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Shimon ben Lakish

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Shim‘on ben Lakish (Hebrew: שמעון בן לקיש‎; Aramaic: שמעון בר לקישShim‘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 Syria Palaestina 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.

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  • ✪ Weekly Torah Portion: Va'etchanan


Shalom. This week we are reading the Torah portion of Va’etchanan, the second Torah portion of the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy. The word va’etchanan literally means ‘and I implored;’ In his retelling to the Children of the Israel the events of the past forty years, this parasha begins as Moshe recounts his heartfelt plea to Hashem which he offered up after the battles of Sichon and Og, in the hope that perhaps G-d would rescind His decree and allow Moshe to enter into the Land. But that was not to be the case. The portion of Va’etchanan is always read on the Sabbath after Tisha B’av, this Sabbath, and this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu, meaning ‘the Sabbath of Consolation,’ taking its name from the first words of Isaiah Chapter 40, the haftarah, the prophetic reading for this Sabbath. Indeed, this week of Shabbat Nachamu with the reading of this haftarah begins a series of seven haftarat over the next seven weeks that focus on prophecies of consolation. So what’s happening in parashat Va’etchanan? Moshe concludes the historical review which he began in parashat Devarim; he warns his people to keep G-d’s commandments and reminds them of the events at Mount Sinai when Hashem revealed Himself to them and presented them with the Torah; Moshe warns Israel that if they do not keep the commandments they will be exiled; but promises them that repentance beckons to them and that G-d will never abandon them….he reminds Israel of the miracles that Hashem performed for them…. He sets aside three cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan, and then he begins another discourse, and this one is all about the commandments, he begins to exhort the Children of Israel, he repeats the Ten Commandments and chapter 6 of our Torah portion features the pre-eminently important verse Shema Yisrael, ‘Hear O Israel,’ as well as the first paragraph of the Shema recital prayer. The portion is saturated, totally focused, on Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel – and the mitzvoth, the Divine commandments. And really, on the connection between the Land and the commandments. Moshe mentions the Land no fewer than 14 times, several times referring to it as ‘the Good Land’, ‘the land that Hashem gives you’, ‘the Land that He swore to your forefathers’. And really, there’s so much going on here in parashat Ve’etchanan. But for the moment I would like to focus on the Shema Yisrael which after all makes its appearance here in Va’etchanan. So what do we know about the Shema? It is the most basic declaration of faith for the Jewish people, the most basic thing that a Jew must know, the ultimate affirmation of the absolute and unique Oneness of G-d. It’s so important that the Torah itself, right here in the shema, in 6:7, instructs that it should be recited twice daily, regularly, and it is also recited on various other occasions of profound significance. The Shema expresses that it is a foundation of our faith to believe that G-d is One and that His is the most perfect and absolute unity. Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One. To express this belief in G-d’s unity is not just a statement of faith, but actually the fulfilment of a positive commandment, and this commandment depends on faith and can be fulfilled at all times just by thinking. So kids, try this at home. And really, if we want to talk about the significance of the Shema as a prayer, as a meditation, as a toolkit for growing closer to Hashem, as a conduit of Divine power and love, and opportunity for spiritual growth, there is no limit to what we can learn, and how deep we can go…and I encourage you to delve deeply…but at the moment, we’ll keep it simple and basic and really, the simplest is the deepest of all. So, the first verse, Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, ‘Hear o Israel, Hashem who is our G-d, Hashem is One,’ is a call to the people of Israel to recognize Hashem as G-d , to recognize His uniqueness and Oneness, and to accept the ‘yoke,’ meaning the responsibility, of performing His commandments. To accept His sovereignty over us. That’s a lot deeper than you might think. So, we have already learned that this entire Sefer Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy, is like one long speech which Moshe Rabbeinu is giving over to the people of Israel over a five week period before he departs this world. So it’s interesting that the Shema appears here in this part of the Torah. (In fact it’s interesting and compelling that it appears specifically this week, and we’ll talk about that as well). But I say its interesting that it appears here because it almost seems misplaced, because there is another tradition regarding its origin, I’m thinking that the Talmud in Tractate Pesachim describes the scene in which the Shema was originally recited by the patriarch Jacob’s sons prior to his departing this world: “Said R. Shimon ben Lakish: (Quoting from Gen. Ch. 49) ‘And Yaakov called to his sons, and said to them, ‘gather together and I will tell you’ …Yaakov sought to reveal the end of days to his sons, but as he was about to do so, suddenly the Shechina departed from him. He lost his Divine prophetic inspiration, so he was prevented from telling them. He said, Perhaps G-d forbid one of my descendants is found unworthy by the Al-mighty, just as Ishmael descended from Abraham and as my father Isaac gave birth to Esav… sensing his apprehension, his sons said to him: ‘Shema Yisrael, Hashem who is our G-d, He is Hashem who is One. ‘ The sons’ message to their father Yaakov was, ‘Just as there is only One G-d in your heart, so too there He is the only One in our hearts. ‘ At that moment Yaakov declared in response, Baruch Shem k’vod malchuto l’olam vaed, ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever’ which is the traditional response to the Shema Yisrael. So according to this tradition, the Shema was part of this ancient dialogue between Jacob and his sons. But this is an oral tradition and the Shema is not actually recorded there in the written Torah in Genesis 49, it is only stated now, by Moshe, here in Va’etchanan. So why does Moshe bring it up now, and why are we reading it now? Now also, please be aware that in the Torah scroll, which has been written according to tradition that Moshe received from G-d at Mount Sinai and is written by hand in the exact same manner for 3500 years, the verse Shema Yisrael is written with a large Ayin, the last letter of the word Shema and with a large dalet, the last letter of the word Echad, One, and on this account it is printed this way in many siddurim as well. The two large letters ayin and daled thus standing out boldly, spell the word ‘eid,’ meaning ‘witness.’ Whoever recites the Shema bears witness to Hashem’s Oneness. Isaiah 41:10 declares, ‘You are My witnesses, - the word of Hashem – and My servant whom I have chosen, so that you will know and believe in Me, and understand that I am He, before Me nothing was created by a god nor will there be after Me!’ Another thing the large Ayin stands for – ayin has the numerical value of seventy – are the primordial seventy nations. And the big daleth – the four directions. Although Israel was dispersed among the seventy nations and flung to the four corners of the world, she testifies daily to Hashem’s Oneness. And the essence of this absolute and unique Oneness, although our sages teach that it is an all encompassing and simple unity, it is incomprehensible. Yet open up your heart in the deepest way, In the shema we say, ‘Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One’ so before declaring that G-d is an unknowable transcendental unity, Hashem is One…what did we say? We declare that He is our G-d…ours….accessible to us at all times. So too in every blessing before addressing G-d as the transcendental King of the universe, melech haolam, we call Him Elokeinu, our G-d. One of the most beautiful aspects of reciting the Shema daily, is that it means we are accepting His G-dliness upon ourselves every day..anew. Shema, we ourselves have to hear, but it means deeper than that: we need to understand, to pay attention, that He is our G-d who is One. That means there is nothing else but Him. And His Oneness includes everything that has led us to this point, to today, it includes everything that happens to us, because everything will ultimately be understood to be His compassion –I am Hashem your G-d. Understanding this….really….has to be a source of incredible and incomparable joy. And now open up your heart in the deepest way. We’re getting to the secret. Why are we reading this this week, why does parashat Va’etchanan always fall out immediately after Tisha B’Av, in the proximity of the unsung ancient holiday of Tu B’Av, which is Friday this week, which was celebrated in Holy Temple times as the happiest day of the year, because it expresses Hashem’s unconditional and eternal love for His people? This is the Sabbath of Consolation. And in the third verse of this week’s Torah portion, Moshe Rabbeinu wraps up the Tisha B’Av experience for us with the words, ‘Let me now cross and see the good Land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon’, which our sages tell us is an allusion to Moshe’s deep desire to see Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. The Shema appears in our parasha because we read it on the Sabbath of Consolation. Open your heart. This is not for kids. Listen. Shema. That He is Elokeinu, our G-d, within reach and reaching out to us with His love….that is the consolation, the source of the greatest joy of all. And thus we are commanded here ‘And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.’ Everything brings us back to Him, is from Him, and we are commanded to love everything that draws us close to Him, all the midot, all the mitzvoth, but I say, everything that is part of the process of our refinement and discovery as human beings. Even the suffering that comes upon us is to draw us closer. That is why this comes out on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation. This is our G-d, that is the comfort. Rashi tells us that one of the most basic intentions of the Shema is as follows: Shema Yisrael – Hashem who is now, currently, Elokeinu – our G-d – will one day in the future, be Hashem Echad – He will be recognized and acknowledged as the One True G-d by all the nations of the world. That’s the deepest meaning of Shema. And this is the Sabbath of Consolation. This is our G-d, and that is the comfort. In the words of Isaiah, ‘Comfort, comfort My people, says your G-d.’



