Talmud

Bava Metzia 84

Beauty, brains and brawn.

Tradition tells us that Rabbi Yohanan was an exceptionally good-looking guy:

One who wishes to see the beauty of Rabbi Yohanan should bring a silver goblet from the smithy and fill it with red pomegranate seeds and place a diadem of red roses upon its lip and position it between sunlight and shade: That luster is a semblance of Rabbi Yohanan’s beauty.

Rabbi Yohanan was, according to the Talmud, even more gorgeous than a lustrous goblet positioned in perfect light, brimming with velvet rose petals and glistening pomegranate seeds. Moreover, he knew it: 

Rabbi Yohanan would go and sit by the entrance to the ritual bath. He said to himself: When Jewish women come up from their immersion for the sake of a mitzvah, they should encounter me first so that they have children who are beautiful like me and learned in Torah like me.

Jewish law requires women count seven days from the conclusion of their menstrual cycles before immersing in the mikveh and resuming marital relations. This means the first encounter after niddah (the period of sexual separation) often coincides with the most fertile part of their cycles, and therefore is when they are most likely to conceive. A popular belief of the time was that a woman’s thoughts at the moment of conception influenced the characteristics of her future child. So, by allowing women to gaze on his good looks as they emerged from the mikveh, Rabbi Yohanan sought to pass his beauty (and, it seems almost incidentally, his penchant for Torah learning) on to their progeny.

Some might consider Rabbi Yohanan’s habit of lurking at the mikveh a public service. Others might see it as a conceit. Perhaps it was both. 

As the Gemara tells it, women were not the only ones who noticed Rabbi Yohanan’s looks:

One day, Rabbi Yohanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Reish Lakish saw him and jumped in, pursuing him. Rabbi Yohanan said to Reish Lakish: “Your strength is fit for Torah study.” Reish Lakish said to him: “Your beauty is fit for women.” Rabbi Yohanan said to him: “If you return, I will give you my sister, who is more beautiful than I.” Reish Lakish accepted. Subsequently, Reish Lakish wanted to jump back (out of the river) to bring back his clothes, but he was unable to return.

Reish Lakish, at the time a known ruffian, saw Rabbi Yohanan bathing in the river and, mistaking him for a gorgeous woman, jumped in. The men scuffled. Rabbi Yohanan, noting Reish Lakish’s strength, recruited him to apply it to Torah study by offering his sister, similarly genetically blessed, as a bride. Reish Lakish accepted the offer and traded a life of crime (and his physical strength) for Torah study and a beautiful wife.

Reish Lakish began his rabbinic career as Rabbi Yohanan’s student, but over time became his equal and preferred havruta (study partner). Fast forward a number of years: The sages were in the study hall and there was a question about when in the manufacturing process certain weapons become susceptible to impurity. A beraita states that they are susceptible from time that their manufacture is complete. The two sages disagree on when a weapon is in fact complete:

Rabbi Yohanan said: “It is from when one fires them in the furnace.”

Reish Lakish said: “It is late, from when one scours them in water.

Ordinarily, the sages would now cite logical arguments or authoritative sources to determine which position is correct. But rather than engaging in a civil debate about their respective views, Rabbi Yohanan makes it personal:

He said to Reish Lakish: “A bandit knows about his banditry.”

Rabbi Yohanan’s concession is wrapped in an insult, a reminder of Reish Lakish’s ignoble past. The verbal weapon has truly found its mark, as Reish Lakish now laments:

“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!” 

Painfully reminded of his criminal past, Reish Lakish decries his present: Being immersed in Torah has left him no better off than his life in banditry, because despite all the strides he has made, even his mentor-turned-equal still thinks of him as merely a bandit. This heartbreaking realization destroys Reish Lakish, who becomes ill and dies.

Rabbi Yohanan, now bereft of his havruta, is also consumed by agony:

He (Rabbi Yohanan) went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: “Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish?” He screamed until he went insane.  The rabbis prayed and asked God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yohanan died. 

If you turn to the daf to read the full talmudic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, you can learn how Reish Lakish’s wife (Rabbi Yohanan’s sister) tried, unsuccessfully, to pacify her brother and avert the calamity.

We are left to mourn the unnecessary loss of two great, apparently star-crossed talmudic minds. And, as is the case with many talmudic narratives, we are left with more questions, chief among them: Why did Rabbi Yohanan call Reish Lakish “leader of the bandits”? Was it a playful jab or did it bely a chronic sense of superiority? Or was it perhaps a symptom of his own insecurity, a fear that a one-time criminal had surpassed him in Torah learning?

Read all of Bava Metzia 84 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 22nd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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