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The Prayer for Rain in Birkat HaShanim

Part II

This week I am continuing my summary of an article by Arnold and Daniel Lasker: “The Jewish Prayer for Rain in the Post-Talmudic Diaspora,” AJS Review (Fall 1984).

Just to review, our issue is the starting date for the prayer for rain in Birkat HaShanim. Last week we mentioned that the Talmud only discusses the starting date for Israel, the seventh of Marcheshvan, and for Babylonia, the 60th day after the equinox.

But what happened after the period of the Talmud, when major sections of Jewry began to live elsewhere, with conditions that were different from Israel and Babylonia? Should each locale pick its own starting date? That made sense logically but would fragment world Jewry.

The prevailing view among the Rishonim in Europe was to follow the paradigm for Babylonia. (But perhaps the first settlers in these areas came from Babylonia and there was no initial halachic thought process.)

I mentioned that Rambam was one authority who took the position that each community could make the request at the time that is fit for rain in its locale. He took this position in his commentary on the Mishnah (Tan. 1:3) and called any other approach “sheker.” But a few years later he did not advocate this approach in his Mishneh Torah. See Tefillah 2:16-17.

Like Rambam’s early view, Rosh was another who advocated the approach that a region can choose to recite the rain prayer in the time period that it needs. He wrote about this at length in a responsum written due to a drought in Spain in 1313.

In this responsum, Rosh described his lifetime of efforts on this issue. Rosh lived approximately the first 50 years of his life in Germany. There he felt that rain was necessary from the middle of Tishrei to Shavuot and urged his fellow German Jews to pray for rain in Birkat Ha-Shanim between the seventh of Marcheshvan and Shavuot. He took the position that the Nineveh precedent described in the Talmud (that I discussed last week) did not apply because Nineveh was only a city, while Germany was a country. Since the entire country needed rain at a time other than the traditional diaspora period, he took the position that the Jews there were within their rights to incorporate the prayer into Birkat HaShanim at the time they needed it. But the Jews in Germany refused to change their custom.

Rosh wrote further that in 1303 he passed through Provence (on his way to his new community in Spain). There he was pleased to learn that the Jews in Montpellier began their Birkat HaShanim rain prayer on the seventh of Marcheshvan. When he was told that this region needed rain even after Passover, he urged them to extend their recital period. Their response was the same as that of the Jews of Germany. His logic was sound, but they felt obligated to follow their traditional custom.

Then Rosh reached Spain. He saw that the need for rain there was even greater than in Germany or Provence. He mentioned to his colleagues in Spain that they ought to ask for rain through Shavuot, but he did not make a public issue of it in his early years there. But then the drought of 1313 came. Rosh saw that the Jews in Spain were even fasting for rain. He thought this would be a good time to bring about the change he wanted. If he could convince Spanish Jewry to extend the prayer deadline this year, they would hopefully continue their extension in the following years. He argued to them that Rambam would permit an entire country to recite the prayer in Birkat HaShanim in the period it needed rain.

But the Jews of Spain refused to change their custom. The Rosh lost his battle in three separate regions! Logic was not enough to change practices that were deeply rooted. Rosh also finally agreed that the need for uniformity is as important a principle on which to base halacha as are logic and a correct interpretation of texts. Therefore Rosh yielded. Even his son, the Tur, ruled that the diaspora prayer for rain in Birkat HaShanim should span only the traditional period: starting 60 days from the equinox and continuing up to Passover. (See OC 117).

(Even though the Rosh’s opinion is not followed, his opinion still had some impact on halacha in the case of individuals who erred. For example, if someone in the diaspora erroneously inserts the prayer for rain in the summer in a region that does need rain, he can be viewed as having fulfilled his obligation. See OC 117:2 and the various biur Halacha there. See further n. 51 in the Lasker article.)

In the 16th century, R. Yosef Caro codified his position. He wrote that the period for the rain request in the diaspora begins on the 60th day after the autumnal equinox and continues only until just before Pesach. Then he added: “Individuals who need rain in the summer can ask for rain but only in Shomea Tefillah; even large cities like Nineveh, or entire countries like Sefarad or Germany, are only considered like individuals.” (See also his earlier comments in his Beit Yosef and Kesef Mishneh.)

This resolved matters for a while, but the issue arose again when Jews started to move to the Southern Hemisphere. There the seasons are opposite from what they are in the Northern Hemisphere.

Jewish immigrants from the Netherlands established a shul in Brazil in 1637, the first shul in the Americas. Determining when to recite the prayer for rain was one of their first ritual problems. They sent their inquiry to R. Hayyim Shabbetai of Salonika. (This seems to have been the first halachic question to come from the New World!) In their question, they advised that they needed rain from Nisan to Tishrei, and that in the other months rain would be harmful to them. R. Shabbetai decided that he did not want them to pray for rain when it would be harmful to them. Therefore, he concluded that they should not pray for rain in Birkat HaShanim at any time of the year. In the months they needed rain, they should pray for it in Shomea Tefillah. (See also Eshel Avraham, OC 117.)

In the early 20th century, the Southern Hemisphere question was posed again by the Jews of Argentina. A number of inquiries were addressed by various groups to different authorities. Some endorsed R. Shabbetai’s view. Others maintained that the standard diaspora practice should be followed, despite the different climatic conditions. The question has also been relevant in Australia and the Laskers discuss what happened there.

P.S. A more recent article on our subject (in Hebrew) just came out in the online journal Oqimta, vol. 8.

***

The basic halacha is that if someone in the diaspora erroneously inserts the prayer for rain in the summer in a region that does not need rain, he must repeat his Amidah without the insertion. This is because if the original prayer would be answered, God will send rain and it will be the wrong time. We see from here the seriousness with which our Sages treated our prayers and we should guide ourselves accordingly.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Rosh had mentioned that he wanted to make the change in ritual in the year of the drought, hoping that a change made then could persist. We all wonder how many of the changes that we made last year in our services will persist.

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