SIMEON B. LAḲISH (called also Resh Laḳish):
One of the two most prominent Palestinian amoraim of the second generation (the other being his brother-in-law and halakic opponent R. Johanan); born c. 200; died c. 275. Nothing is known of his ancestry except his father's name. According to Grätz ("Gesch." v. 240), his birthplace was Bostra, east of the Jordan; yet even from early youth he appears to have lived in Sepphoris, where he studied with R. Johanan. Like the latter, he ascribed his knowledge of the Torah to his good fortune in having been privileged to see the patriarch Judah ha-Nasi (Yer. Ber. 63a). According to Halevy ("Dorot ha-Rishonim"), he was a pupil of R. Judah Nesiah (grandson of Rabbi), in whose name he transmits many sayings. Bacher supposes that he was a pupil of Bar Ḳappara, since he often hands down sayings in his name ("Ag. Pal. Amor." i. 340). He appears also to have attended the seminary of R. Hoshaiah, whom he cites (Ḳid. 80a; Me'i. 7b; Bek. 13a), questions (Yeb. 57a), and calls the "father of the Mishnah" (Yer. B. Ḳ. 4c).Relations with R. Johanan.
Many stories are told of Simeon's gigantic strength and of his corpulence. He was accustomed to lie on the hard ground, saying, "My fat is my cushion" (Giṭ. 47a). 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 circus ("ludii," "ludiarii"), where he could make use of his great bodily strength, but where also he was compelled to risk his life continually in combats with wild beasts (ib.). From this low estate he was brought back to his studies by R. Johanan. It is said that the latter saw him bathing in the Jordan, and was so overcome by his beauty that at one bound he was beside him in the water. "Thy strength would be more appropriate for studying the Law," said R. Johanan; "And thy beauty for women," answered Resh Laḳish. Thereupon R. Johanan said, "If thou wilt turn again to thy studies I will give thee to wife my sister, who is still more beautiful." Resh Laḳish agreed, and R. Johanan led him back to a life of study (B. M. 84a). R. Johanan might be called a teacher of R. Simeon b. Laḳish (Ḥul. 139a; Ber. 31a); but the latter, through his extraordinary talent and his exhaustless diligence, soon attained so complete a knowledge of the Law that he stood on an equal footing with R. Johanan. They are designated as "the two great authorities" (Yer. Ber. 12c). While R. Johanan was still in Sepphoris, teaching at the same time as Ḥanina, Simeon b. Laḳish stood on an equality with him and enjoyed equal rights as a member of the school and council (Yer. Sanh. 18c; Yer. Niddah ii. 50b).His Independence of Judgment.
When R. Johanan went to Tiberias and founded an academy there, Simeon accompanied him and took the second position in the school (comp. B. Ḳ. 117a). He exceeded even R. Johanan in acuteness, and the latter himself admitted that his right hand was missing when R. Simeon was not present (Yer. Sanh. ii. 19d, 20a). "When he discussed halakic questions it was as if he were uprooting mountains and rubbing them together," says 'Ula of him (Sanh. 24a). R. Johanan was often compelled by Simeon's logic to surrender his own opinion and accept that of Simeon (Yer. Yoma 38a), and even to act in accordance with the latter's views (Yer. 'Er. 18c). Yet it is said in praise of R. Simeon that all his objections to R. Johanan'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 (Yer. Giṭ. iii. 44d). He had a strong love of truth and an unusually courageous way of saying what he thought. He even declared to the patriarch Judah Nesiah that fear of the latter would never induce him to keep back God's word or any opinion derived from it (Yer. Sanh. 20a); and once he ventured to convey a veiled rebuke to the patriarch for avarice (Gen. R. lxxviii. 16). Neither did he hesitate to revoke decisions of his colleagues, including R. Johanan, even when action had already been taken in accordance with those decisions (Yer. Ket. 32d, 37a; B. B. 16b; Ket. 54b, 84b). On one occasion, when R. Johanan presented a halakic demonstration before R. Yannai, and the latter praised him for it, Simeon boldly declared, "In spite of R. Yannai's great praise, R. Johanan's opinion is not correct" (Yer. Soṭah ii. 18b). He would defend his views fearlessly before the whole faculty (Ḳid. 44a), and sometimes he ventured to give a decision that conflicted with the Mishnah (Yer. Ter. vii. 44c; Yer. Ḥag. iii. 79c). Nevertheless, his opinions, when they differed from those of R. Johanan, were not recognized as valid, except in three cases mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Yeb. 36a).
