Honi the Circle-drawer
Honi HaMe’agel ,חוני המעגל Ḥoni; known as Honi the Circle-drawer was a Jewish scholar of the 1st-century BC, during the age of the tannaim, the scholars from whose teachings the Mishnah was derived.
During the 1st century BCE a number of individuals claimed to be miracle workers in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, the ancient Jewish prophets. The Talmud relates the story of Honi the miracle worker.
Honi’s name is derived from a story in the Babylonian Talmud when his prayer for rain was miraculously answered. On one occasion, during the rainy season when G-d did not send Honi drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and told G-d that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told G-d that he was not satisfied and the people needed more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.
Two variations of a story are told in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds in which Honi fell asleep for decades before awaking. The story provides a Jewish version on the theme of a person or persons sleeping for many decades and waking to find a changed world.
The Babylonian Talmud tells the story in which Honi slept for 70 years, before awaking and then dying.
Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘This righteous man, Honi was troubled throughout the whole of his life concerning the meaning of the verse, ‘A Song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers’ (Psalms 126:1). [Honi asked] Is it possible for seventy years to be like a dream? How could anyone sleep for seventy years?”
One day Honi was traveling on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, ‘How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ The man replied: ‘Seventy years.’ Honi then further asked him: ‘Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?’ The man replied: ‘I found carob trees grown in the world; as my forefathers planted those 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 slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, ‘Are you the man who planted the tree?’ The man replied: ‘I am his grandson.’ Thereupon Honi exclaimed: ‘It is clear that I have slept for seventy years.’ He then caught sight of his ass which had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. There he inquired, ‘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.’ He said to them: ‘I am Honi the Circle-Drawer.’ but no one believed him.
He then retired to the beit 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 beit 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 mercy, and he died. Raba said: ‘Hence the saying, ‘Either companionship or death.’
The lesson that is taken away from this story is that if you give something you will not be alive to see, you are still giving.
According to Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews, Honi met his end in the context of conflict between the Hasmonean brothers Hyrcanus II, backed by the Pharisees and advised by Antipater the Idumaean, and Aristobulus II, backed by the Sadducees. Around 63 BC, Honi was captured by the followers of Hyrcanus besieging Jerusalem and was asked to pray for the demise of their opponents. Honi, however, prayed: “Lord of the universe, as the besieged and the besiegers both belong to Your people, I beseech You not to answer the evil prayers of either.” After this, the followers of Hyrcanus stoned him to death.
The Babylonian Talmud records a different story of his death, as part of the aforementioned carob tree story. The Maharsha explains the discrepancy between the Talmud and Josephus by stating that Honi was ‘presumed’ killed by Hyrcanus II’s men, but in reality was put into a deep sleep or coma for 70 years, and only then died.
Honi’s grave is found near the town of Hatzor HaGlilit in northern Israel.