HONI, THE CIRCLE DRAWER
Talmud - Mas. Ta'anith 23a
IT HAPPENED THAT THE PEOPLE SAID TO HONI, THE CIRCLE DRAWER etc. Once it happened that the greater part of the month of Adar had gone and yet no rain had fallen. The people sent a message to Honi the Circle Drawer, Pray that rain may fall. He prayed and no rain fell. He thereupon drew a circle and stood within it in the same way as the prophet Habakuk had done, as it is said, I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower etc.3 He exclaimed [before God], Master of the Universe, Thy children have turned to me because [they believe] me to be a member of Thy house. I swear by Thy great name that I will not move from here until Thou hast mercy Upon Thy children! Rain began to drip and his disciples said to him, We look to you to save us from death;4 we believe that this rain came down merely to release you from your oath. Thereupon he exclaimed: It is not for this that I have prayed, but for rain [to fill] cisterns, ditches and caves. The rain then began to come down with great force, every drop being as big as the opening of a barrel and the Sages estimated that no one drop was less than a log. His disciples then said to him: Master,we look to you to save us from death; we believe that the rain came down to destroy the world.Thereupon he exclaimed before [God], It is not for this that l have prayed, but for rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty. Then rain fell normally until the Israelites [in Jerusalem] were compelled to go up [for shelter] to the Temple Mount because of the rain. [His disciples] then said to him, Master, in the same way as you have prayed for the rain to fall pray for the rain to cease. He replied: I have it as a tradition that we may not pray on account of an excess of good. Despite this bring unto me a bullock for a thanks-giving-offering.] They brought unto him a bullock for a thanks-giving-offering and he laid his two hands upon it and said, Master of the Universe, Thy people Israel whom Thou hast brought out from Egypt cannot endure an excess of good nor an excess of punishment; when Thou wast angry with them, they could not endure it; when Thou didst shower upon them an excess of good they could not endure it; may it be Thy will that the rain may cease and that there be relief for the world. Immediately the wind began to blow and the clouds were dispersed and the sun shone and the people went out into the fields and gathered for themselves mushrooms and truffles. Thereupon Simeon b. Shetah sent this message to him, Were it not that you are Honi I would have placed you under the ban; for were the years like the years [of famine in the time] of Elijah5 (in whose hands were the keys of Rain) would not the name of Heaven be profaned through you?6 But what shall I do unto you who actest petulantly before the Omnipresent and He grants your desire, as a son who acts petulantly before his father and he grants his desires; thus he says to him, Father, take me to bathe in warm water, wash me in cold water, give me nuts, almonds, peaches, and pomegranates and he gives them unto him. Of you Scripture says, Let thy father and thy mother be glad, and let her that bore thee rejoice.7 Our Rabbis have taught: What was the message that the Sanhedrin8 sent to Honi the Circle-Drawer? [It was an interpretation of the verse], Thou, shalt also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto thee, and light shall shine upon thy ways etc.9 ‘Thou shalt also decree a thing:’ You have decreed [on earth] below and the Holy One, Blessed be He, fulfills your word [in heaven] above. ‘And light shall shine upon thy ways:’ You have illumined with your prayer a generation in darkness. ‘When they cast thee down, thou shalt say: There is lifting up:’ You have raised with your prayer a generation that has sunk low. ‘For the humble person He saveth:’ You have saved by your prayer a generation that is humiliated with sin. ‘He delivereth him that is not innocent:’ You have delivered by your prayer a generation that is not innocent. ‘Yea, He shall be delivered through the cleanliness of thy hands:’ You have delivered it10 through the work of your clean hands.R. Johanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream.11 Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years?12 One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.
Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his ass who had given birth to several generations of mules;13 and he returned home. He there enquired, Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive? The people answered him, His son is no more, but his grandson is still living. Thereupon he said to them: I am Honi the Circle-Drawer, but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Beth Hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer, for whenever he came to the Beth Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out, I am he; but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honour due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died. Raba said: Hence the saying, Either companionship or death.
