Rabbi Chanina bar Chama was one of the great Talmudic Sages who belonged to the first generation Amoraim. The Amoraim were the Sages who interpreted the Mishna after it was compiled and edited by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. The first generation Amoraim in Eretz Yisroel included Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, Rav Yochanan, Resh Lakish and others.
Rabbi Chanina was a native of Babylon. When he came to Eretz Yisroel to study under Rabbi Judah HaNassi, he was already a great scholar, and Rabbi Judah showed him considerable respect and friendship. On his part, Rabbi Chanina became quite attached to his teacher. He also learned a great deal from his colleagues and from senior disciples of Rabbi Judah HaNassi, especially from Rabbi Chiya, Rabbi Ishmael bar R'Yosi, and Bar Kappara.
His closest friend was Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. Whenever Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, the head of the Jewish people, had to send a delegation to appear before the Roman governor in Caesaria to plead in behalf of the Jewish people, it was Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Chanina who were chosen to be the emissaries. When they came before the Roman ruler, he used to rise in their honor. Asked by his counselors why he showed honor for the two Jews, the Roman governor replied, "They have the appearance of angels."
Before his death, Rabbi Judah the Prince appointed his older son Rabban Gamliel to succeed him as Nassi (Prince), and his younger son as Dean of the Yeshiva. He also told them that they should seat Rabbi Chanina bar Chama at the top of the front row, as the elder sage at the academy. However, because of his deep modesty, he did not want to occupy that honored seat, and left it to an older sage, Rabbi Efes. Only after Rabbi Efes' death did Rabbi Chanina bar Chama assume the place of senior sage.
Rabbi Chanina did not wish to make the Torah "an axe to dig with." He did not wish to use his knowledge of Torah as a means to obtain a livelihood, or honor and the like. He began to deal in honey, and his business flourished. He became a rich man, and the first thing he did was to build a Torah academy in his town Tzippori entirely from his own money.
He often admonished the people of his own town to encourage them to walk in the way of the Torah. For their part, the people looked for excuses to complain to him and find fault with him. On one occasion, a plague afflicted the town while the street in which Rabbi Chanina lived was not affected. Immediately the people complained that Rabbi Chanina had not prayed for them to save them from the plague. On another occasion, there was a drought in the northern part of the land, where Tzippori was situated, while in the southern part, where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi lived; there was ample rain as soon as Rabbi Yehoshua prayed for it. Again the people of Tzippori blamed Rabbi Chanina for the drought, accusing him of not being concerned enough to pray for them. Rabbi Chanina sent word to his good friend Rabbi Joshua, asking him to come to Tzippori. When he came, he and Rabbi Chanina declared a public fast and prayed hard for rain, but it was to no avail. Then they all understood that no one but themselves were to blame for the water shortage, and they decided to mend their ways.
Rabbi Chanina was a gifted natural healer. He knew many, useful herbs that brought relief from pain and wonderful healing. He became well known as a very good doctor. He was also knowledgeable in natural science and was particularly familiar with the nature of snakes and their poisons.
One of his frequent medical advices was to be careful not to catch a cold, and not to neglect it. He believed that most human's illnesses were due to neglecting to take care of themselves.
Rabbi Chanina was as famous for his extraordinary Torah knowledge as for his good deeds and the inspired way in which he observed the Mitzvos. He received the Shabbos with profound love and dedication, and at the termination of Shabbos he made a special feast - a Melaveh Malkah - to bid farewell to the Shabbos-Queen.
He taught that G‑d's Providence extends to every detail of man's life on earth, and nothing happens without G‑d's knowledge. "No person hurts his little finger, without it having been first ordered from Above," was one of his meaningful sayings. Only one thing entirely depends on a person's will: Yiras-Shomayim, fear of Heaven was another of his famous teachings.
He impressed upon people the importance of always speaking the truth, by declaring that "G‑d's seal is Truth." It is "sealed" in the Torah in the acrostic of the last letters of the first three words of the Torah, spelling the word truth. In the Siddur, which contains many Talmudic passages, we also find the following quotation: "Said Rabbi Elazar in the name of Rabbi Chanina: "Torah scholars increase peace in the world.' "
In his personal life, Rabbi Chanina lived through difficult times. He lost a daughter and also a son, but he accepted it in the proper spirit.
Rabbi Chanina himself reached a very ripe old age. He lived long enough to survive Rabbi Yehuda Nesi'a, a grandson of Rabi Yehuda HaNassi. He was blessed with vigorous good health. At the age of eighty he is reported to have been able to take off his shoes while standing on one foot. Rabbi Chanina said that he was blessed with old age and good health because he was always careful to show his respect for Torah scholars as well as for elderly people even not scholars.
Rabbi Chanina died in Tzippori. Before his death, Rabbi Yochanan (the compiler of Talmud Yerushalmi) went from Tveria (Tiberias) to Tzippori to visit his master, but while on the way news reached him that his Rebbe had died, whereupon he tore his garment in mourning for his great and beloved teacher. So beloved and esteemed was Rabbi Chanina by all Jews in his lifetime that he was called "Rabbi Chanina the Great."