Rosh Hashanah

Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan on the Power of Repentance: A Reappraisal

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Leonard Grunstein

The captivating story of Reish Lakish’s repentance after a chance encounter with Rabbi Yohanan is well-known.[1] Reish Lakish was a bandit leader[2] and former gladiator.[3] Rabbi Yohanan had gone out for a swim. Reish Lakish mistook him for a woman because of his striking beauty[4] and leapt into the river. Instead, he was confronted with Rabbi Yohanan, who responded to the threatening posture of Reish Lakish with the disarming and inspirational response, “Your strength [is] for Torah.” Rabbi Yohanan did not reflect on Reish Lakish’s negatives, including his inappropriate life-style and conduct. Rather, he emphasized the positive and, in a complimentary fashion, suggested how much Reish Lakish could accomplish if he applied his obvious powers to Torah.

Reish Lakish didn’t miss a beat, retorting that Rabbi Yohanan should devote his beauty to courting women. Still, Rabbi Yohanan did not deride Reish Lakish’s fascination with physical beauty. Instead, he used the opportunity to deliver a powerful message. He offered that if Reish Lakish were to repent, he would have the opportunity to marry R. Yohanan’s sister, who was even more beautiful than her brother. Once again, Rabbi Yohanan deftly channeled Reish Lakish’s apparent ardor and innate strengths towards a positive outlet. Marriage and the sanctity of Jewish home life, including mutual respect and faithfulness between spouses, after all, are exemplars for the integration of the spiritual and material aspects of life.[5]

Reish Lakish was inspired, agreeing to give up his old life and devote himself to the pursuit of Torah study and its practice. The transformational effect was almost immediate. When he tried to go back and collect his weapons, he was emotionally unable to do so. The two became brothers-in-law, friends, and study partners. Each brought different life experiences, personalities, and perspectives to their discussions. It was not unusual for them to respectfully disagree in their conversations with one another.

Yet words are powerful tools, and can motivate others to do good or cause great harm, as portrayed in the continuation of the saga of Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan.[6] The Talmud reports they were learning together in the beit midrash when a hapless contretemps erupted that led to unintended and catastrophic consequences. The halakhic matter under scrutiny was the law of ritual purity applicable to a sword, knife, spear, hand sickle, and harvesting sickle. The scholars debated the precise moment when the completion of the manufacturing process occurs, whereby the raw iron ore is transformed into a utensil and rendered susceptible to ritual impurity.[7] Rabbi Yohanan argued it was when the blade was formed upon being fired in the furnace. Reish Lakish disagreed, asserting that it did not become a vessel until it was hardened in water and sharpened through polishing. Was this just an argument about form versus functionality, or is there more to the discussion than meets the eye?

Consider: if it was a purely legal discussion, Reish Lakish could have done a much better job arguing his position.[8] He might have characteristically[9] argued legal precedent in opposition to Rabbi Yohanan’s position. His brief could have included the Mishnah in Keilim[10] directly on point, which contradicts the view asserted by Rabbi Yohanan. Indeed, Reish Lakish could have even confronted Rabbi Yohanan[11] with one of his own rulings that militated against the argument he was making. It is therefore difficult to accept that this was just another legal argument. There appears to be more to it; indeed, what happened next is supportive of this conclusion.

It began when Rabbi Yohanan made a gratuitous comment that was not well received by Reish Lakish. Instead of gracefully acknowledging the cogent reasoning of Reish Lakish’s position[12], Rabbi Yohanan remarked that a bandit knows the tools of banditry. He might have meant it as a backhanded compliment or presumed Reish Lakish was immune to this kind of trash talking. After all, each of them, on occasion, had engaged in the playful banter of friends and colleagues.[13] Moreover, they typically had vigorous exchanges of ideas. How did this one precipitously degrade into a clash of personalities? Apparently, Reish Lakish interpreted Rabbi Yohanan’s remark as a sarcastic slight. Who would have believed that he would take so hard a reference to his former profession? In fact, while Rabbi Yohanan’s comment was unkind, it did confirm Reish Lakish’s expertise in the particular area under discussion. Reish Lakish might just as well have reveled in the notoriety, and strutted his stuff. Yet he didn’t. His reaction was emotionally charged. Reish Lakish painfully demanded to understand why Rabbi Yohanan was verbally abusing him.[14] Rabbi Yohanan seems to have misunderstood what Reish Lakish was saying[15], because he proceeded to explain how he had benefited Reish Lakish instead of addressing the hurt Reish Lakish felt.[16]

