Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

In the Matter of Rip Van Winkle

November 2017

The Talmud (BT: Ta’anit 23b) relates a wonderful story about Ḥoni HaMe’aggel, Ḥoni the Circle Maker. I wonder if Washington Irving knew of this tale:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: All the days of his life, that righteous man - Ḥoni, was distressed over the meaning of the verse (Psalms 126:1): A song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream. He would say, “Who can sleep & dream for 70 years?”

One day, Ḥoni was walking along the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree & said to him, “How many years will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man responded, “70 years.” Ḥoni then said to him: And, is it the case that you will live 70 more years?” He replied, “We have found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I, too, am planting for my descendants.”

Now, it happened that while Ḥoni sat & ate some bread, he became tired & fell asleep. A cliff formed around him, & he disappeared from sight & slept for 70 years. When he awoke, he saw a man gathering carobs from that tree & said to him, “Are you the one who planted this tree?” He replied, “I am his grandson!” Ḥoni thought to himself: “It appears that I have slept for 70 years,” & this was confirmed when he saw that his donkey had sired several herds.

Ḥoni went home & inquired, “Is the son of Ḥoni HaMe’aggel alive?” They said to him, “His son is not, but his grandson is.” He said to them, “I am Ḥoni HaMe’aggel,” but they did not believe him. He went to the study hall & heard the sages expound: “His legal renderings are as enlightening as those during the years of Ḥoni HaMe’aggel.” For, when Ḥoni would enter the study hall, he would resolve for the Sages any difficulty they had. He said to them: I am Ḥoni, but they did not believe him & did not pay him due respect. Ḥoni became very upset, prayed for mercy, & died.

Like most rabbinic tales, this one operates on many levels. It is told most often in connection with Tu BiShevat, the Jewish Arbor Day, because of the prominence of the carob tree in the tale. However, one might focus on Ḥoni himself.

Ḥoni lived during the 2nd Temple period, during the time of the Hasmonean monarchy. He was considered a miracle worker & one who could barter with God. The title, HaMe’aggel, or Circle Maker, comes from just such a miracle — when Ḥoni persuaded God to make it rain in abundance & end a drought. The historian, Josephus, also refers to him as a saint & a miracle worker. According to Josephus, Ḥoni dies by stoning when he refuses to place a curse upon the army of Aristobulus, 1 of 2 brothers feuding over the throne of Israel. In our tale, however, Ḥoni’s demise is not the tragedy portrayed by Josephus.

We’ve no idea of Ḥoni’s age at the time of this tale, but he is certainly old enough to have a family & children. He seems to be an affable fellow, willing to engage others in conversation. He is presented here as someone in the prime of life, quite capable of taking walks & engaging with others. As wise as Ḥoni is, he seems unable to understand why someone would wish to plant a carob tree that would take 70 years to bear fruit. (Modern carob trees only take about 8 years. The number 70 has more to do with the length of the Babylonian exile, as indicated by the reference to Psalm 126, than arboriculture. But then, I digress!)

In this tale, Ḥoni fails to grasp what is obvious to the planter, that the tree in not merely a vehicle to produce fruit, it is the man’s legacy. This tree, planted by him, is a gift to generations that he will not know. Oddly, Ḥoni appears to understand the tree solely in terms of its utility to the planter. In this tale, the final miracle associated with Ḥoni is his incredible 70 year nap (3½ times longer than Rip Van Winkle!) representative of the Babylonian exile.

Ḥoni awakes to a world that has no place for him. Even his son is gone. Ḥoni cannot fit in. Ḥoni, back from the dead, who in life could change the world with his miracles, cannot change the world in “death”. Yet, the man who planted the carob tree can. Year after year, the tree will produce fruit. We could argue that Ḥoni’s legacy of erudition will continue to change the world & that is Ḥoni’s contribution to future generations. However, what we see, Ḥoni cannot.

Ḥoni, at the end of this tale, feels dejected & useless. Ḥoni pines for the mercy of death in a world that has passed him by. The moral of the story, then, is found in the contrast, not between the gifts that Ḥoni bequeaths the world & the gifts that the old man leaves by planting a tree, but, in the ability of each to recognize the importance of their contributions to the future. The planter is well aware of this; Ḥoni is not.

Remember, also, that Ḥoni’s original question is: “Who can sleep & dream for 70 years?” How could those who returned home from the Babylonian exile have been like dreamers? The planter teaches Ḥoni that one does not necessarily dream of immediate results. One plants trees, having faith in God that the tree will produce fruit even after the planter is long forgotten. At the end of the exile, it is not only the returnees that have dreamed, it was their parents & grandparents as well. Those that returned to Israel in 1948 & to Jerusalem in 1967, not only fulfilled their own dreams, but the dreams of many, many generations. As the words of the Israeli national anthem, might suggest, those later day pioneers were like those who “Hatikvah bat shenot al-payim…,” dreamed & hoped for 2,000 years, not just 70.

It would nice to think that the end of the tale finds Ḥoni a contented man. Though the world no longer has a place for him, he realizes that he did leave a legacy — a legacy of law & inspiration to those who would become & perpetuate the rabbinic class. If this is the mercy for which Ḥoni prays, & that the Merciful One grants, then Ḥoni can pass into history satisfied with his life. His death would be a happy ending. But, alas, Ḥoni becomes very upset; he cannot learn the lesson that the planter was so willing to teach him.

Both Ḥoni & the planter, are remembered positively for their contributions, Ḥoni for his academic contributions to an emerging Judaism, & the planter for his fruit. Both changed the world for the better. The real lesson for us, then, is not about trees, but accepting one’s place in the universe & passing it along as best we can to future generations.

Too often, we go about our daily business not thinking about what it is we bequeath to the future. Our legacies can be for good, or for ill. Whether a name in history, like Ḥoni, or just an unnamed planter, each of us leaves behind what we cannot take into Olam Habah, the World to Come. Ḥoni did make his contributions, but he learned of it, tragically, only at the end & could not accept his fate. The planter, planned his legacy while he could still derive enjoyment from the knowledge of what he bequeathed & shaped his fate.

Few of us can become an erudite legalist like Ḥoni, but each of us is endowed with our own peculiar set of strengths & weaknesses. Like Ḥoni, & the planter, we can utilize what God has given to us to leave an endowment for the benfit of future generations. Let us learn from the planter in this parable, though, that the best way to do that is to choose that endowment purposefully, like the planter, so that we may know, or at least have faith, that we did, indeed, contribute. May we also be ever mindful that those who came before us made their contributions & that we should be grateful for them. May we always remember to thank those who have come before us, & God, for “a world full of carob trees” bequeathed to us.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman