Honi the Circle-Maker: Magical Manipulation of the Climate?



David Sieradski

Deuteronomy 11:13-17  [transl. Joel Rosenberg, from Kol HaNeshamah prayerbook]

“And if you truly listen to my bidding, as I bid you now – loving the FOUNT OF LIFE, your God, and serving God with all your heart, with every breath – then I will give you rain upon your land in its appointed time, the early rain and later rain, so you may gather in your corn, your wine and oil.  And I will give you grass upon your field to feed your animals, and you will eat and be content.  Beware, then, lest your heart be led astray, and you go off and worship other gods, and you submit to them, so that the anger of THE MIGHTY ONE should burn against you, and seal up the heavens so no rain would fall, so that the ground would not give forth her produce, and you be forced to leave the good land I am giving you.”

*  *  *  *  *

Mishnah Ta’anit 3:7  —   Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 23a   —   Talmud Yerushalmi Ta’anit 16a-16b

1.  “The shofar is sounded [and a communal fast is proclaimed] for any calamity that strikes the community, except for excessive rain.”

2.  Once, most of the month of Adar had passed and rain still had not fallen.  The people sent for Honi the Circle-Maker and said to him:  “Pray on our behalf that rain should fall.”  Honi said to them:  “Before I start praying, go out and bring in your clay ovens used for the Pesach sacrificial offerings, so that they will not dissolve.”  He prayed, but rain did not fall.  What did Honi do?  He drew a circle on the ground and stood within it, and called out before God, “Master of the Universe!  Your children have turned to me to pray for rain, because I am considered by them to be a member of Your household who can elicit Your mercy and bring an end to this drought.  Therefore, I swear by Your great Name that I will not move out of this circle until You have mercy on Your children.”

3.  Rain began to come down in tiny droplets.  Honi’s students said to him, “Master, we see that you [are able to call for miracles], but we still could die!  It seems to us that these raindrops are falling only in order to free you from your oath.”

4.  Honi called out to God, “I did not ask for rain like this, but rather, for rain sufficient to fill up the cisterns, ditches and caves.”  Immediately the rain began to come down very furiously – it is said that each drop was wide enough to fill a barrel, and no drop was less than a liter in volumeHoni’s students said to him, “Master, we see again that you [are able to call for miracles, but we still could die!  It seems to us that this rain is falling not to end the drought, but to destroy the world!”

5.  Honi called out to God, “I did not ask for rain like this either, but for rains of goodwill, blessing, and generosity.”  Then the rain began coming down in the normal way.  Eventually, though, the people had to leave Jerusalem and go up to the higher area of the Temple Mount, because the rain was flooding the lower parts of the city.  The people came back to Honi and said to him, “Just as you prayed for the rain to fall, so you must pray for the rain to cease.” …  He said, “I have received a tradition that we do not pray to avert too much of a good thing.”

6.  “Nevertheless,” he continued, “bring me a bull, and I will recite a confessional prayer and offer it as a peace-offering.”  They brought him the bull of confession, and he placed his two hands on its head and prayed, “Master of the Universe!  Your people Israel whom you brought out of Egypt cannot bear either too much of a good thing or too much punishment.  When you displayed anger [by causing a drought], they could not endure it, and when you showered them with excessive blessings, they could not endure it.  May it be Your will that the rain will stop, so that there will be relief in the world.”  Immediately, the wind began to blow, the clouds dispersed, the sun shone through, and the people went out to the fields and collected truffles and mushrooms.

7.  Shimon ben Shetach, Head of the Sanhedrin, sent a message to Honi, “If you were not Honi, I would surely place you under a ban, [because you addressed God disrespectfully] [Rashi]!  And moreover, if there had been a divine decree that rain shall not fall this year, as in the time of Elijah – who also held the keys to rain in his hand – wouldn’t your behavior have amounted to desecration of the Holy Name?

  • [for forcing God’s hand, so to speak] [Soncino]
  • [for pressing God to cancel the drought, which must have been sent because Israel deserved it on account of their sins]  [Bialik/Ravnitsky]
  • [by repeatedly changing your request, as if God didn’t understand what you wanted]
  • [for taking God’s name in vain by taking the oath not to step out of the circle, which would have been a vain oath either way, whether rain had fallen or not] [Rashi] 
    • [because if rain had not come, Honi’s oath would have been in vain, and God would have been dishonored before the populace] [Maharsha]
    • [because if rain had come, Honi would forced God’s oath to impose the drought, as it were, to have been in vain]  [Rabbenu Gershom] 
  • An alternative version of the tale:  it was Rabban Gamaliel:  … because you’re preventing the populace from doing a mitzvah – and anyone who prevents the populace from doing a mitzvah could bring back the Flood to the world  [Talmud Yerushalmi]

8.  But what can I do to you, for you act like a spoiled child before God and nevertheless God accedes to your requests.  For example, the child says ‘wash me in hot water,’ ‘rinse me in cold water,’ ‘give me hazelnuts, almonds, peaches, and pomegranates,’ and the parent grants each of these requests? It is to you that the verse refers:  ‘Your father and your mother shall be glad, and she who bore you shall rejoice.’ ”  [Proverbs 23:25.]

*   *   *   *   *


Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 23a

1.  Abba Hilkiyyah was the grandson of Honi the Circle-Maker, the son of his son.  When the world was in dire need of rain, the Rabbis would send word to him, he would petition for mercy, and the rain would come.  Once, the world was in dire need of rain, the Rabbis sent two of their number to Abba Hilkiyyah to petition for mercy so that rain would come.  The messengers … [searched for Abba Hilkiyyah, eventually found him at his workplace in the fields,] and greeted him, but he did not respond….  [They went around after him around all day and followed him home.]

2.  Abba Hilkiyyah whispered to his wife, “I know that these two Rabbis have come to ask me to pray for rain.  Let’s go up to the roof before they say anything, and petition for mercy.  Perhaps the Blessed Holy One will be appeased and will bring rain, but we can avoid taking credit for it.”  They went up to the roof; he stood and prayed in one corner and she stood and prayed in the opposite corner.  Rainclouds began to form first on the side where his wife stood.

3.  When he went back down, he said to the two Rabbis, “Why have you gentlemen come?”  They responded, “The Rabbis sent us to you, Sir, to ask you to petition for mercy regarding rain.”  He said, “Blessed is God who caused you not to need Abba Hilkiyyah!”  They said, “But we know that the rain has come on account of you, Sir….  But please explain to us why the rainclouds began to form first on the side where your wife stood?”

  • He said to them, “Because she stays at home, and when the poor come around, she gives them bread, so that the benefit is immediate.  But when they come to me at work, I give them money, so that they have to go buy something and the benefit is not immediate.”

— or, in the alternative —

  • He said to them, “Because there were some brigands who were hanging around our neighborhood.  I prayed that they should die, whereas she prayed that they would repent – and they did repent.”

*   *   *   *   *


Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 23a-23b

Hanan the Hider was another grandson of Honi the Circle-Maker, the son of his daughter.  When the world was in dire need of rain, the Rabbis would send schoolchildren to him.  They would take hold of the hem of his garment and say to him, “Abba, Abba, give us rain!”  Then he would plead with the Blessed Holy One, “Master of the Universe, do it for the sake of these little ones who do not know the difference between the Abba Who can give rain and the Abba who cannot.”  Why was he called Hanan the Hider?  Because [when the Rabbis came to ask him to pray for rain,] he used to hide in the lavatory.


  • [to offer his prayers in private for reasons of modesty, so that he would not be given personal credit for bringing the drought to an end]  [Rashi]
  • [to avoid the honor that would be bestowed upon him if his prayers were accepted.] [The Geonim]


Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 23a

1.  Rabbi Yohanan said:  All his life, that righteous man Honi was perplexed by the verse, “A song of ascents:  When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, it was as if we were dreaming.”  (Psalm 126:1)  But Honi asked:  “Is there anyone who sleeps seventy years in one dream?”  [The exile between the destruction of the First Temple and the building of the Second Temple lasted seventy years.]

2.  One day he was going along the road, when he saw a man planting a carob tree.  Honi asked, “In how many years will this tree that you are planting bear fruit?”  The man responded, “In seventy years.”  Honi asked, “Are you sure that you will live seventy more years to enjoy the fruit of this tree?!”  The man said, “I was born into a world with carob trees.  Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my descendants.”

3.  Honi sat down, ate his lunch, and lay down to take a nap.  He fell into a very deep slumber.  A rocky wall sprang up around him that hid him from view, and he continued sleeping there for seventy years.  When he awoke, he saw a man picking carobs from that same tree.  He asked:  “Are you the man who planted this tree?”  The man said, “I am his grandson.”  Honi realized that he had been asleep for seventy years!

4.  He walked to his house and asked them, “Is the son of Honi the Circle-Maker still alive?”  They said, “No, but his grandson is.”  He revealed himself:  “I am Honi the Circle-Maker!”  But they did not believe him.   He went to the Academy, and heard the Rabbis saying, “These decisions are as clear as back in the days of Honi the Circle-Maker, who used to come into the Academy and solve any difficulty the Rabbis had.”  He entered and revealed himself:  “I am Honi the Circle-Maker!”  But they did not believe him, and they did not give him the respect that he thought was due to him.  He was greatly distressed; he prayed for mercy, and died.

5.  Rava said:  This is what people mean when they say, “Give me companionship or give me death!”


One Response to “Honi the Circle-Maker: Magical Manipulation of the Climate?”


  1. Tu Bishvat is Here! « Frume Sarah's World - January 20, 2011

    […] more about Honi HaM’agel here, here, and here. And remember to eat a fruit of a tree today…and show your […]

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