Vinegar on Fire
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said, “He (Hashem) Who said to oil to kindle will say to vinegar to kindle.”
Our daf relates a number of stories involving the Tana Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and the miracles that occurred on his behalf. Perhaps the best known is the case where he saw his daughter’s sadness just before candle-lighting time on erev Shabbat. He asked her why she was sad. “My oil and vinegar bottles were switched and I accidentally filled my Shabbat lamps with vinegar instead of oil and it’s time to light!” Her father said, “Why are you worried? He Who said to the oil that it should burn can say to the vinegar that it should burn.” A Tana taught the extent of what subsequently transpired: “That lamp burned throughout the entire night and day until they used it for havdalah.”
And here is another story along similar lines that is taught on our daf. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa had a neighbor who was building a house, but the roof beams were not long enough to reach from one wall to the other. She came to Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and said, “I built my house but my roof beams do not reach the walls.” He asked, “What is your name?” She replied, “My name is Ikku.” He said, “If so (translation of “ikku”), may your beams reach your walls.” A Tana taught, “The beams became longer so that that they not only reached the walls but even jutted out a cubit beyond the walls.”
However, despite these and other amazing events, we seem to be taught in another story on our daf that receiving benefit from the result of a miracle is not necessarily desirable. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s wife said to him, “Until when will we continue to suffer this poverty?” He replied, “What can we do?” She said, “Pray for mercy that something will be given to you from Heaven.” He prayed for mercy and there appeared one leg of a golden table. That night, his wife saw in a dream that in the World to Come the righteous will eat at a golden table with three legs, but she will be eating at a table with only two legs. When she told her husband this dream, he asked, “Are you happy that everyone will eat at a complete table and we will eat at a defective one?” She said, “So pray for mercy that the leg of the golden table should be taken from you.”
The commentaries explain the concern of receiving benefit from a miracle here to be that the recipient will be rewarded less in the World to Come as the “price” of receiving a miracle-product in the here-and-now.
Rashi writes a commentary on our daf that seems to account for this issue of not getting benefit from a miracle derivative. He states that although the lamp stayed lit until havdalah, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa did not use it directly for havdalah. Instead, he lit another lamp from it. In addition, Rabbi Chanina said that Hashem could have the vinegar kindle in the same manner as the oil not for his personal gain but only in order to alleviate his daughter’s great distress.
Many other great Torah commentaries address various aspects of these amazing stories of our shared history, commentaries that illuminate the path of understanding Hashem’s ways in a correct light. Of special note, in my opinion, are the commentaries of Rabbi Yaakov Emden (aka Yaavetz, 1697-1776), the ancestor of a treasured personal friend and Torah study partner of my youth. I would also add the commentary of the Ben Yehoyada to the recommended reading list for better understanding our gemara.
In conclusion, I would like to share the commentary of Rav Tzadok HaKohen, as I understand it. For most people, nature is nature and miracles are not natural — they are supernatural. Righteous souls, however, fail to see the difference, at least for the most part. The Chazon Ish, for example, describes in great detail the miraculous nature of the human body in his renowned work called Emunah u’Bitachon. The blessing of Asher Yatzar, which is often colorfully posted above sinks outside our restrooms, reminds us to thank Hashem for the most basic bodily functions essential for life. Do we experience continuous miracles or is it all “just nature”?
Although, of course, the world behaves in what is perceived as following laws of nature, the righteous and wise observers of the Torah see the existence of the Living Creator everywhere. Hashem makes everything seem natural, with noted exceptions such as the splitting of the Red Sea and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. A scientist has words to explain the reason why oil burns. And if water would burn, undoubtedly scientists would find a way to proudly explain that phenomenon as well. But it is all so much simpler. In Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa’s famous words, “He Who said to oil to burn can say to vinegar to burn.” Everything happens because Hashem wills it to be.
- Ta'anit 25a