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Shimon ben Lakish

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Shimon ben Lakish (Hebrew: שמעון בן לקיש; Imperial Aramaic: שמעון בר לקיש Shim‘on bar Lakish or bar Lakisha), better known by his nickname Reish Lakish (c. 200 — c. 275), was an amora who lived in the Roman province of Judaea in the third century. He was reputedly born in Bosra, east of the Jordan River, around 200 CE, but lived most of his life in Sepphoris.[1] Nothing is known of his ancestry except his father's name.

He is something of an anomaly among the giants of Torah study as, according to the Babylonian Talmud, he was in his early youth a bandit and a 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, Johanan bar Nappaha.


His teachers[edit]

According to the Talmud, Reish Lakish, like Yochanan, ascribed his knowledge of the Torah to his good fortune in having been privileged to see Judah haNasi.[2] According to Halevy,[3] he was a pupil of Judah II, grandson of Judah haNasi, 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.[4] He appears also to have attended the academy of Hoshaiah Rabbah, whom he cites,[5] questions,[6] and calls the "father of the Mishnah".[7]


Many stories are told of Shimon's great strength and of his corpulence. He was accustomed to lie on the hard ground, saying, "My fat is my cushion".[8]

According to the Babylonian Talmud, he was supposed to have been in his early youth a bandit and a gladiator. 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 gladiator circus, where he could make use of his great bodily strength. He worked as a gladiator, where he would fight with beasts and entertain the crowd.[8] According to other sources, Reish 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.

The early commentators speculated that he was a Torah scholar before his life of crime.[9]

His criminal career is strictly a Babylonian tradition, as it is not found in any of the sources of the land of Israel; according to the Jerusalem Talmud Shimon spent his entire life immersed in Torah study and his criminal past is completely absent.[10]

Reish Lakish saw Rabbi 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 Reish Lakish. Rabbi Yochanan promised Reish Lakish his sister's hand in marriage if the latter would rejoin the yeshiva and begin his studies anew.[11]

R. Yochanan might be called a teacher of Reish Lakish,[12] but Reish Lakish, through his talent and diligence, soon became equal in standing to R. Yochanan. They are designated as "the two great authorities".[13] While R. Yochanan was still in Sepphoris, teaching at the same time as Hanina bar Hama, Reish Lakish stood on an equality with him and enjoyed equal rights as a member of the yeshiva and council.[14] When R. Yochanan went to Tiberias and founded an academy there, Shimon accompanied him and took the second position in the academy.[15]

His accomplishments and character traits[edit]

Shimon exceeded even Yochanan in acuteness, and Yochanan admitted that his right hand was missing when Shimon was not present.[16] "When [Shimon] discussed halakhic questions, it was as if he were uprooting mountains and rubbing them together," says Ulla.[17] Yochanan was often compelled by Shimon's logic to surrender his own opinion and accept that of Shimon,[18] and even to act in accordance with Shimon's views.[19] Yet it is said in praise of Shimon that all his objections to 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.[20] He had a strong love of truth and an unusually courageous way of saying what he thought. He even declared to the Patriarch Judah II that fear of the latter would never induce him to keep back God's word or any opinion derived from it;[21] and once he ventured to convey a veiled rebuke to the patriarch for avarice.[22] Neither did he hesitate to revoke decisions of his colleagues, including Yochanan, even when action had already been taken in accordance with those decisions.[23] On one occasion, when Yochanan presented a halakhic demonstration before Yannai, and the latter praised him for it, Shimon boldly declared, "In spite of Rabbi Yannai's great praise, R. Yochanan's opinion is not correct".[24] He would defend his views fearlessly before the whole faculty,[25] and sometimes he ventured to give a decision that conflicted with the Mishnah.[26] Nevertheless, his opinions, when they differed from those of Yochanan, were not recognized as valid, except in three cases mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud.[27]

No one equaled Shimon ben Lakish in diligence and eagerness to learn. It was his custom regularly to repeat a section from the Mishnah forty times;[28] he boasted that even Hiyya the Great, who was renowned for his diligence, was no more diligent than he.[29] In order to urge his pupils to continual diligence, he often quoted a proverb which he ascribed to the Torah: "If you leave me one day, I shall leave you for two".[30] His conscientiousness and delicately balanced sense of honor are also celebrated. He avoided association with people of whose honesty he was not fully convinced; hence the testimony of any one allowed to associate with Shimon ben Lakish was accredited even in the absence of witnesses.[31] Shimon 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.[32] Once his vigorous interference saved Yochanan's property from injury.[32]


In his aggadot Shimon 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 banditry wounded him so deeply that he became ill and died.

This happened as follows: Once there was a dispute over when different kinds of knives and weapons are susceptible to ritual impurity. The opinion of Shimon ben Lakish differed from that of Yochanan, whereupon Yochanan remarked, "A robber knows his own tools".[33] Yochanan alluded to Shimon'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 Yochanan; "When I was a bandit they called me 'master', and now they call me 'master.'" Yochanan retorted angrily that he had brought him under the wings of the Shekhinah. The Talmud relates that due to Yochanan becoming so upset, Reish Lakish became ill and prematurely died.

