Honi the Circle-Maker, Moses, and Legacy

Honi the Circle Maker (Honi haMaggel) lived in the time of Shimon b. Shetach (1st century BCE) and was known for his great piety and scholarship. Several spiritual feats are associated with him, such as drawing a circle in the sand and refusing to move until God produced proper rain; as well as for going to sleep for seventy years.

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: כׇּל יָמָיו שֶׁל אוֹתוֹ צַדִּיק, הָיָה מִצְטַעֵר עַל מִקְרָא זֶה: ״שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת בְּשׁוּב ה׳ אֶת שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים״, אָמַר: מִי אִיכָּא דְּנָיֵים שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין בְּחֶלְמָא? יוֹמָא חַד הֲוָה אָזֵל בְּאוֹרְחָא, חַזְיֵיהּ לְהָהוּא גַּבְרָא דַּהֲוָה נָטַע חָרוּבָא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַאי, עַד כַּמָּה שְׁנִין טָעֵין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: עַד שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: פְּשִׁיטָא לָךְ דְּחָיֵית שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין? אֲמַר לֵיהּ הַאי גַּבְרָא: עָלְמָא בְּחָרוּבָא אַשְׁכַּחְתֵּיהּ. כִּי הֵיכִי דִּשְׁתַלוּ לִי אֲבָהָתִי — שְׁתַלִי נָמֵי לִבְרָאִי. יָתֵיב, קָא כָּרֵיךְ רִיפְתָּא, אֲתַאי לֵיהּ שִׁינְתָּא, נִים. אַהְדַּרָא לֵיהּ מְשּׁוּנִּיתָא, אִיכַּסִּי מֵעֵינָא, וְנִים שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין. כִּי קָם, חַזְיֵיהּ לְהָהוּא גַּבְרָא דְּהוּא קָא מְלַקֵּט מִינַּיְיהוּ, אָמַר לֵיהּ: אַתְּ הוּא דִּשְׁתַלְתֵּיהּ? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: בַּר בְּרֵיהּ אֲנָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ דִּנְיַימִי שִׁבְעִין שְׁנִין. חֲזָא לַחֲמָרְ[תֵּ]יהּ דְּאִתְיְילִידָא לַיהּ רַמְכֵי רַמְכֵי. אֲזַל לְבֵיתֵיהּ אֲמַר לְהוּ: בְּרֵיהּ דְּחוֹנִי הַמְעַגֵּל מִי קַיָּים? אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ: בְּרֵיהּ לֵיתֵאּ, בַּר בְּרֵיהּ אִיתֵאּ. אֲמַר לְהוּ: אֲנָא חוֹנִי הַמְעַגֵּל. לָא הֵימְנוּהוּ. אֲזַל לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, שַׁמְעִינְהוּ לְרַבָּנַן דְּקָאָמְרִי: נְהִירָן שְׁמַעְתָּתִין כְּבִשְׁנֵי חוֹנִי הַמְעַגֵּל, דְּכִי הָוֵי עָיֵיל לְבֵית מִדְרְשָׁא — כֹּל קוּשְׁיָא דַּהֲווֹ לְהוּ לְרַבָּנַן הֲוָה מְפָרֵק לְהוּ. אָמַר לְהוּ: אֲנָא נִיהוּ, וְלָא הֵימְנוּהוּ, וְלָא עָבְדִי לֵיהּ יְקָרָא כִּדְמִבְּעֵי לֵיהּ. חֲלַשׁ דַּעְתֵּיהּ, בְּעָא רַחֲמֵי, וּמִית. אָמַר רָבָא: הַיְינוּ דְּאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי: אוֹ חַבְרוּתָא אוֹ מִיתוּתָא.

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: All the days of the life of that righteous man, Ḥoni, he was distressed over the meaning of this verse: “A song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream” (Psalms 126:1). He said to himself: Is there really a person who can sleep and dream for seventy years? How is it possible to compare the seventy-year exile in Babylonia to a dream?

One day, he was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him: That man himself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

Ḥoni sat and ate bread. Sleep overcame him and he slept. A cliff formed around him, and he disappeared from sight and slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw a certain man gathering carobs from that tree. Ḥoni said to him: Are you the one who planted this tree? The man said to him: I am his son’s son. Ḥoni said to him: I can learn from this that I have slept for seventy years, and indeed he saw that his donkey had sired several herds during those many years.

Ḥoni went home and said to the members of the household: Is the son of Ḥoni HaMaggel alive? They said to him: His son is no longer with us, but his son’s son is alive. He said to them: I am Ḥoni HaMaggel. They did not believe him. He went to the study hall, where he heard the Sages say about one scholar: His halachot are as enlightening and as clear as in the years of Ḥoni HaMaggel, for when Ḥoni HaMaggel would enter the study hall he would resolve for the Sages any difficulty they had. Ḥoni said to them: I am he, but they did not believe him and did not pay him proper respect. Ḥoni became very upset, prayed for mercy, and died. Rava said: This explains the folk saying that people say: Either friendship or death (o

chevruta o metuta), as one who has no friends is better off dead.


  • How do you understand Honi’s anguish in this story? Why does he not look around, for instance, and say to himself, “Look at the effect my teaching has had on successive generations!”

    • Is Honi bereaved that he is not recognized, or is he lonely?

    • Does Rava interpret the pain of Honi correctly? Is it friendship he seeks or fame or understanding?

  • Is this story a tragedy? Is it a success unrecognized by Honi?

  • Do you identify or strongly not-identify with Honi? How so?

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב"ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות אמר לפניו רבש"ע מי מעכב על ידך אמר לו אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות אמר לפניו רבש"ע הראהו לי אמר לו חזור לאחורך הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים תשש כחו כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי מנין לך אמר להן הלכה למשה מסיני נתיישבה דעתו

§ Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: When Moses ascended on High [at Mount Sinai], he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halachot. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.

Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, show him to me. God said to him: Return behind you. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said to him: My teacher, from where do you derive this? Rabbi Akiva said to them: It is a halacha transmitted to Moses from Sinai. When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive.


1) What is the reason for Moses' initial worry or concern?

2) Is that worry allayed? How? Why?

3) How is Moses' story similar to and different from that of Honi HaMagel?