This article analyzes the meaning of two short metaphors used in the legend of Honi the Circle Drawer that define Honi’s relationship with God: Honi referred to himself as a “ben bayit” and Shimon son of Shatah called him “a son who implores his father” (m. Taʿan. 3:8). Explaining these metaphors contains the key to understanding the conflict between Honi and Simeon son of Shatah who criticized him harshly. Most of the explanations for this exchange suggested previously involve imposing philosophical issues that are not suggested by the text. This article examines the use of the key term “ben bayit” and shows that it indicates a position of a slave who has decision-making powers in God’s “house.” This is what Honi presumed to be, and Shimon rejected.
1 Background and State of the Research
The Mishnah describes a miracle ascribed to Honi the Circle Drawer (hereafter: Honi), and the sharp response he received from Simeon son of Shatah (hereafter:
They said to Honi the Circle Drawer: “pray for rain.”
He said to them: “Go and take in the clay ovens used for Passover so that they not soften [in the rain that is coming].”
He prayed but it did not rain.
What did he do?
He drew a circle and stood in the middle of it and said before him, “Lord of the world! Your children have turned to me, because before you I am like a member of the family (ben bayit). I swear by your great name—I’m simply not moving from here until you take pity on your children”!
It began to rain drop by drop.
He said: “This is not what I wanted but rain for filling up cisterns, pits and caverns.”
It began to rain violently.
He said: “This is not what I wanted but rains of good will, blessing and graciousness” . . .
Simeon b. Shatah said to him: “If you were not Honi, I should decree a ban of excommunication against you.2 But what am I going to do to you? For you importune before the Omnipresent, so he does what you want, like a son who importunes his father,3 so he does what he wants.”4
There is a conflict here between Honi and
Various approaches were taken to explain this exchange. Yasif, Urbach, and other commentators saw the conflict as a reflection of tension between the rabbinic elite and the miracle-makers, particularly rain-makers who were closer to the common people.5 They felt that the public would mistakenly attribute the miracle to the miracle-maker and not to God. The antagonism of the rabbis was sharper when the miracle-maker presented himself boldly and emphasized his contribution to making the miracle. Honi performed with confidence as if he was in charge, and it could seem that the rain was a result of Honi’s actions and not God’s.6 Alon identified the circles of Hasidim criticized by
The drawback of the above explanations is that they do not derive their interpretation from the text. They attribute the disagreement to a general conflict between different approaches and interests. The assumption of the researchers was that the text is too concise and anecdotal to contain a plausible explanation of the conflict. However, there are expressions in the text that can supply explanation of the nature of the conflict.
2 Shimon ben Shatah versus Honi the Circle Drawer Revisited
Honi states that the Jewish people see him as a ben bayit in front of God, while
Most modern commentary on the Mishnah does not distinguish between ben bayit and “son who importunes.” G. Vermes suggests that they are interchangeable.8 Neusner states that
3 The Ben Bayit in Rabbinic Literature
Examination of the term ben bayit used by Honi shows that it is not identical to the term “son” used by
[In a case in which one] gave permission to a member of his household (ben bayit), to his slave, or to his maidservant to separate heave offering . . . It is valid.13
The Mishnah shows that the two terms “slave” and “member of household” are different but does not show what the difference is. Examination of additional Tannaitic literature shows that the term ben bayit assumes one of two meanings. One relates to friendship or familial ties: a person who is often in the house. The second is an occupation: one who administrates the house. Both meanings appear side by side in one Tosefta. The Mishnah had said that a man can demand that his ex-partner in business swear that he did not steal from the partnership, even though he does not have a concrete claim. This law applies to sharecroppers, custodians (of orphans), and to the ben bayit.14 The Tosefta explains what the ben bayit under discussion is:
The ben bayit mentioned is not the kind who comes in and out, rather the kind who brings in fruit and takes out fruit, hires workers and fires workers.15
The Tosefta clearly sees two possible meanings for the term and is stating that in the case of the obligation to swear, the Mishnah had referred to the type of ben bayit who is involved in the business aspect of the home. The obligation to swear shows that the ben bayit under discussion was someone who had a measure of independence running the owner’s assets and therefore could be suspected of embezzlement. If he had been merely a house worker, then he would be no different than any other worker who does not swear unless his employer has a specific claim against him of whom he is convinced is true.16 The authority to “hire workers and fire workers” indicates a position of trust that involves a delegation of authority by the homeowner similar to those given to a custodian.17
This position of the ben bayit who has authority over the property of his employer is expressed in a later rabbinic source. It shows that there could be tension between the ben bayit and employer when the employer is displeased with the independent actions of the ben bayit.