No one equaled Simeon ben Laḳish in diligence and eagerness to learn. It was his custom regularly to repeat a section from the Mishnah forty times (Ta'an. 8a); he boasted that even R. Ḥiyya, who was renowned for his diligence, was no more diligent than he (Yer. Ket. xii. 3). In order to urge his pupils tocontinual industry, he often quoted a proverb which he ascribed to the Torah: "If thou leavest me one day, I shall leave thee for two" (Yer. Ber. ix. 14d). His conscientiousness and delicately balanced sense of honor are also celebrated. He avoided association with people of whose probity he was not fully convinced; hence the testimony of any one allowed to associate with Simeon b. Laḳish was accredited even in the absence of witnesses (Yoma 9a). Simeon ben Laḳish 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 R. Assi, who had been imprisoned and was regarded as practically dead by his colleagues (Yer. Ter. 46b). Once his vigorous interference saved R. Johanan's property from injury (ib.).His Haggadot.
The independence which Simeon ben Laḳish manifested in the discussion of halakic questions was equally pronounced in his treatment of haggadic matters. In haggadah, also, 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 haggadot 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, Israel, and Rome, Messianic and eschatological subjects, as well as other dicta and proverbs. Some of his haggadic sentences are as follows: "Should the sons of Israel find rest with the people among whom they are scattered, they would lose their desire to return to Palestine, the land of their fathers" (Lam. R. i. 3). "Israel is dear to God, and He takes no pleasure in any one that utters calumnies against Israel" (Cant. R. i. 6).Examples of His Exegesis.
"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" (Tan., Lek Leka, ed. Buber, p. 32a). "The world exists only by virtue of the breath which comes from the mouths of school-children. The instruction of the young should not be interrupted, even by the building of a sanctuary" (Shab. 119b). "The words of the Torah can be remembered only by one who sacrifices himself for the sake of studying them" (Ber. 63b; Shab. 83b). "Israel took the names of the angels from the Babylonians during the period of the Exile, because Isaiah [vi. 6] speaks only of 'one of the seraphim,' without calling him by name; whereas Daniel names the angels Michael and Gabriel" (Yer. R. H. 56d). "Job never actually existed; he is only the imaginary hero of the poem, the invention of the poet" (Yer. Soṭah 20d).
Simeon ben Laḳish's haggadah is especially rich in maxims and proverbs: "No man commits a sin," says Simeon, "unless struck by momentary insanity" (Soṭah 3a). "Adorn [i.e., instruct] thyself first; afterward adorn others" (B. M. 107b). "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" (Shab. 63a). "Do not live in the neighborhood of an ignorant man who is pious" (ib.). "Who commits the sin of adultery only with the eyes is an adulterer" (Lev. R. xxiii. 12; comp. a similar statement in Matt. v. 28).
In his haggadot Simeon 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 calling made by his colleague and brother-in-law R. Johanan wounded him so deeply that he became ill and died. This happened as follows: On one occasion there was a dispute as to the time when the different kinds of knives and weapons might be considered to have been first perfected. The opinion of Simeon ben Laḳish differed from that of R. Johanan, whereupon the latter remarked, "A robber knows his own tools" (B. M. 84a). R. Johanan alluded to Simeon's life as a gladiator, in which a knowledge of sharp weapons was a matter of course. This speech of R. Johanan's not only caused the illness and death of Simeon b. Laḳish, but it had also a disastrous influence on his reputation. The saying, which was certainly used figurtively, was taken literally by many later scholars, and the opinion became current that Simeon had been a robber, or even a robber chief, in his younger days, an opinion which found expression in Pirḳe Rabbi Eli'ezer (xliii.). Yet nowhere is there the slightest authority for such a statement (comp. Weiss, "Dor," iii. 84, and Bacher, l.c. i. 344, note 5). R. Johanan was in despair at the death of Simeon, and it is said that he kept calling, "Where is Bar Leḳisha, where is Bar Leḳisha?" He soon followed Simeon to the grave (B. M. 84a).
- Bacher, Ag. Pal. Amor. i. 340-418;
- Frankel, Mebo, pp. 129b-130a;
- Grätz, Gesch. 3d ed., iv. 240-242;
- Halevy, Dorot ha-Rishonim, ii. 159a-164a;
- Heilprin, Seder ha-Dorot, ii. 374-376, Warsaw, 1882;
- Weiss, Dor, iii. 80-85.