Rain for You in Season

The source of all life: The ancient Jewish tradition of praying for rain serves as a reminder to appreciate and protect our water resources…


Hit by years of drought, Israel is running out of water. Throughout the times, water was a limited resource in the Middle East, and the Talmud says in the words of Rabbi Yosef that the world’s dependence on rain for its sustenance is so total that rainfall is compared to the revival of the dead. Our sages tell us that the world is judged on all aspects already on Rosh Hashanah but the final judgment is sealed for each feature only in its specific time; for grain on Pesach, for fruits of trees on Shavuot and for rain on Sukkot. In rabbinic thinking, Sukkot is a rain holiday. Rabbi Akiva states this most clearly: “Bring the water libation on the holiday so that you be blessed with rain …”
Prayers for rain are among the earliest liturgical texts and the Hebrew Bible regards withholding of rain as a punishment from God who pledges: “I will grant the rain for you in season” (Deuteronomy 11:13–14). In Temple times, a libation of water was made together with the pouring of wine at the morning service on the last six days of the week-long Sukkot holiday. Today, we continue recognizing the value of water through tefillat geshem, the beginning of our prayers for rain on
She­mini Atzeret, the holiday after Sukkot.

“Aquarius”, Tripartite Mahzor, S. Germany, 1332 British Library London

“Aquarius”, Tripartite Mahzor, S. Germany, 1332
British Library London

Rain in Israel is seasonal. It falls in the winter, seldom starting before the end of Sukkot or continuing beyond Pesach. That is why there are special insertions in the Amidah – the central prayer of all Jewish services – concerning rain and dew that change with the season. Tefillat geshem, the principal prayer for rain, is recited as part of the second benediction of the Amidah where the rabbis inserted the phrase mashiv ha-ruach umorid ha-geshem, “He makes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” God is acknowledged as the power causing natural phenomena. This special prayer on Shemini Atzeret is composed of piyyutim, liturgical verses. The most popular in Ashkenazi tradition is by the poet Eliezer Kallir. In his alphabetical acrostic poem, God is asked to remember the merits
of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

For plenty and not for famine

The opening words mention Af-Beri, the ruler of rain, and are derived from a verse in Job 37:11, Af beri yatri’ah av yafitz anan oro (“He also loads the clouds with moisture and scatters his lightning-clouds”). Af means anger and the word beri means health, thus alluding to the two ways in which rain can fall. The prayer for abundant water culminates in the words “for a blessing, and not for a curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for famine.” The dates for the prayers for rain were fixed by the rabbis with regard to the climate and the agricultural needs of the Land of Israel. However, our sages had to adjust these dates to the holiday calendar. Thus the prayer for rain is not recited before Shemini Atzeret, for rain in the midst of the holiday is regarded as a bad omen. Moreover, praying for rain at the beginning of the holiday would be inappropriate since it would prevent one from the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah. Remember that Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals? That is the reason why another petition in the ninth benediction of the Amidah, “and give dew and rain for a blessing” is recited only two weeks or more after the tefillat geshem: in Temple times, the pilgrims had to return from Jerusalem to their homes before heavy rain would cause them hardship. And of course, there are no rules without exceptions: Babylonian Jews began requesting rain on the 60th day of the fall equinox, which marked the beginning of their rainy season. Whatever date and tradition we follow today: the Prayer for Rain is an important reminder to appreciate and protect our water resources.

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