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On the Jewish Calendar: Our Prayers for Rain
On Shemini Atzereth we acknowledge the beginning of the rainy season in Eretz Yisrael by reciting Tephillath Geshem (the Prayer for Rain). We also add to the ‘Amidah the phrase, משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם (“who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”). Yet in the weekday ‘Amidah, we don’t add the request for rain, ותן טל ומטר לברכה (“grant dew and rain as a blessing”) until Dec. 4th or 5th. This raises a couple of questions: 1). Why don’t we add the two prayers at the same time? and 2). What is so special about Dec. 4th or 5th?
The phrase added after Shemini Atzereth is not considered to be a request for rain, but a declaration of God’s power. Therefore it is added to the second blessing of the ‘Amidah, whose theme is Divine power (“you lovingly sustain all life, mercifully resurrect the dead, support those who have fallen, heal the sick, free the oppressed,” etc.). Our tradition felt that although we may be moving into the rainy season, we are not going to actually ask for rain until well after the festival – those who made pilgrimage to Jerusalem should have an opportunity to get home first!
So why Dec. 4th or 5th? It’s not even a day on the Jewish calendar!
The custom arose in Babylonia, which was the center of Jewish life from about the 3rd through 11th centuries. There, the agriculture needed the rain much later. The date was fixed as 60 days after t’qufat Tishrei, the autumn equinox (the day on which the sun crosses the equator, autumn begins, and day and night are of equal duration). According to the calculation of the Talmudic sage, Samuel (c. 177-257), the equinox fell on Sept. 23rd, thus leading to Dec. 4th (or Dec. 5th in a leap year) as the day we begin requesting rain in our daily prayers. (This is actually a more complicated issue.)
Now that we understand what these prayers are, we must consider their contemporary significance.
First of all, these prayers connect us to the natural cycle. For us, no less than for our ancestors, rain is crucial. Rain is essential for life, but too little – or too much – and the consequences can be catastrophic. Even in the modern world we see the impact of a drought on the life of entire communities and the stability of a national economy. Recently, we have seen the tremendous destruction wrought by hurricanes and flooding.
We now have the added responsibility of considering our role in the natural cycle. There seems to be scientific consensus on the reality of global warming, with a strong inclination toward seeing human intervention as having a significant role. But regardless of where one stands on that subject, we are all aware how the waste products of humanity have polluted water and contaminated water sources, affecting not only humanity itself, but entire ecosystems. Even the possibility that our actions contribute to global warming and its consequences must at least give us pause to reflect on how we treat God’s world.
So, as we add these prayers for rain over the next few weeks, we must not only contemplate our dependence on God, we must also consider our role and responsibility as understood by our tradition: that we are partners with God in the works of creation.
Rabbi Charlie Popky
 The Gemara discusses why the Mishnah’s mention of rain in the second blessing of the Amidah is phrased as “the power of rain” and not just as “rain” (Ta’anit 2a). The Sages explain, based on a comparison between word usages in three verses, that rain comes down with power and reflects the power of God. The Midrash quotes Rabbi Hoshaiah as saying, “The power involved in making rain is as formidable as that of all of the works of creation.” (Bereshith Rabbah 13:4)
 See: “The Strange Case of December 4th: A Liturgical Problem” in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 38(1), Fall 1985. Available here: https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/resources-ideas/cj/classics/11-29-11-calendar/strange-case-december-4.pdf
Rabbi Charlie's Mahashavoth