Talmud pages

Gittin 47

Reish Lakish’s legacy.

Reish Lakish is a frequent presence on the pages of the Talmud, but he was also a bit of a tough guy. In his youth, he was a gladiator and returned to Torah only after Rabbi Yohanan, with whom he was often in dialogue, persuaded him to do so. 

On today’s daf, the Gemara recounts some of Reish Lakish’s exploits, beginning with a strange, morally ambiguous story: 

Reish Lakish sold himself to gladiators. He took a bag and a round stone with him. He said: There is a tradition that on the final day of a captive’s life, they do for him anything that he requests of them, so that he would forgive them (for the spilling of) his blood.

On the final day, they said to him: What is amenable to you? He said to them: I want to tie you up and have you sit, and I will strike each one of you one and a half times. He tied them up and had each one of them sit. When he struck each with one strike (with the stone in the bag), they died. 

In the story, Reish Lakish sells himself into servitude with a gang of Roman gladiators, who were among the worst oppressors of Jews in antiquity. And he does so with what appears to be a single purpose: tricking and killing his new overlords.

Several parts of this story are quite odd. For one thing, it’s not clear if the gladiators were going to kill Reish Lakish themselves or if this was the day before they expected him to die fighting in the arena. For another, it’s not clear if he made this “tradition” up out of whole cloth. Overall, Reish Lakish comes off as deceitful, treacherous and murderous — three adjectives we don’t typically associate with the great sages of the Talmud. 

The rabbis likely saw this tale differently. Given the enmity between Jews and their Roman oppressors, they probably saw this story as something out of Inglourious Basterds (“We’re gonna be doin’ one thing and one thing only: killin’ Nazis.”). Reish Lakish was wreaking vengeance against tormentors of the Jews, which the rabbis likely appreciated. But the moral ambiguity continues: 

He left and came back home. He was sitting, eating, and drinking (without concern for his livelihood). His daughter said to him: You don’t want something to lie upon? He said to her: My daughter, my belly is my pillow. 

On the one hand, Reish Lakish appears here to be the epitome of idleness. But rather than chastise him for it, the talmudic narrative seems to emphasize his contentment and self-sufficiency. The only person who seems fussed is his daughter. Why might that be? We get something of a hint after he dies: 

When he died he left only a kav of saffron. He recited about himself: “And they leave their wealth for others” (Psalms 49:11).

For context, the full verse from Psalms is: “For one sees that the wise die, that the foolish and ignorant both perish, leaving their wealth to others.” The implication is that failing to use up resources during one’s lifespan reflects a lack of smarts. Why spend your days working for money you’re never going to use? And it seems Reish Lakish followed this suggestion: A kav is only a tad more than a liter, and though saffron is pretty pricey, he clearly didn’t leave behind a huge estate. What we might think of as positive today — leaving substantial wealth to our heirs — the rabbis clearly frowned upon. In their view, leaving a legacy of Torah — and nothing more — is most admirable.

So how ought we to think about Reish Lakish and his legacy? Was he a gladiator slayer or deceitful killer? An idler or someone content with his lot? An efficient user of resources or a cheapskate who left nothing for his kids? The Talmud clearly has its view on these questions, which perhaps also helps us to consider our own legacies and what we leave behind.

Read all of Gittin 47 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 2nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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