Book Review: "Shimon", the Story of a Talmudic Giant

A book about a gladiator turned Talmudic Sage, which inadvertently shows the greatness of the Torah's attitude to human failings.

Rochel Sylvetsky,

Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

"Shimon" is the story of the life of third century Talmudic scholar Resh Lakish, whose real name was Shimon ben Lakish, gleaned from the few fascinating episodes about him as related in the Talmud.

John Steinberg has used the few available personal glimpses of Resh Lakish's biography to create an historic novel that brings to life the period of cruel Roman rule over Jews struggling to preserve their society intact, skillfully employing much literary license to fill in the story of an unusual man who set his stamp on the Talmud. 

We meet the rebellious, powerfully built and handsome Shimon as he leaves his poverty stricken home, the poverty a result of Roman persecution, to seek his fortune in Roman-ruled Basra, located in Iraq today. Much research must have gone into Steinberg's realistic re-creation of the life of Roman subjects, from the interesting – if appalling –  portrayal of the intrigues, corruption and decadence of the ruling class to the miserable mirror of the same  bestiality in those of the lower class, who in addition suffer indescribably when they fall afoul of the powers-that-be. And that is easy enough to do.

The lack of basic human rights and rule of law are made painfully obvious in the action-filled chapters that show the life of ordinary people in the period, who surely know nothing of the Greco-Roman culture described by classical scholars as "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome." Shimon's beloved, gentle sister and a young boy he befriends in prison fall victim to this far-from-grand lawlessness and cruelty.

And the second part of the book is almost pastoral in contrast to the first, as it follows the socially, philosophically and intellectually complex path Shimon pursues as he becomes the famed and respected Resh Lakish. Here, Steinberg seems somewhat less at home to someone familiar with the Talmud and Jewish life in that period, but the novel still maintains its flow and momentum. 

In fact, the Resh Lakish story has a certain resemblance to the story of Rabbi Akiva, the better-known sage who lived before him at the end of the second Temple period. Both men began to study Torah at a late age, although Resh Lakish came from a rabbinic family and rebelliously abandoned his studies as a youth while Rabbi Akiva did not have any prior schooling. Both were from poor backgrounds, both had wives who supported their utter devotion to studying the Torah, both were known for their brilliance and original thinking, but also for the courage and willingness to go against the tide when they felt it was necessary.  

Both are also known for maxims that have become household expressions, such as Rabbi Akiva's teaching  "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you", and Resh Lakish's  ruling – in stark contrast to his violent youth - that "he who lifts a hand against another is considered a wicked man".

The paradigm that the two men exemplify, perhaps an unconscious and natural one, is that in the world of Torah scholarship there is unquestioning respect for intellectual ability if it is directed towards delving into the depths of Torah study. Rabbi Louis Ginzberg elucidated this principle in his seminal work "Students, Scholars and Saints", writing that nothing made a yeshiva teacher happier than a student who could best him with a difficult question on the portion being studied.

True repentance is also fully accepted in Judaism. One's past, one's financial status and one's prior deeds are irrelevant if he is a sincere and outstanding scholar, and both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon take their places in the Hall of Fame (they would, that is, if there were one) of Talmudic greats along with those who studied Torah from their childhood and were scions of great rabbis.

This is no trivial occurrence. Shimon is forced to be a gladiator in Bosra and the company he keeps and his own deeds are light years away from those of a Talmudic scholar. Resh Lakish, after all, means "head of thieves", but is also an acronym of R"Sh (Rabbi Shimon) and when the great luminary Rabbi Yochanan sees Shimon's strength (the Talmud says that he was bathing in a stream at the time) the Talmud quotes him as saying "Chelcha leOrayta – let your strength be used for Torah".  Since that is what happens, Rabbi Yochanan even allows Resh Lakish to wed his sister and becomes his mentor, colleague and friend.

And although that is not the point of the very readable "Shimon", the first novel of a former businessman turned writer who created a series of children's books before writing it, it is brought home nevertheless by the contrast between the first part of the novel and the second. Although some religious readers might find fault with the very writing of a book of this nature and certainly with some of its content, the clear message that in Judaism there is always a push to change one's life for the better and that anyone can gain respect for sincere Torah study is an inadvertent and worthy by-product of reading this interesting book.





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