Rabbi Judah says: a parable to a King that had a “ben bayit” and he gave him authority over all that he had. The “ben bayit” went and lent to people through guarantors, to this one he lent 50 gold pieces and to that one hundred and to another two hundred. The borrowers fled. After a while the King heard and felt bad. He said to him: I gave you control over mine for you to destroy! The “ben bayit” answered: I lent and it is my responsibility to pay it all, I have one person who is guarantee for one hundred, another for fifty.18
Examination of the context in which the concept ben bayit is used in the exegesis literature also shows a special relationship between the owner and the ben bayit that involves emotional closeness and trust. The ben bayit is a servant who feels emotionally close to his master,19 eats from his table,20 and enjoys his protection.21 The master is good to the ben bayit beyond supplying his basic needs and provides for him like one of the family.22 The master is not embarrassed to be dressed informally in the presence of the ben bayit.23 The ben bayit does for the master the regular service of a slave,24 but is also considered a confident of the master. It is found that the ben bayit has much authority in the household of the owner. He employs workers,25 buys and sells property, and even runs the master’s treasure.26 Sometimes the ben bayit is given the responsibility to take care of the children of the master and their education.27 The ben bayit had social esteem because of his position at his master’s house, and sometimes he was viewed as a partner in the actions of his master.28
The status of the ben bayit contained a legal aspect as well. The above sources indicate that the ben bayit had the ability to do various legal actions in the name of the master. He did not have to receive individual permission for each action he did, and they obligated the master even if he would not have authorized it if he had been consulted. This gives the ben bayit the ability to make independent decisions.
It is impossible not to notice the built-in dichotomy of the status of the ben bayit. On the one hand, he is legally a servant, but on the other he is seen as a family member. On the one hand, he is completely loyal to the master; on the other hand, he can make independent decisions. On the one hand, he owns nothing of his own; on the other hand, he controls much property and can spend much money in the name of his master. He is expected to be subservient, but he has power to do things independently.
Based on the above analysis, I wish to suggest that the concept ben bayit that appears in the story of Honi the Circle Maker is a manager who enjoyed the trust of the owner and had the authority to administer his property. Honi is presenting himself as someone who has authority granted to him by God to open the gates of heaven and bring rain. He does not see himself as a mere slave who has to beg things from the master, rather as someone who can make decisions on behalf of the master. Therefore, Honi’s request of Hashem for rain is more like a demand than a plea. Honi sees himself as a manager in God’s court who has authority to bring rain for the people when they ask him. When the rain comes he even regulates how it should come down: not too soft and not too hard.
sbs Objects to Seeing Honi as a Ben Bayit of God sbssent to him: “If the years were the years of Elijah and the keys of rain were in his hands, would not the name of God be desecrated?”29
This statement is cryptic. I suggest an explanation that since the keys for rain were given to the prophet Elijah, no one else can claim to have them in his possession. This means that
The baraita quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud presents a somewhat different interpretation but there is a similar undertone. The baraita says:
From this it can be learned that
sbsdid not like it that Honi is using a decree in order to bring rain rather than praying politely in front of God. It also states that only the prophet Elijah can hold the key to rain and no one after him.31
The Jerusalem Talmud then adds to the father and son metaphor:
He says to him: “Father, take me to wash me in hot water, wash me in cold, give me nuts, almonds, peaches, and pomegranates—and he gives him.”33
The father is willing to fulfill his son’s request even though they are numerous and even contradictory. The details of the metaphor require explanation. It seems that it is relating precisely to two episodes that happen in the interaction between fathers and sons. The first episode is when the child asks for a bath. First, he wants hot water. Then, he says the water is too hot, please make it colder. The doting father does it all for his son. The second episode is that the child says he is hungry. He gives him nuts. He eats a bit and asks for something else. The father gives him almonds. He gives him a peach, but the child says he does not like it and the father gives him a pomegranate.