Indeed, this does not appear to be the only misunderstanding which occurred on that day. Reish Lakish responded to Rabbi Yohanan, “I was called Rabbi before and I am called Rabbi now.” Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam dispute what exactly Reish Lakish meant, as the term ‘Rabbi’ may be defined as any master[17] or teacher.

Rashi[18] interprets the retort to mean that Reish Lakish was a master when he was a gladiator or bandit leader before, and master of Torah now. From this perspective, the response was a clever play on words. Rabbeinu Tam,[19] however, views Reish Lakish’s statement more ominously, as harking back to an earlier time, before Reish Lakish became a gladiator and bandit leader. He asserts that Reish Lakish had studied Torah in his earlier life and had even become a Rabbi. He then lost his way and became the disreputable person Rabbi Yohanan encountered at the Jordan River. Under Rabbi Yohanan’s tutelage, he became a Rabbi once again. From this point of view, Rabbi Yohanan’s comeback takes on a taunting and even sinister tone.

Perhaps this is how Rabbi Yohanan understood it, as opposed to how (consistent with Rashi’s interpretation) Reish Lakish may have meant it. The difference in perspectives and the possible misunderstanding it entailed might help explain why Rabbi Yohanan reacted in the seemingly insensitive way he did. After all, the term Rabbi was a title of no small distinction conferred on those who were masters and teachers of Jewish Law. Rabbi Yohanan seems to have been particularly fastidious about the use of the title[20] and protective of the dignity of the position.[21] Thus, the response by Reish Lakish may have been perceived as extremely demeaning to the elevated title and status of Rabbi that Rabbi Yohanan sought to establish as the norm.

Reish Lakish’s percieved flippancy may also have triggered a more serious concern in Rabbi Yohanan’s mind about Reish Lakish’s commitment to his new life as a penitent. In Rabbi Yohanan’s view of repentance, there was no assurance of a permanent transformation (as more fully discussed below). Might he then have overreacted to the seemingly mocking manner in which Reish Lakish referred to his previous history of changing from one role to another and back?

The personal nature of the dispute deepened even further with Rabbi Yohanan’s reply that he benefitted Reish Lakish by bringing him under the wings of the divine presence. This insensitive riposte further struck at Reish Lakish’s vulnerability as a penitent. It also demeaned Reish Lakish’s own role in transforming himself. Reish Lakish had made extraordinary efforts and demonstrated iron will in overcoming his sordid origins to become a revered sage. Moreover, as opposed to Rabbi Yohanan’s initial words, there was no mistaking the intent of this second remark: Rabbi Yohanan was reminding Reish Lakish, the penitent, of his past life.

Indeed, the prohibition against reminding the penitent of his or her past life is ancient in origin and traces back to the Bible. The Mishnah[22] rules that the Bible’s prohibition[23] against exploiting someone else applies not only to monetary matters, but also to verbal mistreatment.[24] This includes reminding a penitent of his or her earlier deeds.[25] It even extends to telling someone suffering from an illness or affliction that it is a result of his or her own folly or misdeeds.[26]

Imagine the hurt Reish Lakish must have felt. He was first referred to as a bandit, even if only in jest or as a backhanded compliment. He was then further abused by being reminded that his repentance was only due to Rabbi Yohanan’s intervention. The dialogue is evocative of how exceedingly easy it is to violate the rules against verbal abuse. It doesn’t have to be meant as an insult to inflict harm; inadvertently uttering an insensitive or regrettable comment can also cause pain and suffering. It is well nigh impossible to anticipate the impact a remark might have on any particular individual. Some people are more vulnerable than others and might silently take umbrage at a statement perceived to be callous or judgmental.

