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Shiur #5: The Ideal Chavruta (Study Partner)

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #5: The Ideal Chavruta (Study Partner)


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



One day Rabbi Yochanan was swimming in the Jordan. Reish Lakish saw him and jumped into the Jordan after him.

He (Rabbi Yochanan) said: "You should use your strength for Torah." He (Reish Lakish) said: "You should use your good looks for women." He said: "If you return to Torah, I will give you my sister (for a wife), who is better looking than I am."

[Reish Lakish] accepted this offer. He tried to do a return jump to get his clothing and was unable. He then learned Tanakh and studied the Talmud and became a great man.

One day, they were arguing in the beit medrash (study hall). "A sword, a knife, a dagger, a spear, a sickle and a scythe, from which point are they susceptible to ritual impurity? From the time that they are completed." When is that point of completion? 

Rabbi Yochanan said: "When they are forged in the fire."

Reish Lakish said: "When they are rinsed with water."

[Rabbi Yochanan] said to him: "The bandit knows his trade."

[Reish Lakish] said to him: "And how did you benefit me? There, [when I was a bandit,] I was called the master, and here I am called the master."

He said to him: "I helped you because I brought you closer under the wings of the Divine presence."

Rabbi Yochanan became depressed. Reish Lakish became sick. His sister came crying to Rabbi Yochanan. 

She said: "Do it [i.e., forgive Reish Lakish or pray for him] for my son."

He said: "Leave your orphans; I will revive them" (Yirmiyahu 49:11).

She said: "Do it because of my widowhood." 

He said: "The widows should trust in Me" (ibid.).

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish passed away. Rabbi Yochanan was very pained by his passing. The Rabbis said: "Who will go and help calm Rabbi Yochanan? Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, for he is sharp in learning."

He went and sat in from of Rabbi Yochanan. Every time Rabbi Yochanan said something, Rabbi Elazar cited a supporting Tannaitic source. 

Rabbi Yochanan said: "Are you like the son of Lakish? When I said something, the son of Lakish would ask me twenty-four questions, and I would respond with twenty-four answers. As a result, learning increased. And you tell me a Tannaitic support. Do I not know that I say good ideas?"

He walked, and tore his garment, and wept. 

He said: "Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish?" He was crying out until he lost his mind. The Rabbis asked for mercy on him and he passed away. (Bava Metzia 84a)  


This tragic story includes many aspects that require analysis. First, let us assume that, prior to their meeting in the Jordan, Rabbi Yochanan already knew something about Reish Lakish's character and potential. After all, Rabbi Yochanan presumably did not offer his sister to every straying Jew as his standard method of kiruv (bringing unaffiliated Jews closer to Torah). Rather, he foresaw the greatness that Reish Lakish would achieve. This idea finds support in Tosafot's contention that Reish Lakish was already knowledgeable before he abandoned miztvot. (They infer this from the language of "if you return.") Rabbi Yochanan may have known Reish Lakish from his earlier history.


As the story jumps from their early meeting to their sad final conversation, the reader may get the mistaken impression that the two of them never shared a fruitful relationship. Missing from this story are all the intervening years in which these brothers-in-law learned together, and debated the fine points of Talmudic law. Record of such years is found in the many halakhic debates between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish throughout the Talmud.


The most difficult part of the story is the harsh exchange between these two study partners. Did Rabbi Yochanan truly insult Reish Lakish by referring to the sordid aspects of Reish Lakish's past? Did Reish Lakish really question whether or not his decision to return to Torah was worthwhile?  


Some commentators refuse to take these lines at face value. The Maharsha states that Rabbi Yochanan was not trying to insult his chavruta. He rather was admitting that Reish Lakish knew more about knives, and was therefore correct in this debate. Tosafot argue that when Reish Lakish spoke about being called a master there, he was not referring to his time as head of the thieves, but to his earlier time as a Talmudic scholar. As he was given an honorific title both before he left the beit medrash and after he returned, Reish Lakish wondered how he had grown from the twisted path of his career. While we can appreciate what motivated these commentators, it must be conceded that the simplest reading of this story indicates that a harsh exchange indeed took place.


Rabbi Yochanan's displeasure at what Reish Lakish said may have caused the latter's illness. Therefore, his sister pleads with Rabbi Yochanan to intercede on her husband's behalf. Why does he refuse her request? One potential answer is that he was still angry with Reish Lakish for questioning the choice to rejoin the world of Torah. Alternatively, Rabbi Yochanan may have thought that he had no special power to bring about his brother-in-law's recovery. He cites verses from Yirmiyahu that indicate that only God can help the destitute.


I believe that the key to the story lies in the exchange between Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar. The latter tries to console Rabbi Yochanan by citing proofs for everything Rabbi Yochanan says. Rabbi Yochanan is incredulous that Rabbi Elazar thinks this will replace Reish Lakish. It was precisely the repeated argumentation between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish that caused a flowering of Torah. This is what Rabbi Yochanan feels cannot be replaced.


Rabbi Yochanan instructs us that the ideal chavruta is not the person who quickly endorses everything his study partner says. On the contrary! The ideal chavruta challenges one's ideas. This process generates growth in learning. We should add that the same principle applies to other forms of friendship as well. Instead of looking for the friends who will always agree with us, we should seek out those willing to tell us when they think we err on intellectual, ethical or religious grounds.


Assuming that the preceding idea reflects the essential theme of the story, we can now understand the harsh exchange. If the ideal study partnership involves argument, then the constant danger lurks that such argument will get out of hand. In the heat of verbal battle, people will say things that they will later regret but can no longer take back. Thus, the very strength of the Rabbi Yochanan - Reish Lakish partnership was the source of its downfall, as they temporarily lost themselves in the passion of Talmudic debate.


My student Daniel Vinick added an insightful postscript to my reading of this story. Even after the tragedy of Reish Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan still rejects the attempt of Rabbi Elazar to make learning an experience of constant agreement. This means that even when aware of the dangers, one cannot forsake the back and forth argumentation that constitutes the lifeblood of learning. No option exists to forsake debate, but only to try and insure that the debate remains respectful and dignified.


The Maharsha adds two more insights. Rabbi Yochanan tore his garment after the encounter with Rabbi Elazar. Apparently, the failure of Reish Lakish's substitute powerfully brought home the magnitude of the loss, and Rabbi Yochanan therefore rent his garments. He also notes that other Talmudic sources mention the forty-nine aspects of each Torah idea. When Rabbi Yochanan said an idea, Reish Lakish raised twenty-four questions and Rabbi Yochanan responded with twenty-four answers, meaning that all forty-nine aspects of the idea had been addressed. Thus, the back and forth between these two giants had truly led to the deepest and most comprehensive understanding of Torah. The challenge to have such productive interactions, while avoiding any harsh or insulting words, beckons to each of us.