Ask the Rabbi: A time for rain

Babylonian Jews began requesting rain on the 60th day of the fall equinox, which, as Rashi explains, marked the beginning of their rainy season.

rain boots 88 (photo credit: )
rain boots 88
(photo credit: )
Q I'm curious about the upcoming seasonal changes in the Amida prayer. 1) In Israel we start adding prayers for rain to the Amida two weeks after Succot. This week I will be traveling to Canada and Brazil, where they don't pray for rain until December 5. How should I pray? And why in Israel do we use an earlier date, while in other countries - with entirely different climates - they begin praying at the same time? 2) Also, I noticed that in the special prayer for Hanukka, Al Hanissim, we only mention the war victory, but not the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. Why not? A The Amida contains two different types of prayer for rain. The first, mashiv haru'ah umorid hageshem ("He makes the wind blow and the rain fall"), exalts God for his power to provide rain, and is therefore included in the second blessing that praises God's might. All around the world, Jews recite morid hageshem from Succot until Pessah, which, more or less, is the rainy season in Israel. We specifically highlight the Israeli climate since the transition from our dry summers to (hopefully) wet winters best demonstrates God's might in controlling rain (Aruch Hashulhan O.C. 114:3). The second rain prayer, veten tal umatar levracha ("Grant dew and rain as a blessing"), is a plea for God to provide the essential sustenance of rain, and was added to the ninth blessing that requests livelihood (Brachot 33a). The sages in Israel delayed reciting this petition until 15 days after Succot out of consideration for pilgrims returning to Babylonia following the festival (Ta'anit 10a). While some medieval authorities suggested that after the Temple's destruction, we should insert this prayer immediately after Succot, the majority decided to maintain the original date of the seventh of Marheshvan. Babylonian Jews began requesting rain on the 60th day of the fall equinox, which, as Rashi explains, marked the beginning of their rainy season. In the Gregorian calendar, this date falls out on either December 4, or in years preceding a civil leap year, December 5. This law thus represents a unique case in which some places mark the civil calendar date, while others use the Jewish calendar (great trivia question!). Although Rashi lived in northern France, whose climate greatly differs from Babylonia, he asserted that Diaspora Jews should continue to use this date, since we generally follow its practices, as ensconced in the Babylonian Talmud. Many authorities, like R. Menahem Hameiri, ruled that Diaspora communities can follow either the Babylonian or the Israeli date. Historical sources testify that select localities, including Provence (southern France), began reciting the prayer on the seventh of Marheshvan. Most authorities, however, ruled that each region cannot simply adapt its schedule to local weather patterns. They buttressed their position by citing Rebbi's ruling that the residents of Nineveh, whose area required rain in the summer, should request rain in their personal petitions but not recite veten tal umatar in that season (Ta'anit 14a). R. Asher ben Yehiel (1250-1327), known by the acronym Rosh, vociferously objected to following the talmudic dates. He argued that our prayers must petition for our distinct needs, especially regarding life-sustaining forces such as rain. He further cited Maimonides who, at least in an early work, argued that the failure to localize the rain prayer schedule makes our petitions dishonest (Commentary to Mishna Ta'anit 1:3). Rosh further maintained that the talmudic ruling regarding Nineveh only applied to a small, distinct area, but not to an entire region or nation (Rosh Responsa 4:10). Rosh tried to convince his colleagues in his native Germany to petition for rain from Succot until the early-summer holiday of Shavuot, but to no avail. His failure continued after he moved to Spain, where despite a terrible drought in 1313, the rabbinic majority refused to change their custom. They contended that to prevent unwanted divisions, Diaspora communities should maintain a uniform practice (Ritva Ta'anit 10a). Indeed, even Maimonides seems to have ruled in his later, authoritative Mishne Torah (Tefilla 2:16-17) that Diaspora communities must follow one of the two talmudic dates (although his ruling is ambiguous). Rosh eventually gave up, and while select Diaspora communities continued to use the seventh of Marheshvan, ultimately the northern hemisphere universally accepted the Babylonian practice (Shulhan Aruch OC 117:1-2). One late 19th century authority even claimed that a heavenly voice ruled against Rosh's reasoning (Aruch Hashulhan 117:4). This rhetoric represents a polemical statement against the Reform movement which, led by Abraham Geiger, changed the rain liturgy to reflect the contemporary climate. While the debate, at least within Orthodox circles, subsided in Europe, this continued as a hot issue when Jews emigrated to the southern hemisphere. Indeed, the first halachic query from the New World in 1637 inquired when Jews should pray for rain in Brazil (another great trivia question!). Succot there ushers in the summer and the New World settlers feared that rain would harm their crops. Rabbi Haim Shabbetai of Salonika ruled that they should never add veten tal umatar, since rain after Succot would be harmful and praying for it after Pessah would deviate from the universal practice. As Arnold and Daniel Lasker have documented, this debate continued in other countries, with a particularly acrimonious dispute in Australia in the 19th century. While some followed R. Shabbetai's ruling, other authorities contended that Australian Jews should follow the northern hemisphere schedule. The latter position ultimately emerged victorious, and my students in Yeshivat Hakotel from Australia, South Africa and Uruguay attest that Jews in the southern hemisphere today add this prayer in December. The authorities disagree whether Israelis traveling abroad before December 5, like yourself, should continue reciting matar or adopt the local practice (Mishna Berura 117:5). Some contemporary rabbis alternatively suggest omitting the matar prayer in its regular spot but including it in personal petitions within the blessing of shome'a tefilla (Pit'hei Teshuvot 117:3). I am inclined toward Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's position, which contends that while we do not follow Rosh's ruling, his logic remains extremely compelling. Therefore, an Israeli should not stop reciting matar since he and his family continue to require rain in their homeland (Igrot Moshe OC 2:102). Regarding Hanukka, we find two major perspectives regarding the holiday's central miracle. The Talmud emphasizes the miracle of the oil and the resulting spiritual redemption that occurred with the resanctification of the Temple (Shabbat 21b). Some rabbis even contend that since the central event was spiritual invigoration, we only commemorate the holiday through ritual and prayer, and omit any form of physical celebration like feasting. Maimonides and others, however, highlight the war victory against the mighty Greeks (Hilchot Hanukka 2:1-2). The Maharal of Prague went so far as to claim that the oil miracle transpired simply to teach the victors that their victory stemmed from God, and not exclusively their own might. Al Hanissim emphasizes the war miracle, but concludes by praising God for allowing us to rededicate the Temple. The prayer thus teaches that military success, while praiseworthy in its own right, becomes complete only with pious commitment and worship. Happy travels and happy Hanukka! The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.