Both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan were devastated by the unfortunate exchange of harsh words. Reish Lakish became deathly ill.[27] After Reish Lakish passed away, Rabbi Yohanan also lost his zest for life. He bemoaned the loss of Reish Lakish and became deeply depressed. He too passed away a broken man.

It is a truly unfortunate tale of two great and wonderful people needlessly causing each other incredible pain and suffering. It begs the question: what motivated them to act and react in the way that they did?

Rabbi Yohanan, Reish Lakish, and Repentance

Another debate between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan might provide a clue as to why Reish Lakish had such a profoundly negative reaction, and Rabbi Yohanan missed the cues. The Talmud[28] records that Reish Lakish believed that a single pang of guilt in a person’s heart is more painful than a hundred lashes. While Rabbi Yohanan appears to have expressed a somewhat similar sentiment, he views the suffering of the penitent to be far less extreme than that claimed by Reish Lakish. He limits the pain inflicted to something worse than a few lashes.

The difference of opinion may appear to be just one of degree, but might extend beyond that to the very nature of remorse. Reish Lakish cites a verse in Proverbs,[29] which describes how an intelligent person’s reaction to words of rebuke is more effective than physically hitting a fool a hundred times. Words can hurt and the pain can be virtually immeasurable. They can leave an indelible imprint on the person.[30] Perhaps this is why Reish Lakish reacted so painfully to the reminder of his past misdeeds.

Rabbi Yohanan bases his view on an abstruse verse in Hosea,[31] which prima facie seems to have only peripheral relevance to his position.[32] The context, though, provides a clue as to why Rabbi Yohanan reacted so harshly to Reish Lakish’s riposte. The verse describes a form of ostensible repentance[33] that is not heartfelt but born of desperation, a sentiment hardly calculated to result in real and permanent change. Indeed, it would suggest a transitory condition. Thus, if circumstances changed and there were other prospects, the individual might just pack up and leave again.

Hearing Reish Lakish cavalierly brag about being a Rabbi one day,[34] gladiator and bandit leader the next, and then Rabbi again might have triggered this very concern. After all, no one is immune[35] to impure influences. Perhaps Rabbi Yohanan was worried that Reish Lakish’s bravado and trust in himself were misplaced. Anyone might be tempted to backslide and revert to an unsavory habit and lifestyle; why was Reish Lakish any different, even after all the years of sincere repentance? Moreover, Rabbi Yohanan may also have been concerned that others might be seduced by the charming story of Reish Lakish’s transformation into believing it was easy to be a villain one day and a saint the next: by the same token, the opposite might occur. This more pessimistic appreciation of the nature of repentance may help explain Rabbi Yohanan’s reaction that day.

In striking contrast, Reish Lakish had an entirely more optimistic perspective on the nature of repentance. He focused on the transformative effect it could have on the penitent. While he notes that repentance, even if inspired by fear of punishment, converts a person’s intentional sins into unwitting errors, he then posits that there is yet a higher level of repentance. It requires the purer motivation of love of God, which results in intentional sins being transformed into merits. These are wonderful sentiments,[36] but how does it all work in practice? How does this extraordinary transformation occur?

The Maharsha[37] describes repentance arising out of fear as the recognition by a person that he or she should not have sinned. In essence, had the person realized the consequences of sin, he or she would not have committed the sinful conduct. The sin is, therefore, retrospectively deemed to arise out of a moment of folly, not willful intent or rebelliousness. However, repenting because of love of God means doing more than just regretting and correcting the prior sinful behavior. It requires doing many more good deeds, which far outweigh the initial sin. The penitent actively seeks out opportunities to perform good deeds. Thus, in effect, the original sinful conduct generates exceedingly more good deeds than might otherwise have naturally occurred. This is why it may be said that the sin, which caused this new meritorious behavior, is accounted as a merit. In a sense, it establishes a new pattern of good behavior that supplants the prior sinful one.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik[38] delves into the psychological and spiritual underpinnings of Reish Lakish’s thesis. He explains the notions of repentance motivated by fear versus love as the difference between blotting out sin and elevating it. The base level of repentance arising out of fear allows a person, figuratively, to be transported back to the time before the person embarked on the path of sinning. The intervening period of sin is wiped out as if it had never occurred.

