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The Prayer for Rain in the Amidah, Part I

Mishnah Taanit 1:3 discusses when the Jewish community in Israel should begin to pray for rain in Birkat HaShanim. There are two views stated, both in Marcheshvan.

But what about the diaspora? What is their starting date for this prayer? The Mishnah (a work from the Land of Israel) does not record one. One sage in the Talmud stated that the Jews in the golah (=Babylonia) begin to pray for rain on the 60th day after the tekufah (=equinox), and the halacha is recorded as following this opinion. See Taanit 10a. (The different date is obviously due to different conditions in Babylonia.)

(How this date in November evolved into what we do in this century, Dec. 4, is a separate topic. It is partially explained by the dropping of 10 days from the calendar in 1582. The day after Thursday, Oct. 4 was declared to be Friday, Oct. 15.)

In the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and even in the Geonic period, perhaps 90% of world Jewry lived in Israel or Babylonia. But what happened when major sections of Jewry began to live elsewhere, with conditions that were different from Israel and Babylonia? Should the region’s own condition determine when the community should pray for rain? This became a major issue. Do we really want each community to recite the prayer in a season that they see fit? Or should the halacha take the position that Israel and Babylonia are the two paradigms and every other community must pick one or the other? Or perhaps Babylonia should be the paradigm for the entire diaspora, no matter how opposite the region’s own climate is?

A weak basis for the argument that all diasporas should follow the Babylonia paradigm is that the Talmud had used the term “golah” for Babylonia. But almost certainly, the term “golah” in that passage was not meant in its broad sense.

In America today we start our prayer for rain on the day that our ancestors in Babylonia would have started it, despite whatever differences in agricultural conditions exist between the two regions.

An article by Arnold and Daniel Lasker discusses all these issues, and my discussion for the rest of this column is based on their article “The Jewish Prayer for Rain in the Post-Talmudic Diaspora,” AJS Review (Fall 1984).

Already in the Talmud (Tan. 14b) there is a story about “Bnei Ninveh” (in Assyria, north of Bavel) who asked R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi (200 C.E.) what to do, as they needed rain in the summer (i.e., earlier than Marcheshvan). He responded that they were not considered a “rabim” and in the summer they should only recite their rain prayer in Shomea Tefillah. The Talmud then records views of the tanna R. Yehudah and of the amora R. Nachman who would have allowed “Bnei Ninveh” to recite their rain prayer in Birkat HaShanim in the summer. But the Talmud concludes that the halacha follows R. Sheshet who disagreed with R. Nachman. (The Jerusalem Talmud has a slightly different version of this story. See Tan. 1:1 and Ber. 5:2. It has also been argued that the locale involved was not Ninveh, but Nawe, in Jordan.)

At the time of the Talmud there were Jewish communities in places such as Rome and Alexandria, but the Talmud does not record their rain prayer practice.

In the post-Talmudic period we have evidence for the question arising in late Geonic times among the Jews in Tunisia. (Tunisia is in Africa, bordered on its west by Algeria and on its east by Libya.) It seems that they followed the custom of the Land of Israel: 7th of Marcheshvan. (But the Laskers admit that their evidence here is based on unreliable readings.)

Starting in the 11th century, accurate records of rabbinic decisions have been preserved. Numerous sources from the 11th to 14th centuries record that the Jews in Europe (i.e., France, Germany, Italy and Spain) followed the Babylonian paradigm. The only exception seems to have been Provence (southern France). Most of the sources from Provence state that they followed the Israel paradigm: 7th of Marcheshvan. See, e.g., Meiri, Beit HaBechirah, Taanit, p. 34. Meiri writes that while it is true that in general Babylonian customs are followed in his region, an exception has to be made if the nature of the land is different and needs rain earlier.

Note also that there is a Rashi at Taanit 10a that records that in his area the Babylonian paradigm is followed. But A. Grossman points out (Rashi, p. 135) that what is printed here is not Rashi. Rather, the commentary on Taanit labeled as “Rashi” was authored in the community of Mainz, Germany.

The Laskers point out that we do not know the origins of all these European practices. Were the practices justified by some halachic thinking? Or do these practices merely reflect the origins of the first Jewish settlers in each region?

In Rambam, however, we have clear (but contradictory!) discussions. In his commentary on Mishnah Taanit 1:3, he writes that any place with a climate similar to Israel should follow what is in the Mishnah. Everywhere else they should make the request in Birkat HaShanim “at the time that is fit for rain in that locale.” He calls any other approach “sheker.” He concludes that his approach is “nachon u-barur.” (I am following R. Kafach’s translation from the Arabic.)

Yet a few years later in his Mishneh Torah (Tefillah 2:16-17), he writes differently. First he sets up two categories: 1) Israel, and 2) Babylonia, Syria, Egypt and places that are near them and similar to them. (I believe he means “or similar to them.” Otherwise he has not given any guidance for Europe.) He instructs all the latter to follow the Babylonian date. Then he adds: “Places that need rain in the summer, such as the faraway sea islands, should ask for rain in Shomea Tefillah when they need it.” He has not permitted each region to use Birkat HaShanim to ask for rain in the time it needs it.

Aside from Rambam’s view in his commentary on the Mishnah, another authority who strongly argued for the regional approach was Rosh. We will discuss this next week, and we will address what happened later when there began to be Jewish communities in the southern hemisphere, where the weather is the opposite of what it is in the northern hemisphere.

For Ashkenazim using the ArtScroll, the difference in the nusach is only four words versus two words. But there have been many variations in the nusach. In the siddur of R. Saadiah, there were two completely different nusachs (compare p. 18 with p. 21). Similar is Rambam (p. 151, compare the middle of the page with the bottom of the page). For more versions, see B.S. Jacobson, The Weekday Siddur, pp. 191-193 and I. Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, p. 39 (Eng. Edition). (There is one nusach that has “ve-ten tal li-verachah” in the summer, and only adds one word in the winter: “u-matar”!)

As we see how strenuously the proper time for this prayer has been debated for centuries, we see how seriously our tradition has always taken its effectiveness.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. There is a famous joke among modern Ashkenazim that on the evening of Dec. 4, the “Yekke” said to his wife on his way to Maariv: “I will be home late tonight!”

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