Written by: Miriam Kates Lock

A fictional account of how Shimon ben Lakish, better known as Resh Lakish, transitioned from the arena to the yeshiva

Shimon was born into a life of dire poverty. His family had been forced to flee their home in Judea and resettle in this particularly inhospitable part of Arabia Petrea. Jews in exile, they were expected to suffer daily humiliation, grovelling to their masters, grateful for any scraps that may be thrown at them.”

With these words we are introduced to Shimon ben Lakish, also known as Resh Lakish, a Jewish scholar living in the third century CE. Readers familiar with the Babylonian Talmud have certainly heard of him, the scholar who started out as a gladiator or bandit and eventually became the beloved study partner of Rabbi Yochanan.

Resh Lakish is an unusual choice for a main character in a novel, so credit goes to John Steinberg for introducing him to readers of historical fiction in his first full-length novel, Shimon. Although in recent years an increasing number of novels centered on biblical characters and events have been published, those who fictionalize the lives of Talmudic rabbis are un-common.

Steinberg, a businessman who turned to writing in 2007, has previously co-written and produced two plays and written a series of children’s books. He chose the story of Resh Lakish for his first novel because it intrigued him. In the author’s note in the beginning of the book, he explains that in the novel, other than the main character and Rabbi Yochanan, “all the other characters are entirely fictional, as are the events depicted in this novel.”

Fiction based on the lives of characters living in ancient times is especially challenging to write. Steinberg took on this challenge and wrote a book that succeeds in bringing the reader into a world where cruelty and blood were considered entertainment for the masses.

After his mother dies, Shimon, whose one true friend is his twin sister, Miriam, leaves his village to walk to Bosra – where he hopes to find work to better his situation. A Jew with no real commitment to Jewish practice, he is handsome and well-built, and succeeds in being hired at the governor’s palace.

The governor’s wife is a beautiful and scheming woman, forced by her father to marry her weak and unsuccessful husband. She starts up with Shimon and he is soon accused of taking advantage of her. He is then thrown into a prison, where the mistreatment by his fellow prisoners is as vicious as that of the masters.

The prison forces Shimon to train as a gladiator, and not much time passes before he is fighting for his life in the arena with thousands of cheering spectators. Fighting becomes his whole experience, and when he returns to his prison cell the cruelty of the prisoners to each other makes it almost impossible to have even a minute to contemplate where his life is going. Still, he sometimes thinks about his home and his sister Miriam, and regrets having left home when he did.

How Shimon goes from a life of violence in the arena to becoming a peaceful and dedicated scholar is the theme of this absorbing novel. The fact that Shimon’s transformation is so drastic makes the story all the more unique. Although he has to catch up on the most basic knowledge of Judaism, the more he studies the more wants to learn. As time passes, he reached the highest level in the study hall, eventually becoming the chosen study partner of Rabbi Yochanan and marrying his sister.

While Shimon’s transformation from gladiator to student is extreme, he finds that even in the quiet study hall, there are students who are devious and competitive. As he devotes himself to Jewish law, he works on not only his intellectual skills but his character, struggling to come to terms with his past.

Steinberg does a good job of describing Shimon’s life as a gladiator and bringing the reader into the world of the ancient Roman Empire. Yet there are a few sections where the writing is a bit awkward, and could have been edited more carefully.

Furthermore, the switch to the world of the yeshiva in the second half of the book is a bit of a letdown. Although the first half contains vivid descriptions of Shimon’s fights in the arena, which are not what you would call pleasant reading, the book is much more exciting when he is a gladiator than when he is a student.

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Source: The Jerusalem Post, November 28, 2014