The higher level of repentance out of love of God, though, is not a clean break with the past and the obliteration of memories. It permits the person to identify with the past and still return to God, with a strength and power that he or she did not have previously. The intensity of sin, drive that impels it, and sense of guilt and shame that overwhelm a person are strong forces that are redirected by the penitent towards doing good deeds. This is how the penitent, effectively, comes closer to God.

The power of sublimation is thus enormous. It channels energy into positive behavior. This positive aspect of sublimation creates a zest and vigor for leading a virtuous life, with greater intensity than might otherwise have been the case. Ironically, the springboard for this awesome effect is the sinful conduct. It motivates the sinner to channel previously antagonistic forces into a cohered force now overwhelmingly directed in the positive direction of seeking out and doing good deeds.

Rabbi Soloveitchik also posits that with sin comes a sense of loneliness caused by God receding from the sinner. The spiritual vacuum created can be filled by chasing after God’s presence through doing good deeds.There is a compound effect that is veritably palpable of not only pushing forward, but also of being pulled in that positive direction.

These profound concepts help explain the source of the power that animated the transformation of Reish Lakish. All of his seemingly toxic character traits of aggression, physical strength, agility and mental acuity, previously harnessed in the pursuit of an evil profession, were miraculously transformed. They became the tools of a wise sage, pursuing the noble cause of studying and teaching Torah, as well as empowering the performance of good deeds.

Reish Lakish’s response to Rabbi Yohanan about being a Rabbi before and a Rabbi now, according to Rashi’s interpretation, now takes on a whole other dimension of meaning. He indeed possessed all the qualities of a great Rabbi before, but used his innate character traits and skills to become a gladiator and bandit leader instead. Then, triggered by his encounter with Rabbi Yohanan, he propelled himself forward by sublimating those same traits and skills to serve a higher purpose. He succeeded magnificently in transforming himself into the extraordinary person he became. Reish Lakish’s motto that a person should always incite his or her good inclination to overcome the wicked one[39] is consistent with this theme. In essence, it’s about positive motivation to do good and not just reining in baser instincts.

In light of the foregoing, we may suggest that the subject of raw iron being formed into a tool may be symbolic of a deeper philosophical debate. The Talmud sometimes describes the educational process of students studying Torah together as the grinding of iron tools one against the other to sharpen them.[40] The question may have revolved around the preferred pedagogic technique for educating a person to handle[41] impurity. There is, after all, no course of study that can immunize a person from sin. As the Talmud[42] notes, there is no death without sin. Instead, it’s about equipping a person to be able to deal with impure influences and not be permanently and fatally contaminated by them.

The reference to the hot furnace and its molten and harsh environment might symbolize the severe language used to condition and restrain a person’s baser instincts. In this construct, Rabbi Yohanan is expressing the view that it requires heat to steel a person to enable him or her to bear the impure influences in the world. It requires fiery, albeit harsh, talk to imprint the message of God. The person might then be formed into a tool that can bear contamination.

The water and gentler process of polishing may refer to the kinder approach of playing to a person’s strengths, instead of attacking his or her weaknesses.[43] Providing encouragement by emphasizing the positive, and reinforcing it over time through a polishing process, can have the salutary effect of energizing a person to overcome one’s faults and propel him or her toward personal growth and refinement.[44]

Rebuke, by contrast, often fails to effect positive change. Moreover, it can cause more serious problems of rebellion and depression. Indeed, no matter how well-intentioned this kind of approach may be, Reish Lakish was crushed by it.[45] Why should a person try if one no longer believes in his or her own self-worth? Preserving self-respect is critical, so that it can be a valuable ally in the internal struggle to be better. Remember, in their initial encounter at the Jordan River, Rabbi Yohanan did not berate Reish Lakish about his tawdry circumstances or deride his weaknesses; he instead appealed to the gladiator’s strengths. As Reish Lakish lived it, his transformative experience was about engaging his positive impulses, not denying wicked urges. Reish Lakish’s positive attitude is inspiring.This might also be why Reish Lakish’s wife rejected her brother Rabbi Yohanan’s approach to tutor her children.[46] While the goal of refinement may be the same, each person’s path may be as different as humanity is diverse.[47]

The raw and compelling presentation in the Talmud stresses that even great Sages can make mistakes, and even seemingly tough people can be vulnerable. We can’t know each other’s hidden weaknesses, and it is irresponsible to think everyone is wholly alike. There are sensitivities we may never be fully aware of, or only recognize when it is too late. And sometimes, beyond not yielding the intended result, there are also unintended consequences which can prove catastrophic.

