Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chanina Ben Dosa: Jewish Shaman

Occasionally, the Talmud will include stories about particularly pious or inspired individuals who never attain a title, such as rav, abba, or chacham. One such charismatic layman was the miracle worker Chanina (or Hanina) ben Dosa.

[Bronze figurine of a man and his donkey from the Ancient Near East]

I bring him up in response to a question asked last post about a Talmudic figure who lived off of vinegar. Chanina may be the person the reader is thinking of, but let me expound for a while.

Though a person of no particular social standing -- indeed, he and his family were grindingly poor -- many recognized Chanina's spiritual genius. His primary gift was as a wondrous rainmaker. When the heavens refused to rain in order to ease his way while on the road, Ben Dosa prayed:

Master of the universe, shall all the world be grieved while Hanina enjoys his comfort? Thereupon copious showers descended. With reference to his rain-governing powers it was said, "Beside Ben Dosa's prayers those of the high priest himself are of no avail" (Ta'anit, 24b).

The contrast between his impoverished status on earth and his exalted reputation in heaven was the subject of many comments. When someone was shocked that a prominent rabbi's prayer for rain was ignored by heaven, while Ben Dosa's prayers were heeded, this exchanged was recorded:

"Is Hanina greater than you?" To this he replied, "There is this difference between us: he is like the body-servant of a king, having at all times free access to the august presence, without even having to await permission to reach his ears; while I, like a lord before a king, must await an opportune moment" (Berachot 34b).

Like people often do today, his contemporaries found it difficult to look past a humble and shabby outward appearance.

He explained his rain-making talents in terms of a capacity for kavvanah (focused intention) to some skeptical agents who approached him:

I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet; but experience has taught me that whenever my prayer flows freely it is granted; otherwise, it is rejected." The messengers thereupon noted down Hanina's declaration, and the exact time when it was made; on reaching the patriarch's residence they found that Hanina had spoken truly (ibid., Yerushalmi Berachot, 9d).

In another water-related story, a spring miraculously appeared under his feet, cleansing the wound of a poisonous lizard (Yerushalmi Berachot 9a).

More on point with the question, one Shabbat when his daughter accidentally filled the lamp with vinegar instead of oil, and then told him of her mistake, he remarked, "He who given oil with the power of burning may give vinegar the same power." The lamp burned on throughout the whole of the next day (Ta'anit, 25a).

Inspired by his example, even his donkey was pious, refusing to eat grain that had not been tithed (Avot of Rabbi Nathan 8:8)

To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Post a Comment

<< Home