Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish – Reish Lakish – was, apparently, from a poor but important family. Because of the financial situation at home, Reish Lakish searched for employment and because of his great physical strength trained to become a gladiator.
Rabbi Yohanan was considered one of the most handsome men in the Jewish community in Israel, although it should be noted that looks and appearance is something that is dependent on cultural norms. Aside from stating that he was handsome, the Gemara also describes Rabbi Yohanan as being obese.
Once, when Rabbi Yohanan was swimming in the Jordan River, Reish Lakish jumped in and swam with him. Seeing his strength and determination as a swimmer, Rabbi Yohanan exclaimed “your strength would be put to better use were it devoted to Torah study!” to which Reish Lakish replied “your good looks would be put to better use on a woman!” Hearing this, Rabbi Yohanan suggested that if Reish Lakish were to repent, Rabbi Yohanan would arrange for his sister – who was even more attractive than he – to marry Reish Lakish. Reish Lakish agreed, and became Rabbi Yohanan’s student (and brother-in-law) and eventually his peer and study partner.
The Gemara tells of a falling out between them that eventually led to a tragic end for both of them. Once the discussion in the beit midrash was focused on how to determine when a knife or a similar implement was considered completed, an important question with regard to issues of ritual purity. In the course of the discussion, Rabbi Yohanan said regarding Reish Lakish’s position “a bandit knows about his banditry.” In response, Reish Lakish said that he had studied Torah prior to encountering Rabbi Yohanan, meaning Rabbi Yohanan was not his principal teacher and therefore could not berate him. Both walked away from this incident insulted and were never able to reconcile.
Many of the commentaries ask how Rabbi Yohanan could bring up this issue, since, as we have learned, it is ona’at devarim (verbal mistreatment)– it is forbidden to remind penitents of their former activities. While some suggest that a teacher is permitted to speak this way to his students, others suggest that this was a misunderstanding, and that Rabbi Yohanan was trying, in a humorous way, to suggest that given Reish Laskish’s background in thievery, he should be considered the expert with regard to knives.