Chanina has recently become a popular girl's name, but it is also a boy's name with a long and interesting history, from ancient Hebrew through medieval Yiddish to modern languages today. It has the same meaning as the name Hannah, and is also spelled Hanina, Haninach and Haninah. In ancient times, the original name was
Chanania or Hananiah.
Chanina means "gracious" in Hebrew. In traditional thinking, Chanina is often translated "God is gracious". Gracious behavior is characterized by charm, good taste and generosity of spirit, especially the sort of kindness and benevolence bestowed by a ruler upon his or her subjects.
An English name of similar religious meaning is Grace (meaning "mercy", as in "by the grace of God"). Chanina is closely related to the Hebrew name Hannah, which has the same meaning and is also spelled Chana or Hana. Due to that connection Chanina is often thought of as a diminutive or nickname of Chana. In fact, Chanina has its own long history as a full and proper name.
Chanina was solely a boy's name until well into the mid-twentieth century. A quick Internet search will reveal examples of Jewish men named Chanina born as far apart as nineteenth century Ukraine and twentieth century New York, including a neighborhood political leader in the current Hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In traditional thought, grace comes from God but men represent and interpret God's will for the home and the community.
Chanina's modern popularity as a girl's name no doubt stems from the influence of Western European languages, in which the "-a" ending implies a female meaning. The choice also reflects the changed status of Jewish women over the past one hundred years; in many cases, they are now leaders of their communities in their own right. There may also be some influence from a relatively recent Western cultural concept of women - with Mary as the archetype - as a source of mercy and understanding, an idea which did not exist in ancient times and is not shared by many other cultures even to this day.
In today's cultural context Chanina has a beautiful sound, and is a worthy name for any gracious lady or gentleman. But the earliest written form of the name most can agree upon appears in I Chronicles 8:24, where a male chief of the tribe of Benjamin appears in one of those endless "begat" lists that only scholars love to parse. That name is Hananiah or Chanania, which has the same Hebrew root and meaning.
Hananiah remained a popular name for generations, and was the name of two important figures during the Babylonian siege and exile: a false prophet who opposed Jeremiah, and one of the boys tortured alongside Daniel by Nebuchadnezzar. (That boy is usually referred to by his Babylonian name, Shadrach). It also appears in the Latin form Ananias as the name of three men of the early Christian period recorded in the New Testament.
It was about that time that the classical form of the name, Chanina, made its first appearance.
Chanina was the name of several pious and charitable men during the first two centuries of the common era. Many leading scholars of the Talmudic academies were named Chanina, and in particular two famous rabbis named Chanina appear again and again in Jewish teachings and folk traditions: Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and Rabbi Chanina ben Tradion, who have come to represent Jewish wisdom, faith and perseverance.
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, a Talmudic sage who lived in the Galilee during the middle of the first century, is known as a miracle worker and a paragon of charity.
The Talmud tells of a time when when a few lost chickens strayed into Rabbi Chanina's yard, or perhaps were left with the rabbi for safekeeping. Regardess of how the chickens arrived, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa tended those birds so well that he ran out of space, so he sold them to buy goats from which he also created a large herd. And so this small farm grew until he had created much more than the value of the original chickens. Yet when the owners of those first chickens finally arrived to claim their property, he gave them all that he had grown and purchased through this work, refusing to take any profit or reward that resulted from his efforts to simply care for the property and livelihood of others.
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa is said to have prayed so purely, without hesitation or doubt, that his prayers would always be answered. He prayed only to heal or help others, never for himself. It is said he was able to heal the sick, and once made vinegar burn instead of oil as the Sabbath light. When men asked that he pray for their ill sons, it was said that the boys' fevers broke exactly at the time Rabbi Chanina prayed for them, even when he was at different location.
Once a Rabban of the Sanhedrin, leader of the highest court and legislative council of the time, marveled aloud at how God responded to Chanina's prayer for the Rabban's son when his own prayers had no effect. His wife asked, "What? Is Chanina greater than you?" The Rabban replied "Of course not, but he is like a servant before the king and I am like a prince before the king." Whatever the Rabban's position in society, only Chanina - a true servant of God - could be connected with God.
Rabbi Chanina ben Tradion lived around the turn of the first and second centuries, during a time of increasing Jewish nationalism and Roman persecution of Jewish beliefs and culture.
One of the "ten martyrs" killed by the Romans during that time, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradion was burned at the stake for teaching the Torah, the scroll that is the foundation of Jewish law, literature and learning. The Romans even bound to his body the Torah scroll from which he was teaching, and burned it along with him.
Rabbi Chanina taught the Torah without fear, and went to his death without fear. Later stories tell of the inspiration Rabbi Chanina ben Tradion's strength of will and sacrifice offered to his wise daughter Bruriah and subsequent generations. It is even said that his Roman executioner was so moved by Rabbi Chanina's holiness that he jumped into the fire himself.
Memories of Strength and Graciousness
Through the following centuries of exile, brutal crusades, expulsions, ghetto living and vicious pogroms, the Jewish people often called upon the example of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradion to give them strength during times of persecution, and the example of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa for the wisdom to offer grace and charity toward others at all times.
Let us all pray we can see beyond our own petty needs, above the blind struggles within and between our communities, and heal the world by following these examples of faith and love that embody the meaning and history of the name Chanina.
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