Friday, August 19, 2022

The Mishnah on Taanit 19a describes the miracle in which, in a time of drought, Choni HaMe’agel drew a circle around himself and refused to leave until Hashem granted rain. In our sugya on Taanit 23a, a brayta retells the story in greater detail, and a parallel in Yerushalmi Taanit 16a offers other details. The Yerushlami cites the Aramaic, second-Temple era Megillat Taanit, that בְּעֶשְׂרִין בֵּהּ צָמוּן כָּל עַמָּא לַמִּטְרָא וְנָחַת לוֹן, “on Adar 20 the whole nation fasted for rain and it descended to them,” which doesn’t single out Choni. The Hebrew scholion on Megillat Taanit (a later stratum), elaborates with the Choni story. Space considerations preclude my recounting each narrative account. The reader is encouraged to study them, considering repercussions of omitted, added, or contrary details. For instance, does juxtaposing Rabbi Tarfon’s fast/miracle in the Mishnah present a legalistic/rabbinic alternative to the folk-religious hero Choni? Does the brayta’s mention of Choni clarifying halachic matters establish him as a halachic figure? Does the brayta’s addition of the precedent from Chavakuk work to counter Shimon b. Shetach’s criticism?

At the end of the circle-drawing story, Choni interacts with the nasi, Shimon b. Shetach (140-60 BCE, third generation of Zugot). Thus, Choni lived in Second Temple times. According to Josephus, in “Antiquities of the Jews,” there was a conflict in 63 BCE between the Hasmonean brothers, Hyrcanus (backed by Pharisees) and Aristobulus (backed by Saduccees). Aristobulos fled to Yerushalayim after a defeat in battle. Hyrcanus’ forces besieged Yerushalayim and tried to force Choni to curse Aristobulus and bring about his defeat. Instead, he prayed that since one group (Pharisees) was Hashem’s people, and the other (Saduccees) was His priests, Hashem shouldn’t listen to either group’s prayers. They reacted by stoning him.

Another Choni HaMe’agel story in our sugya (23a) involves Choni sleeping for 70 years and waking to a changed world in which no one recognizes him. He goes to his own home, inquires if Choni HaMeagel’s son is alive, and is told no, but that Choni’s grandson is alive. His claim to be Choni is disbelieved. At the study hall, he overhears a scholar being praised as akin to Choni HaMe’agel. His claim to be Choni is again disbelieved. He dies, despondent.

The parallel Yerushalmi (16b) claims that slumbering Choni HaMe’agel lived in First Temple times, just before the destruction, and that the rain-drawing Choni HaMe’agel was his grandson. He slept through the 70 years of destruction and awoke to a rebuilt Temple. This is a fulfillment of the verse in Tehillim “we were as dreamers.”

I believe that while the Yerushalmi sets up Choni I and Choni II, the Bavli has but a single Choni. Let’s consider the chronology, per the details in Yerushalmi. Choni awakes just after the Second Temple was built, in 350 BCE. We shall imagine the cave in which he slumbers to be a stasis chamber, so that he awakens a young man. He doesn’t go home, so we don’t establish a living grandson. At the beit midrash he successfully establishes his identity, so presumably doesn’t die, and can subsequently marry and father a son. Shimon b. Shetach was born 140 BCE, some 210 years later. 210 / 3 = 70. Choni I, his son, and Choni II can span this gap.

In Bavli, neither a fixed date nor sleeping through the destruction is mentioned, but let’s attempt to assume it. Choni I sleeps, wakes in 350 BCE, and finds that his unnamed grandson is alive. Choni dies soon after, despondent, so has no further progeny. If the grandson is Choni II, could he still be alive 210 years later to interact with Shimon b. Shetach?! Also, when Choni inquires after Choni’s son, they don’t reply that Choni is alive, but that his grandson is alive. By implication, the grandson isn’t named Choni. Another brayta speaks of Choni’s grandson, Abba Chilkiyah (third-generation Tanna, ~80-110 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple), also a wonder-worker in prayer and rain. He’s presumably the unnamed grandson. Thus, Bavli has only one, late, Choni.

Shmuel Klein suggests HaMe’agel is an occupational surname, meaning roofer. He points to Mishnayot Makkot 2:1, הָיָה מְעַגֵּל בְּמַעְגִּילָה, someone accidentally kills by pushing a roller used to smooth fissures. While fascinating, I don’t find this compelling. The link is linguistic, not semantic. No narrative mentions a roof, except for where Abba Chilkiyah and his wife pray. Abba Chilkiyah was a field-worker, not a roofer. The Talmud’s implicit explanation is that עָג עוּגָה, Choni draw a circle in the dirt around him. I believe the miracle is sufficient cause for his appellation. Particularly if this is a family “business” of miracle-work, having that name is handy. עג is a biliteral root with associated triliteral roots, עגב (round buttock), עגל (circle), and עגג.

If an occupational surname, I’d suggest Choni was an irrigator. See Mishnayot Moed Katan 1:1, וְאֵין עוֹשִׂין עוּגִיּוֹת לַגְּפָנִים, one mustn’t construct circular ditches around the bases of grapevines during Chol HaMoed. These ditches collected water to feed the vine. Semantically speaking, field-work abounds in Choni’s world. Choni sees planting and full growth of carob trees (olive trees in Yerushalmi). Abba Chilkiyah, Choni’s grandson, was hoeing the ground. If Choni’s job was to dig these circular irrigation ditches, his action becomes more symbolic than a petulant ultimatum. He dug an irrigation ditch around himself and asked Hashem to fill it!

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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