Bracketing the Narrative

The narrative about Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish is bracketed[48] by other tales, involving a who’s who of great Sages, that also illustrate these seminal principles.

This aggadic section begins with the tale of how Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai became a Roman sheriff. The story begins with Rabbi Elazar reproaching someone else for assuming the unseemly position of a Roman sheriff. A short while later he also finds himself in the same untenable position of being forcibly drafted to assume the role of Roman sheriff. [49]

Although he set about doing his assigned job correctly, intending to arrest only those he was certain were criminals, he was nevertheless disparagingly referred to as “vinegar the son of wine” by his rabbinic colleagues. The import of their demeaning remark was that he was like vinegar, the spoiled result of wine, in contrast to his father, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a man of genuine stature and distinction and thus like a fine wine.

They may have had a right to criticize him. After all, he was acting as an agent for a foreign power occupying Israel and enforcing laws that were not strictly in accordance with Jewish law. This included such matters as the relaxed evidentiary requirements under Roman law as compared to Jewish law, and the overly harsh and excessive punishments meted out by the Roman authorities. Nevertheless, the offensive language they used was abusive and unacceptable, and the fact of the matter is that it didn’t help; it only hurt.

Then, one fateful day, Rabbi Elazar encountered a laundryman who vilified him by using the same epithet of vinegar the son of wine. This time, though, the disrespectful remark was perceived by Rabbi Elazar as an insult to the office of rabbi rather than merely a personal slight. He thought the person wicked and had the offender arrested. In doing so, he veered from his usual ethic of only arresting those he was certain committed a crime. He later regretted his peremptory decision and sought to ransom the individual, but to no avail.

Rabbi Elazar’s instincts about the person, though, proved to be correct. Interestingly, he notes that the individual might have avoided these difficulties had he simply followed the advice of Proverbs[50] that a person who keeps his mouth closed and tongue in check keeps his soul out of trouble. In essence, harsh rebuke was not effective in changing Rabbi Elazar’s conduct. It only caused harm to all parties concerned, which could have been avoided had the parties only refrained from making the abusive remarks.

At the offender’s execution, those gathered tried to console Rabbi Elazar. They advised him that the offender was indeed extremely wicked, and, together with his son, had committed the unspeakably vile sin of having sexual relations with a young betrothed woman on Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, Rabbi Elazar continued to blame himself for his impetuosity. He had acted on mere suspicion, not certainty. This violated the commitment he made to himself only to arrest those he knew committed a crime, so as to justify his acting as Sheriff on behalf of the otherwise oppressive Roman regime. His self-rebuke and guilt were overpowering, and as a result he became ill and suffered mightily. He was also sensitive to what he perceived to be a negative perception of him by his colleagues. Nevertheless, he is viewed most favorably by the Talmud, and he more than atoned for any indiscretion by his afflictions and suffering.

The Talmudic text then concludes with a crescendo, offering an implicit paean to Reish Lakish’s life experience, and the positive and encouraging approach that best suited him. It records that Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi visited the town where Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon had lived, and inquired whether the righteous person had a son. Rebbe learned that Rabbi Elazar did bear a child, but the son had lost his way. His name was Yosi, and he was an extremely handsome man and the darling of women of ill repute. In a decisive moment, Yosi willingly accompanied Rebbe. The latter ordained Yosi a rabbi and arranged for his uncle Rabbi Shimon ben Issi ben Lakonya to tutor Rabbi Yosi.

