Choni HaMa'agal Draws a Circle
By Larry Fine
One of the most legendary characters to emerge from the Talmud is Choni HaMa'agal. The name Choni HaMa'agal means Choni the circle drawer and it comes from a very famous story that appears in Tractate Ta'anit (page 23). Choni HaMa'agal lived during the time of the Tanayim, the teachers who lived during the Mishnaic period, which places him before the Talmud, around the time of the destruction of the Temple.
It was a particularly dry year in the land of Israel and no rain had fallen. The severe drought meant little crops and possible starvation; modern irrigation methods with pipes and pumps had yet to be invented. Water was still collected in cisterns hewn in the rock and stored under ground for use during the long dry summers. Most of the winter had passed and it was now the Jewish month of Adar, the last month of the winter the last chance for rain. The cisterns were empty, the ground was dry and the people were desperate.
The people sent to Choni who was known as not just a wise man and a kind sage, but also a very pious man whose prayer had a reputation of breaking past the barriers that seemed to be erected in heaven and getting through to the source of all goodness, the G-d of Israel. They asked him to pray that rain should fall.
He acquiesced and prayed but nothing happened! He drew a circle in the ground and stood in the middle of it and said, "Master of the world, Your children look to me for help since I am like a son in Your house. I swear in front of You by Your great name that I will not move from this circle until you have mercy upon Your children." It began to drip small droplets of rain from the sky.
His students said to him, "It appears that it is only raining in this small amount in order that your vow be annulled so that you may leave the circle."
Choni continued to pray to G-d, "This is not the rain that I have asked for, but a rain that will fill the cisterns and the underground storage tanks." Then the rain began to fall with great force until some drops were like buckets of water. The sages said that there was not one drop smaller than a small glass of water. His students again spoke to him saying, "We see you and we have not died (neither from the drought nor from the rain). But it seems to us that this rain will destroy the world."
Again Choni spoke to G-d saying, "This is not the rain that I asked for, but rather for a rain of blessing and benevolence." Then the rain came down gently as it should until finally the people in Jerusalem who lived in the valleys below the Temple had to come up to the Temple area because of the accumulation of waters. They spoke to Choni saying, "Just like you prayed that G-d should give us rain, pray that He should stop this rain."
He told them that it was not proper to pray to request an end to the goodness; never the less he told them to bring a Thanksgiving offering a goat. He placed his two hands on it and said, "Master of the World, your people whom You have taken out of Egypt can not endure neither your great abundant goodness nor your displeasure. When You are angry with them they can not stand. When You give to them of Your goodness they can not stand. May it be Your will that the rain stop and that there be plenty in the world." Immediately the winds began to blow and the clouds were scattered and the sun began to shine. The people went into the fields and harvested mushrooms that had grown from the abundant moisture.
Shimon ben Shetach was the leader and greatest sage at this time. He sent Choni a message saying, "If it were not for the fact that you are Choni, I would excommunicate you! Since the days of Elijah the prophet we have never witnessed a person who commands the rains. And now the good name of heaven is profaned by your actions! But what am I to do? You act like a spoiled child in front of G-d and He does your bidding just like a son who makes the father wash him and give him delicacies to eat."
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Here this story ends, but what are we to learn from this famous passage?
We can see that there was quite a difference of opinion between Choni HaMa'agal and Shimon ben Shetach in regard to accepting divine decrees and changing them. It would seem that Shimon be Shetach felt that when G-d decrees a decree it is for our betterment and if our prayers can not change it, we must bear it. Choni HaMa'agal felt differently; he believed that if someone has the ability to effect a change to avert the divine decree and if the people are not sufficiently strong and capable of weathering the decree it must be changed. True, just as it would be preferable for a child to endure a parent's punishment, but sometimes the child is not able to stand it and continue to grow. The same is true of a righteous person. If he sees that a decree can not be endured by the people, he must act to change it.
Our generation is like this type of child. We are not sufficiently strong in our belief of G-d that we can accept dark decrees; we need righteous people like Choni HaMa'agal to come and aid us. Let us pray that we never be in such circumstances for who knows it is not every generation that has a person of such greatness as Choni HaMa'agal.
from the November 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine