CHONI THE CIRCLE DRAWER was one of the saintliest of the Tannaim. Of all his ethical maxims there remains but one which states: if a man does not enjoy the society of his fellows it is as if he were dead. Of his interpretations of the commandments of the Torah none remain, although it is said of him that his penetrating reasoning solved all the doubts of the other scholars.
The name of Choni is surrounded with wonderful legends wherever it is mentioned in the Talmud. His every move was accompanied with miracles and he was described as one to whom God refused no request.
The name Choni was not rare in those days and probably was an abbreviated form of Chonio or Chunia. But the appellation of circle drawer is unique in history and does not appear again in connection with any other name that has come down through the ages. The exact meaning of this appellation (in Hebrew: “Hamagel”) has not been determined. According to the book of geneology he was called Hamagel because he hailed from a city named Megilo. Others maintain that he received this name because, according to legend, he once slept for seventy years and they interpret Hamagel to mean—one who has rested on the way. But the most common explanation is based on the legend that he once drew a circle about himself and took an oath not to stir out of it until God would fulfill his wish.
Once—so relates a Mishna in Taanith—there was a protracted drought in the country. According to some there had been no rain for three years. It was already the twentieth day of Adar when everyone was expecting the late rains that mature the grain but still there appeared not the smallest cloud. Trees and grass were withered and the people feared the famine that was bound to come. They then came to Choni the circle drawer with a request that he pray to God for rain. Because of Choni’s great piety every one felt convinced that his appeal for rain would not be denied by God and a request by him would be considered as a command.
Choni said to the people: Take the Passover ovens into your houses that they may not be moistened by the rain. (Ovens that were moistened were not considered fit for Passover use and Choni felt certain that his prayer for rain would be answered.)
Choni prayed for a long time but still there was no rain. He thereupon drew a circle about himself and said to God: Creator of the world! Your children have turned to me that I should pray for rain because they think that I am acceptable in your sight. I swear by your great name that I will not stir from here until you will have mercy on your children.
Small drops of rain began to fall. Choni’s disciples then said to him: God has permitted these few drops to fall so that you may not break your oath. Choni addressed God again: Not for these few drops have I prayed. I prayed for a rain that should fill the wells with water. As he finished speaking a heavy rain accompanied by a storm began to descend and every drop of water was large enough to fill a barrel. His disciples again appealed to Choni: God is sending down a rain which will flood the world. Choni again appealed to God: Not for this have I prayed. I prayed for rain that should bring blessing to the fields.
There then began to fall an ordinary rain until all wells were filled and the streets of Jerusalem were flooded. Some of the residents of those streets sought refuge on the temple mountain while others came to Choni with a new request, that just as he prayed for rain and it was granted even so he should now pray for the rain to cease. Choni asked them to see if the wanderer’s stone was already covered with water for as long as that stone was not submerged he could not ask that the rain cease. (The wanderer’s stone was a place where all lost articles were redeemed by their owners upon identification.)
Later they brought an ox to be sacrificed to God that the rain might cease. Choni placed both hands on the offering and said: “Thy people Israel which you have redeemed from Egypt cannot bear too great a bounty even as they cannot bear too much punishment. When you were displeased with them they could not withstand your anger and besought me to intervene with you on their behalf. Now that you have bestowed upon them too much generosity they cannot bear this either. Therefore, Creator of the world, I beg of you to consider the rain that fell so far sufficient and to permit the world to breathe freely again.”
Immediately a strong wind arose and dispersed the clouds. The sun shone warm and the people scattered over the fields to gather mushrooms.
This is said to have occurred during the lifetime of Simeon b. Shetach who was greatly angered that Choni almost forced God to change his will in order to please one pious man. Simeon b. Shetach sent a message to Choni saying: “If you were not Choni I would have you excommunicated, but I can do nothing to you because you are to God as a petulant child and he fulfills your wishes even as a father fulfills the wishes of his favorite son.”1)תענית כ״ג א׳.
Josephus relates that Choni was killed in the war between the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Hyrcanus was then besieging Jerusalem while Aristobulus fortified himself in the temple on mount Moriah. One day Choni was captured by the soldiers of Hyrcanus and brought to their camp. They then asked him to pray to God to help them defeat Aristobulus. Choni thereupon recited the following prayer: “Creator of the world! Have mercy on both contending sides, for on one side are your priests and on the other side are your children. I pray that you shall not heed the curses of one on the other.” This prayer so enraged the soldiers of Hyrcanus that they killed him.
But the Talmud has woven another legend about the last days of Choni. It was said that Choni grieved because he could not comprehend the meaning of the verse “When God returned the captivity of Zion we were as dreamers.” He constantly asked: Is it possible for a person to sleep for seventy years and have the same dream?
Once, as he was walking on his way, he saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him: “How long does one wait until this tree will bear fruit?” The man replied: “It takes seventy years.” Choni asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” But the man replied: “The whole world is like a carob tree. My forefathers planted for me and I am planting the tree for my children.”
Choni sat down to weave baskets and a deep sleep descended upon him. The crag of a mountain extended to cover him and to hide him from the eyes of passers-by. He slept there for seventy years.
When he awoke he saw a man picking the fruit of the tree that was planted when he fell asleep. Choni asked him: “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am not he. The man who planted the tree was my grandfather.” Choni realized that he slept for seventy years and he went to his home to inquire for Choni. There he was told that both Choni as well as his son were no longer living.
He said to the people, “I am Choni,” but they would not believe him. He therefore went to the academy where he had the scholars repeat his interpretations of the Torah and he heard one of them say, “I wish we had a man like Choni today who could elucidate all the hard questions.” He said to them, “I am Choni,” but they would not believe him either, and did not accord him the proper respect. This pained Choni very much and he used to repeat: A man who does not enjoy the society of his fellows is as if he were dead.
According to another Talmudic version, Choni lived during the last days of the first temple and he slept all the years of the Babylonian captivity. He awoke from his sleep when the Jews began to return from Babylonia. Of the Choni who prayed for rain, the Jerusalem Talmud claims that he was the grandson of the first Choni.
The Jerusalem Talmud continues to relate of the Choni who slept for seventy years that when he awoke he asked what was going on in the world and his hearers wondered that he did not know that the temple was destroyed and was being rebuilt again. They would not believe him when he said that he was Choni. But as he kept on repeating this the people said to him: “If you are Choni you have to prove it. We heard that when the real Choni entered the Temple the whole house became suffused with light. We want to see you do likewise.” Choni entered the temple and immediately a light spread throughout the building. He then said: “When God returned the captivity of Zion we were as dreamers.”