Struck with guilt, Yochanan was in despair at the death of Shimon. When the academy sent Eleazar ben Pedat to act as his study partner, Yochanan accused him of being a yes-man and pined for the times when Shimon 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.[11]

According to tradition, his tomb is located in Qision, formerly a Jewish village and now a ruin situated in the Upper Galilee.[34]


The independence which Shimon ben Lakish manifested in the discussion of halakha was equally pronounced in his treatment of aggadah. In aggadah, too, 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.

His aggadic teachings include:[35]

  • "Should the sons of Israel find rest with the people among whom they are scattered, they would lose their desire to return to Israel, the land of their fathers"[36]
  • "Israel is dear to God, and He takes no pleasure in any one that utters calumnies against Israel"[37]
  • "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".[38]
  • "The words of the Torah can be remembered only by one who sacrifices himself for the sake of studying them".[39]
  • "Israel took the names of the angels from the Babylonians during the period of the Exile, because Isaiah [6:6] speaks only of 'one of the seraphim' without calling him by name; whereas Daniel names the angels Michael and Gabriel"[40]
  • "The adversary (saṭan), the evil inclination, and the angel of death, are one and the same being."[41]
  • "Job never actually existed; he is only the imaginary hero of the poem, the invention of the poet"[42]

His aggadah is especially rich in maxims and proverbs, including:[35]

  • "No man commits a sin unless struck by momentary insanity" [43]
  • "Adorn thyself first; afterward adorn others" [i.e., lead by example][44]
  • "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."[45]
  • "Do not live in the neighborhood of an ignorant man who is pious"[45]
  • "Who commits the sin of adultery only with the eyes is an adulterer"[46]
  • "May the judgment for a prutah be as dear to you as the judgment for a hundred [prutot]."[47]


  1. ^ Heinrich Graetz, "Gesch." v. 240
  2. ^ Yerushalmi Berakhot 63a
  3. ^ "Dorot ha-Rishonim"
  4. ^ "Ag. Pal. Amor." i. 340
  5. ^ Kiddushin 80a; Me'ilah 7b; Bekhorot 13a
  6. ^ Yebamot 57a
  7. ^ Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 4c
  8. ^ a b Brettler, Marc Zvi; Poliakoff, Michael (1990). "Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish at the Gladiator's Banquet: Rabbinic Observations on the Roman Arena" (PDF). The Harvard Theological Review. 83 (1): 93–98. doi:10.1017/S001781600000554X. JSTOR 1509934. S2CID 162453430.
  9. ^ Rabbeinu Tam in Tosafot to Bava Metzia 84a.
  10. ^ Binyamin Lau, The Sages Volume IV (English Edition), 2015, pp. 259-266
  11. ^ a b Bava Metzia 84a
  12. ^ Brachot 31a
  13. ^ Yerushalmi Berakhot 12c
  14. ^ Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 18c; Yerushalmi Niddah 2 50b
  15. ^ Compare Bava Metziah 117a
  16. ^ Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2 19d, 20a
  17. ^ Sanhedrin 24a
  18. ^ Yerushalmi Yoma 38a
  19. ^ Yerushalmi Eruvin 18c
  20. ^ Yerushalmi Gittin 3 44d
  21. ^ Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 20a
  22. ^ Genesis Rabbah 78:16
  23. ^ Yerushalmi Ketuvot 32d, 37a; Bava Batra 16b; Ketuvot 54b, 84b
  24. ^ Yerushalmi Sotah 2 18b
  25. ^ Kiddushin 44a
  26. ^ Yerushalmi Terumot 7 44c; Yerushalmi Hagigah 3 79c
  27. ^ Yebamot 36a
  28. ^ Ta'anit 8a
  29. ^ Yerushalmi Ketubot 12:3
  30. ^ Yerushalmi Berachot 9 14d
  31. ^ Yoma 9b
  32. ^ a b Yerushalmi Terumot 46b
  33. ^ Bava Metziah 84a
  34. ^ בן יוסף, ספי, ed. (2001). הגליל העליון וחופו. מדריך ישראל החדש: אנציקלופדיה | מסלולי טיול (in Hebrew). Vol. 3. כתר הוצאה לאור. p. 358. ISBN 965-07-0894-4.
  35. ^ a b  Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Simeon b. Lakish". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  36. ^ Lamentations Rabbah 1:3
  37. ^ Shir haShirim Rabbah 1:6
  38. ^ Tanhuma, Lech Lecha, ed. Buber, p. 32a
  39. ^ Berachot 63b; Shabbat 83b
  40. ^ Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 56d
  41. ^ Bava Batra 16a
  42. ^ Yerushalmi Sotah 20d
  43. ^ Sotah 3a
  44. ^ Bava Metziah 107b
  45. ^ a b Shabbat 63a
  46. ^ Leviticus Rabbah 23:12
  47. ^ Sanhedrin 8a