His teachers

According to the Talmud, Reish Lakish, like Yochanan, ascribed his knowledge of the Torah to his good fortune in having been privileged to see the patriarch 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 was compelled to risk his life continually in combat with wild beasts.[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]

Encounter with Yochanan

It is said that 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

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.[33]


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".[34] 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]


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:

  • "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"[35]
  • "Israel is dear to God, and He takes no pleasure in any one that utters calumnies against Israel"[36]
  • "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".[37]
  • "The words of the Torah can be remembered only by one who sacrifices himself for the sake of studying them".[38]
  • "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"[39]
  • "The adversary (saṭan), the evil inclination, and the angel of death, are one and the same being."[40]
  • "Job never actually existed; he is only the imaginary hero of the poem, the invention of the poet"[41]

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

  • "No man commits a sin unless struck by momentary insanity" [42]
  • "Adorn thyself first; afterward adorn others" [i.e., lead by example][43]
  • "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."[44]
  • "Do not live in the neighborhood of an ignorant man who is pious"[44]
  • "Who commits the sin of adultery only with the eyes is an adulterer"[45]
  • "May the judgment for a prutah be as dear to you as the judgment for a hundred [prutot]."[46]


  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 Gittin 46b-47a
  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. ^ Yerushalmi Terumot 46b
  33. ^ ibid.
  34. ^ Bava Metziah 84a
  35. ^ Lamentations Rabbah 1:3
  36. ^ Shir haShirim Rabbah 1:6
  37. ^ Tanhuma, Lech Lecha, ed. Buber, p. 32a
  38. ^ Berachot 63b; Shabbat 83b
  39. ^ Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 56d
  40. ^ Bava Batra 16a
  41. ^ Yerushalmi Sotah 20d
  42. ^ Sotah 3a
  43. ^ Bava Metziah 107b
  44. ^ a b Shabbat 63a
  45. ^ Leviticus Rabbah 23:12
  46. ^ Sanhedrin 8a
This page was last edited on 22 January 2020, at 14:39
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