Rabbi Yosi found that studying was an arduous process. Early on, Rabbi Yosi would often say that he wanted to give up and go back home. Yet his uncle convinced him to stay, not by speaking harshly, but by complimenting the progress he had made. He said the Sages wanted to make Rabbi Yosi into a wise sage, envelope him with a golden cloak of ordination, and call him Rabbi. The encouragement worked: eventually, Rabbi Yosi vowed never to go back home and return to his old ways. Instead he matured and joined the distinguished academy of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi.

When Rabbi Yosi arrived at the academy and spoke, those who heard his voice said he sounded just like Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, his father. They graciously accepted and praised him by applying to him the verse[51] “the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.” They also recognized the role of his uncle and teacher, praising him by invoking the same verse[52] they used to compliment Rabbi Yosi. It is a beautiful and most relevant aphorism that captures a theme common to most of these stories, to wit: “a wise man captivates people.”

The message is timely and cogent. Respectful disagreement does not permit ad hominem attacks. Even one who is well-intentioned must be extremely sensitive to how our words might be perceived by the listener. We may not intend to hurt someone, but that doesn’t relieve the pain a person may suffer as a result of a regrettable remark.

I remember well the lesson my mom taught us about how we must be careful with our words. She would invoke the Yiddish proverb that “a pattch fargeiyst ober a vort shteiyt,”’ “the sting of a slap dissipates, but the pain caused by a hurtful word endures.” She wanted us to be refined individuals, who understand that words could hurt and the pain was lasting. My dad, of blessed memory, a man of few words and great wisdom, would counsel, “You never regret what you didn’t say.”

Another critical lesson is that playing to a person’s strength, rather than decrying his or her weaknesses, can inspire a person to be better. Modern psychology[53] shares the Talmud’s view about the effectiveness of stressing the positive and avoiding the ill effects of outright negative rebuke. I am reminded of a song[54] that I often heard in my own youth, in the 50s, on the radio and record player, about accentuating the positive. The Talmud’s view might be summarized along the lines of the original song, with some adaptation, as follows:

Accentuate the positive;

Don’t rebuke the negative;

Be kind and encouraging;

No reminding of past sins.

Pursuing enlightenment and endeavoring to achieve genuine nobility is a life-long process. No one is perfect and, as God intended, it’s all about genuinely striving to reach our full potential, through study and performance of good deeds and all the other commandments. The goal is to achieve the life of balance so aptly described by Maimonides.[55] Blessed be the journey from strength to strength.

[1] Bava Metzia 84a. See also Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 43:5.

[2] See Rashi’s commentary to Bava Metzia 84a. He was also a security guard in an orchard as noted in JT Moed Katan 3:1 .

[3] See Gittin 47a, which refers to the fact that he sold himself to the Ludi, which the Jastrow dictionary interprets to mean gladiators. In Latin the word ‘Ludi’ may be translated as games (i.e., gladiatorial games of combat in the Roman arena). See also the use of the term Ludin in the JT Terumot 8:3 and Avodah Zarah 2:3. Cf. Rashi (Shabbat 10a s.v. “Ludim”) and Maharsha (Gittin 47a), who define Ludim as a nation of cannibals.

[4] See Bava Metzia 84a and Berakhot 15b describing Rav Yohanan’s extraordinary beauty.

[5] Sotah 17a.

[6] Bava Metzia 84a.

[7] The Hebrew term is tumah.

[8] See Hida’s Petah Einayim, s.v. “ha-sayyaf.”

[9] See JT Gittin 3:1, which notes that Reish Lakish does not typically disagree with Rabbi Yohanan on the basis of his own reasoning. Rather, he cites a Baraita that contradicts Rabbi Yohanan, and bases his opposing opinion on it. If it were just a difference of opinion, then he would typically yield and relinquish his own view in deference to Rabbi Yohanan. However, this does not always appear to be the case. For example, earlier in the JT Gittin (1:4), a debate between the two is reported regarding whether a shtar (in this case a loan document) witnessed by non-Jews is enforceable to collect a loan. Resh Lakish argues in favor of this relaxed standard and asserts that the shtar is valid and enforceable, so as not to shut off the flow of loans to borrowers. Rabbi Yohanan disagrees, arguing the shtar is invalid.

[10] Mishnah Keilim 14:5.

