Honi the Circle Drawer and the Modern Need for Rain in Israel

The Tomb of Honi the Circle Drawer at Hazor Hagelit in Northern Israel

On Monday, thousands gathered at the Western Wall to pray for rain since this November has been the driest in almost 50 years (Arutz Sheva). This drought has apparently been a reason for secular and religious groups to join together in prayer (Arutz Sheva). Unfortunately, rain is not expected until mid-December.

The situation reminds me Honi the Circle Drawer (חוני המעגל), a miracle worker from the Second Temple period (c. 1st century BCE) who was called upon when rain was needed. Some of Honi’s story is related in the Mishnah Ta’anit 3:8:

‏תענית ג8: עַל כָּל צָרָה שֶׁלֹּא תָבוֹא עַל הַצִּבּוּר, מַתְרִיעִין עָלֶיהָ, חוּץ מֵרוֹב גְּשָׁמִים. מַעֲשֶׂה שֶׁאָמְרוּ לוֹ לְחוֹנִי הַמְעַגֵּל, הִתְפַּלֵּל שֶׁיֵּרְדוּ גְשָׁמִים. אָמַר לָהֶם, צְאוּ וְהַכְנִיסוּ תַנּוּרֵי פְסָחִים, בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁלֹּא יִמּוֹקוּ. הִתְפַּלֵּל וְלֹא יָרְדוּ גְשָׁמִים. מֶה עָשָׂה, עָג עוּגָה וְעָמַד בְּתוֹכָהּ, וְאָמַר (לְפָנָיו), רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, בָּנֶיךָ שָׂמוּ פְנֵיהֶם עָלַי, שֶׁאֲנִי כְבֶן בַּיִת לְפָנֶיךָ. נִשְׁבָּע אֲנִי בְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל שֶׁאֵינִי זָז מִכָּאן, עַד שֶׁתְּרַחֵם עַל בָּנֶיךָ. הִתְחִילוּ גְּשָׁמִים מְנַטְּפִין. אָמַר, לֹא כָךְ שָׁאַלְתִּי, אֶלָּא גִּשְׁמֵי בוֹרוֹת שִׁיחִין וּמְעָרוֹת. הִתְחִילוּ לֵירֵד בְּזַעַף. אָמַר, לֹא כָךְ שָׁאַלְתִּי, אֶלָּא גִּשְׁמֵי רָצוֹן, בְּרָכָה וּנְדָבָה. יָרְדוּ כְתִיקְנָן, עַד שֶׁיָּצְּאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִירוּשָׁלַיִם לְהַר הַבַּיִת מִפְּנֵי הַגְּשָׁמִים. בָּאוּ וְאָמְרוּ לוֹ, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהִתְפָּלַלְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶם שֶׁיֵּרְדוּ כָּךְ הִתְפַּלֵל שֶׁיֵּלְכוּ לָהֶן. אָמַר לָהֶן, צְאוּ וּרְאוּ אִם נִמְחֵית אֶבֶן הַטּוֹעִים. שָׁלַח לוֹ שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן שָׁטָח, אִלְמָלֵא חוֹנִי אַתָּה, גּוֹזְרַנִי עָלֶיךָ נִדּוּי. אֲבָל מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה לְךָ, שֶׁאַתָּה מִתְחַטֵּא לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם וְעוֹשֶׂה לְךָ רְצוֹנְךָ כְּבֵן שֶׁהוּא מִתְחַטֵּא עַל אָבִיו וְעוֹשֶׂה לוֹ רְצוֹנוֹ. וְעָלֶיךָ הַכָּתוב אוֹמֵר, (משלי כג) יִשְׂמַח אָבִיךָ וְאִמֶּךָ וְתָגֵל יוֹלַדְתֶּךָ

Neusner’s Translation:

On account of every sort of public trouble (may it not happen) do they sound the shofar, except for an excess of rain.

M‘SH S: They said to Honi, the circle drawer, “Pray for rain.” He said to them, “Go and take in the clay ovens used for Passover, so that they not soften [in the rain which is coming].” He prayed, but it did not rain. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood in the middle of it and said before Him, “Lord of the world! Your children have turned to me, for before you I am like a member of the family. I swear by your great name-I’m simply not moving from here until you take pity on your children!” It began to rain drop by drop. He said, “This is not what I wanted, but rain for filling up cisterns, pits, and caverns.” It began to rain violently. He said, “This is not what I wanted, but rain of good will, blessing, and graciousness.” Now it rained the right way, until Israelites had to flee from Jerusalem up to the Temple Mount because of the rain. Now they came and said to him, “Just as you prayed for it to rain, now pray for it to go away.” He said to them, “Go, see whether the stone of the strayers is disappeared.” Simeon b. Shatah said to him, “If you were not Honi, I should decree a ban of excommunication against you. But what am I going to do to you? For you importune before the Omnipresent, so he does what you want, like a son who importunes his father, so he does what he wants.“Concerning you Scripture says, Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her that bore you rejoice (Prov. 23:25).”

— A Longer Account of Honi the Circle Drawer is preserved in the Talmud in Ta’anit 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. 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; 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 Elijah (in whose hands were the keys of Rain) would not the name of Heaven be profaned through you? 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.

The story in the Talmud is much longer. Honi falls asleep for 70 years and when he awakes no one recognizes him. But it is stated of him that in days of Honi he would help to settle disputes at the Beit Midrash. The story which runs into daf beth is of Abba Hilkiah, Honi’s grandson, who also has the ability to pray and have rain fall.

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