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Gittin 47: The Courageous Reish Lakish

Firkowitz 187 manuscript, Gittin 47a.

Gittin 47a recounts Reish Lakish’s feat of strength and bravery: He sold himself to the Ludae, taking a sack containing a round stone with him. He said, “You have a tradition that on the person’s last day, you do anything he requests, so that you will forgive him for spilling his blood.” On the last day, they said to him, “What do you want?” He said to them, “I request that I tie you up in a sitting position, and, each of you, I will strike one and a half times.” Presumably unaware of the rock in the bag, they complied. He smote each of them such that, “his soul left them.” He grimaced. He said, “Are you laughing at me? I still owe you half a strike.” In this way, he killed them all.

There is much that is ambiguous in this story. Who are the Ludae? It could be people of a specific geographical area. Rashi and Aruch explain that Ludae were cannibals. The more recent explanation and accepted explanation is gladiators, as we trace לודאי to לודר, to λουδάριος which would refer to a “gladiator or someone else connected to gladiatorial combat / the circus.” This Greek transliteration would be of the Latin word, which derives from “gladio,” meaning, “I use the sword  + tor.”

The preceding story has a man—an apostate—so desperate for cash that he sells himself to the Ludae. The story might read differently if they are cannibals, in which case, they expect to be eaten, and even if they are gladiators. Yet, condemned criminals and slaves were often killed as part of the gladiatorial games. The Romans fed unarmed victims (condemned criminals and slaves) to wild animals as part of the spectacle. I’m wondering whether there was even a slim chance that the desperate man and Reish Lakish could have survived as armed gladiators. However, they were sold to the gladiators—not necessarily to be armed gladiators.

This plays into the story in different ways: What does “the last day” mean? Was Reish Lakish fighting and if this was the last day of combat, so how had he earned this boon? It seems more of a final request before death. There was also the cena libera—a sumptuous feast fed to gladiators the day before they would face combat. What does כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלֵיחוּל אַדְּמֵיהּ mean? Rashi explains that they would forgive him for shedding his blood, while Aruch suggests that his dying while content would make his blood sweeter for the cannibals to enjoy.

If their soul left them, then who grimaced? Rav Steinsaltz explains that Reish Lakish grimaced, and pretended the person was still alive so as to extend the ruse, so that he could smite the next person. Artscroll explains that the recipient was merely knocked senseless, then grimaced and Reish Lakish reacted. Some manuscripts (Vatican 130, 140; Oxford 368, Nurnburg) reverse the נְפַק נִשְׁמְתֵיהּ and the חַרְקִינֵּיהּ לְשִׁינֵּיהּ, which solves the grimacing problem. The manuscripts which place a joining vav between the actions certainly keep the same the actor. But, some manuscripts (Munich 95, Firkowitz 187) only have the grimacing. I suspect a scribal error introduced נְפַק נִשְׁמְתֵיהּ – compare חרק with נפק and לשיניה and נשמתיה. The yud, nun sequence of לשיניה looks a lot like a mem.


Life Sequence?

Another source to mention is his first encounter with Rabbi Yochanan who was swimming in the river in Bava Metzia 84a, where he was persuaded to abandon his evil path, and, instead, to study Torah and marry Rabbi Yochanan’s sister. He seems to have been a bandit then. Later on in life, when arguing about the stage of manufacture of a knife in which it can become ritually impure, Rabbi Yochanan insults Reish Lakish with לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע“ a bandit knows his banditry.” Rabbi Yochanan didn’t call him a gladiator.

We need to know when to place these life events: Tosafot (Gittin) claim that selling himself to Ludae must have happened prior to his teshuva (when encountering Rabbi Yochanan), דמסתמא לא היה מזלזל בעצמו כל כך, for afterwards, he, presumably, wouldn’t have denigrated himself to such an extent. Also, Bava Metzia recounts how Rabbi Yochanan taught Reish Lakish everything from the aleph beis—he taught him Mikra and Mishna, and made him a great man.

Yet, Tosafot to Bava Metzia, and to Eruvin 65b, say that he must have been a great man much earlier, and then, he went off the derech. This, because Eruvin recounts a practical halachic incident involving an inn and Rabbi Chanina’s students visiting an inn on Shabbat, and, subsequently, consulting Rabbi Afes about whether they had acted appropriately. Since Rabbi Afes died only two years after Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, this must have occurred before the swimming incident2.

Rav Aharon Hyman disagrees with Tosafot because of Bava Metzia’s language of אקרייה ואתנייה ושוייה גברא רבא, and explains how the chronology could work. There’s also controversy over whether there is a Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish I and II, based on interactions with earlier Sages, but Rav Hyman explains how this is erroneous, and based on scribal errors or not understanding that “Rabbi” can also refer to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s grandson. The existence of Reish Lakish I and II might have simplified chronology.


Generally Courageous

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was generally courageous, and willing to risk his life to save his friends. Yerushalmi Terumot 8:4 relates how Rabbi Issi was captured during a riotous gathering. Rabbi Yochanan said, “May the dead be wrapped in his shroud,” and gave up on him. Reish Lakish declared, “Kill or be killed; I will save him by force.” He negotiated—presumably, under threat of force—and they handed Rabbi Issi over. Reish Lakish said, “Come to our old man, and he’ll pray for you.” They came to Rabbi Yochanan, who said, “That which you intended, should be done to you.” They didn’t reach Palmyra before all of them were gone (either dead or captured).

That same Yerushalmi relates how Rabbi Yochanan was robbed by the people of Kanah. He came to the study hall dejected, and Reish Lakish repeatedly asked him what happened. Rabbi eventually described the robbery, and upon further prompting, pointed out their location in Teveria. When the thieves saw him from afar, they were willing to give back half the money, but Reish Lakish said, “By your lives, I will take it all.” And, so he did…

Reish Lakish’s brave character may provide us alternatives for ordering his life. Is Tosafot’s assumption correctthat Reish Lakish wouldn’t sell himself to the Ludae, who were a menace? We see that he would put himself out, even after being an established talmid chacham.

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.


1 And not from, “Glad he ate her,” which would bring us back to cannibals.

2 He also seems to have studied with other Sages besides Rabbi Yochanan.

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