The Mishna that opens the third perek of Massekhet Ta’anit teaches that there are certain circumstances in which we do not call for fasting that becomes progressively more severe, but rather we call for immediate hatra’ah (crying out). Included would be a situation where there is rain in all communities but one (based on the passage in Amos 4:7), and when a city is hit by plague or is surrounded by a non-Jewish enemy. In general, the appropriate response to any out-of-the-ordinary situation of danger would be a hatra’ah, which may include prayer, shofar blowing, fasting, or a combination of the three.
One exception to the rule is an overabundance of rain, when no public hatra’ah takes place. This ruling brings the Mishna to relate one of the famous stories of Honi HaMe’aggel. In the course of a year of drought, the Sages turned to Honi HaMe’aggel and asked him to pray for rain. When his first entreaties did not produce rain, he drew a circle around himself and swore to God that he would not leave that spot until God showed mercy on His children by ending the drought.
At first a light rain began to fall, and Honi demanded rain that fill the cisterns. When angry rains began to fall, Honi demanded rains of mercy and blessing. Finally, the rains fell until flooding began, and the people turned to Honi and asked him to pray that the rain should stop, which he was reluctant to do.
The story concludes with the words of Shimon ben Shetaḥ, who said that Honi’s words to God were so impudent that he deserved to be excommunicated. But how could he be punished for having such a close, personal relationship with God?
Aside from the stories about him related here in Massekhet Ta’anit, we know of Honi HaMe’aggel’s death from Josephus’ record of it in his Kadmoniyot ha-Yehudim, where he tells of how Honi was killed during the civil war between supporters of Hyrcanus and Aristoblus. From the Talmud Yerushalmi it appears that the well-known “Rip Van Winkle story” of Honi sleeping for seventy years actually relates to one of Honi’s ancestors; however, from the stories that appear on daf 23, it is clear that the mysterious powers and abilities were handed down in the family through the generations.
His name – HaMe’aggel – is usually attributed to the circle (igul in Hebrew) that he drew in this story. Rav Tzemah Ga’on says that he was named for this hometown – Miglu; others suggest that he was known by his profession – tarring and flattening roofs with a roller (a ma’agilah).