Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha (ca. 200 C.E. – ca. 279 C.E.)

February 12, 2014

Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha was an Amora who hailed from Eretz Yisrael. He was a student of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Although Yochanan was initially unable to understand the difficult lessons (Chullin 137b), Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi predicted that he would develop into a famous teacher of Torah.

In addition to his great wisdom, which he dedicated to the study of Torah, Rabbi Yochanan was blessed with unusual physical beauty, a blessing that he wished to share. Bava Metzia 84a relates that he would go to the gates of the Mikvah with the intention that the Jewish women would look at him, and thereby influence their own children such that they would have physical beauty.

The Gemara there relates the encounter of Rabbi Yochanan with “Reish Lakish,” who was the leader of a troop of highway-men, and the latter was then bathing in the Yarden. Noting his great physical strength, Rabbi Yochanan plunged into the water, and said “Your strength is for the Torah!” “Reish Lakesh” responded, “Your beauty is for women.” Rabbi Yochanan offered “Reish Lakesh” his sister, who he said was even more beautiful than he was, as a wife, if he would dedicate himself to the study of Torah. “Reish Lakesh” accepted the offer, devoted himself to Torah, became the great Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish.

In Sanhedrin 74a, Rabbi Yochanan reports on a meeting of the Torah scholars in Lud, where they defined the extent of the Halachah of “Yehareg ve-al Ya’avor.” Their conclusion was that for all the negative commands of the Torah, if someone is threatened that he will be killed unless he transgresses the command, he may transgress it, with three exceptions: idol-worship, incest and murder.

One of the most beautiful teachings of Rabbi Yochanan is part of the Motzaei Shabbat Davening: “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Every time there is mention of the Might of the Holy One, Blessed is He, there is immediate mention of his humility. We find evidence of this three times in the Torah, three times in the Prophets and three times in the Holy Scriptures. It is written in the Torah, ‘For HaShem your G-d is the G-d over all other gods, and the Master of all other masters, the Almighty Who is Great and Mighty and Awesome, Who shows no favoritism, and accepts no bribe’ (Devarim 10:17), and afterwards it is written, ‘He performs justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, to give him food and clothing.’ (Ibid. 10:18)… ” Incidentally, it is interesting to note that not only is he expressing here an idea that had become crucial in his understanding of Judaism, and also enabled him to see beyond the physical might of “Reish Lakish” into his inner being, but he is also expressing gratitude to HaShem Who had assisted his grandfather in raising him, since Rabbi Yochanan had been orphaned at a very early age.

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish had become Rabbi Yochanan’s irreplaceable study partner, and when Rabbi Shimon died, Rabbi Yochanan became inconsolable, and died soon after. Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elazar delivered the “hesped” (eulogy) for him, and said, “This day is as sad for the Jewish People as if the sun had set at noon.”