Should I Daven for Rain When We Need It?

Whereas in chutz la’aretz we do not recite vesein tal umatar (the prayer for rain added to the bracha of Boreich Aleinu in the weekday shmoneh esrei) until the evening of December fourth (the exact date varies upon the particular year), people in Eretz Yisroel begin reciting this prayer on the Seventh of Marcheshvan. This difference in practice leads to many interesting shaylos. One, which is discussed in an article that is posted on the website RabbiKaganoff.com, concerns someone who is traveling during this time period from Eretz Yisroel to chutz la’aretz or vice versa.

There is halachic discussion regarding the question whether the two passages that we recite in the shemoneh esrei, mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar, should be recited according to local conditions. This week’s article discusses the general topic and emphasizes the questions germane to it in the northern hemisphere. Next week, I will discuss the history and question concerning what one does in the southern hemisphere.

 

Should I Daven for Rain When We Need It?

Question:

If a city’s residents need rain at a different time in the year, when do they recite vesein tal umatar?

Introduction

Although we are all aware that we begin reciting mashiv haruach umorid hagashem on Shemini Atzeres and vesein tal umatar either on the evening of December fourth in chutz la’aretz) or on the Seventh of Marcheshvan in Eretz Yisroel, and 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 an extensive halachic controversy whether this is the correct procedure in most of the world. Specifically, as we will soon see, there are some early authorities who rule that one should pray for rain whenever it is usual to have rain in the region where one is located. Although we do not rule this way, there are ramifications for someone who errs and recites the wrong prayer in such locations.

Local needs

If a city’s residents need rain at a different time in the year, when do they recite vesein tal umatar? The Gemara (Taanis 14b) raises this question, citing the following story:

“The people of the city of Nineveh (in contemporary Iraq) sent a shaylah to Rebbe: Our city requires rain, even in the middle of the summer. Should we be treated like individuals and recite vesein tal umatar in the brocha of Shma Koleinu, or like a community, and recite it during the brocha of Boreich Aleinu (birchos hashanim)? Rebbe responded that they are considered individuals and should request rain during the brocha of Shma Koleinu.”

The Gemara subsequently demonstrates that the tanna Rabbi Yehudah disagreed with Rebbe, and contended that they should recite vesein tal umatar in the brocha of birchos hashanim.

This controversy recurred in the times of the early amora’im, approximately one hundred years later, when the disputants were Rav Nachman and Rav Sheishes. Rav Sheishes contended, like Rebbe, that the Nineveh residents should recite vesein tal umatar in shomei’a tefillah, whereas Rav Nachman ruled that they should recite it in birchos hashanim, following Rabbi Yehudah. The question is then resolved finally by the Gemara, which concludes that it should be recited in shomei’a tefillah, and this is the conclusion of all halachic authorities.

Why not add?

Germane to understanding this passage of Gemara, a concern is raised by the rishonim. There is a halacha that one can add to the supplication brochos of the shemoneh esrei personal requests appropriate to the theme of that brocha. For example, one may include a prayer for the recovery of an individual during the brocha of refa’einu, or a request for assistance in one’s Torah study in the brocha of chonein hadaas. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 8a) rules that someone who needs livelihood may add a personal supplication for this to the brocha of birchos hashanim. The question is that if one may add his personal request for parnasah, why can the people of Nineveh not add their own personal requests for rain at this point in the davening?

The rishonim present two answers to this question:

  1. Since rain can be harmful in other places, one may not pray for rain in birchos hashanim for one’s own needs when rain may be detrimental in a different locale. A request for livelihood is different, since fulfilling it is never harmful to someone else.
  2. This is the version of the prayer that Chazal instituted for the winter months, and they established a different text for the summer months. Therefore, reciting vesein tal umatar in birchos hashanim during the summer conflicts with the text that Chazal established for this brocha, which is called matbei’a she’tav’uh chachamim. One is not permitted to change the text of Chazal’s established prayers, although one may add personal supplications to them.

