoth” (the tannait traditions not incorporated in the Mishna), and it was even attempted to lend to these the authority of law. Resh Lakish opposed this tendency and refused to recognize the authorship of those “Baraithoth.” He therefore ruled that every Mishna which had not been studied by a group of scholars should not be depended upon.23)ירושלמי ערובין פרק א׳ הלכה ז׳. In this respect he would not even listen to Rabbi Jochanan and he refused to accept any new “Baraitha,” saying that it was not needed and that Rabbi Jehudah had left a complete Mishna.24)ירושלמי כלאים פרק א׳ הלכה ו׳, בבא קמא פרק ה׳ הלכה ח׳.
Because of these habits, Resh Lakish was disliked by his contemporaries who looked upon him as a trouble maker.25)סנהדרין כ״ז א׳. Thus he was the first to declare that the events related in the book of Job were imaginary, that there never was a man named Job nor ever will be, and that the whole book was but intended to teach people moral principles.26)ירושלמי סוטה פרק ה׳ הלכה ו׳, בראשית רבה פּרשה נ״ו פּיסקא ג׳.*)The above mentioned passage from the Talmud Jerushalmi attempts to explain a contradiction for Resh Lakish is first quoted as saying that Job lived during the days of Abraham and later he declared that there was no Job. The Talmud explains this contradiction by saying that Resh Lakish did believe in the existence of Job, but he did not believe that Job, who was a just man, would have sinned because of his suffering.
Another time he declared that the Jews borrowed the names of the angels from the Babylonians because until the time of the Prophets who lived in Babylonia the Bible spoke of angels without mentioning names.27)ירושלמי ראש השנה פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳.
The reason why Resh Lakish never came to head an academy either in Tiberias or in any other city despite the fact that he was considered worthy for such a post is explained by the fact of his past, when he interrupted his scholarly career and followed ways not befitting a scholar. Like Rabbi Jochanan who left the academy for a short time to engage in commerce Resh Lakish also abandoned his studies for a time but not to engage in commerce. Instead he became a gladiator.28)שבת קי״ט ב׳, גטין מ״ז א׳.*)The Talmud says that “he sold himself to the Luddites” and some commentators said that the “Luddites” were a people of cannibals. Actually it implied a group of people who trained man-eating animals.
Another time Resh Lakish hired out as a garden watchman. Because of his unusual strength and his ability to deal with animals, he was trusted to be able to drive away any marauders. But it is further told that thieves once came to that garden and took as much fruit as they could carry and Resh Lakish did not seize them and bring them to court; instead he argued with them and threatened them with excommunication.29)מועד קטן מ״ז א׳, ירושלמי מועד קטן פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳.
Once Rabbi Jochanan was robbed of all his possessions and when Resh Lakish came to the academy and asked him something, he did not reply. Resh Lakish inquired for the cause of his silence and the latter replied: “My heart is with the wealth that the robbers have taken away from me.” Resh Lakish then pursued the robbers and retrieved the stolen wealth.
Because of these stories there were rumors that Resh Lakish associated with robbers. The truth of the matter was that because of his poverty, for he had no income from his scholastic endeavors, he sometimes hired out as a gladiator and at other times as a watchman, but he is not known to have done any harm and even the robbers against whom he was supposed to protect he merely threatened with excommunication and not with that punishment which they deserved. Rabbi Jochanan brought Resh Lakish back to the Torah, as we have previously related, but even after he abandoned his earlier calling, the people continued to remember it. When Rabbi Jochanan was called upon to answer a question pertaining to knives and how they are contaminated, Resh Lakish found the correct answer and Rabbi Jochanan remarked: “A robber understands in matters of his trade.” He said this although Resh Lakish was then already his brother-in-law and was held to be his equal in learning.
