Praying for rain starts on Monday night

Monday night, as the 7th of Marcheshvan begins, we pray for the first time this year: “Bless this year and all its produce for the good for us, O Hashem our G-d, and grant dew and rain as a blessing on the face of the earth…”

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Rain in Israel (illustration)
Rain in Israel (illustration)

We recited תְּפִלַּת הָגֶּשֶׁם, the Prayer for Rain, the day after Sukkot, on Shmini Atzeret. The same day, we began adding the phrase מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הָגֶּשֶׁם, “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”, in every Amidah (which we will continue to do until Pesach). However, this phrase is not a request for rain; it is, rather, recognition that G-d provides us with the wind and the rain which are necessary for our survival.

In Israel, we begin requesting rain from G-d today, on the 7th of Marcheshvan. In the ninth Brachah of the Amidah of the Evening Service Monday night, as the 7th of Marcheshvan begins, we pray for the first time this year: “Bless this year and all its produce for the good for us, O Hashem our G-d, and grant dew and rain as a blessing on the face of the earth…”

And we will recite this prayer three times a day until Pesach.

This follows the Mishnah:

“On the 3rd of Marcheshvan we pray for rain; Rabban Gamliel says, on the 7th thereon, fifteen days after the Festival [Sukkot] ends, so that the last Jew can reach the River Euphrates” (Ta’anit 1:3).

The Talmud specifies that in this dispute, “the halachah follows Rabban Gamliel” (Ta’anit 10a). Even though the rainy season in Israel should ideally begin immediately after Sukkot, we delay praying for rain to give time for the last Jewish pilgrim who had come to Israel for Sukkot to reach the River Euphrates, so that their journey home should not be made unduly uncomfortable or dangerous by muddy roads and swollen rivers (following Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartinura’s Commentary to the Mishnah ad. loc.).

The Tosafot Yom Tov (commentary to the Mishnah by Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann ben Natan ha-Levi Heller, central and eastern Europe, 1578-1654) adds: “Because sometimes they would tarry a little in Jerusalem, until the entire Festival had finished”.

And then the Talmud notes the exception: “However, in the exile, [we pray for rain] sixty days after the Autumn equinox” (Ta’anit 10a).

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartinura concurs (Commentary to Mishnah Ta’anit 1:3): “All this applies in the Land of Israel; however in the exile, they only begin praying for rain sixty days after the Autumn equinox”. And indeed, this is the halachah in practice (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 19:5).

The Talmud (Ta’anit 10a) explains that they would start praying for rain sixty days after the Autumn equinox because that was the time when Babylon needed its rainy season to begin.

And about other countries whose rainy season does not begin at the same time of the year?

– Rashi (commentary to Ta’anit 10a, s.v. תתאי לא בעו מים), the Ritv”a (Chidushai ha-Ritv”a to Ta’anit 10a, s.v. תניא חנניא אומר), and other commentators explain that the entire exile follows Babylonian practice.

The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechi’el, Germany and Spain, c.1250-1328) tried to change this practice, such that Jews wherever they may be would pray for rain in the season that their host countries would need it. However, great though the Rosh indisputably was, the opposition was so determined that he did not succeed in persuading Jewry to change the ancient practice.

And so until today, Jews outside of Israel continue to pray for rain according to the needs of Iraq. In the southern hemisphere (South Africa and Australia, for example), Jews begin to pray for rain in the middle of summer, because that is when the rainy season begins in Iraq.

And we find another peculiarity: the Autumn equinox varies between September 22nd and 23rd, so sixty days later falls on November 21st or 22nd. Why, then, do Jews throughout the exile begin saying וְתֵן טַל וּמָטָר לִבְרָכָה (“and grant rain and dew as a blessing”) on the evening of the 4th of December (or the 5th of December in the year preceding a civil leap year)?

– Well, this goes back to the Talmudic sage Shmuel, a first-generation Amora, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Amora’im, often called Mar Shmuel. Shmuel determined the solar year at precisely 365¼ days (called the Tekufat Shmuel). In honour of his calibration of the calendar, Shmuel was awarded the honorific title “Yarchina’ah”, “the Month-reckoner” or “the Moon-understander” (Bava Metzi’a 85b).

