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Friday, April 17, 2009

Choni the Circle Drawer: Rainmaker and Rip Van Winkle

[A patio with an inlaid circle outside of Choni's gravesite in the Galilee]


We are going to complete our current study of wonder workers and shamans of the Talmud...


...with the figure of Choni (or Honi) the Circle-Maker. Mishnah Taanit 3:8 and the accompanying Gemara tells of this 2nd Century BCE legendary rainmaker. In a fabulous and humorous episode, Honi literally draws a line in the sand (actually, a magic circle) with God, announcing he will not move from it until God opens the heavens and brings the people Israel rain:

It once happened that they said to Honi ha-M'aggel: "Pray that rains may fall." He said to them: "Go out and bring in the [clay] ovens for the Paschal sacrifices so that they will not dissolve." He prayed, but rains did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and he said before Him: "Master of the Universe! Your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a member of your household. I swear by Your great Name that I will not move from here until You have mercy on Your children." Rains began to come down in drops. He said: "I did not ask this, but rains [to fill] pits, ditches and caves." They began to come down angrily. He said: "I did not ask this but [for] rains of benevolence, blessing and generosity." They fell in their normal way, until Israel went up out of Jerusalem to the Temple Mount [high ground] because of the rains. They came and said to him: "Just as you prayed for them that they should fall, so pray that they should go away."...Shimon ben Shetach [the Nasi, or chief officer of the Sanhedrin] sent for him: "If you were not Honi I would decree a ban upon you. But what shall I do to you, for you act like a spoiled child before God and yet He does your will for you, as a son who acts like a spoiled child with his father and yet he does his will for him? And about you the verse says: "Your father and your mother shall be glad and she who bore you shall rejoice." (M. Taanit 3:8)

Another fabulous (and this time, poignant) story (Ta'anit 23a) about Honi seems to have inspired the tale of Vip Van Winkle:

All his life, Choni ha-M'aggel was bothered by this verse, "When God returns us to Zion, we will have been as dreamers," (Ps. 126:1) [Choni is thinking about the Babylonian exile of 70 years, how could it have passed as a dream?]. "Could it be," he asked, "that a person can sleep continuously for 70 years?" One day, as he was walking, he saw a man planting a carob tree. "How long will it be," he asked the man, "before this tree produces fruits?"
"Seventy years," the man answered.
"And are you certain you will still be alive then?" Choni ha-M'aggel asked.
"I was born into a world with carob trees," the man answered. "Just as my fathers planted trees for me to enjoy, so I plant trees for my children."
Choni ha-M'aggel then sat down a little distance away, to a meal. He ate, then dozed off. A wall of rock sprung up around him, and hid him from view. No one could find him, and so he slept for 70 years.

When he awoke from his sleep, he saw the same man picking carobs from the tree he had planted.
"Are you the man that planted this tree?" he asked him.
"no," answered the man, "I am his grandson."
"I see," said Choni, "that I must have slept for 70 years." He then noticed that his donkey had been given birth to donkeys, who in turn, gave birth to still other donkeys.
He went to his home.
"Is the son of Choni the Circle-Maker still alive?" he asked.
"No," they answered, "but his grandson is alive."
"I am Choni the Circle-Maker," he told them, but they would not believe him.
He went to the House of Study. There he overheard the rabbis saying, this teaching shines as brightly as in the days of Choni the Circle-Maker. For when Choni would come to the House of Study, he would solve for them in an excellent way, any difficulties they had.
"I am Choni" he told them, but they would not believe him -- and did not honor him as a scholar of his stature needs to be honored. This hurt him deeply. He prayed to God [to end his life] and he died.


In the writings of Josephus, the historical Choni meets a more mundane death at the hands of a political opponent. I like the mythic ending better.
Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

10 Comments:

Blogger Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

I once discussed the contradiction between sources concerning the death of Choni the Circle Drawer. See my essay from 2005 about Chanuka.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am also an avid movie watcher (and reader of this blog)! I love star wars most of all. While surfing the Jedi wikipedia page (I'm a pretty big dork) I stumbled upon a historical influences section of the page. Low and behold under historical influences Jewish mystics were listed as a source of inspiration for the character of the Jedi. I am sure you are not a star wars freak, and wikipedia is obviously not the best source of information, but I was wondering about what you thought of the comparison of the character of the Jedi to Jewish mystics deceived in tradition.

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a mystical explanation for the horrors of the Shoah? Is there room in the literature for someone as evil as Adolf Hitler?

10:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you feel that there is any Jewish mystical equivalents to the modern practice of liquid sensory deprivation?

12:03 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Isolation chambers? No, but the use of water for inducing altered states of consciousness, yes. Frequent immersions, water meditation, etc. See my article in the Journal of the Anthropology of Consciousness entitled "The Use of Water as a Medium for ASC in Early Jewish Mysticism"

7:40 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

As for mystical theodicy of the Shoah, I think the the Zoharic interpretation of evil is about as far as we can go. I reject the simple "Jews sinned and were punished" theology that circulates in some Orthodox circles. This fits their bias against the non-Orthodox community better than it fits the facts before us.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seem to be so many different strands of Jewish religious and mystical thought, which one (either contemporary or from the past) would be the most similar to what Moses or Solomon would have been familiar with or practiced themselves?

11:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I.e. Would Moses have been the world's greatest Kabbalist/mystic or would he have been the world's strictest Hasidim, or something completely different and unfamiliar? (Sorry for the two-post post!) Your blog is unbelievable, keep it up!

12:22 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was very interesting for me to read this post. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.

9:39 PM  

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