Like Rabbi Jochanan Resh Lakish also disliked the Babylonians who prided themselves on the fact that, when the Jews returned from Babylonia to Palestine, only the poorer families left while the more aristocratic remained behind. To this Resh Lakish remarked: “If someone told me that there are genealogies of the families in Babylonia I would go and bring them, but even if all the scholars gathered for this purpose they could not bring them thence.”30)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק י׳ הלכה א׳.
On another occasion he chided the Babylonian Jews for remaining in an unclean land and not returning to Palestine with Ezra. Speaking with Raba bar Bar Chana he said: “God is displeased with you, people of Babylonia, that you did not come to Palestine in great masses at the time of Ezra.”31)יומא ט׳ ב׳.
Nevertheless he sometimes also praised the Babylonians and said: “When the Torah was forgotten among Jews, Ezra came out of Babylonia and re-established it anew; later Hillel the Babylonian came and revived it and when it was forgotten for the third time there came Rabbi Chiya and his sons and they re-established it.”32)סוכה כ׳ א׳.
More than all other Amoraim Resh Lakish revered Rabbi Chiya. He is said to have fasted three hundred fasts in order to see Rabbi Chiya in his dream but to no avail.33)ירושלמי כלאים פרק ט׳ הלכה ד׳; כתובות פרק י״ב הלכה ג׳. When he complained about this and said: “Have I not studied as much Torah as he did?”, a Bath-Kol replied: “You have studied as much Torah as he did, but you did not aid in the spread of the Torah as much as he did.”34)בבא מציעא פּ״ה ב׳.
The grandson of Rabbi Jehudah, who was then Nasi, disapproved of the privileges of the scholars and he demanded that they should also bear the burden of taxation and that they should share in the expenses of strengthening the gates of the city and of paying the city watchmen. Resh Lakish protested against this demand which would place the scholars on the same level as the rest of the population especially since it was an old custom to liberate scholars from the burden of taxes.
To the other differences of opinion that existed between Rabbi Jochanan and Resh Lakish, we may add the following: When Rabbi Jochanan declared that “the least finger nail of the scholars of old was worth more than the whole bodies of those of today,” Resh Lakish replied: “On the contrary, the worth of the scholars of today is greater, for they devote themselves to the Torah and they ignore the persecution of the government.”35)יומא ט׳ ב׳.
We have already mentioned that the final altercation between the two occurred in the question of the contamination of knives, when Rabbi Jochanan exclaimed to Resh Lakish that “your business involved knives and therefore you understand their nature.” It is remarkable that Resh Lakish was never offended by references to his old occupation. Frequently he even spoke of it himself and he often introduced his remarks by comparing the situation in question to “two athletes.” It is also told that on one occasion he witnessed a public performance where the people ate and drank and danced and, aroused by past memories of his career, he participated in the gaiety.36)קהלת רבה פּרשה ט׳ פּיסקא ט״ז.
Another time he was asked whether it was permissible to drink water that had remained uncovered, for fear that a snake might have drunk of it and thus have poisoned it. He did not reply directly to this question, but instead he said: “When one sells himself to the gladiators he does so for a high price because he will have to risk his life. Will you sell your life so cheaply?”37)ירזשלמי תרומות פרק ה׳ הלכה ג׳.
But the final remark of Rabbi Jochanan offended Resh Lakish to such an extent that he fell sick from worrying and he died soon after. Of this last clash between the two it was further related that Rabbi Jochanan said to Resh Lakish: “Are you not glad that I have brought you under the wings of the Torah?” and Resh Lakish replied: “What good has it done me? There I was called Rabbi (master) and here I am called Rabbi.”
When Resh Lakish was sick, his wife ran to Rabbi Jochanan and implored him to save his life, but Rabbi Jochanan remained stubborn until the death of Resh Lakish. Afterward he was greatly troubled by his conscience; the “right hand” of his learning was lacking. The scholars then gathered and said: “Who will go to console Rabbi Jochanan?” Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath volunteered and as he sat before Rabbi Jochanan, he remarked to every one of his statements: “There is a Rabbinical saying which can substantiate your words.” But Rabbi Jochanan was annoyed at this and said: “Do you think to take the place of Resh Lakish? Ben Lakish asked 24 questions to every statement that I made and I had to find 24 answers to them. The law was thereby clarified. But you merely say that there is a Rabbinical saying which substantiates my words, as if I did not know that myself.”38)בבא מציעא פּ״ד א׳.
