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Jewish Legends

Burning Vinegar

In Taanit 25a, the Gemara tells a number of stories about the miracles associated with Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa (1st Century BCE), a Mishnaic Rabbi who maintained great piety despite extreme poverty.

One of the stories recounts that, on Friday night just after candle lighting, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, seeing that his daughter looks sad, turns to her and says, “My daughter, why are you sad?” Rabbi Chanina’s daughter had accidentally used vinegar, a non-combustible substance, rather than oil, as a fuel for her Shabbat candles. Noticing her mistake only after Shabbat had begun, she realized that soon her candles would go out. Shabbat candles, in their time, were the primary source of light after sundown, so the family’s Shabbat would plunge into darkness.When she explained her mistake, her father replied “My daughter, what is there to worry about? The One who told the oil to burn will tell the vinegar to burn.” One source says that her vinegar candles miraculously lasted all of Shabbat and were then used for Havdalah. 

“By comparing the natural burning of oil to the miraculous burning of vinegar, he highlights the miraculous nature of everything.”

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s assurance to his daughter sheds light upon his perception of the world. By comparing the natural burning of oil to the miraculous burning of vinegar, he highlights the miraculous nature of everything. He points out that the weekly burning of oil for light  is no less miraculous than the supernatural burning of vinegar. The natural process of combustion that illuminates the Shabbat table every week is also God’s work. It is simply a miracle we have learned to take for granted. 

Another noteworthy detail in this story is the catalyst for both the conversation and the miracle — Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s sensitivity to his daughter’s emotions. The story begins with Rabbi Chanina noticing that his daughter is upset. If he had not checked in on his daughter and initiated their dialogue, we have no guarantee that the miracle of burning vinegar would have occurred. By beginning our story directly with that detail, the Gemara seems to be forging a connection between his kindness and God’s assistance; Rabbi Chanina draws down God’s caring into the world through his own

The story of the burning vinegar is a testament to Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s attunement to the emotional state of those around him and his ability to see the miracle in everything. We can learn from him the importance of attuning to the people and miracles that constantly surround us.

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