Davening for Rain in the Southern Hemisphere

Question #1: Mixed Messages

“How can you have two shullen in the same city, one saying vesein tal umatar, and the other not, on the same day?”

Question #2: Western Travelers

How early did western mankind begin traveling in the southern hemisphere?

Question #3: South of the Border

“What do Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Montevideo, Recife, and Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand have in common, but not Johannesburg, Perth, and Santiago, Chile?”


Although we are all aware that we cease reciting both mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar on the first day of Pesach, most people are surprised to discover that there is a halachic controversy whether this is the correct procedure in America. This has halachic ramifications both for people in the United States and certainly for those who live in South America, particularly those living in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, which are in the southern hemisphere. We will also discover that there is a major dispute among halachic authorities as to when people living in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the southern hemisphere should recite mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar, in what part of shemoneh esrei they should recite vesein tal umatar, and when they recite tefilas tal and tefilas geshem.

But first we need to study the Talmudic sources on the topic. The early halachic sources discuss two special inserts to our davening, mashiv haruach umorid hagashem, “He who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall,” and vesein tal umatar, “grant dew and rain upon the face of the earth.” The first is praise of Hashem and, therefore, it is inserted into the second brocha of our davening, both on weekdays and Shabbos, since the first three brochos of the shemoneh esrei are devoted to praise. The second is a prayer beseeching Hashem to provide rain, and as such is recited in birchas hashanim, the appropriate brocha of the weekday shemoneh esrei. Should one forget to recite vesein tal umatar in its appropriate place in birchas hashanim, one may still recite it during the brocha of shomei’a tefillah.

Missed them

Should one forget to recite either mashiv haruach umorid hagashem or vesein tal umatar when required, one is obligated to repeat the shemoneh esrei. However, there is a halachic difference between the two that is already noted by the Tur. Should one recite morid hatal, praising Hashem for providing dew, rather than mashiv haruach umorid hagashem, one is not required to repeat the shemoneh esrei. Nevertheless, when it is the time to recite vesein tal umatar, someone who prayed only for dew would be required to repeat the shemoneh esrei.

Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem

The Mishnah (Taanis 2a) cites a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua concerning when one begins to recite mashiv haruach umorid hagashem, Rabbi Eliezer contending that we begin on the first day of Sukkos, whereas Rabbi Yehoshua maintains that we begin on Shemini Atzeres. The Gemara explains that Rabbi Eliezer’s basis is that there are two mitzvos observed on Sukkos that are associated with our need for rain, the ceremony of nisuch hamayim, which involves the pouring of water on the mizbeiach in the Beis Hamikdash, and the taking of the lulav, esrog, hadasim and aravos. In Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, these mitzvos demonstrate that we should praise Hashem on Sukkos for His role as Rainmaker.

Both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua agree that we do not want it to rain on Sukkos itself, because this makes it difficult or even impossible to observe the mitzvah of sukkah. As the Mishnah (Sukkah 28b) records, rain on Sukkos can be compared to a servant bringing his master a gift that the master pours into the servant’s face. We build a sukkah hoping to serve Hashem by observing His mitzvah, and then it rains on our party! For this reason, Rabbi Yehoshua says that we do not begin reciting mashiv haruach umorid hagashem until there is no longer a mitzvah of living in the sukkah.

Rabbi Eliezer agrees that we do not request rain during Sukkos, but he contends that reciting mashiv haruach umorid hagashem is appropriate, since it is praise of Hashem and not a request for rain. Rabbi Yehoshua responds that, even so, it is inappropriate for us to praise Hashem as Rainmaker at a time when rain is considered a siman kelalah, a sign of a curse, because it demonstrates that Hashem has rejected our observance of His mitzvos. The Gemara rules according to Rabbi Yehoshua.

Beginning Vesein tal umatar

Regarding when to begin reciting vesein tal umatar, the Mishnah (Taanis 10a) records a dispute between an anonymous tanna, who contends that we begin on the third day of Marcheshvan, and Rabban Gamliel, who says that we begin on the seventh day of Marcheshvan. This is fifteen days after Sukkos, which allows those who traveled for Yom Tov to Yerushalayim by foot to return home before it begins to rain. The Gemara rules that the halacha accords with Rabban Gamliel’s opinion.

