May 29, 2024
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Choni Ha-Me’agel (c. 100 BCE)

There is a well-known story in Mishnah Taanit 3:8:

“[The people] said to Choni Ha-Me’agel: Pray that rain should fall. He said to them: Go out and bring inside the ovens used to roast the Paschal lambs so that they will not dissolve [as rains will fall]. He prayed, and no rain fell. What did he do? He drew a circle (“ag ugah”) and stood inside it and said before God: ‘Master of the Universe, Your children have turned their faces toward me, as I am like a member of Your household…I will not move from here until You have mercy upon Your children.’ Rain began to trickle. He said: ‘I did not ask for this, but for rain to fill the cisterns, ditches, and caves.’ Rain began to fall furiously. He said: “I did not ask for this (damaging rain), but for rain of benevolence, blessing, and generosity.” Subsequently, the rains fell in the standard manner…”

It is very interesting that Choni and his success praying for rain is mentioned in Josephus, writing around 100 CE. According to Josephus, Choni died in the context of the conflict between the Hasmonean brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The year was 63 BCE and the issue was who would rule after their mother Shlomtziyon’s death a few years earlier. Choni was captured by the followers of Hyrcanus, and was asked to pray for the demise of their opponents who were being besieged.

Here is the story (Antiq. XIV, 2): “Now there was a certain Onias, who, being a righteous man and dear to God, had once in a rainless period prayed to God to end the drought, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain. This man hid himself when he saw that the civil war continued to rage, but he was taken to the camp of the Jews and was asked to place a curse on Aristobulus and his fellow rebels, just as he had, by his prayers, put an end to the rainless period. But when in spite of his refusals and excuses he was forced to speak by the mob, he stood up in their midst and said: “O God, king of the universe, since these men standing beside me are Thy people, and those who are besieged are Thy priests, I beseech Thee not to hearken to them against these men nor to bring to pass what these men ask Thee to do to those others.” And when he had prayed in this manner, the villains among the Jews who stood round him stoned him to death.” (They did not approve of his “brotherly” approach.)

Taanit 23a tells a different story about Choni’s death:

“Rabbi Yochanan said: This righteous man [Choni] 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.’ [Choni asked]: ‘Is it possible for 70 years to be like a dream? How could anyone sleep for 70 years?’

One day Choni was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, ‘How long does it take to bear fruit?’ The man replied: ‘Seventy years.’ Choni then further asked him: ‘Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?’ The man replied: ‘I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me, so I too plant these for my children.’

Choni sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him that 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 Choni asked him, ‘Are you the man who planted the tree?’ The man replied: ‘I am his grandson.’ Thereupon Choni exclaimed: ‘It is clear that I have slept for seventy years.’ He then caught sight of his donkey, which had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. There he inquired, ‘Is the son of Choni Ha-Me’agel still alive?’ The people answered him, ‘His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.’ Thereupon he said to them: ‘I am Choni Ha-Me’agel,’ but no one would believe him.

He then went to the beit hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, ‘The law is as clear to us as in the days of Choni Ha-Mea’gel,’ 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 honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy [from God], and he died. Rava said: ‘Hence the saying, ‘Either companionship or death.’”

***

It is of interest that at Avot De-R. Natan, Chap. 9, we have this story about Moshe: “Moshe drew a small circle on the ground and stood inside it, and asked for mercy for Miriam. He said: I will not leave this spot until my sister Miriam is healed…”

***

As to Choni’s name, it has usually been assumed that “Me’agel” is a reference to the above story where Choni drew a circle. For example, this is how Rashi (Men. 94b), Jastrow (p. 1041) and the Jewish Encyclopedia entry understand the name and it is true that עגל is a verb for making a circle. (Jastrow, ibid.) But there is another approach that has been suggested by modern scholars. Names typically describe the profession of the Sage. E.g., Yochanan Ha-Sandlar. In Mishnaic times, a me’agel could have meant someone who repairs things, such as roofs or ovens, with a roller. See Makot 2:1. Furthermore, it is very odd that, in the story in the Mishnah, the phrase used was “ag ugah” and not “igel ma’agal.” Therefore, the alternative approach to his name, “the roller,” has been suggested. See Encyclopaedia Judaica 8:964. “The circle drawer” interpretation was perhaps a reinterpretation of his name that arose later, based on the story. (I thank Jeff Glazer for pointing out this “roller” interpretation to me.)

(In ancient Israel, people would have roofers re-apply the plaster with a roller each year to their homes, right before the rainy season. This way, water wouldn’t seep in through the cracks that developed over the course of the year.)

There is a Geonic interpretation that “Me’agel” refers to a certain place. (See EJ 8:964). It is possible that Rashi was the first to suggest the “circle drawer” interpretation.

***

Today, Choni’s grave is found near the town of Hatzor HaGlilit in northern Israel.

Even though the story in the Talmud refers to him as a great scholar, no statements of halacha in his name are found in the Talmud. But this is not so surprising, as very rarely are statements of halacha cited in the name of Sages from 100 BCE.

I had always referred to this Sage as “Ha-Maagal,” and this is how he is referred to in J.D. Eisenstein’s “Otzar Yisrael.” But all the other sources I have seen refer to him as “Ha-Me’agel.”

I also looked at the earliest manuscript of the Mishnah, the Kaufmann manuscript. It has vocalization. From my view online, it looks like there is a segol under the gimel. But interestingly, his first name here is “Chuni”!


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is always early. Perhaps “First” is not his last name but a description of this character trait. (Or maybe he just tries to live up to his name!)

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