Miracles of Rav Chanina ben Dosa
Rabbi Reuven Mann & Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Certain "miraculous" events surrounding Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa are recorded in Talmud Taanis, pages 24b-25a.
The Miracle of the Bread
The first story recounts a miracle regarding his wife. As the story goes, she would, each Friday evening before Shabbos, place twigs into her oven, as she was embarrassed that she had nothing to cook, as all others did. These twigs when burning, gave the appearance that she too in fact had provisions, as they would generate smoke as do regular foodstuffs. One bad neighbor approached her home on a given Friday evening, at which, Rabbi Chanina's wife avoided confrontation and embarrassment, and escaped from that room. The neighbor upon entrance to her home saw that Rabbi Chanina's wife's oven was in fact full of challas (bread), and the kneading trough, full of kneaded loaves. This neighbor called to Rabbi Chanina's wife, "you, you, come with a shovel, as your loaves will be burnt." Rabbi Chanina's wife responded, "I went to get the shovel." (A Tanna recorded that she did, as she was accustomed to miracles.)
How are we to understand this story? Did an actual "miracle" occur for Rabbi Chanina's wife? And if so, why only on this Friday evening, at that?
A Rabbi once asked, "Why, when Joseph was sold to a caravan for slavery, did Divine Providence benefit Joseph, and orchestrate that this specific caravan carry pleasant fragrances, instead of the normal, putrid cargo?(Rashi). The Rabbi suggested that as Joseph was subject to many humiliating events; his siblings' oppressions, being cast into a pit, and sold by his very brothers, he would most assuredly approximate his breaking point sooner than later. God, Who knows man's frailties, saw that Joseph would break when being bought by a caravan and thrown into a cart full of putrid cargo. Therefore God devised that this specific caravan carry pleasant spices. This would prevent Joseph from the moment of breaking, and conversely, permeate him with a sense of reprieve, just enough for this Tzaddik to regroup, and return him to his senses. God knows each person's breaking point, and with Joseph, God desired that such a perfect soul should not succumb to his weaknesses, but be strengthened by something as simple, as these pleasant scents. This was a gracious act of God's mercy, that He watches sternly over his righteous ones.
We might apply this same rule in our case. God knows what a person can and cannot handle. He saw that Rabbi Chanina's wife could not face such humiliation - this was her breaking point. This explains why she escaped confrontation from a neighbor, who by reputation, was vicious. (Perhaps this is why this neighbor decided a visit at the very time she knew Rabbi Chanina's wife would be found empty handed - on Friday eve.) God, however, wishes that certain individuals worthy of His intervention, be saved from devastating experiences. God therefore orchestrated some plan that bread would be found, and Rabbi Chanina's wife would save face.
"Miracle" in this case does not necessarily mean that bread was created from nought. "Harbeh shluchim l'Makom", "God has many messengers." We cannot say how the bread arrived, but we also should not say that this bread was created out of thin air. God created "matter from nothingness" only once. What can be said is that God watches out for certain people. Why? Because their righteous actions have demonstrated a desire to follow God. As such, God intervenes somehow, so they may retain a sense of self, enabling their continued existence suitable for His worship as they have expressed previously.
As a rule, we should always suggest the minimum deviation of natural laws - even if an account mentions "miracles". We must not jump excitedly at such stories and suggest "creation from nothingness" is implied, if a more plausible explanation presents itself.
Ours is a study of God's natural laws, as this is God's design of the world. God wishes we approach Him with intelligence, and this demands an analysis of all areas, especially emotionally driven accounts. Had the Rabbis writing these stories thought miracles here are to be taken literally, and in a "magical" sense, they would have simply written that "she threw twigs into her oven and they became bread." All the extra material, i.e., that is was Friday evening, that she had a bad neighbor, that she was embarrassed, etc., would be superfluous for a story about a genuine miracle. But as we see the Rabbis writing such a detailed account, there is much more they desire we investigate, as opposed to childlike wonderment, as if gasping at a magician.
The Miracle of the Vinegar
A second story records a Friday eve before shabbos, where Rabbi Chanina asked his daughter why she appeared sad. She responded that she mixed her oil and vinegar canisters, and accidentally poured vinegar into to lamp, thereby extinguishing their only flame.(Rashi) Rabbi Chanina responded to her, "Why should this matter? The One who said oil should ignite, can say that vinegar should ignite." The Talmud records that in fact, the lamp did ignite, and remained lit through shabbos, until Saturday evening.
What are we to learn from this story? We know the rule, "Do not rely on miracles". No body did so here, but Rabbi Chanina suggested that the vinegar could in fact light, just as oil. What was he saying? In fact, we are supposed to act in just the opposite manner. We are to adhere to natural law. This is the system through which we learn of God's marvels in creation. By the study of natural law, we understand how God wishes the universe to operate. God designed nature and permeated it with His knowledge, "Milo kol haaretz k'vodo", "the entire Earth is filled with His Glory." Suspension of natural law - a miracle - prevents man from studying the very knowledge God instilled in the universe, for the purpose of being analyzed. Rabbi Chanina's response is questionable. What was he saying to his daughter?
Another story from Prophets elucidates the concept: When Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah were about to be cast into the furnace for not obeying Nevuchadnetzar's command of bowing to his idol, they said, "Our God can save us, and even if He does not, we will not obey you." These men were miraculously saved. But what was their position? It seems they straddled two possibilities.
Abraham was surprised God would alter nature to give him a son in his old age. Moses, the greatest man ever, was praised for his unsurpassed level of humility. "I have grown small from all your kindness", was stated by Jacob when in pursuit by his twin Esav. He prayed to God for salvation, and did not expect miracles. In all these cases, these great individuals embraced reality. These men did not rely on miracles, as no great man assumes his own merit to be so worthy of a change in natural law by God. Far be it. But, simultaneously, and not a contradiction, these men knew that nature is not an absolute. God designed nature, He controls it, and He changes it at will. These men were not dependent upon miracles, nor of nature. However, on Earth, there is either nature, or the suspension of nature, i.e., miracles. So to which reality did they subscribe?
There is one other system that we can hold as truly absolute and unchangng; God's will. "I am God, I do not change".(Malachi) This is the correct philosophy. Both nature and Divine Intervention were equal realities, but man knows not which will occur. He does not place himself initially in danger, relying on a miracle, but when he finds himself subject to events, he knows either may occur. Both are equally tenable. Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah said this, and so did Rabbi Chanina. The latter expressed this sentiment to his daughter, that she should not be anguished over extinguishing the only flame in their home, unable to relight it as shabbos had approached. Rabbi Chanina was instructing his daughter that God's will is the only 'absolute' truth, and what you must keep focused on. He was not trying to placate her regarding the light. He detected immediately where her concern came from, she felt natural law was absolute. His response, "Why should this matter? The One who said oil should ignite, can say that vinegar should ignite". He meant to say, "Don't fret over that which is not the true will of God. You do not know whether he desires the vinegar to follow nature, or Divine Providence."
"The One Who said oil should ignite, can say that vinegar should ignite" means just this, that God's will is the one reality. "If He wishes, vinegar can ignite" means that "God's wishes" is what one must concern himself with. And this is clearly expressed in His Torah, which will never change.
What is true reality, nature or miracles? Neither is absolute. God's will alone is absolute reality.