Talmudic pages

Taanit 23

Honi the Circle Drawer.

Today’s page contains the famous story of Honi the Circle Drawer, one of the mysterious wonder workers that populate rabbinic lore. Though he has a close relationship to God — so close that he can rely on God to answer him — Honi is not a rabbi. In fact, his behavior is anathema to the rabbis. 

In the mishnah that we read a few pages back, we learned that the community calls a fast on account of any communal tragedy except for an overabundance of rain. This comment occasions a story. 

Jerusalem is experiencing a severe drought. Instead of blowing a shofar and declaring a fast, as the rabbis prescribe, the residents call in Honi the Circle Drawer, a man known for speaking directly to God and working miracles. Honi agrees to help, but when he finds that ordinary prayer does not succeed, he sets about performing his signature brand of supplication — he draws a circle on the ground and declares that he will not move until God brings the rain.

The ploy works. But as if to tease Honi, God sends the lightest rain possible. Standing firm in the circle, Honi unabashedly addresses God again and demands rain that is strong enough to fill the cisterns, ditches and caves. Abruptly, the rain comes down in a torrent — the kind that causes flash floods and devastation. Again, Honi is unperturbed, and once again addresses God, asking for a moderate rain of “benevolence, blessing and generosity.” Immediately, God grants it. The drought is over and, for a brief moment, it looks like Honi has succeeded.

Except the moderate rain does not stop. It continues to fall until Jerusalem is underwater and the residents must take shelter on the Temple Mount, the high point of the city. The people beg Honi to pray for the rain to cease, but he heartlessly refuses, saying he will not pray for the end of rain until the Claimants’ Stone — an ancient rock used as a lost and found on the Temple Mount — has been washed away. (Recall: We began with a rule that the community does not pray for rain to cease, but Honi does not cite that as his reason for refusing to help. And Honi has already proven that he is not interested in rabbinic methods of supplication — otherwise he would have followed the proper procedure for a drought and initiated a fast.) 

At this point, Honi’s true colors are impossible to ignore. He loves the power, the prestige, the showmanship, the drama. But he does not love the people or truly care for their wellbeing. It is at this moment that Shimon ben Shetach, one of the rabbinic leaders of the community, offers a bitter imprecation:

Were you not Honi, I would have decreed that you be ostracized, but what can I do to you? You nag God and he does your bidding, like a son who nags his father and his father does his bidding.

Honi has bucked the rabbinic method of dealing with drought, and though his methods initially work, bringing the rain that is so desperately needed, the ultimate results are disastrous. The rabbis are appalled, but because they recognize Honi’s extraordinary relationship with God, they stop short of excommunicating him.

This is where the mishnah’s story, related back on Taanit 19, ends. In the Gemara we read today, the rabbis seem eager to redeem Honi’s character. They understand his circle drawing not as some foreign magical act, but as an imitation of the biblical prophet Habakkuk. Instead of painting him as a lone actor, they surround him with a bevy of disciples who urge him on at every turn. And when the rain begins to overwhelm the city, Honi does not express haughty disinterest in the plight of the people, but regret that the tradition does not allow him to pray for the rain to end. And then, seeing the devastation around him, he thinks the better of blindly following that law and says something to his students that is wholly different from anything we have in the mishnah:

Nevertheless, bring me a bull. I will sacrifice it as a thanks-offering and pray at the same time.

They brought him a bull for a thanks-offering. He placed his two hands on its head and said before God: Master of the Universe, your nation Israel, whom you brought out of Egypt, cannot bear either an excess of good or an excess of punishment. You grew angry with them and withheld rain, and they are unable to bear it. You bestowed upon them too much good, and they were also unable to bear it. May it be your will that the rain stop and that there be relief for the world.

Immediately, the wind blew, the clouds dispersed, the sun shone, and everyone went out to the fields and gathered for themselves truffles and mushrooms that had sprouted in the strong rain.

In this version, Honi is a hero. He saves the city from drought, and then from flood. No longer portrayed as a lone wolf wonder worker who shows no regard for rabbinic law, he is domesticated as a student of the rabbis and the prophets. He is surrounded by disciples and knows how to follow the law, and even when to break it. And his story is no longer a tragedy but a comedy, ending with the people gathering truffles after the rain. In rewriting Honi this way, the rabbis transform him from someone with a dangerous power into one of their own. And in so doing, they claim his power for themselves.

Read all of Taanit 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 5th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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