Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish – also known as “Reish Lakish,” was a person of incredible physical strength, which led him to choose leadership of a band of highway-men as a career, until he encountered Rabbi Yochanan ben Nappachah. Rabbi Yochanan was swimming in the Yarden one day when he observed “Reish Lakish” and noted his leadership ability, his high intelligence and his potential for spirituality, as well as his strength. Reish Lakish jumped across the river, and Rabbi Yochanan exclaimed, “Your strength is for the Torah!” Not impressed by R. Yochanan’s declaration, “Reish Lakish” responded, “And your beauty is for the women!” Rabbi Yochanan saw that “Reish Lakish” was impressed by physical beauty and he proposed the following offer: He would give his sister, who he said was even more beautiful than he, in marriage to “Reish Lakish,” if the latter would abandon his life of crime and dedicate himself to the Torah.
“Reish Lakish” agreed to the arrangement, began to study the Torah with all his strength, and the results were predictable. It was said of him that he did not prepare a section of Mishnah less than forty times before listening to a discussion of it by his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan. (Taanit 8a). And Ulla, one of the group of Torah Scholars, is quoted as saying of “Reish Lakish” that his logical analyses were so powerfully convincing that it seemed as if he were uprooting mountains and grinding them together. He emerged from his years of study with a new title: Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish.
Some of his observations on human life are:
The World exists only by virtue of the breath of little children studying Torah. (Shabbat 119b)
The Holy One does not punish Israel unless he has prepared the remedy beforehand. (Megillah 13b)
A person does not commit a sin unless a spirit of temporary insanity has taken hold of him. (Sotah 3a)
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish gave some practical advice to people seeking mates, as well as demonstrating sound knowledge of genetic principles when he advised, “an unusually tall man not to marry an unusually tall woman lest their children be as tall as a ship’s mast… and a person whose complexion is unusually dark not to marry a woman with a similar complexion, lest they produce children who are ‘jet black.’ ”
When Rabbi Shimon had advanced sufficiently in his studies, he became a “chavruta” (study partner) of Rabbi Yochanan. When the former highway-man died first, Rabbi Yochanan became inconsolable. He said (Bava Metzia 84a), “When I would make a Halachic pronouncement, (Rabbi Shimon) would challenge it with 24 questions, and I would answer each of them, and by that dialogue, the true understanding of the subject matter would emerge.” Now I have no one to help me learn Torah. “Where are you, son of Lakish? O Where are you, son of Lakish?”