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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Month of Adar

Why was Choni's request answered?

One of the more colorful of the Mishnaic Sages, a personage whose towering image continues to stir the imagination to this very day, is Choni the Circle-maker. What is the connection between Choni the Circle-maker and the Hebrew month of Adar?
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One of the more colorful of the Mishnaic Sages, a personage whose towering image continues to stir the imagination to this very day, is Choni the Circle-maker. Though he is familiar to all, we might say that he is nevertheless not truly understood, and his personality has yet to be revealed in all of its depth and breadth.

Yet, what is the connection between Choni the Circle-maker and the Hebrew month of Adar? Answer: the famous incident of Choni's praying for rain took place in Adar - on the twentieth of the month - and the Sages (in "Megilat Taanit") hence established this as one of the days of the year whereupon it is forbidden to fast. Instead, the twentieth of Adar is to be regarded as a day of thanksgiving in commemoration of the miraculous event that resulted from Choni's prayer.

Let us say a bit about this Sage's character. To begin with, what is the meaning of the appellation "Me'agel" (commonly translated "the Circle-maker") which was attached to his name? Rashi (on Menachot 94b) explains that Choni drew a circle on the ground and refused to leave it, and therefore he was given the title "the circle-maker." He obstinately stood his ground until his demands were met. There are sages from the Geoninic period who explain that "Me'agel" is a place name; others explain that it was the name of his vocation: Choni would fix roofs and stoves and he would work with an instrument known as a "ma'agilah" to round ("me'agel") and plaster the roofs, and hence he was known as a "Me'agel."

He lived during the period of the Hasmonean dynasty.
Let us relate his tragic end, for it is possible to learn much from it. It is told (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities) that in the civil war between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, Choni was caught by the Hyrcanus camp and asked to curse the enemy. They knew that he possessed a unique power, a power of prayer, and they hoped to strike their enemy via Choni's words. Choni replied that he would not comply to their request. They threatened to kill him if he refused to curse the adversary. Choni lifted his arms to heaven and exclaimed, "These are the children of God's nation and the others are also the children of God's nation. May the prayers of these against the others not be accepted, and I will not curse Israel." In response, they rose up and killed him.

Here, then, we bear witness to Choni's preeminence inasmuch as the love of the People of Israel is concerned. We are similarly impressed by the words of praise bestowed upon him by the members of the generation which merited rain: "Let thy father and thy mother be glad, and let her that bore thee rejoice" (Proverbs 23:25). Who are "thy father and thy mother"? The People of Israel.

He decreed and God fulfilled, and the people offered the following prayers of thanks:
A generation of darkness did you illuminated through your prayer.
A generation at its ebb did you raise up through your prayer.
A generation bent by its sin did you save through your prayer.
A sullied generation did you deliver through your prayer.

We see, then, from the wording of the Talmud, that they saw this righteous individual as being bound up with the generation. And because he was so tied to the generation, he succeeded in elevating the generation. Therefore his prayer was answered. Choni's distinction is made apparent by his supplication, and we also see it in the nature of his request, for he says, "Have mercy upon your children." He does not request through his own personal merit but asks for the solace of the entire Jewish people.

In the month of Adar, Haman wished "to destroy, kill, and wipe out" the "divided and scattered nation." And we, in response, unite on Purim through distributing charity and gifts to the poor. This month, then, is suited for Choni the Circle-maker's invocation that God not destroy one part of the Jewish people. Therefore, he raised his arms up to heaven in supplication for the good of the entire Jewish people, and not for the good of one portion over another.

The Talmud (Taanit 23b) also relates that Choni once fell asleep for seventy years, and when he awoke nobody knew him. They could not believe that he was actually Choni the Circle-maker. Then he pronounced his famous byword, "Fraternity or death" - if you are not part of the community, part of the Jewish people and in touch with the generation, you are just as well dead.

This being the case, when Israel's righteous spiritual leaders have dared to stand up and make requests before God - sometimes insolently, sometimes imprudently - it was not because of the power of their own personality but by virtue of the fact that their request was on behalf of the entire Jewish people. We find such personalities in the generations subsequent to Choni the Circle-maker. For example, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would make requests by virtue of the strength of the Jewish people, and his requests were indeed answered.

This, then, is the connection between Choni the Circle-maker and the month of Adar: on the twentieth of Adar it is forbidden to fast, for this is the day on which salvation was brought about, and God answered the prayers of Choni, causing rain to fall upon the land.
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