5 Was Honi a Typical “Hasid”?
There are a number of personalities in rabbinic literature that are referred to as a Hasid. These included a number of individuals who were known primarily for their devotion to God and the miracles they performed, and not for their Torah scholarship. Some researchers identify Honi as a Hasid.34 The source that supports this approach is the parallel Tosefta Taʿanit that is similar to the above Mishnah:
Once they said to one Hasid: “Pray that rains may fall.” He prayed and rains fell. They said to him: “Just as you prayed and they fell, so pray that they should cease.” He said to them: “Go out and see if a man stands at the summit of the Ofel and shakes his feet in the Kidron valley we will pray that the rains shall not fall but we are certain that the omnipresent will not bring a flood to the earth . . .”35
Other researchers disagree. The debate relates to the question of whether the Mishnah and Tosefta are dealing with the same person that the Mishnah identifies as Honi and the Tosefta “one Hasid,” or are the Mishnah and Tosefta independent of each other. This issue goes beyond this local question and relates to the question of the relationship between the Tosefta and the Mishnah in general. If the Tosefta is later than the Mishnah, certainly the story of the “one Hasid” is not describing Honi; had it related to Honi, the Tosefta would mention the name, as well. However, if the Tosefta contains ancient material independent of the Mishnah, it could be another account or version of the story of Honi the rainmaker.36
However, in light of what was seen above it seems that there is a fundamental difference between Honi and the other Hasidim. This distinction has not been made previously because previous research overlooked the specific meaning of a ben bayit, which indicates power and autonomous decision making. The sources do not explicitly refer to Honi as a Hasid. Research found that the typical Hasid defined his relationship with God in the father-son aspect and not the ben bayit. Hanina son of Dosa and Rabbi Pinchas son of Yair were characterized by modesty and not as managers for God.37 Honi sees himself as a ben bayit, his self-confidence is evident, and he knows he has power in the divine court. The other Hasidim are modest and humble in front of God. All this leads to the following conclusion: it is unclear whether Honi should be defined as a Hasid. He shared with them the emphasis on his worship of God and his prayer, but was different from the others in that he attributed to himself power and had much self confidence in his ability to perform miracles.38
The conflict between Honi and
m. Taʿan. 3:8 and parallel sources that are primarily b. Taʿan. 23a-b, y. Taʿan. 3:8 (66d-67a). The story of Honi is found also in Josephus, A. J. 14.22, and in Megillat Taʿanit (Lichtenstein ed., 92). The current discussion will address primarily the wording of the metaphors in the Mishnah, and only when necessary will relate to the other sources.
The text follows the Kaufman manuscript. However, in the Vilna text of the Mishnah, in the Babylonian Talmud, and in the Jerusalem Talmud the reading is “You need to excommunicate” (
The Kaufman manuscript reads “mithateh leʾaviv” meaning: “he importunes his father.” Neusner translates the Mishnah as “importune before the Omnipresent”; this reading indicates a difference between the relationship of man and God—man importunes before God while a son importunes his father directly. In Maimonides’s commentary of the Mishnah (Kappah ed.), a Yemenite manuscript (Nahum collection), British Library 5508, Munich
m. Taʿan. 3:8, according to the Kaufman
A. Yasif comments on this story in the context of other stories of rain-making in rabbinic literature. The phrasing of most of the stories emphasizes the conflict of the rabbinic establishment with the Hasidim. The rabbinic establishment learned Torah and had normative prayers while the Hasidim were more spontaneous in their religious conduct and were able to bring rain even when the rabbinic system of prayer and fast days failed. In the stories about Honi the circle drawer and his grandson Abba Hilkiyah, the miracle they achieved is not the main issue in the story, it is the conflict between the two social groups. See A. Yasif, The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 116, 243; D. Noy, Introduction to the Aggadic Literature, ed. M. Gannan (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1966), 39-51 [Hebrew]; H. Z. Hirschberg, “The Keys of Rains,” Yidi’ot Behakirat Eretz Yisrael Veatiqoteha 11 (1945): 46-54 [Hebrew]; Z. Kagan, “The Case of Honi: The Path of Mystical Structure to Modern Hebrew Literature,” in Sefer Hayovel Leshimon Halkin Bimlot lo Shivim Vechamesh Shana, ed. B. Sachvitz and M. Peri (Jerusalem: Reuven Mas, 1975), 489-501 [Hebrew]. According to Kagan this complex structure of adoration of the miracle-maker, and a tragic end, is typical for legends that deal with miracle-makers. See recently: L. Novakovic, “Miracles in Second Temple and Early Rabbinic Judaism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, ed. G. H. Twelftree (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 95-112. These researchers see an inherent conflict between rabbinic sages and miracle workers and therefore did not search for a specific issue in Honi’s behavior that justified
E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, trans. A. Abrahams, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 1:103-4, 2:726, n. 19. See also: D. Levine, Communal Fasts and Rabbinic Sermons: Theory and Practice in the Talmudic Period (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2001), 203 [Hebrew]; A. A. Halevi, Gates of the Aggada (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1982), 171 [Hebrew], esp. n. 6 where Halevi emphasizes that “A human being cannot force his will on God.” See also A. Aderet, “Hasipur Besefer Ha’agada,” Alei Siach 3 (1976): 174-77.
