Talmudic Metaphors

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Talmudic quote:

Once on a Friday eve, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa noticed that his daughter was sad and he said to her, “My daughter, why are you sad?” She replied, “My oil can got mixed up with my vinegar can and I kindled of it the Sabbath light.” He said to her, “My daughter, why should this trouble you? He who had commanded the oil to burn can also command the vinegar to burn.” A Tanna taught, “The light con­tinued to burn the whole day until they took of it light for the Havdala (Taanis 25a).”

A wise Rabbi once said:  

To paraphrase Shmuel Hanagid(1), the value of aggadah (allegory) is found only in the gems of wisdom one derives from it. If one derives nonsense, it has no value. Very few people are capable of “diving into the deep water and coming up with pearls [Ramban metaphor].” Other individuals have no business delving into aggadah. They would do better refraining from trying to interpret that which is beyond them, “B’mufrosh mimcha al tidrosh; What is distant from you, do not offer an explanation.” Such people cannot discern between something literal or metaphorical.

Bearing this in mind, how might we explain this Talmudic portion? As the Rabbis wrote in metaphor, we must first detect their subtle clues, distinguishing literal elements from metaphor. For example, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter actually erred and switched one can with another. Also literal was her anxiety, as well as her father’s response. But vinegar burning appears metaphoric, as does the duration of the light. Let us now line up our questions.

The Riddles

During daylight, a candle is useless. Therefore, of what significance is it that the light burned “the whole day?” 

What is the meaning of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s response? 

Why was his response necessary in order that the vinegar ignite? 

If Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was worthy and this was a literal miracle, could God not ignite it the vinegar even without his reply to his daughter? 

Of what significance is it that the vinegar burned until they used it to light the havdala candle?

A Solution

As candlelight does not function during daylight, it appears the “light” burning throughout the day refers to another type of illumination. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter was troubled. But this was because she focused on her specific situation of the darkness that would set in, now that vinegar cannot light. He father intended to console her. What was his response? He taught her in other words, “Daughter, Although our specific circumstances will be inconvenienced without light, nonetheless, we must appreciate God’s creations: He designed certain materials to ignite so as to assist man by providing light at night.” Focussing on the larger picture, that God designed the world with this benefit, we are less disturbed at our subjective darkness, and grow appreciative for general laws of nature. We enjoy many benefits of God’s world, including substances that burn: “It could be oil, it could be vinegar.” The focus should be that something does in fact give man light, not that I have darkness for a brief period. It may be said of such people who have this proper perspective, “They enjoyed the light of that lesson the whole day!” Due to this perspective which must come first, one can then enjoy the lesson. Thus, the metaphor is scripted that the vinegar burned only after Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa taught his daughter this perspective.

There was no vinegar burning. That “light” was the “appreciation” of God’s goodness that man can enjoy light. The recognition of God’s design of substances that ignite, engenders an appreciation, a “light,” that one enjoys even during the day. For it was not any literal light they enjoyed, but the institution of flammable substances that God created to help man. 

What is meant by “the light con­tinued to burn the whole day until they took of it light for the Havdala?” Once darkness set in on Saturday night, the appreciation of the havdala light took on new meaning. No longer did Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter appreciate the mere light burning before her. Now she viewed it in general terms. She appreciated light not due to her subjective momentary benefit, but as representing God’s world where He enables substances to ignite and help man. They did not literally take a burning vinegar lamp and light the havdala candle, for the vinegar never literally ignited. What in fact occurred was that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter applied this lesson to the havdala candle. She transformed from a person who focussed on her subjective circumstances, to one who views the greater good. This is termed as “lighting the havdala candle from the vinegar.”  That is, she illuminated her havdala candle with the new meaning she gained form her father’s lesson of the vinegar. Viewing the havdala candle that Saturday night, for the first time, she did not simply enjoy the light, but rather, she appreciated the Creator who benefits man with light. What specific substance that ignites (oil or vinegar) was irrelevant. 


A second interpretation presented itself to me and perhaps fits Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s words better. “He who had commanded the oil to burn can also command the vinegar to burn” mean that God can do all. Meaning, if this was an urgent matter, God would assist us. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa intended to reduce the gravity his daughter projected onto a small inconvenience of darkness for that one night. In other words, “Daughter, had we experienced a dire need, we know we can rely on God.”
However, the first interpretation above better fits the Tanna’s words, “The light con­tinued to burn the whole day until they took of it light for the Havdala.”

(1) Mavo HaTalmud (Intro to the Talmud) end of Talmud Brachos