c. 50 BC | Judaea

Literal Interpretation

How can a man sleep or be like a dreamer for seventy years?

All the days of the righteous man Honi Hama’gel, he troubled himself concerning the meaning of the passage “When the Lord bringeth back again the captivity of Zion, then shall we be like dreamers.” Honi would constantly say, “How can a man sleep or be like a dreamer for seventy years?”

Once he was traveling on the road, and he noticed a man planting a carob tree. He asked him how many years it would take before the tree would bear fruit, and the man answered, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked, “Are you, then, sure that you will live seventy years?” And the man replied, “I found carob trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” About that time Honi became hungry, and he sat down to eat near the newly planted tree. After the meal he fell asleep, and a bay formed about him so that he could not be noticed, and thus he slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he observed a man gathering the fruit from the carob tree; he asked the man, “Did you plant this tree?” The man replied, “No; I am the grandson of the man that planted it.” Honi then realized that he must have slept for seventy years, and when he looked around for his ass, he noticed that there were many smaller asses. He then went to his home and inquired whether the son of Honi Hama’gel was still alive. He was told that the son was no longer living, but that a son of the son was alive. He then said, “I am Honi Hama’gel,” but they would not believe him. He went to the house of learning and heard them say, “Today the Halakhoth are as clear as in the days of Honi Hama’gel, who would immediately render a clear decision when any questions whatever were put to him by the rabbis.” He went in and said to them: “I am that Honi,” but they would not believe him, nor would they accord him due respect. This caused him to become downcast and despondent, and he prayed to God that he might die, and so he died.

From the Talmud. Also known as the Babylonian Talmud—in contrast to the slightly earlier Jerusalem Talmud—this text is a compilation of writings by various rabbis interpreting the Torah. The two exegeses differ in tone and emphasis, particularly around matters of legal interpretation. In the twelfth century the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that “all the matters mentioned by the Babylonian Talmud are incumbent on the entire Jewish people to follow.”