Josephus, B. J. 2.264. See G. Alon, History of the Jews in the Land of Israel in the Period of the Mishnah and Talmud, Part 1 (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1953-1956), 124 [Hebrew].
Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 210.
J. Neusner, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 318-19 and n. 19.
E. Z. Melamed, “Lilshona shel Masseket ʾabot,” Leš. 20 (1956): 106-11, esp. 110-11; however, he comments that this interpretation does not coincide with the m. Ter. 3:4, that mentions side-by-side a maid, a slave, and a ben bayit, meaning that the ben bayit is not a simple slave. Büchler compares the expression to the Latin familiaris since a similar word familia appears in rabbinic sources in a baraita in y. Soṭah 73c; stated by Rabbi Yishmael and Abba Shaul in Sifra Lev. 19:1, 86c for all slaves in the household.
This story appears in b. Ber. 34b. Rashi comments on the two concepts. The slave goes in and out of the king’s audience whenever he wants, while the minister requires an invitation to come to the king. In a similar way Rabbi Samuel Eidels (Maharsha) explains the term Honi used: “I am like a slave of God and therefore I come and go whenever I want” (Maharsha on Taʿan. 23a Hidushei Aggadah). Some researchers accepted this interpretation. See A. Büchler, Types of Jewish Palestinian Piety (London: Oxford University Press, 1922), 203. Safrai also accepts this interpretation and in one place states that the ben bayit is like the personal slave of the master. See S. Safrai, Biymei Habbayit Uviymei Hamishnah (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1984), 505, 518 and Sarfatti, “Pious Men,” 129. On the linguistic aspect see Halevi, Gates, 169 n. 3; Melamed, “Lilshona,” 106-11. He does not distinguish between ben bayit in single and bnei bayit in plural.
Hirschman, “Changing Foci of Holiness,” 12 n. 12. He proves his interpretation from Qoh. Rab. 2:8. Solomon said: “Uvnei bayit haya li” (Qoh 2:7); the exegesis explains: “that is the divine spirit” that King Solomon contained. However, it is not proof because the expression there is plural and here it is single which is completely different in rabbinic language.
m. Ter. 3:4. Translation is based on Neusner, 90.
m. Šebu. 7:8.
t. Ketub. 8:9. See also b. Šebu. 48b: “The Baraita taught: Ben Bayit that was said, not that he enters and exists on his feet, rather he brings him workers and removes workers, brings in fruit and takes out fruit.”
The Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud understand the term in the same way. The ben bayit is a decision maker in the house with periodic inspections or examination by the owner. Similarly the following exegesis presents it: “The homeowner has a ben bayit. When he comes to calculate with him . . . what does he say to his ben bayit? Pay attention how much wheat you put in storage . . .” (Pesiq. Rab. 10 Ki Tisa [Ish Shalom ed., 35b]); cf. Num. Rab. 4:1; 21:15.
The difference between the guardian mentioned in the Mishnah and the ben bayit is that the former is usually someone appointed to take care of an estate inherited by young orphans or a widow, while the ben bayit was appointed to administrate the property of an existing owner that for some reason does not want to do it himself.
Exod. Rab. (Vilna ed.), Parashat Ki Tisa, Parsha 43. The independence of the ben bayit who is the one who lends the money can cause the illusion that he is the owner of the property. This could mislead the ben bayit to deny his subservience to the owner. This situation can possibly be seen in the following quote: “What was Pharaoh similar to? A King went overseas and deposited all his property with his ben bayit. After some time he came back and asked for his property. The ben bayit answered: ‘I am not your slave and you did not deposit anything with me.’ He took him and hung him in the gallows. He then said: ‘I am your slave and everything you deposited with me I will pay’ ” (Pesiq. Rab Kah. 14, Mandelbaum ed., 245). It seems that the slave was able to deny it because he was a ben bayit and depositing the property with him meant that he was to manage them and not merely watch them. Therefore, he felt that he can claim to be the owner of the property.
b. Sanh. 106a: “And then she says to him you are like a ben bayit, sit and choose your own.”
Pesiq. Rab. 25 Aser Te’aser (Ish Shalom ed., 126b): “God said: ‘I did not say that you should honor me from yours only from mine . . . you are my ben bayit, if I gave you and it is in your hand, give me from my own.’ ”.
y. Ber. 13a and parallel sources: “If a human has a patron and they tell him that his ben bayit was captured he says: ‘I exist through him.’ ” Exod. Rab. 15:18 “A parable to a ben bayit that was caught by his employer and imprisoned. His master says to him: ‘Don’t worry, I will come and take you out.’ ”.
Sifre Num. 78, Lekha Itanu (Horowitz ed., 76): “Is there a ben bayit of someone that is not bestowed good?” Cf. also: “A parable to a King who had a ben bayit and he gave him a field as a present” (Sifre Num. 117 Vayedaber [Horowitz ed., 135]).
Lev. Rab. 1:14 (Margaliyot ed., 32), “A parable of a King who appeared to his ben bayit in his real face.”
Cant. Rab. 5:3, “Rabban Gamliel had a ben bayit who would take a box of forty se’ah and bring it to the baker.” Compare Lam. Rab. 4:3 Ma‘aseh Shehaya. Yal. Mishlei 950 shows that the master trusts only his ben bayit and no other person.
Sifre Zuṭa Num. 12:5 “A parable about a King who was hosting his friend and needed to say something to his ben bayit.” Instead of sending his friend outside, he and the ben bayit go outside to confer.
m. Šebu. 7:8: “These swear without a claim: the partners . . . the ben bayit.” See y. Šebu. 38a.; m. Ter. 3:4 (quoted above; “If he allowed his ben bayit, his slave or his maid to separate tithes—it is valid”); and Pesiq. Rab. 10 Ki Tisa (Ish Shalom ed., 35b), that discusses what the baʿal bayit calculates with his ben bayit. Cf. Num. Rab. 4:1; 21:15.
Lev. Rab. 2:5: “A parable to a King who had an only son. Every day he would command his ben bayit: ‘my son ate,’ ‘my son drank,’ ‘my son went to school,’ ‘my son came from school.’ ”.
Midr. Pss. (Buber ed. 24b): “A parable to a King who had a ben bayit in town and the townspeople would honor him saying that he is the ben bayit of the King. If the King sold the town to others they started to mistreat the ben bayit.” Yal. 34 “To a King who had a ben bayit that he gave authority over all he had. The people started saying that he is his partner. What did the King do—he dismissed him. Thus God dismissed man from the Garden of Eden.”
b. Taʿan. 23b.
A number of studies were devoted to the agenda of the later rabbis who transcribed the Honi story and the difference between the various accounts of the story in the Mishnah, Jerusalem Talmud, Babylonian Talmud, and possibly the Tosefta. See Avery-Peck, “Charismatic”; Stone, “Honi”; Halberstam, “Legal Boundaries”; and Shoshan, Stories.
y. Taʿan. 66d-67a.
The term used in the Mishnah is mitḥaṭṭe. It is a rare form. Commentators of the Mishnah explained it according to the similar Arabic word that means “spoiled.” See Tg. Ps.-Jon. Deut 28:54 when describing a very pampered person; saying “the person that is meḥaṭṭi.” Similarly in the Samaritan translation, the Aruch “ḥeṭ,” Maimonides in his commentary of the Mishnah translates mitḥaṭṭe as “causes emotion.”
b. Taʿan. 23b.
Safrai, “Pietists”; Sarfatti, “Pious Men”; Vermes, Jesus, 13; M. Wilcox, “Jesus in the Light of his Jewish Environment,”
t. Taʿan. 2:13.
Sarfatti, “Pious Men,” posits that the Tosefta is a later abridgement of the Mishnah. S. Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshuta, 10 vols. (Jerusalem:
Safrai, “Mishnat Hasidim,” 138 n. 13 connects the concept of Hasidism in the Second Temple period with modesty. Vermes as well saw Hasidism in this light.
It should be noted that many researchers compare Jesus to Honi. The comparison could be valid even though the term Hasid may not be appropriate for Honi. Jesus, like Honi, saw himself close to God and had self confidence in his ability to act on behalf of God like a ben bayit though he did not use the term explicitly. See the sources cited above in comment 34. In addition see Avery-Peck, “Charismatic.”