Resh Laqish from Text to Text. Functions of Irony within Yerushalmi and Bavli

Bearbeiter: Tobias Junker M.A.

Resh Laqish is an Amorite of the second generation. Alongside Rabbi Yoḥanan he is playing a key role and is being highly respected (yBer 12c). Yet the emphasis on his unusual corporeality and his outstanding career are anything but typical for sages in rabbinical literature. His various professions as a plantation guard, a gladiator, and the head of a gang of robbers are narrated in texts such as the Yerushalmi (yMK 81d), the Bavli (bGit 46b-47a), and a mediaval Midrash (PRE 43). The Bavli portraits him disputing while lying (bSeb 5a), commenting on his immense belly (bGit 46b-47a) and, on another occasion, the reader encounters his vast brutality during his fight in a roman theatre (ibid.). In the most prominent story (bBM 84a) all of this finally becomes symbolically transformed. In bBM 84a his phallic spear is substituted by tora after Rabbi Yoḥanan takes him under the ‘wings of the shekhina’. From that point on, he shifts his focus from physical derires to wisdom and study. For Resh Laqish, however, this transformation causes no improvement. “They called me master before, they call me master now”, he says, openly addressing the tragic irony of his fate that in the same story results in his early death.

The colorful creation of a figure like Resh Laqish shows the great interest in biographical imagination in rabbinical culture. The biographical details and images of the figure change through various texts, e.g. the Yerushalmi, Midrash Kohelet, the Bavli, PRE. Nonetheless a strong shared memory of the figure is existent, which transcends the different geographical and historical contexts. This idea of a shared rabbinical imagination has strongly affected interpreters until the present. Thus, interpretations on stories like BM have tended to view the rabbinical corpus as a whole and regarded the figure of Resh Laqish through the Bavli perspective. But what happens if we start looking at the material individually? My research on the stories in the Yerushalmi revealed that we cannot ascribe Resh Laqish his most famous attribute – being a gladiator – unless we look at the Yerushalmi from the Babylonian Talmud. The problem, that we cannot write coherent rabbinical biographies, is nothing new to Talmudists since the debates on Neusners earlier biographical projects on Yoḥanan b. Zakkai and other rabbis (Schäfer 1986). However, we still lack a differientiated understanding of the Babylonian and Palestinian traditions in regards to Resh Laqish, as Daniel Boyarin acknowledges in a footnote (Boyarin 1997, p. 32). I would like to add that we also do not yet understand the purposes that the various narrations of Resh Laqish accomplish for the differing corpora.

In analyzing these stories, my goal is first to address differences and connections, but also to contribute to the study of irony. Irony is found in many stories about Resh Laqish; whether this is ironic speech by Resh Laqish himself (ySan 25b,bGit 47a,etc.) or the narrator’s ironic tone (bGit 47a, yMak 81d, etc.). Equally possible is the combination of both of them as we saw above, in which Resh Laqish addresses the irony of his fate and the storyteller performatively confirms. Despite Holger Zellentin’s brilliant monography on rabbinical Parodies (Zellentin 2011) and occasional articles, the issue of irony in rabbinical texts is surprisingly unexplored. My dissertation will surely contribute to that field. My goal is to rhetorically analyze irony to better understand when and why the Babylonian Talmud applies it. Therefore, Resh Laqish serves as a case study on irony in Talmudic literature. This offers a prism through which the functions of ironical speech can be seen through the intertextual dimension of a figure.