Many of the expressions of Resh Lakish contain truths which are of permanent validity. Thus he said: “He who mocks others will be doomed to Gehenna”39)עבודה זרה י״ח ב׳. or “If one is angry, even though he be a scholar, his learning will depart from him, and if he be a prophet, the spirit of prophesy will abandon him.”40)פּסחים ס״ג בי.
The Nasi once appealed to Resh Lakish saying: “Pray to God for me, for the government mistreats me” and Resh Lakish replied: “If you will take nothing from others, you will have to give away nothing that is yours.”41)בראשית רבה פּרשה ע״ה פּיסקא י״ב.
“He who slanders his neighbors,” Resh Lakish continued, “his sin reaches to heaven and the verse ‘Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment and a babbler is no better’ implies that just as no enchantment can cure the bite of a serpent even such is the harm done by a slanderer. When Messiah will come all the animals will gather and will say to the serpent: ‘If a lion kills his prey, he devours it; a wolf eats that which he has killed, but what pleasure does a snake derive from its bite?’ The snake will then answer: ‘What pleasure has man out of a gossiping tongue?”42)ערכין ט״ו ב׳.
Resh Lakish said: “He who raises his hand against his neighbor, even though he did not strike him, he deserves to be called a wicked man,43)סנהדרין נ״ח ב׳. and he who suspects his neighbor in vain will be punished in that he will do that which he suspected the other of doing.” A similar event occurred to Moses, when God commanded him to go to announce to the Jews that He would redeem them from the bondage of Egypt. Moses then said: ‘How can I say this and they will not believe me?’ God thereupon said to Moses: ‘Jews are a trusting people.’ And when Moses came and spoke to the Jews they believed him. Jews are also descended from believers, for when God said to Abraham, who was then childless, that his children would be like the stars in the sky, he believed Him. Only Moses doubted the word of God when He commanded him to speak to the stone and instead he smote it with his cane.44)שבת צ״ז א׳.
Repentance—Resh Lakish believed—ranked above all, for one who repents is forgiven even such sins which he committed purposely and they come to be considered as errors. For a penitent they are sometimes even reckoned as good deeds.45)יומא פּ״ו ב׳. Since everybody knew of his trust in repentance it was related that on the day of his death, two robbers, onetime friends of his, died and their share in the life to come was granted to Resh Lakish.46)פרקי דר׳ אליעזר פרק מ״ג.
Nevertheless, Resh Lakish continued, sinners are so hardened in their wrong doing that even at the gates of death they do not think of repentance.47)ערובין י״ט א׳. And when one wants to point out the shortcomings of another, he should be told: “Adorn yourself first and then you will adorn others.”48)בבא מציעא ק״ו ב׳, בבא בתרא ס׳ ב׳.
Concerning judges and courts, Resh Lakish declared that “one should only heed the judges of his own generation,”49)קהלת רבה פּרשה א׳ פּיסקא ד׳. and “he who appoints an unworthy judge is like a man who plants a tree that Jews might worship idols under it.”50)סנהדרין ז׳ ב׳, עבודה זרה נ״ב א׳. “When a court has to pass sentence it must consider small matters of the same importance as great ones.”51)סנהדרין ח׳ א׳.
On another occasion Resh Lakish said: “He who is merciful when he should be harsh, will in the end be harsh when he should be merciful.” Thus we find that king Saul was merciful to the Amalekites and later he ordered the annihilation of the city of Nob together with its priests.52)קהלת רבה פּרשה ז׳ פּיסקא ט״ז.
