April 9, 2024
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Understanding the Tragic Fallout Between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish

 An Extraordinarily Productive Relationship Gone Sour

It is undoubtedly one of the most painful episodes recounted in the Gemara. Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan are the lead characters, who rank among the most extraordinary Talmudic pair of scholars. Hundreds of their incisive debates fill the Talmud.

 

A Debate That Spiraled Out of Control

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) describes a typical interaction between these two in the beit midrash: Rabbi Yochanan, the teacher, would set forth a proposition. Reish Lakish would challenge it with no less than 24 questions. Rabbi Yochanan, in turn, would respond with 24 answers, yielding a very rich discussion. The Jewish people continue now and forever to benefit from these great learning sessions enormously.

Despite the almost unparalleled heights of these two early Amoraic giants, the relationship ended most tragically. Our dynamic duo was embroiled in a debate, as described by the Gemara (translation from the William Davidson edition of the Talmud):

One day the Sages of the study hall were engaging in a dispute concerning the following baraita: With regard to the sword, the knife, the dagger [vehapigyon], the spear, a hand sickle, and a harvest sickle, from when are they susceptible to ritual impurity? The baraita answers: It is from the time of the completion of their manufacture, which is the halacha with regard to metal vessels in general.

These Sages inquired: And when is the completion of their manufacture? Rabbi Yochanan says: It is from when one fires these items in the furnace. Reish Lakish said: It is from when one scours them in water after being fired in the furnace.

It was rare for Reish Lakish to defeat Rabbi Yochanan in debate. The halacha typically follows Rabbi Yochanan in his arguments with Reish Lakish. In this case, however, Reish Lakish emerged as the victor. Rabbi Yochanan did not react well to his loss, and things flew out of control very quickly:

Rabbi Yochanan said to Reish Lakish: A bandit knows about his banditry, i.e., you are an expert in weaponry because you were a bandit in your youth. Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan: What benefit did you provide me by bringing me close to Torah? There, among the bandits, they called me leader of the bandits, and here too they call me leader of the bandits. Rabbi Yochanan said to him: I provided benefit to you, as I brought you close to God, under the wings of the Divine Presence.

Things deteriorated further, as described by the Gemara:

As a result of the quarrel, Rabbi Yochanan was offended, which in turn affected Reish Lakish, who fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan’s sister, who was Reish Lakish’s wife, came crying to Rabbi Yochanan, begging that he pray for Reish Lakish’s recovery. She said to him: Do this for the sake of my children, so that they should have a father. Rabbi Yochanan said to her the verse: “Leave your fatherless children, I will rear them” (Jeremiah 49:11), i.e., I will take care of them. She said to him: Do so for the sake of my widowhood. He said to her the rest of the verse: “And let your widows trust in Me.”

Ultimately, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Reish Lakish, died.

Rabbi Yochanan was soon to meet his end as well:

Rabbi Yochanan was sorely pained over losing him. The rabbis said: Who will go to calm Rabbi Yochanan’s mind and comfort him over his loss? They said: Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp, i.e., he is clever and will be able to serve as a substitute for Reish Lakish.

Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yochanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yochanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling that is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yochanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise 24 difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with 24 answers, and the halacha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling that is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? Being rebutted by Reish Lakish served a purpose; your bringing proof to my statements does not.

Rabbi Yochanan went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish? Rabbi Yochanan screamed until his mind was taken from him, i.e., he went insane. The rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yochanan died.

 

Rabbi Yochanan Convinces Reish Lakish to Return to a Torah Path

This story is utterly shocking. The great Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish both meet their untimely demise due to a halachic dispute gone awry! How could this have happened? Based on the Gemara’s description, we explain how Rabbi Yochanan convinced Reish Lakish to return to a Torah life. Tosafot cite Rabbenu Tam, who argues that Reish Lakish was a Torah scholar before abandoning Torah and then returning to the beit midrash.

One day, Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Reish Lakish saw him and jumped into the Jordan, pursuing him. At that time, Reish Lakish was the leader of a band of marauders. Rabbi Yochanan said to Reish Lakish: Your strength is fit for Torah study. Reish Lakish said to him: Your beauty is fit for women. Rabbi Yochanan said to him: If you return to the pursuit of Torah, I will give you my sister in marriage, who is more beautiful than I am. Reish Lakish accepted upon himself to study Torah.

Rabbi Yochanan taught Reish Lakish Torah and Mishnah and turned him into a great man. Eventually Reish Lakish became one of the outstanding Torah scholars of his generation.

 

Harnessing the Power Of the Yetzer Hara

In Reish Lakish’s first round in the beit midrash, his motto was that one must suppress his evil inclination/yetzer hara (Brachot 5a). However, Rabbi Yochanan in the Jordan River convinces Reish Lakish to adopt a new strategy: Take the yetzer hara to the beit midrash and channel its energy to intensive Torah study (see Kiddushin 30b). Reish Lakish found this approach appealing. He no longer suppresses his yetzer hara, but he satisfies his yetzer hara by channeling it in the proper direction.

The Torah (Devarim 6:5 as explained by Rashi citing Brachot 54a) commands us to serve Hashem with both our yetzer hara and yetzer hatov (good inclination). The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 9:7) goes as far as to say that the combination of the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov is tov meod (yields excellence). The untamed yetzer hara is negative, and the yetzer hatov alone is good but not great. The Midrash teaches that good transforms to great only when the yetzer hatov harnesses the power and drive of the yetzer hara.

Reish Lakish, before he sinned, was a good scholar. However, after Rabbi Yochanan urged him to harness his fierce competitive drive to the cause of Torah, he became a great Torah scholar of top rank.

 

The Risk of Bringing the Yetzer Hara Into the Beit Midrash

Bringing the competitive spirit of the yetzer hara into the beit midrash can spur outstanding Torah accomplishments. Chazal (Bava Batra 21a) teach that “kinat sofrim tarbeh chochma,” competition fuels Torah scholarship. Nonetheless, we run a substantial risk by introducing the yetzer hara for competition into spiritual matters. If we fail to monitor the yetzer hara carefully, even for a second, the destructive force of the yetzer hara can wreak havoc and destruction.

An analogy to automobile driving is helpful. A car is a powerful machine. It can bring many blessings if carefully controlled but can cause profound harm if we let down our guard even for a second.

 

Conclusion

Rabbi Yochanan’s quick thinking and very timely advice to Reish Lakish have brought enormous bracha to our people. The Talmud would be much poorer if not for their great debates. Unfortunately, however, it seems that our beloved heroes experienced a momentary lapse in carefully controlling their yetzer hara. Regrettably, their momentary lapse destroyed them.

Many individuals and communities introduce competition to enhance spirituality. While this strategy can often produce beautiful results, our story is a powerful cautionary tale of failing to control the yetzer hara at all times without exception.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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