Continuing this discussion, the Gemara quotes a beraisa stating that the Mishnah expresses the practice that is followed in Eretz Yisroel. However, in “the exile,” they begin praying for rain many weeks later, on the day the Gemara calls “sixty days after the equinox,” the details of which we will leave for a different time. Rashi explains that in Bavel, which is located in a river valley, there is less need for rain than in Eretz Yisroel. Too much rain in Bavel could cause dangerous flooding, and therefore they begin praying for rain later.

Thus far, we know that in Eretz Yisroel one begins recital of vesein tal umatar on the seventh of Marcheshvan, whereas in Bavel it is begun significantly later.

Southern hemisphere

All of this lengthy discussion and last week’s article are an introduction to our topic, since until now we have been discussing life in the northern hemisphere, the world north of the equator. In the era of the Mishnah, Gemara and rishonim, to the best of our knowledge, there were no Jews living south of the equator, which runs through the northern part of South America, mid-Africa, and through the Indian Ocean south of India. In today’s world, there are Jewish communities in the following countries south of the equator: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and Uruguay, and, to a lesser extent, in Ecuador and Bolivia. All of these lands were unknown to the European and Middle Eastern world until the era of discovery began in the days of Columbus. Of these lands, the first discovered was probably South Africa, discovered by Vasco da Gama during his voyage that began in 1497, and then Brazil, discovered in 1500 by Pedro Cabral.

By the early seventeenth century there was already a Jewish community in Brazil that sent questions germane to when they should recite mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar. The earliest responsum was written by a prominent posek of Salonica, Rav Chayim Shabtai, who was the rav in Salonica until his passing in 1647, and whose responsa were published as Shu”t Toras Chayim. His undated responsum is addressed to someone inquiring about the practices of the Jewish community in Brazil, without identifying which city in that country. The teshuvah identifies them as being south of the equator, which is indeed where almost all of Brazil is located. The letter could not have been from the two largest Jewish communities in Brazil today, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, because neither of those cities existed yet in the 17th century, but it might have been from one of the earlier colonial cities of Belem or Recife (then called Pernambuco).

The questioner assumes that rain during their summer months, which are between Sukkos and Pesach, would be very harmful. Therefore, the Brazilian community wanted to recite mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar between Pesach and Sukkos and not recite them between Sukkos and Pesach.

In the article, “Should I daven for rain when we need it?” which I sent out last week, I mention the dispute in the Gemara whether these two prayers, mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar, are recited according to local conditions, such as those of a city whose weather pattern varies significantly from nearby locales. The Gemara’s example is the people of the city of Nineveh, where rain was necessary throughout the summer. Could they recite vesein tal umatar in Boreich aleinu, when it usually is recited, or should/must they recite it in Shema koleinu.

The halachic conclusion is that mashiv haruach umorid hagashem is never said according to local conditions, whereas vesein tal umatar is not said in the usual place in shemoneh esrei, but in the brocha of Shema koleinu.

I also discussed there the dispute among rishonim whether an entire country recites these brochos according to their local climate needs or not. The Rosh rules that they do, and thus he contended that Spain or Germany should follow local climate needs when reciting these two brochos. The Rosh further contended that the Rambam agreed with his interpretation of the halacha. We also noted that most authorities disagreed with the Rosh, and that some later authorities disagreed with the Rosh’s understanding of the Rambam’s opinion.

Contradiction in Rambam

At this point, we will examine how the Rosh explains the Rambam in a way that sustains his opinion. The Rosh noted that the Rambam’s statement in his commentary to the Mishnah in Taanis appears to conflict with what he wrote in Hilchos Tefillah, “Places that require rain in the summer, such as distant islands of the sea, ask for rain when they require it in shomei’a tefillah” (Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 2:15-17). Yet, the Rambam in the Mishnah commentary states that they should treat their rainy season as Eretz Yisroel treats the 7th of Marcheshvan, which means that they should recite vesein tal umatar in birchas hashanim, not in shomei’a tefillah.

