Taanit, Chapter Three, Mishnah Eight

 

Introduction

This mishnah contains the famous story of Honi the circle drawer, who demanded that God bring rain and his prayers were effective.

 

Mishnah Eight

For every trouble that should not come upon the community they sound a blast except on account of too much rain.

It happened that they said to Honi the circle drawer: “Pray for rain to fall.”

He replied: “Go and bring in the pesah ovens so that they do not dissolve.” 

He prayed and no rain fell.

What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and exclaimed before Him:  “Master of the universe, Your children have turned their faces to me because I am like one who was born in Your house.  I swear by Your great name that I will not move from here until You have mercy upon Your children.”

Rain then began to drip, and he exclaimed:  “I did not request this but rain [which can fill] cisterns, ditches and caves.

The rain then began to come down with great force, and he exclaimed:  “I did not request this but pleasing rain of blessing and abudance.”

Rain then fell in the normal way until the Jews in Jerusalem had to go up Temple Mount because of the rain.

They came and said to him: “In the same way that you prayed for [the rain] to fall pray [now] for the rain to stop.”

He replied:  “Go and see if the stone of people claiming lost objects has washed away.” Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah sent to him: “Were you not Honi I would have excommunicated you, but what can I do to you, for you are spoiled before God and he does your will like a son that is spoiled before his father and his father does his request.  Concerning you it is written, “Let your father and your mother rejoice, and let she that bore you rejoice” (Proverbs 23:25).

 

Explanation

“That should not come upon the community” is a euphemism. The mishnah is actually referring to troubles that do come upon the community. 

An overabundance of rain is not a blessing and can actually destroy the crops and endanger people’s lives.  However, since rain is usually a blessing and is so scarce in the land of Israel, one doesn’t pray for rain to stop.  It’s as if we don’t want to risk God’s anger by asking him to stop the rain, after having already asked for it to begin to rain.

The story itself probably needs little explaining. The people turn to Honi the circle maker, so named because in order to bring rain he would draw a circle around himself and not move until rain came.  Assumedly, Honi was famous as a rainmaker, a well-known profession in pre-modern societies dependant upon rainfall.  Honi responds with exaggerated confidence, telling them that he will bring so much rain that even the ovens used to roast the pesah offerings, the strongest ovens that they usually had, would begin to melt.  Honi proceeds to draw his circle and demand that God bring rain. God answers his call, but then Honi refines his request and demands proper rain, rain which is not too weak and not too strong (but just right!).  Eventually, the necessary type of rain does begin to fall and continues to fall until the people must abandon the lower places in Jerusalem and flee to the Temple Mount for safety.  Heeding the halakhah with which this mishnah began, Honi refuses to pray for rain to stop until a famous stone has dissolved, which is an exaggerated way of saying that he will not pray for the rain to stop, even though it is endangering their lives.  This is a key point in the mishnah. Even though Honi is a miracle worker, someone who seems to be outside the normal circle of rabbis, he still obeys the halakhah and there is a limit to what even he will ask for. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah’s rebuke to Honi is probably even more telling as to the point of this mishnah than Honi’s prayer itself.  Indeed, in my opinion the rebuke is the reason that the mishnah is here in the first place. In the beginning of this mishnah we learned that people should not act with chutzpah when asking for rain.  Honi, who God treats like a son, is somewhat of an exception.  He can have that chutzpah in front of God, because God spoils Honi like a son.  We often let our children get away with things that we won’t allow others to get away with.  Others who would act like Honi will probably not have their requests answered and may indeed be rebuked for their presumptuous behavior.

One might go so far as to say that the message of this mishnah is one of simultaneous nearness and distance.  Certain human beings do have the possibility of drawing close enough to God that God will heed their every request.  Humanity as a whole can achieve true closeness to God. However, such a relationship cannot be expected or presumed. As individuals we should not look at ourselves as being on the level of Honi.  For most of us, we must respect the fact that there is a vast distance separating us from God and that if we were to make a demand, it might very well be ignored.  Indeed, the entire tractate has been consistently cognizant with the fact that prayers are often simply not answered.     

 

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