One day, the great sage and saint Choni HaMaagel pondered over the meaning of the sentence that appears in Tehillim 126, “A song of ascent, when G-d returned the captives of Zion, we were like them in that dream.” This refers to the 70 years of galus between the first and second Beis HaMikdash.
“Why does the Lord compare this to a dream?” he asked. “Is it possible that a person is able to sleep for 70 years?”
Choni HaMaagel sought the meaning of the sentence but couldn’t find it and felt very distraught. He davened that he should understand.
One day he noticed an elderly man planting a carob tree.
“Tell me, my good man,” Choni asked, “how long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
“It takes 70 years to produce fruit,” answered the old man.
“Do you believe that you can live 70 more years to derive benefit from the fruit of this tree?” asked Choni.
“I found this carob tree in this world,” replied the old man. “Just as my ancestors planted the tree for my sake, so do I plant this tree for the sake of those who will follow me.”
Without commenting, Choni sat down to partake of some food that he was carrying with him. After he finished his meal, a deep sleep fell over him. A rock sprang up near the place where Choni lay fast asleep and the rock grew up high in the form of a tent, until it encircled him completely. Thus he slumbered for 70 years in the tent-like rock, protected from the rain, sun and wild beasts.
Awakens To A New World
At the end of 70 years, the tent-like rock unfolded itself and Choni awoke. Stretching himself, he walked out and noticed a young man picking carobs from the tree he had seen planted.
Choni was amazed and asked the man, “Are you perhaps the same man who planted it?”
“No, I am not,” was the reply. “This tree was planted by my father’s father, 70 years ago.”
Choni was astounded at what he had heard. “Apparently, I must have been sleeping for 70 years,” he thought to himself.
He reminded himself that the mare he had been riding was pregnant. When he looked of her, he found only some bones, whitened and hardened with age and nearby a large herd of horses and mules.
He asked the young man, “Whose animals are these?”
The young man replied, “I recall that my father told me that many years before his time a traveler had left over a mare that gave birth and from her came many, many offspring. They remained in this place, without any shepherd or caretaker watching over them. No one has bothered them and it is miraculous that they remain in this place and do not wander away.”
Choni was then convinced that he had slept for 70 years.
Choni then returned to his hometown and was amazed at the transformation. New houses and streets had been built. In fact, the town was twice the size he remembered it to be. It all appeared strange to him and he was disturbed that he recognized nobody. Every person was a complete stranger to him.
Approaching a man, Choni asked, “Will you please be kind enough to direct me to the home of the son of Choni HaMaagel?”
The man looked at him incredulously. “You must be joking,” he said. “Everyone knows he died many years ago.”
“Did he leave a son or a daughter?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the man, “there is a remaining grandson, Asa Chilkiyahu and Chanan Hanechba, the son of his daughter.”
“May I ask you who you are?” the man inquired.
“Yes,” he replied, “I am Choni HaMaagel.”
The man burst into laughter and said, “You can’t be he, for we all know he died over 70 years ago.”
Soon a crowd gathered to see the cause of this merriment and when they were told that this man claimed to be Choni HaMaagel, they too burst into laughter and began calling him a madman.
Disgusted, Choni left them and soon found his way to the beit medrash where all the sages of the generation were gathered discussing Torah.
Entering the assembly room quietly, he sat down to listen to their discourse. Soon a question arose and it was answered, “This law is as clear to us now as it used to be clear in the days of Choni HaMaagel. In his days, whenever something difficult arose, they would ask him and he would clarify everything for them.”
Unable to restrain himself, he arose and announced for all to hear, “I am the Choni HaMaagel whom you are now discussing!”
They looked at him in amazement and exclaimed, “He must be a madman. Choni has been dead for over 70 years. Be gone from here before we have you thrown out!”
When Choni saw that they refused to believe him, he was broken-hearted and walked out, wandering through the streets for a long time. No one would listen to him or believe him. In anguish, he prayed, “Lord of the Universe! Either give me a friend or give me death!” He then prayed to God for death. His prayer was granted and the pure soul of the saintly body of Choni HaMaagel left and returned to its Creator.