In the Rambam’s commentary to the Mishnah Taanis, while explaining the laws that we have shared above, he adds: “All these laws apply in Eretz Yisroel and the lands that are similar to it… However, in other lands, one should recite vesein tal umatar at the time that rain is beneficial for that place, and, in that time, one should follow the practice of (Eretz Yisroel on) the 7th of Marcheshvan (meaning that they should pray for rain when it is beneficial for them). This is because there are lands in which it does not begin to rain until Nissan. In lands in which the summer is in Marcheshvan and rain then is not good for them, but it is deadly and destructive, how can the people of such a place ask for rain in Marcheshvan? – this is a lie!” (Since rain is now detrimental for them, why are they asking for it?)

Tangentially, there is an observation that results from the Rambam’s words, which is of a historical nature rather than a halachic one. The Rambam was aware that there are places in the world in which the seasons are reversed from ours, such as in the southern hemisphere. Historically, this presents a tremendous curiousity, since I have been unable to ascertain that there was settlement of Jews in the southern hemisphere until four hundred years after the Rambam’s demise! However, it appears that, in the Rambam’s day, Arab traders had already visited the eastern coast of Africa south of the equator, or, alternatively, had sailed to islands in the Indian Ocean that were south of the equator. I have not seen any historians note this point.

In view of the Rambam’s words, we can address the second of our opening questions: “How early did western mankind begin traveling in the southern hemisphere?”

From the Rambam’s comments, it is evident that this was as early as the twelfth century. It may be that Vasco de Gama was the first European to sail around the southern tip of what is today South Africa, but he was certainly not the first old world explorer to sail to the southern hemisphere!

Returning to the comments of the Rosh:

The Rosh resolves the contradiction in the Rambam’s position by explaining that there is a difference between a city and a region. A city with exceptional needs should recite vesein tal umatar only in shomei’a tefillah. However, an entire region or country, such as Spain or Germany, should recite vesein tal umatar in birchas hashanim during the part of the year that this region requires rain.

Kesef Mishneh and Toras Chayim

Not all authorities accept the Rosh’s approach to explaining the Rambam. Several point out that if the Rambam meant to distinguish between a city and a region, he should have said so. Rather, they contend that the Rambam meant that if, in your location, there is now a need for rain, one should include vesein tal umatar in your daily weekday davening. Where in the prayer one recites this depends on what part of the year it is: Between the 7th of Marcheshvan and Pesach, one should say it in birchas hashanim. If it is after Pesach, one should recite it in shomei’a tefillah.

Several rishonim rule that local conditions do not determine when one recites vesein tal umatar in birchas hashanim, contending that reciting vesein tal umatar in that part of davening after Pesach requires one to repeat the shemoneh esrei, even in a place where there is a need for rain in this part of the year (Rabbeinu Yonah, Brochos 19b; Ritva, Taanis 3b). Thus, we understand why the Rosh’s position that mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar should be recited after Pesach in Europe was not accepted.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 117:2) rules that the halacha does not follow the Rosh. He writes that all communities begin reciting mashiv haruach umorid hagashem on Shemini Atzeres and records only two practices regarding vesein tal umatar, the same two expressly mentioned in the Gemara. No other regional distinctions are recognized.

Thus, in essence, the people of Brazil wanted to follow the approach of the Rosh. The Toras Chayim rules that they should not follow this practice, emphasizing:

(1) The Rosh’s approach was not accepted by the other authorities.

(2) In a lengthy discussion of the Rambam’s opinion, the Toras Chayim concludes that the Rambam also does not agree with the Rosh.

(3) The Rosh himself retracted his approach when he saw that it was not followed.

Based on the claim that rain between Sukkos and Pesach was detrimental to life where these Brazilian colonists lived, the Toras Chayim ruled that they should never recite mashiv haruach umorid hagashem at all, following the Rambam that one does not recite either mashiv haruach umorid hagashem or vesein tal umatar when it is detrimental for the local needs. During the months that the Brazilians need rain, he ruled that they should recite vesein tal umatar during shomei’a tefillah, like the practice of the city of Nineveh and unlike the Rosh.

Click here for part II of this article.