Few people famous for their Torah learning have as colorful a background as Rabbi Simon ben Lakish, who is frequently referred to in rabbinic literature as “Reish Lakish.” Before dedicating himself to Torah study, Reish Lakish was a bandit and a gladiator.
The story of his transformation from outlaw to scholar is recorded in the Talmud: Reish Lakish
jumped into a pool of water in which Rabbi Yochanan was bathing. Amazed at the skillfullness and distance of his jump, Rabbi Yochanan told Reish Lakish that his unusual strength should be used for Torah study. Reish Lakish responded in kind, suggesting that Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty (for he was exceptionally handsome) should be for women. Rabbi Yochanan immediately proposed that, if Reish Lakish would repent from his outlaw ways and become a scholar, he could marry Rabbi Yochanan’s sister, who he said “is more beautiful than I” (Talmud Baba Metzia 84a).
As Rabbi Yochanan had suspected, when Reish Lakish focused his strength on Torah, he was able to achieve uncommon greatness. One scholar, Rabbi Ulla, said of him, “One who saw Reish Lakish in the study hall would think he was uprooting mountains and grinding them against each other” (Talmud Sanhedrin 24a).
In time, Reish Lakish came to equal Rabbi Yochanan in scholarship, and the two became study mates, although they were often at odds in their opinions.
The two sages studied together until tragedy struck. One day, a group of sages were trying to determine the ritual status of an assortment of knives. Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan had differing opinions, and the latter muttered, “A robber understands his trade,” a not-so subtle allusion to Reish Lakish’s shady background. Reish Lakish responded by pointing out how he was a master in his former life and a master in his current life. Rabbi Yochanan felt himself deeply hurt. Realizing how severely he had pained his brother-in-law, Resh Lakish was so upset that he himself became ill and died. Following his death, a grief stricken Rabbi Yochanan was so inconsolable that he eventually lost his mind (Baba Metzia 84a).
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