[11] See Hullin 25b, as well as, Rashi, s.v. “hoel.”

[12] Rabbeinu Hananel notes that Rabbi Yohanan bows to Reish Lakish’s expertise.

[13] They each had healthy and well-developed senses of humor, which enabled them to artfully turn a phrase. As to Rabbi Yohanan, see, for example, Behorot 18a, Bava Batra 107a, Megillah 11a, and Pesahim 62b. As to Reish Lakish, see, for example, Megillah 28b and Bereishit Rabbah 80:1. Interestingly, it was Rabbi Yohanan (Berakhot 31a), who taught in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai that it is forbidden to fill one’s mouth with levity in this world. Ritva, (Berakhot 31a s.v. “assur) explains that this is because it allows the evil inclination to take over in the midst of the self-satisfying humor of the moment. The Talmud goes on to record that Reish Lakish took this lesson of his teacher Rabbi Yohanan to heart, and never filled his mouth with levity in this world. How ironic that this illustrious pair of Sages, so committed to avoiding the evils of humor, appear to have fallen prey to it and allowed what might have been intended as innocent banter to get out of control, as depicted in Bava Metzia 84a.

[14] See Hokhmat Shlomo, s.v. “u-Mai Ahanat.”

[15] It appears he took the beginning of Reish Lakish’s remark, ‘what benefit did you provide me’ literally, instead of appreciating the substance of the entire statement as an expression of pain.

[16] The word used was “ahanat,” which might refer to hona’ah, meaning oppress or abuse, as in ona’at devarim below, or hana’ah, meaning benefit.

[17] One of the definitions of the term Rabbi, see also Avodah Zarah 17a, where the term is also used to denote a master, this time of weaving.

[18] See Rashi (Bava Metzia 84a s.v. “Rav Karu Lei”).

[19] As noted in the Tosafot (Bava Metzia 84a s.v. “Ei Hadrat Bakh”).

[20] See, for example, how he initially treated Shmuel when he was elevated to be Rav’s successor as head of the academy in Bavel (Hullin 95b) . When Rabbi Yohanan first corresponded with Shmuel, he did not address him as Rav, as he had done with Shmuel’s predecessor Abba Arihta, who was typically referred to as Rav in the Talmud. Shmuel had to work hard to convince Rabbi Yohanan of his bona fides; only then were his efforts rewarded by Rabbi Yohanan finally addressing him as Rav Shmuel.

[21] See, for example, JT Moed Katan 3:7 and Bava Kama 117a-b.

[22] Mishna Bava Metzia 4:10 and Bava Metzia 58b.

[23] Leviticus 25:17.

[24] Among other things, this also includes intentionally embarrassing someone by using a nickname (Bava Metzia 58b; see also Tur, Hoshen Mishpat 228).

[25] Preserving human dignity is so important that it even overrides a Rabbinic decree (Berakhot 19b). Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a) excoriates any person who publicly embarrasses another, describing all sorts of dire consequences for violating the prohibition. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) stresses how sensitive a person must be to avoid violating these strictures. Thus, even using the word “hang” in an instruction to hang a fish is inappropriate, when the directive is issued to a member of a family that experienced the hanging of an ancestor for a crime. This is because it might be perceived as demeaning. See also Shenei Luhot ha-Berit, Torah She-bikhtav, Sefer Vayikra, Torah Or, Kedoshim 57.

[26] Sifra, Behar, Chapter 42.

[27] The Talmud records that Reish Lakish’s wife reached out to her brother, Rabbi Yohanan, to reconcile with Reish Lakish and pray for his recovery. However, despite her tearful and extremely personal and heartfelt entreaties, Rabbi Yohanan stubbornly refused to do so. The emotionally charged dialogue is discomfiting. She begs him and he not only demurs, but offers instead to replace Reish Lakish’s role in supporting her and bringing up her children. She refuses her brother’s insensitive offer.

[28] Berakhot 7a.

[29] Proverbs 17:10.

[30] See Rabbi Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenberg’s Ha-Ketav Ve-Hakabalah commentary on Exodus 6:6.

