One day, the great sage Choni HaMagel pondered the meaning of Tehillim 26, “A song of ascent, when Hashem returned the captives of Tzyon, we were like them in that dream.”
This pasuk refers to the 70 years of galus that existed between the ﬁrst and second Batei Mikdash. “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 HaMagel sought the meaning of the sentence, but couldn’t ﬁnd it and was very distraught. He prayed to G-d to show him the meaning.
One day he happened to be walking along the road and noticed an elderly man planting a carob tree.
“Tell me, my good man,” said Choni, “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 eat. 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.
At the end of 70 years, the tent-like rock unfolded itself and Choni Hamagel 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, “Do you know who planted the tree? 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 he had left a mare upon whom he had been riding and which was expecting to give birth. He noticed 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 until they multiplied into this large herd. 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 Hamagel returned to his hometown. He was amazed at the transformation – new houses were built and many of the old houses were gone. There were new streets and avenues and the town appeared 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 one of the passersby, Choni asked him, “Will you please be kind enough to direct me to the home of the son of Choni Hamagel?”
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 Asa Chilkiyahu and Chanan Hanechba, the sons of his daughter.”
“May I ask you who you are?” the man inquired.
“Yes,” he replied, “I am Choni Hamagel.”
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 Hamagel, they too burst into laughter and began calling him a madman.
Disgusted, Choni Hamagel left them and soon found his way to the beis midrash, 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 Hamagel. 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 Hamagel 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 to G-d, “L-rd of the Universe! Either give me a friend or give me death!” He then prayed to G-d for death. His prayer was granted and the pure soul of the saintly body of Choni Hamagel left and returned to its Creator.