However, since 365¼ days is about 11 minutes and 15 seconds longer than the actual solar year, the calculation of when the Autumn equinox falls has drifted forward by about one day every 128 years, which is why by now, the halakhically-calculated equinox falls some two weeks after the actual astronomical equinox.

(According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ztz”l in Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:17, Shmuel was fully aware that his calculation was imprecise; however, it was simpler for ordinary people to understand than the more accurate and correspondingly more complex calculation of Rav Adda.)

This encapsulates the difference between prayers in exile and prayers in Israel: The prayer-calendar of exile is calibrated according to a calculation which was known to be inaccurate; the prayer-calendar of Israel keeps in step with the seasons.

The Jews of exile, whether in the USA, Britain, Iran, or Australia, still pray for rain according to the needs of Iraq. One wonders if Saddam Hussein ever felt any gratitude to the American Jewish community for this, or if indeed Iraq’s current President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will ever thank the Jews throughout the world for their prayers.

The Jews of Israel, by contrast, show their concern for and solidarity with the Jews of exile, by delaying their prayer for rain until the last of those Jews who came to the Land of Israel for the Sukkot pilgrimage have reached home in Babylon.

It is no coincidence that the single most central declaration of Judaism, the Shema, includes G-d’s promise that “if you diligently hearken to My mitzvot…then I will grant the rain of your Land in its appropriate season – the first rain and the last rain – so you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14).

This is the direct continuation of the depiction of the Land of Israel, scant weeks before entering it: “The Land to which you are coming to inherit is not like the land of Egypt which you have left, in which you can sow your seed and water it on foot like a vegetable garden. The Land to which you are passing to inherit is a Land of mountains and valleys; you will drink water from the rain of Heaven. It is a Land which Hashem your G-d constantly looks out for; Hashem your G-d’s eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).

What, then, is the difference between Egypt and Israel? What is the very essence of the Land of Israel?

The S’forno (Rabbi Ovadiah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) writes, sweetly and simply, that Egypt “has no need for rains” (commentary to verse 10).

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechi’el Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, Romania, France, and Ukraine, 1809-1879) writes: “The Land of Israel is ‘a Land of mountains and valleys’, so it is impossible to drink water from a river which irrigates by overflowing, because that only happens in flat countries. So you will have to ‘drink water from the rain of heaven’ – and the rain depends upon Divine providence and G-d’s good will” (commentary to verse 11).

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) picks up on the continuity, noting that immediately after “…from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” the Torah continues “if you diligently hearken to My mitzvot…”, and explains: “This implies that if you hearken until the end of the year, then He will grant the rains in their appropriate seasons and in the places where they are needed; if the people are righteous at the beginning of the year and G-d decreed rain, but later they begin to sin, then the rains will fall at uncomfortable times and in the deserts” (commentary to verse 12, loosely based on the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17b).

The S’forno comments on this verse: “‘a Land which Hashem your G-d constantly looks out for’ – He watches over the deeds of its inhabitants, determining whether or not they are worthy of rain”.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) explains: “‘you will drink water from the rain of heaven’ – and not from any other source. And Hashem has to constantly look out for its rain because it is a very thirsty Land, needing water throughout the year. And if you transgress G-d’s will and He will not look out for it with rains of blessing, then it is a very bad Land which ‘cannot be sown and which does not sprout, nor does any herb grow’ on its mountains” (commentary to Deuteronomy 11:10).

The very essence of the Land of Israel is that it is dependent upon G-d’s constant care. And the most immediately obvious expression of that care is the rain that He grants (or withholds) from the Land. As the Talmud (Bava Kama 17a, Avodah Zarah 5b et al.) and the Midrash (Eliyahu Zuta 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 437 et al.) tell us, “there is no water other than Torah”.

Just as we depend on water for our very existence, so too we depend upon Torah for our very existence. But this only becomes clear in the Land of Israel, where G-d’s providence and supervision are clear.

And how revealing it is that throughout exile, Jews pray for rain according to a calendar which is no longer accurate and no longer relevant, for the needs of a country in which there are no longer any Jews – while in Israel, and only in Israel, we pray for rain according to the calendar which is precise, and according to the needs of the Land of Israel, while still showing consideration for Jews who came on pilgrimage from other lands.