[31] Hosea 2:9. The verse speaks of an errant wife, abandoned by her erstwhile lovers, who must perforce return to her first husband. The allusion is to the ills of idol worship, which is compared to flirting with others, while the first husband is the one true God.

[32] The literary device employed in the verse is the image of an errant spouse, desperately having to return home alone to an original spouse after having been abandoned by her erstwhile interim companions. It is certainly a distressing situation, which accounts for Rabbi Yohanan’s use of the verse to support his contention. However, as Reish Lakish posits, it does not compare to the level of pain experienced by someone who has genuinely repented from a life of debauchery, yet is chided about his or her sordid origins.

[33] See Malbim’s commentary on Hosea 2:9.

[34] Per Rabbeinu Tam’s interpretation, as noted above.

[35] See, for example, the notorious case of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who became the heretic ignominiously known as Aher (Hagigah 15a-b).

[36] Reish Lakish also has an interesting perspective about the nature and purpose of sin. In a somewhat humorous remark, he notes that had our ancestors not sinned, we would never have been born into this world. This is because, as Psalms (8:2-6) notes, everyone would have been immortal but for sin. This is a fascinating way of expressing the fact that no one is perfect: it’s not about looking back, but moving forward with the proper positive motivation. In this regard, Reish Lakish also cautions against looking back and regretting earlier good actions (Kiddushin 40b). He also notes that even suffering has its place, because it cleanses a person’s transgressions (Berakhot 5a).

[37] Rabbi Shmuel Eidels in his Maharsha commentary on Yoma 86b s.v. “Na’asu Lo k-Shegogot.”

[38] See Soloveitchik in On Repentance, The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Pinchas H. Peli, the “Blotting Out Sin or Elevating Sin” (esp.pages 248-265).

[39] Berakhot 5a.

[40] See Ta’anit 7a, based on Proverbs 27:17, as well as Genesis Rabbah 69:2. However, it is important to note that while scholars may fight like enemies, when studying Torah together, they do not leave until they love each other (see Kiddushin 30b and Rashi, s.v. “et vahev ba-sufah”).

[41] The Hebrew term mekablin literally means able to receive.

[42] Shabbat 55a.

[43] See, for example, Bava Batra 21a, which discusses how the original system of yeshivot for educating the young in Israel was established. In connection with the initial effort that failed, it notes how a teacher’s angry remarks would cause an older student to rebel and get up and leave. The Talmud also prescribes methods of discipline that are not harsh. Thus, it states that corporeal punishment may only be administered for disciplinary purposes and then only with a shoelace (i.e., not with a belt or whip, so as not to injure the child). The Talmudic text goes on to say that if the child does not study (and presumably does not disrupt others’ learning), the child may remain in the company of his classmates. It notes that eventually he will pay attention to his studies (because of peer pressure). On this basis, Rashi on the text states that one should not reject the child or punish him excessively.

[44] It is much more effective to positively reinforce the good, rather than focus only on the bad, or use hurtful words. See, for example, Otzar ha-Midrashim, Alpha Beita de-Rabbi Akiva (Version 1) 10.

[45] So was Rabbi Kahana (See Bava Kama 117a-b).

[46] As Proverbs (22:6) counsels, educate a child according to his or her way, and then even when the child grows up, he or she will not depart from it. The Midrash Rabbah thereon notes that it is also important to do so while the person is young and before his or her character is hardened. As Kiddushin 30a notes, this certainly means before their mid-twenties. According to another Gemara (Bava Batra 21a), it is best to begin between the ages of six and seven.

[47] See Berakhot 58a and Eiruvin 13b. See also Bamidbar Rabbah 21:2 and 13:16.

[48] Bava Metzia 83b-85a.

[49] The Talmud does question this judgment by implication when referring to another case, where it notes that the option was available to flee the jurisdiction to another land where Rome did not hold sway.

[50] Proverbs 21:23.

[51] Proverbs 11:30.

[52] Ibid.

[53] See, for example, “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative,” by Dona Mathews, PHD, dated 11/29/17, in Psychology Today.

[54] Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. The song was recorded in 1944 by Bing Crosby and the Barry Sisters.

[55] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 4.

Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal, and other fine publications.