FROM WHAT WE KNOW of the material circumstances of Rabban Jochanan and his contemporaries we may assume that the poorest of them all was Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. But he was also the most pious and the miracles which are said to have occurred to him transcend even the wondrous adventures of Nachum of Gimso. It was commonly believed that the whole generation of which Chanina was a contemporary lived only through his grace.
Rabbi Chanina knew poverty long before the destruction of the temple. He lived in the town of Arab in Galilee and engaged in stone cutting. This was hard work but did not suffice to feed Rabbi Chanina with bread and he had to content himself with a measure of carobs from one Sabbath till the next.1)ברכות י״ז ב׳, תענית כ״ד ב׳.
Rabbi Chanina was a disciple of Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai who lived in Arab for some time. He did not head any academy and no legal decisions are quoted in his name, but he was held by everyone to be a great saint and whenever people became involved in trouble they came to Rabbi Chanina that he should pray for them, for every one believed that his word carried great weight with the Lord.
He was also exemplary in his conduct before God and man and he frequently said: “Everyone whose fear of sin comes before his wisdom, his wisdom endures; everyone whose deeds are more than his wisdom, his wisdom endures; everyone who pleases mankind with his deeds also pleases God.”2)אבות פרק ג׳ משנה ט׳.
In his town Rabbi Chanina saw many people going on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem carrying in their hands gifts for the temple and he was grieved that whenever he went to Jerusalem he went empty handed, for he had nothing to bring. But once, while at his work, he saw a beautiful large stone which was fit to lie before the temple so that the pilgrims who come there for the feast days may sit on it and rest. He took out this stone and polished it smooth, then he vowed to bring it as a gift to the temple.
But he could not carry the stone from Arab to Jerusalem alone. He decided to hire laborers and he called five men, which was the number needed to carry it to the city. But these men asked for one hundred “Selaim.” He would gladly have paid this sum and even more, but since he did not possess even a single coin he said to them: “Where shall I take one hundred ‘Selaim’ when I do not possess even half that sum? But if you will help me carry the stone without compensation you may have whatever reward is due to me for this good deed.”
The men thereupon went away and left the stone on the ground. But God could no longer look at the sorrow of Rabbi Chanina and he sent him five other men who asked for only five “Selaim” for the labor of transporting the stone; they agreed to do so on condition that Rabbi Chanina should help them carry the stone. Rabbi Chanina believed that he would be able to borrow the five “Selaim” wherewith to pay the laborers as soon as he arrived in Jerusalem and he therefore agreed to the price. But the work did not last long, for as soon as Rabbi Chanina touched the stone they all found themselves in Jerusalem. When he began looking for the men in order to pay them, they had vanished and he could find them no longer.3)שיר השירים רבה וקהלת רבה.
Rabbi Chanina’s wife was said never to have complained about their poverty and bore all the suffering quietly. Only once did she depart from her patience and said to her husband: “How long must we suffer in poverty? Ask the Heavenly One that He should give you something on account of what is coming to you in the world to come.”
Rabbi Chanina heeded her words and prayed to God. There then appeared a hand which gave him the golden leg of a table. That night he saw in his dream how all the just men sit in Paradise about golden tables each of which has three legs, only he and his wife sit by a table which only has two legs. He awoke very much disturbed and said to his wife: “Would you rather see all other just men in the world to come sit about whole tables while we sit by a broken one?”
He therefore prayed to God that the gift be taken back and the same hand appeared and took it. The friends of Rabbi Chanina considered the second marvel to be even greater than the first.
Rabbi Chanina’s wife had a neighbor who derided her for her poverty and because of her she was in the habit of lighting a fire in the oven every Friday. Although she had nothing to cook or bake, she wanted that neighbor to see the smoke rising from the chimney and to believe that nothing was lacking for the Sabbath. But this neighbor understood the trick and she once came to Rabbi Chanina’s house to show his wife that she was not fooled. As she knocked on the door, Rabbi Chanina’s wife opened it, but before the neighbor could enter she ran and hid in the attic in order not to meet her. When the neighbor came in she saw the oven full of bread and the barrel filled with dough and she called the wife of Rabbi Chanina to come and take the bread out of the oven before it was burned.
Still another story is related of the wife of Rabbi Chanina. It is said that Rabbi Jochanan once traveled on a ship and he saw floating upon the water a basket decorated with pearls and diamonds and surrounded by all kinds of rare fish. One man jumped into the water to retrieve the basket, but a fish came up and tried to bite off his legs. The people on the boat poured vinegar on the fish until it swam away and then a voice from heaven was heard saying: “What do you want with this basket? It belongs to the wife of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and in the world to come she will weave from it the decorations for the praying shawls of the just men.”4)בבא בתרא ע״ד א׳.
We already told that in time of calamity everyone turned to Rabbi Chanina. Thus it happened that the daughter of Nechunia the well digger once fell into a well which her father dug. People at once ran to Rabbi Chanina that he should advise how to raise the girl from the well.
Rabbi Chanina at once declared that this event will have a happy ending, then he said: “Go home. She is out of the well.” The people asked him: “How do you know? Are you a seer?” But Rabbi Chanina said: “I am not a seer but I feel certain that since the just man Nechunia occupied himself with digging wells so that the pilgrims to Jerusalem may have water to drink, God will not permit a child of so just a man to be drowned in one of her father’s wells.”5)יבמות קכ״א ב׳.
