Whimsical Weather in the Ancient World and Today Rabbi Ari Ballaban
In light of this year’s ongoing and unpredictable winter weather, I cannot help but think of one of my favorite, quirky talmudic stories.
The Babylonian Talmud tells of an especially troubling time of drought in Jerusalem. The Rabbis had been unsuccessful in praying for rain, so they sent for a man who was known to have special powers, Honi ha-Me’aggel, “Honi the Circle-Drawer.”
The scene begins when they first ask Honi to pray for rain. Quite confident in his abilities, he tells them to bring their belongings inside lest they be ruined in what he assures them will be a torrential downpour. Then, he prayed for rain; however, none came.
Subsequently, Honi drew a circle on the ground and stood inside it and said to God: “Master of the Universe, Your children turned their faces to me for help, as I am like a member of Your house. I swear an oath by Your great name that I will not move from inside this circle until You have mercy upon Your children and cause it to rain.” A very light rain then began to trickle down.
Honi said: “I did not ask for this, but instead for rain that will fill the cisterns, ditches, and caves with enough water to last for the entire year!” A violent rain then began to fall.
He said: “I did not ask for this damaging rain either, but for rain of benevolence, blessing, and generosity!” At last, the rains fell in their standard manner; however, they continued so long without stopping that they filled Jerusalem with enough water that the Jews were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter at the city’s high point, the Temple Mount.
Shimon ben Shetakh, the president of the Sanhedrin at the time, then said to Honi: “Were you not Honi, I would have decreed that you be excommunicated…but what can I do to you? You nag God, and God does your bidding, like a son who throws a tantrum, and his father then does what he, the son, asked!”
One of the things that so interests me in this story is that it doesn’t have a clear moral. On the one hand, the Rabbis don’t appear to think that what Honi did was entirely appropriate: after all, he brought so much rain that it was destructive, and the Rabbis bemoan that they can’t punish him. More than that, Honi really does act like a petulant child! One can almost hear him whining “but God, that’s not what I wanted…” each time he tells God that the miracle he received wasn’t quite right. On the other hand, though, the Rabbis are the ones who sought this man out at the start of the tale, and it seems they did so for a good reason. The Jews had been desperate for rain, and God apparently was only willing to listen to Honi. What was so special about this man that made God listen? Alas, the narrative does not provide us with a clear answer.
What we see in this story is that Honi and his gift are part blessing and part curse, and, yet, I still sometimes wish we had access to someone like him today at Temple Beth Or. It would save a lot of time and energy if we had our own Honi ha-Me’aggel and could predict—or, perhaps better, control—when the rain, snow, and ice would come. For want of such powers, we’ll do our best to keep an eye on the weather, ensure that the parking lot is clear of snow, and to let you know of any cancellations as promptly as we’re able…The only help we ask in return is that if you see any men named Honi drawing circles on the ground, please do send them our way!