The Rambam

When the Rambam cites the halachic conclusion of the story of the people of Nineveh, he modifies the story by replacing the reference to Nineveh with “distant islands of the sea.” Let us see the entire context of his ruling: “The entire rainy season (autumn and winter), one recites morid hagashem in the second brocha, and in the sunny season (spring and summer) one recites morid hatal. When does he begin reciting morid hagashem? From the musaf prayer of the last day of Sukkos until shacharis of the first day of Pesach. From musaf of the first day of Pesach one begins to recite morid hatal. From the seventh of Marcheshvan, we begin to ask for rain in birchos hashanim for as long a time as one still says mashiv haruach umorid hagashem. This is true in Eretz Yisroel, but in Shinar (Mesopotamia), Syria, Egypt and nearby places whose climate is similar, one should ask for rain from sixty days after the equinox. 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).

Germany and Spain

Why the Rambam mentions “distant islands of the sea” became an important factor in a related issue a bit more than one hundred years after his passing, during the lifetime of the Rosh. The Rosh was born in Germany and spent most of his life there. As an adult with grown children, he fled Germany because of persecutions, first spending a few months in Montpelier, in the area of southern France bordering on the Mediterranean Sea known as the Provence. He subsequently decided that he was not happy with the level of Jewish observance in the Provence, and he traveled onward to Barcelona, Spain, where he became the personal houseguest of the Rashba. Later, the rav of Toledo, the largest community of its time in central Spain, passed on, and the rabbinate of that prominent community, in which lived, apparently, many prominent talmidei chachamim, was offered to the Rosh, who accepted it. Shortly after his arrival in Toledo, the following event transpired:

“And it was in the year 5073 after the creation of the world (corresponding to the Common Era year 1313), that it rained very little the entire winter, and the community declared a fast day to beseech Hashem for rain. On the first night of Pesach after maariv, the Rosh was sitting in the entrance to his house with some of his disciples standing about him, when he declared:

“Now is the time to raise a matter that has always bothered me: Why don’t we continue reciting vesein tal umatar until Shavuos?” What bothered the Rosh is that, although in Eretz Yisroel rain is disadvantageous in the summer, in Europe, where he lived his entire life, rain was not only helpful in the summer, but it was essential. Since rain was important after Pesach, they should recite mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar even in the summer months.

Subsequently, the Rosh penned a lengthy responsum advocating this position. He rallied the following proof: When analyzing a dispute quoted in the Gemara, we ordinarily assume that the two differing authorities disputed concerning a relatively minor issue and held as closely as possible to one another’s position. The specific application of this principle is as follows: Both Rabbi Yehudah (the tanna) and Rav Nachman (the amora) held that the city of Nineveh should recite vesein tal umatar in the brocha of birchos hashanim. On the other hand, Rebbe and Rav Sheishes contended that the city of Ninevah should recite vesein tal umatar in shomei’a tefillah, because a city should not have its own practice of reciting vesein tal umatar in birchos hashanim when everyone else is not requesting rain in their tefilos. However, reasoned the Rosh, the dispute among these great scholars regards only a city. A large region or country should recite vesein tal umatar in birchos hashanim according to all opinions, just as we see that the practices of Eretz Yisroel and Bavel were not the same, but each country followed its own needs. Therefore, since Nineveh’s needs were analogous to those of central Spain, everyone would agree that in Spain, one should recite mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar according to the regional climate conditions.

At the end of his responsum, the Rosh notes that he was unsuccessful in changing the practice of his community, and that he, himself, eventually stopped reciting these prayers after Pesach. We see clearly that he had not changed his opinion. However, since he was not successful in changing the accepted practice, he did not want there to be divergent approaches in the same community.

The Rosh contended that he could prove that the Rambam also held as he did, that one should recite the prayers mashiv haruach umorid hagashem and vesein tal umatar according to the need of the local region. 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 one should begin reciting vesein tal umatar when local conditions warrant it). 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?)

Rambam points

In reverse order, the Rambam made two halachic points:

  1. One should not pray for rain when it is detrimental to the local needs.

Note that I have not found any halachic authority who disputes this ruling, although, in truth, virtually every other rishon is mum on this topic.

