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Pirke Avot chapter three, verses eleven through thirteen: Chanina ben Dosa

Today, if I manage it, I will do all three of the sayings of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa in Chapter Three. Chanina was a wonder-worker and mystic, a disciple of Jochanan ben Zakkai. He was Galilean, of course. There seems to be something in his position as geographical outsider; he doesn’t get involved in the Temple politics, the revolt, the Siege of Jerusalem or the destruction of the Temple, nor does he after the destruction join the community at Yavneh. He remains a poor stoneworker in Arav.

Before I get to the saying, let me relate a couple of stories about him, courtesy of Gershom Bader’s Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages and book of Rabbi Nathan. My favorite is about tithing. It seems that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was obsessive about tithing. I mean, obsessive. This is attributed to a meal where the food in front of him suddenly disappeared—poof! like that. He went to his wife to ask if the tithe had been taken from the meal. His wife explained that their larder had been utterly empty, and that a neighbor had kindly provided; she assumed that the neighbor had tithed before sharing. Rabbi Chanina determined that one should not make that assumption, but should tithe from every meal, whether the food is grown in your field, purchased at the market, given as a gift, or received as charity. Having made the pronouncement, his meal miraculously re-appeared on the table, and he took the required tenth from it.

That’s not the story, though. That’s just to set up the story. The story is about his donkey. It seems that once thieves stole Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s donkey. When they got it back to their stable, they put hay in front of it, but the donkey would not eat. They offered tasty tidbits, they offered carrots and lettuce and sugar, but the donkey would not eat. Finally, they decided to return the donkey to the sage, who told them that the donkey also insisted on the tithe being taken before he would eat.

Isn’t that a great story? I need to go into the Avot of Rabbi Nathan and find out if the thieves repented them their sin and studied with the pious stonemason, or whether that just found a less scrupulous ass to steal.

Some of the other stories are less crazy, mostly healing stories and so on. One aspect of those is that he doesn’t heal by laying on of hands; a messenger is sent, sometimes at substantial distance, with a request for healing prayer, and is told (after the praying, of course) that the sick person is now healed, or would soon recover. The other interesting aspect is that the message sometimes comes from other pious and learned sages; he heals the Rabban Gamliel’s son and Jochanan ben Zakkai’s son, as well as the daughter of the pious well-digger.

And then, you know, there’s the scorpion who bites him and dies, and the queen of evil spirits who is terrified of him, and lighting the Sabbath lamp with vinegar. But they aren’t as good as the fastidious donkey. I do like the wood-stretching miracle, obviously a response to a similar one about the son of a carpenter, a generation or so before…when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa stretches the beams so that the poor woman’s house will have a roof, he stretches them so far that they stick out a cubit on either side of the walls. This is all to the glory of the Divine, who of course could have made the beams fit properly, but then who would have known about the miracle?

All right, one last story, and this one isn’t about Chanina ben Dosa at all, but about his wife. You all remember the Chanina was a poor man? Well. Even a poor man’s wife must attempt to keep up appearances. Comes a Friday, all the neighbors are baking bread for the Sabbath, every chimney is smoking away like anything, what does Chanina’s wife do? She heats up the oven and puts in some straw to make a smoke, so that nobody will know that the great sage is without bread on the Sabbath. Now, comes in a neighbor, meddling and nosy, looking for trouble. Chanina’s wife (I wish the text gave names to these women, it is utterly unforgivable on grounds of respect and humanity, but it also makes it very hard to tell the stories) hears the knock, panics and runs upstairs. The neighbor pokes her nose into the kitchen, sniffs at the smoke and opens the oven. And sees… of course, she sees two beautiful, magnificent, immense loaves of challah. Not only are they perfectly formed, but they are just at the moment of being perfectly baked. The neighbor cries out, she says Come quickly! The loaves are ready, and if you don’t come quickly they will burn! At which moment Chanina’s wife comes down the stairs holding the thing, the thing like a flat shovel, you know, that you use for taking bread out of an oven. That thing. I can’t blame the sages for my not knowing what it’s called, I suppose, and it would really make the story run more smoothly if I did. Anyway, she comes downstairs holding that thing, saying Of course! Why else was I upstairs but to get the thing, you know, the implement, this thing, for taking the bread out, whatever it’s called.

I love that story, even if I tell it badly, but I also love the commentary on the story, because of course there is commentary. One rabbi asks how we know the neighbor is so bad? Are we being unfair to her? Perhaps she just came by to wish gut shabbos and smelled smoke? The answer is no, we were correct to say she was a bad woman, for if she were a good woman, why is she not bringing bread of her own to share? Had she come with food, we could say she is misunderstood, but she comes empty-handed, so we know she is up to no good. And what about Chanina’s wife? If she is so pious and so worthy of a miracle, why is it that she lies to her neighbor? She does not lie, is the answer, because her faith is such that she knows that Heaven will provide, so she does in fact go to get the implement. But surely, that raises another question, which is why that implement would plausibly have been kept upstairs anyway? To which the reply is, why not? They certainly weren’t using it to take bread out of the oven, since they had no bread to take out! In fact, it is suggested that the appearance of the bread was only secondary to the miraculous appearance of the implement itself, the one that has a name I don’t know, and which the household did not even own until that day.

The appearance of a needed implement is not unprecedented; there is another story about the miraculous appearance and disappearance of a golden table leg at her request, but I think this note has gone on long enough. In fact, it has gone on so long that YHB is going to put the actual text into a new note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I believe you mean a peel?

I've never actually used one for bread, but I don't have the right kind of oven for one anyway.

We had challah last night and I have some sourdough going in the oven in a few minutes. Mmm, bread.

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