Gardening: Do the dew

Consider the phenomenon of dew. Between Pessah and Shmini Atzeret we insert a request in the Amida prayer for God to "bring down dew," at least in Sephardic and hassidic prayer books.

dew leaf 88 (photo credit: )
dew leaf 88
(photo credit: )
Only a Jew would pray for something that regularly appears - whether it is prayed for or not. Perhaps it is a case of kal vehomer, or a fortiori reasoning. If I accustom myself to pray for something that is consistently present, I will find all the more reason to pray for something that is not. Consider the phenomenon of dew. Between Pessah and the end of the harvest season (Shmini Atzeret) in late summer, we insert a request in the Amida prayer for God to "bring down dew," at least in Sephardic and hassidic prayer books. Yet, unlike rain or health or prosperity, which are prayed for because of their variability, or the final redemption that we constantly request but have yet to see, dew accumulates regularly and predictably. We are so certain of dew's presence that, should we forget to mention it during the Amida, we do not have to go back and repeat the prayer, unlike when we forget to mention rain. During the rainy winter season we also pray for dew, but in a different way. At that time of year, we ask for dew "levracha," for blessing. According to the Mishna Brura, we ask that dew be for blessing since "there is dew which is not for blessing." Yet, during the spring and summer seasons, we simply ask for dew, without adding that it should be for blessing. According to the usual explanation, we do not qualify our request for spring and summer dew because of our long, dry growing season. In the absence of rain, spring and summer dew should be welcomed unconditionally. There is a problem here. The most dangerous dew occurs not in the winter, when crops are just beginning to grow, but as crops mature and ripen prior to harvest. Fungal spores drifting through the air alight on dewdrops that have condensed on stems or leaves. After several hours, these spores germinate and develop into white mildew or orange rust fungi. Fungi are more of a problem when the weather is warm so it would be more appropriate to ask that dew be levracha during this time of year. In spring and summer, roses are so susceptible to powdery mildew that hosing them down each morning to knock off fungus-filled dewdrops is a recommended practice. How ironic that we should begin to ask for dew on Pessah, seven weeks before the first wheat is harvested in honor of Shavuot. On a cool overcast morning, heavy dew on ripening wheat could bring on a fungus epidemic that might quickly spread through and damage much of the crop. Perhaps our problem with praying for potentially pathological dew is that the crops we grow today are genetically different from those harvested in ancient Israel. Modern wheat varieties, for example, are dew sensitive, whereas strains of ancient wheat are not. Plant breeders looking to bolster the dew resistance of modern wheat have crossbred it with Emmer wheat, whose primordial representative was discovered in 1906 near Rosh Pina by Aaron Aaronsohn. It may have been a relative of this wheat, and other crops of a similar vintage, that could enjoy the benefits of dew without being damaged by dew loving fungi. It seems curious to pray for God to "bring down the dew," even though dew is the result of air-cooling at or near ground level. Air near the ground heats up during the day. Since warm air holds moisture, when this air cools at night and the molecules in the air condense, moisture is wrung out of them, settling on grass, crops, stones and other surfaces. Dew does not fall from the sky. Dew is also formed in micropores between soil particles in the ground, supplying water to plant roots. Dew settles on the spines of cacti and other prickly plants, from where it runs down onto leaves, stems and trunks until it reaches the ground as irrigation. Foliar dew is an important source of moisture for spiders and beneficial carnivorous insects that provide natural control of insect pests. In the garden, save water by surrounding a plant with sloping stones that collect dew and channel it onto the soil around the plant, watering it. Eleazar Kallir, who lived in Tiberias and composed a mystical prayer for dew 1,400 years ago that is recited on the first day of Pessah, seemed to be aware of the questions surrounding dew, since he introduced his supplication with these words: "I will speak of enigmas among this people, to bring them joy through this prayer for dew." Perhaps the "enigmas" and the "joy" refer to the revival of the dead, since our sages instruct that dew will bring every Jew back to life, in the Land of Israel, when the Messiah comes. We are also taught that the moment every Jew observes Shabbat, the Messiah will come. We can put these two concepts together by recalling that the numerical value of tal, the Hebrew word for dew, is 39 (tet=9, lamed=30), which equals the number of Shabbat-proscribed categories of work. Finally, we begin to pray for dew in Nissan, the month of our redemption from Egyptian slavery, which is also the time of year most favorable for our final redemption, when every day will have the quality of Shabbat.