Honi the Circle-Drawer, for Tu B’Shevat

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It’s Tu B’Shvat, which means it’s time to talk about Honi the Circle-Drawer again. I looked up the text, which I’m sure I’ve read before, but I have never noticed the context.

If you don’t know the story of Honi the Circle-Drawer, he was a wonder-worker whose prayer ended a drought. It’s a great, great story, or rather a few great stories, but the thing I noticed this time was the context in the Talmud: the story comes from the tractate Ta’anit which focuses on community fasts, mostly in response to drought (thus the Honi story). The legal discussion assumes that a drought or pestilence is caused by the community’s misbehaviour, focuses on when people should fast (who should fast, for how long, on which days), and then a few paragraphs before the Honi the Circle drawer story is this bit:

The mishna inquires: What is considered a plague of pestilence? When is a series of deaths treated as a plague? The mishna answers: If a city that sends out five hundred infantrymen, i.e., it has a population of five hundred able-bodied men, and three dead are taken out of it on three consecutive days, this is a plague of pestilence, which requires fasting and crying out. If the death rate is lower than that, this is not pestilence. Taanit 19a

I was struck by the Sages of Blessed Memory looking at graphs very similar to the ones I look at every day, looking for leading and lagging indicators, assessing when to declare a lockdown and when it’s OK to go back to work. Good luck to you, Sages of Blessed Memory!

One of the things I have always liked about Honi the Circle Drawer is that while it’s definitely very nice that he ends the drought and that there is rain and all of that good stuff, he’s absolutely not a role model. People disapprove of him, even though of course it’s nice that the Divine Creator is so fond of him. A little later on in Taanit, in a different context and with a different wonder-worker, they make a point of saying that miracles are deducted from a pious person’s reward in the World to Come: “In other words, the more benevolence one receives from God, the more his merit is reduced.” (Taanit 20b)

This idea of merit, and the consideration of merit, is at the heart of the story. There’s this terrible notion that a plague or drought is punishment for a lack of merit, which is utterly wrong, simply as a matter of causality. But at the same time, there’s this sense that when there’s a plague (or drought or whatever) the people have to step up and change their ways. And I suspect that if it worked (it probably didn’t often, but most things don’t) then people stepping up and changing their ways meant that they did the things that people need to do for each other during those difficult times. Which, on the whole, is better than drawing circles.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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