  1. In places where rain is beneficial at a different time of the year, one should recite vesein tal umatar at the time that it is beneficial for the local needs.

Contradiction in Rambam

At this point, we will examine how the Rosh explains the Rambam in a way that sustains his opinion. The Rosh notes 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 birchos hashanim, not in shomei’a tefillah.

The Rosh resolves this 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 birchos 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 birchos hashanim. If it is after Pesach, one should recite it in shomei’a tefillah.

Disagree with Rosh

Several rishonim disagree with the Rosh, contending that it is not permitted to recite vesein tal umatar in birchos hashanim at times that Chazal ruled we should not. They rule, further, that someone who does recite vesein tal umatar in birchos hashanim at those times did not fulfill his mitzvah to daven and is required to repeat the shemoneh esrei (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 records 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.

Out of season

Notwithstanding that he rejects the halachic conclusion of the Rosh, the Shulchan Aruch discusses the following question. Someone who recites mashiv haruach umorid hagashem or vesein tal umatar when he should not must repeat the davening. This presents us with an intriguing question: Someone in Germany or Spain recites mashiv haruach umorid hagashem or vesein tal umatar during or after Pesach. According to the Shulchan Aruch, they have recited something that they should not have, whereas the Rosh contends that they have followed the correct procedure. The question is whether we accept the opinion of the Rosh to the extent of not repeating the shemoneh esrei in this situation. Indeed, Rav Yitzchak Abuhav, a highly respected authority, contended that one should not repeat the shemoneh esrei, out of respect for the Rosh’s position.

In his Beis Yosef commentary on the Tur, the author of the Shulchan Aruch was inclined to reject the Rosh’s ruling completely, to the extent of requiring the repetition of shemoneh esrei. However, because of the position of Rav Yitzchak Abuhav, the Beis Yosef modified his position, contending that someone who recited mashiv haruach umorid hagashem or vesein tal umatar in Spain or Germany on or after Pesach should repeat the shemoneh esrei as a donated prayer, called a tefillas nedavah, which may be recited when it is uncertain whether repeating the prayer is required. The Rema concludes, like Rav Yitzchak Abuhav, that one should not repeat the shemoneh esrei in this situation.

The Bach

There is yet another complication to this issue, based on a comment of the Bach. A different passage of Gemara is concerned about a concept called “bothering Heaven,” meaning asking for a miraculous deliverance when unnecessary, noting that people who have davened under these unusual circumstances have been punished as a result. The Bach mentions a longstanding practice not to add vesein tal umatar to the davening on dates not included in what Chazal established, even when there was a local need for rain. He writes that the custom was to include selichos and other prayers but not to add the specific words of vesein tal umatar. He further records that two great Torah leaders once added vesein tal umatar, and both passed away within the year, which was attributed to the fact that they had inserted vesein tal umatar into prayers when they should not have.

There is a major difficulty posed by these comments of the Bach. We learned above that the residents of Nineveh asked in which brochathey should recite vesein tal umatar, because of their local need for rain. No one questioned that they could recite vesein tal umatar, which seems to run counter to what the Bach stated.

The Taz explains that the Bach’s concerns are only about reciting vesein tal umatar in the repetition of the shemoneh esrei, but not in the private tefillah, and that the people of Nineveh recited vesein tal umatar only in their private tefillos, but not during the chazzan’s repetition. The Elya Rabbah, an early acharon, takes issue with the Taz’s approach, contending that the people of Nineveh certainly recited vesein tal umatar both in their private prayers and in the public ones. The Elya Rabbah suggests an alternative approach: The concern raised by the Bach is only when the need for rain is not that great. When there is a major need for rain, as no doubt existed for the people of Nineveh, there is no concern about bothering Heaven.

Conclusion

Rashi (Breishis 2:5) points out that until Adam Harishon appeared, there was no rain in the world. Rain fell and grasses sprouted only after Adam was created, understood that rain was necessary for the world, and prayed to Hashem for rain.  Whenever we pray for rain, we must always remember that the essence of prayer is drawing ourselves closer to Hashem.