IT WAS at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. The cruel war had laid Jerusalem desolate, and terrible was the suffering of the people.
Rabbi Onias, mounted on a camel, was sorrowfully making his way toward the unhappy city. He had traveled many days and was weary from lack of sleep and faint with hunger, yet he would not touch the basket of dates he had with him, nor would he drink from the water in a leather bottle attached to the saddle.
"Perchance," he said, "I shall meet some one who needs them more than I."
But everywhere the land was deserted. One day, nearing the end of the journey, he saw a man planting a carob tree at the foot of a hill.
"The Chaldeans," said the man, "have destroyed my beautiful vineyards and all my crops, but I must sow and plant anew, so that the land may live again."
Onias passed sorrowfully on and at the top of the hill he stopped. Before him lay Jerusalem, not the once beautiful city with its hundreds of domes and minarets that caught the first rays of the sun each morning, but a vast heap of ruins and charred buildings. Onias threw himself on the ground and wept bitterly. No human being could he see, and the sun was setting over what looked like a city of the dead.
"Woe, woe," he cried. "Zion, my beautiful Zion, is no more. Can it ever rise again? Not in a hundred years can its glory be renewed."
The sun sank lower as he continued to gaze upon the ruined city, and darkness gathered over the scene. Utterly exhausted, Onias, laying his head upon his camel on the ground, fell into a deep sleep.
The silver moon shone serenely through the night and paled with the dawn, and the sun cast its bright rays on the sleeping rabbi. Darkness spread its mantle of night once more, and again the sun rose, and still Onias slept. Days passed into weeks, the weeks merged into months, and the months rolled on until years went by; but Rabbi Onias did not waken.
Seeds, blown by the winds and brought by the birds, dropped around him, took root and grew into shrubs, and soon a thick hedge surrounded him and screened him from all who passed. A date that had fallen from his basket, took root also, and in time there rose a beautiful palm tree which cast a shade over the sleeping figure.
And thus a hundred years rolled by.
Suddenly, Onias moved, stretched himself and yawned. He was awake again. He looked around confused.
"Strange," he muttered. "Did I not fall asleep on a hill overlooking Jerusalem last night? How comes it now that I am hemmed in by a thicket and am lying in the shade of this noble date palm?"
With great difficulty he rose to his feet.
"Oh, how my bones do ache!" he cried. "I must have overslept myself. And where is my camel?"
Puzzled, he put his hand to his beard. Then he gave a cry of anguish.
"What is this? My beard is snow-white and so long that it almost reaches to the ground."
He sank down again, but the mound on which he sat was but a heap of rubbish and collapsed under his weight. Beneath it were bones. Hastily clearing away the rubbish, he saw the skeleton of a camel.
"This surely must be my camel," he said. "Can I have slept so long? The saddle-bags have rotted, too. But what is this?" and he picked up the basket of dates and the water-bottle. The dates and the water were quite fresh.
"This must be some miracle," he said. "This must be a sign for me to continue my journey. But, alas, that Jerusalem should be destroyed!"
He looked around and was more puzzled than ever. When he had fallen asleep the hill had been bare of vegetation. Now it was covered with carob trees.
"I think I remember a man planting a carob tree yesterday," he said. "But was it yesterday?"
He turned in the other direction and gave a cry of astonishment. The sun was shining on a noble city of glittering pinnacles and minarets, and around it were smiling fields and vineyards.
"Jerusalem still lives," he exclaimed. "Of a truth I have been dreaming--dreaming that it was destroyed. Praise be to God that it was but a dream."
With all speed he made his way across the plain to the city. People looked at him strangely and pointed him out to one another, and the children ran after him and called him names he did not understand. But he took no notice. Near the outskirts of the city he paused.
"Canst thou tell me, father," he said to an old man, "which is the house of Onias, the rabbi?"
"'Tis thy wit, or thy lack of it, that makes thee call me father," replied the man. "I must be but a child compared with thee."
Others gathered around and stared hard at Onias.
"Didst thou speak of Rabbi Onias?" asked one. "I know of one who says that was the name of his grandfather. I will bring him."
He hastened away and soon returned with an aged man of about eighty.
"Who art thou?" Onias asked.
"Onias is my name," was the reply. "I am called so in honor of my sainted grandfather, Rabbi Onias, who disappeared mysteriously one hundred years ago, after the destruction of the First Temple."
"A hundred years," murmured Onias. "Can I have slept so long?"
"By thy appearance, it would seem so," replied the other Onias. "The Temple has been rebuilt since then."
"Then it was not a dream," said the old man.
They led him gently indoors, but everything was strange to him. The customs, the manners, the habits of the people, their dress, their talk, was all different, and every time he spoke they laughed.
"Thou seemest like a creature from another world," they said. "Thou speakest only of the things that have long passed away."
One day he called his grandson.
"Lead me," he said, "to the place of my long sleep. Perchance I will sleep again. I am not of this world, my child. I am alone, a stranger here, and would fain leave ye."
Taking the dates and the bottle of water which still remained fresh, he made his way to where he had slept for a hundred years, and there his prayer for peace was answered. He slept again, but not in this world will he awaken.