When a man lends his neighbor a sum of money to help him rehabilitate himself, he does a kinder deed than if he had given the money in charity. It is better still if one invests the money in partnership, for this makes the other man feel glad that he neither has to borrow nor to take charity.53)שבת ס״ג א׳.
“One who wishes to sin is aided in doing so and one who wishes to turn to better ways is assisted from heaven.”54)שבת ק״ד א׳, יומא ל״ח ב׳.
The biblical verse “the eye of an adulterer guards the night,” he interpreted to indicate that one is an adulterer even if he lusts only with his eyes.”55)ויקרא רבה פּרשה כ״ג פּיסקא י״ב.
The Torah says that “if you abandon me one day I shall abandon you two days.” This he compared to two men one of whom is coming from Sephoris and the other from Tiberias. On the road they meet and continue on their way. But after each has walked one mile, they are already two miles apart.56)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ט׳ הלכה ה׳.
Of the worth of scholars Resh Lakish said the following:
“A scholar may not spend his time in fasting, for he thereby loses time and energy that should be devoted to study.”57)תענית י״א ב׳.
“A scholar should be shameful and modest as a bride and like her he must also guard his conduct that no shadow of immorality should fall upon them.”58)שיר השירים רבה פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא י״א.
“When two scholars heed each other in matters of Halacha, God also hears their voices and grants their desires, but when they do not so, they cause the Shechinah to depart from among the Jews. Two scholars who encourage each other are beloved of God.”59)שבת ס״ג א׳.
“It is customary that when two merchants exchange their products, one offers silk and the other pepper; in the end they each have but one article. It is otherwise in learning. One studies the order Zeraim and the other studies the order Nezikin. One scholar then says to the other: Teach me Zeraim and I will teach you Nezikin. In the end they both know double that which they knew at the beginning. Can one possibly imagine a better trade in the world?”60)תנחומא פּרשת תרומה.
Poor as the political situation of the Jews was at that time, the people nevertheless did not give up their hope that redemption was bound to come and that the first step of the liberated Jews would be to restore the temple. But “even if the moment of the restoration of the temple were at hand, children should not be disturbed in their studies.”61)שבת קי״ט ב׳.
Resh Lakish was very particular where the dignity of a scholar was concerned and when a certain wealthy man offended the Amora Rabbi Jehudah bar Chanina, whom Resh Lakish often quoted in matters of law, and he later wished to reconcile him, Resh Lakish told him to donate a pound of gold. On another occasion Resh Lakish said: “He who expectorates in the presence of his Rabbi deserves to be punished by death.”62)ערובין צ״ט א׳. “But if a scholar commits an error he should not be reproved in public.”63)מועד קטן י״ז א׳.
Sometimes—Resh Lakish said—new interpretations lead to hindrance in the study of the Torah. Thus God commanded Moses to make new tablets in place of those that he had broken and indicated that He approved the breaking of the first tablets.64)מנחות צ״א א׳.
“When afflictions are visited upon the world,” Resh Lakish said, “the Jews are the first ones to suffer from them and when joy is visited upon the world the Jews are also the first to feel it.”65)איכה רבתי פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא ג׳.
“In the eyes of God a proselyte is preferred to a Jew, even to those Jews who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and of whom God is so proud. Why is this so? Because if it were not for the lightning and the thunder and the blowing of the heavenly Shofar at the time of the giving of the Torah the Jews would not have accepted it. But a proselyte who has not seen nor heard all this embraced the Torah of his own free will. Could God love anyone more than him?”66)תנחומא פּרשת לך לך. To this Resh Lakish added that “he who denies the rights of a proselyte, is like one who denies the rights of God.”67)חגיגה ה׳ א׳.
“All his life,” Resh Lakish believed, “man should devote to study and even nights were created by God for that purpose.”68)ערובין ס״ה א׳. While strolling once during a Sabbath, Resh Lakish was so immersed in pondering some problem that he unconsciously walked beyond the limit allowed on that day.69)ירושלמי ברכות פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.