Simeon ben Lakish

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SIMEON BEN LAKISH (third century c.e.), Palestinian amora. Simeon b. Lakish or Resh Lakish, as he is more concisely and commonly referred to in the Babylonian Talmud, was active in the communal and religious spheres mainly in Tiberias, where he may have been born as may be inferred from a conversation with a guard of the bet ha-midrash (Eccles. R. 3:9). Nothing is known of his origins except that his father's name was Lakish. He apparently studied under several sages (tj, Kil. 9:4, 32b, end) among whom were Bar Kappara and Oshaiah of southern Ereẓ Israel, but it is not known who was his principal teacher. In his youth he sold himself to men who hired participants in gladiatorial contests – a common practice in Ereẓ Israel at the time (see tj, Git. 4:9, 46a–b) – presumably because he had no other means of earning a livelihood; he made reference in his old age to this period of his life (tj, Ter. 8:5, 45d). For a time he also worked as a plantation guard (tj, mk 3:1, 81d). According to the aggadah, R. Johanan prevailed on him to study the Torah and gave him his sister in marriage (bm 84a). They had a son who was a scholar (Ta'an. 9a). Resh Lakish devoted himself with great diligence to the study of the Torah, systematically repeating his studies 40 times before having a lesson with Johanan (Ta'an 8a), and in time became one of the most esteemed sages in the Tiberias academy headed by Johanan. His halakhic argumentation was grounded both on keen logical deduction and on a knowledge of the traditions (Sanh. 24a; tj, Git. 3:1, 44d), and when he died Johanan himself stated that a void had been created (bm 84a).

Resh Lakish showed partiality to no one in whatever concerned a halakhic decision and the actions of a bet din. He often argued against and disagreed with the views of Johanan, who on such occasions would say, "What can I do when one of equal authority differs from me?" (Ket. 54b, 84b). Neither did he defer to his contemporary Judah ha-Nasi ii in any halakhic matter (tj, Sanh. 2:1, 19d) and even reminded him of his duty to provide schools for children (Shab. 119b). Resh Lakish's interpreter, Judah b. Nahamani, on one occasion also condemned Judah ha-Nasi ii's household for having appointed incompetent judges (Sanh. 7b). Whenever he saw or met Babylonian Jews in Ereẓ Israel, Resh Lakish criticized them in the harshest and most biting terms for not having returned to the country (in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah) and thus having been a contributory cause to the destruction of Ereẓ Israel (Yoma 9b). In this he expressed the general feeling current among people in Ereẓ Israel (Kid. 39b; tj, Ber. 2:5c; et al.). Resh Lakish would assemble the sages of the academy and review with them Johanan's discourses so as to explain to them what they had been unable to grasp by themselves (bk 117a, and see Rashi ad loc., s.v.mesayyem). He was highly esteemed by the pupils of the academy and also by the people for his personal integrity, which was so great that it was said that if he was seen talking in public with anyone, that person would be lent money without any witnesses (Yoma 9b). He was always ready to help others even if it involved danger, risking his life to save Rav Assi (tj, Ter. 8:10, 46b).

In his addresses, both to the academy pupils and to the wider public, he emphasized the importance of the mitzvah of studying the Torah, the great reward of its students and of supporting the poor ones among them. He admonished students to be diligent in their studies, for otherwise "if you forsake me [the Torah] for one day, I shall forsake you for two days" (tj, Ber. 9:8, 14d; and in a clearer version in Midrash Shir ha-Shirim, ed. by E. Gruenhut (1897), 5:12, 40a–b). To him the study of the Torah was a divine task which was not to be neglected. Hence he held that a disciple of the sages was forbidden to afflict himself by fasting (Ta'an. 11b). He also said that "the words of the Torah abide only with one who kills himself for them" (Git. 57b); that one was not to accept services from a scholar (Meg. 28b); and that the sages were to be exempted from paying taxes for the city wall (bb 7b). He did indeed hold that "sometimes the neglect of [the study of] the Torah is its fulfillment" (Men. 99a–b, and see Rashi ad loc., s.v.she-bittulah), when such neglect is in order to observe certain mitzvot. He enjoined scholars to be amiable and to respect one another in their halakhic discussions (Shab. 63a); he deprecated undesirable traits: "If a sage becomes angry, his wisdom departs from him; if a prophet, his prophecy departs from him" (Pes. 66b), and "whoever scoffs will fall into Gehenna" (Av. Zar. 18b); and he warned against the evil inclination in one's heart: "Every day a man's evil inclination threatens to master him, and seeks to kill him" (Suk. 52b), "a man should always incite his good inclination against his evil inclination" (Ber. 5a), and "a person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly enters into him" (Sot. 3a).

His love for the Jewish people was as great as his love for the Torah. Once when he and Abbahu went to Caesarea, which was inhabited by large numbers of non-Jews and hellenized Jews, and Abbahu denounced its inhabitants, Resh Lakish stopped him by saying, "God does not want evil spoken of Israel" (Eccles. R. 1:6). The difficult political and economic situation of the Jewish population in Ereẓ Israel in the third century c.e., a period of appalling military anarchy, forms the background of many of Resh Lakish's homilies in which he spoke of God's love for His people even when their fortunes had "declined to the lowest ebb" (tj, Ber. 9:1, 13b; pr 140b). These conditions are also reflected in Resh Lakish's appraisal of the Roman government and its actions (Sot. 41b; Gen. R. 9:13; Lev. R. 13:5). Later generations referred to Resh Lakish and Johanan as the "two renowned authorities" (tj, Ber. 8:7, 12c). According to the aggadah, Resh Lakish died from grief after Johanan, in a halakhic discussion between them, referred to the former's past as a gladiator by saying "A robber knows his trade." Deeply regretting this slip of his tongue, Johanan was so stricken with remorse that he died from mental anguish (bm 84a).


Bacher, Pal Amor; Hyman, Toledot, 1193–1202; Frankel, Mevo, 129b; Ḥ. Albeck, Mavo la-Talmudim (1969), 190f.

[Moshe Beer]