Ta’anit 2a, 2b 10a
The keys to rain, work, resurrection and birth are in the hands of God, not man.
Indeed, as the Tur points out, the Hebrew word for key, mafte’ach, stands for matar, rain, parnasah, sustenance, techiyat hameitim, resurrection, and chaya, childbirth. Rain and parnasah is one and the same thing, for the world’s sustenance is provided through rain. On Shemini Atzeret God decides how successful we will be in terms of our livelihood, parnasah, in the coming year and how much rain will fall. Poverty is something that will always remain with us. The only question is who will be poor in the coming year. Of course, we must try our hardest to make a living, but ultimately it is not up to us. It is His decision. So what can we do to influence the Boss?
We can pray for rain. In the Musaf prayer on Shemini Atzeret we mention God’s powers as a rainmaker by reciting, in the blessing of resurrection, the words Mashiv Haru’ach Umorid Hageshem, God makes the wind blow and the rain come down. This is because rain, like techiyat hametim, has the power to revive. Seeds planted in the earth will come to life like the dead themselves.
The prayer of Mashiv Haru’ach Umorid Hageshem mentions God’s rainmaking powers, but it is not an immediate request for rain. The prayer of V’ten Tal Umatar, give us dew and rain, inserted in the bracha of Bareich Aleinu in the Amidah, however, is a request for immediate rain. In Israel one begins to recite the V’ten Tal Umatar request for rain 15 days following Shemini Atzeret, so that pilgrims who visited Jerusalem for Sukkot could reach home before the rain swelled the rivers and made them impassable. Low lying lands, like Babylonia, needed rain later in the year and therefore residents of such lands recite V’ten Tal Umatar 60 days following the equinox, which is on the fifth of December.
Because rain during the first seven days of Sukkot is considered divine rejection of the mitzvah of sukkah, we postpone the prayers for rain until Shemini Atzeret, when the Torah no longer commands us to sit in the sukkah. The Aruch Hashulchan points out that geshem is the rain in the sky whereas matar is the rain on the ground. The prayers of Mashiv Haruach and V’ten Tal Umatar are recited in the Amidah until the Musaf prayer on the first day of Pesach, which is spring-time when rain is no longer required.
Of course, God ultimately decides whether and when the rain and the parnasah will come and there is no guarantee that our request for timely, plentiful and beneficial rain will be granted. There may be no rain, or not enough rain to fill the cisterns and wells, or there may be too much rain with damaging effects. But we must pray for it and we must apply as much pressure on God as possible. After all, we are placed on this earth to perform His mitzvot and we have the right to ask for the tools of the trade. And so the Talmud tells us that if rain does not fall by the 17th day of the month of Marcheshvan, that is 10 days after it is needed in Israel, the rabbis of old declared public fasts that escalated in duration, frequency and severity.
If the Jewish month of Adar (March) arrived, and the rains still did not come, then the Jews would resort to a special form of blackmail. They would send an emissary to request rain that God could not refuse. Such an emissary was Choni Hame’agel, Choni the circle maker, who was known for his extreme piety and understanding of the Torah. Choni would draw a circle around him and stand in the middle of it praying for rain, warning God that he would not step out until the rains came. When they came in scattered drops, he urged God for more. When the sky opened up with torrential rains, he asked God for less, until it was just right. Though Choni saved the people, Shimon Ben Shetach criticized him for forcing God’s hand. “Were you not Choni, I would pronounce a ban on you. But what shall I do, for you misbehave toward God and yet he does what you want.”
Every generation has a Choni that God will not turn down, but we don’t always know who that person is. Rav, the great Amorah, visited a community that was afflicted with drought. He declared a fast and prayed for rain, but none came. Then an old Jew stood up, approached the prayer stand and prayed for rain. Rain came in an instant. “What do you do that your prayers are answered so quickly?” asked Rav. “I am a teacher of small children and I teach the children of the poor as well as the rich. I take nothing from those who cannot afford to pay me,” replied the old man.
Rabbi Beroka once met Elijah the prophet in the marketplace of Bei Lefet. “Is there anyone here who has a place in the world to come?” Rabbi Beroka asked Elijah. “Yes,” said Elijah, “that man going by wearing black shoes and no tzitzit.” Rabbi Beroka ran after the man. “What do you do?” he asked. “I am a jail guard,” replied the man. “I make sure that no harm befalls the young girls who are incarcerated.” “Why do you not wear tzitzit?” asked Rabbi Beroka. “Because I move incognito among gentiles and whenever I overhear a decree that is bad for the Jews, I report back to the rabbis.”
According to the halacha, an individual may not pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret. One must wait for the shaliach tzibur, the reader, to engage the entire community in the prayer for rain. Perhaps the reason for this is because nobody knows who the Choni among us is, whose prayers will be listened to. So we all pray together in the hope that somebody, so close to God that He cannot refuse, will save us all. Such people may go unrecognized, but they seem to emerge from the ranks of those who have compassion and are God’s partners in sharing limited resources with others.
Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerai’m” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X or by emailing Raphael at [email protected]