It was because of such events that the faith of the people in the efficacy of the prayers of Rabbi Chanina increased. In case of sickness they came to him that he should pray for the sick and when he was engaged in prayer everyone could see that he was so deeply immersed in it that had a snake wound itself about his feet he would not have been aware of it. He also immediately foretold the success of his prayer whether the sick will get well again. When he was asked how he could tell the outcome of his prayer, he said: When I utter the prayer smoothly then I know that it was accepted, but if I have difficulty in praying then I know that it was rejected.
The son of the Nasi, Rabban Gamliel, once fell sick and the Nasi sent two of his outstanding disciples to Rabbi Chanina to ask him that he pray for the cure of the sick person. Rabbi Chanina ascended the roof of his house to be nearer to God while praying. When he descended he told the messengers: “You may now go home for the patient is no longer in fever.” The messengers noted down the words of Rabbi Chanina and the exact moment at which they were uttered. When they informed Rabban Gamliel he told them that everything happened exactly as Rabbi Chanina said.
Another time the son of Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai was sick and Rabban Jochanan sent a message to Rabbi Chanina saying: “Chanina, my son, pray to God that my son shall remain alive.” Rabbi Chanina bowed with his head between his knees and prayed a long time until he suddenly declared that Rabban Jochanan’s son will certainly survive. When Rabban Jochanan thanked him for his effort, he also explained to his wife that had he prayed to God himself, even if he had stood with his head between his knees all day, he would have achieved nothing. Rabban Jochanan’s wife then asked him: “Is Chanina more acceptable to God then you are?” But Rabban Jochanan answered: “He may not be more acceptable in the eyes of God but he is as a servant in the palace of a king who is closer to the king than all others. I am as a minister of the king who sometimes has to withstand the king’s anger and to whom the king may refuse to grant favors.”6)ברכות ל״ד ב׳.
Among the wondrous legends about Rabbi Chanina it is also told that he was once travelling on his way when a sudden rain began to descend and he was hindered in his journey. He turned his face heavenward and said: “Creator of the world! The whole world is enjoying the rain, only I am suffering from it.” The rain immediately ceased and when Rabbi Chanina arrived at home there was a drought. His conscience plagued him that the rain, which the earth needed so much, had ceased and he further addressed God: “The whole world is now suffering only I am glad,” and the rain began to descend again.7)תענית כ״ד ב׳.
Of Rabbi Chanina’s unusual honesty it is told that a man once passed and left a few hens on his doorstep. Rabbi Chanina then said to his wife: “Since the hens are not your own you may not use their eggs.” His wife then sold the eggs and with the money she accumulated she bought some goats. When the owner of the hens came to claim them Rabbi Chanina also gave him the goats.
Both before and after the temple was destroyed Rabbi Chanina scrupulously set aside the tithes from all food which came on his table. As he was once eating at the table, all the food suddenly vanished. His wife explained to him that she had borrowed that day’s food from a neighbor who probably had not set aside the tithes. Rabbi Chanina decided in his mind to set aside the tithes and the food reappeared on the table.8)ירושלמי דמאי פרק א׳ הלכה ג׳.
His observance of the tithes was so extreme that even his donkey could tell whether the hay placed before it had been tithed. Once the donkey was stolen and, when the thieves placed hay before it, it refused to eat. Realizing that if they kept the donkey it would starve to death they let it loose and it ran back to Rabbi Chanina.9)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק ח׳.
It is further related that in a certain place there was a poisonous scorpion which bit people and the stricken ones died from its venom. This was told to Rabbi Chanina and he said: “Come, show me where this scorpion hides.” He was taken to the place and he put his foot over the hole. The scorpion came up to bite him and while doing so it died. Rabbi Chanina then carried the scorpion around in the academy and he said: “Now you can see that not the scorpion kills a person but his sins.” Seeing this the people said: “Woe to the man who meets a scorpion and woe to the scorpion which meets Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa.”
Similarly it is told that Rabbi Chanina once met the queen of the evil spirits, Igereth bath Machlath, who goes about accompanied by 180 thousand destroying angels to harm people. Igereth said to Rabbi Chanina, “If I had not been warned from heaven not to touch you because of your knowledge of the Torah, I would now do you harm.” Rabbi Chanina said to her: “If it is true that I am so important in Heaven then I command you never to go again where people live.” But she entreated him that he should not entirely drive her out of human habitation and he allowed her two nights every week when she may have power over people (Wednesday and Saturday nights).
Once on a Friday Rabbi Chanina noticed that his daughter was sitting sorrowful and depressed. He asked her, “What happened, my daughter, that you are so sorrowful?” and she replied, “By mistake I filled the Sabbath lamp with vinegar instead of oil.” But Rabbi Chanina comforted her and said, “Why do you worry? God who commanded that oil should burn can also cause vinegar to give light.”
It is related that the vinegar burned all day Saturday and lasted until the Havdalah was lit from it.
When Rabbi Chanina was about to die he raised his hands to God and said: “Dear God, you know that all my life I never made the least use of your beautiful world.”… After his death it was said in his praise that he never uttered a falsehood. He was also the last of the people who despised words and preferred deeds, and with his death there broke the chain of piety.
Of the importance of charity it was later told that he held an opinion differing from that of the other scholars of his generation and he said: “There is no better charity which can save people from Gehenna than the Torah itself.”10)מדרש משלי פּרשה י״א.