Abba Hilkiah was a grandson of Honi the Circle-Drawer, and whenever the world was In need of rain the Rabbis sent a message to him and he prayed and rain fell. Once there was an urgent need for rain and the Rabbis sent to him a couple of scholars [to ask him] to pray for rain. They came to his house but they did not find him there. They then proceeded to the fields and they found him there hoeing. They greeted him
(1) People did not venture out on Wednesday evenings as there was a belief that demons were about. Cf. Pes. 112b.
(2) Jer. V, 25.
(3) Hab. II, 1.
(4) The meaning of the Hebrew phrase is doubtful. (3) [Rashi: ‘for confession of sins’.]
(5) Cf. I Kings XVII, 1ff.
(6) [Honi would not have hesitated to force, so to speak, the hand of Heaven even in the face of an oath such as Elijah
had made in the name of God that there would be no rain for years (1 Kings XVII, 1ff).]
(7) Prov. XXIII, 25.
(8) Lit., ‘the Men of the Hall of Hewn Stone’. The Sanhedrin met in the Hall of Hewn Stone.
(9) Job XXII, 28ff.
(10) The nation.
(11) Ps. CXXVI, 1.
(12) Cf. Jer. XXV, 11; XXIX, 10.
(13) [MS.M. omits the last sentence.]
Talmud - Mas. Ta'anith 23b
but he took no notice of them. Towards evening he gathered some wood and placed the wood and the rake on one shoulder and his cloak on the other shoulder. Throughout the journey he walked barefoot but when he reached a stream he put his shoes on; when he lighted upon thorns and thistles he lifted up his garments; when he reached the city his wife well bedecked came out to meet him; when he arrived home his wife entered first [the house] and then he and then the scholars. He sat down to eat but he did not say to the scholars, ‘Join me’. He then shared the meal among his children, giving the older son one portion and the younger two. He said to his wife, I know the scholars have come on account of rain, let us go up to the roof and pray, perhaps the Holy One, Blessed be He, will have mercy and rain will fall, without having credit given to us. They went up to the roof; he stood in one corner and she in another; at first the clouds appeared over the corner where his wife stood. When he came down he said to the scholars. Why have you scholars come here? They replied: The Rabbis have sent us to you, Sir, [to ask you] to pray for rain. Thereupon he exclaimed, Blessed be God, who has made you no longer dependent on Abba Hilkiah. They replied: We know that the rain has come on your account, but tell us, Sir, the meaning of these mysterious acts of yours, which are bewildering to us? Why did you not take notice of us when we greeted you? He answered: I was a labourer hired by the day and I said I must not relax [from my work]. And why did you, Sir, carry the wood on one shoulder and the cloak on the other shoulder? He replied: It was a borrowed cloak; I borrowed it for one purpose [to wear] and not for any other Purpose. Why did you, Sir, go barefoot throughout the whole journey but when you came to a stream you put your shoes on? He replied: What was on the road I could see but not what was in the water. Why did you, Sir, lift up your garments whenever you lighted upon thorns and thistles? He replied1 : This [the body] heals itself, but the other [the clothes] does not. Why did your wife come out well bedecked to meet you, Sir, when you entered the city? He replied: In order that I might not set my eyes on any other woman. Why, Sir, did she enter [the house] first and you after her and then we? He replied:Because I did not know your character.2 Why, Sir, did you not ask us to join you in the meal? [He replied]: Because there was not sufficient food [for all]. Why did you give, Sir, one portion to the older son and two portions to the younger? He replied: Because the one stays at home and the other is away in the Synagogue [the whole day]. Why, Sir, did the clouds appear first in the corner where your wife stood and then in your corner? [He replied]: Because a wife stays at home and gives bread to the poor which they can at once enjoy whilst I give them money which they cannot at once enjoy. Or perhaps it may have to do with certain robbers In our neighbourhood; I prayed that they might die, but she prayed that they might repent [and they did repent].
Hanan ha-Nehba was the son of the daughter of Honi the Circle-Drawer. When the world was in need of rain the Rabbis would send to him school children and they would take hold of the hem of his garment and say to him, Father, Father, give us rain. Thereupon he would plead with the Holy One, Blessed be He, [thus], Master of the Universe, do it for the sake of these who are unable to distinguish between the Father who gives rain and the father who does not. And why was he called, Hanan ha-Nehba? — Because he was wont to lock [mihabbeh] himself in the privy5 [out of modesty].