Monday, 2 December 2013

Praying for Rain - Why start December 4th?

Questions: Why in the Diaspora do we start praying for rain on the 4th December (and the 5th December when preceding a Leap Year)? Why not follow the Hebrew calendar? Why is it different to the practice in Israel? How is the prayer Veten tal Umatar different to Mashiv Haruach Umorid Hageshem?

Answer: Several readers have asked me to address the question of what's VeTen Tal Umatar all about. I will attempt to explain how things started

Mashiv Haruach Umorid Hageshem is acknowledging that Hashem has the power to bring rain. However, it is not asking for Hashem to bring rain. That is why it is found in the first 3 berakhot of the Amidah where we acknowledge Hashem's greatness. Whereas Veten Tal Umatar is found in the 9th Berakha in the middle of us asking for our needs. In this case our need for rain for the crops in our land.

The reason why we don't start on the 7th Heshvan like in Israel is because we aren't asking for rain in Israel only, we are actually mainly asking for rain in our home location. I find this fascinating as 1) I always assumed that all our weather tefillot were only for Israel and 2) since I lived in Manchester for 20 years and now live in Seattle the idea of needing to ask for rain is crazy!

So looking a bit deeper in the gemara (Masekhet Taanit 10a) the Hakhamim declared the 7th of Heshvan as the date to start in Israel. This was 2 weeks after those visiting for the Holidays could go home before the roads would turn to a muddy mess. 

The gemara then goes on to explain that in Babylon where most of the Jews were living at the time there was no need to ask for rain till 60 days after the fall equinox corresponding to the start of the rainy season there. 

Despite objection of individual rabbis, this became the dominant position that all Diaspora communities start asking for rain on this date which corresponds to the 4th December (and the 5th December when preceding a Leap Year). This law thus represents a unique case in which some places mark the civil calendar date, while others use the Jewish calendar. 

We start saying the prayer at Arvit on the 4th December (and the 5th December when preceding a Leap Year). We finish saying this prayer at the minha before Pesah


  1. Rabbi Hassan, Presumably for reasons of simplicity, you avoided mention of the whole Gregorian / Julian calendar issue, which explains why we ended up with Dec 4/5, and why that date moves each century.

    For those who have a stomach for the calendrical and mathematical detail, the story is that:

    The Talmud (Ta’anit 10a) explains that, although Jews in Israel begin to pray for rain on the 7th of Cheshvan (by which the last of the pilgrims will have had a dry journey home after Succot), the Jews of the Diaspora begin to say the prayer on the sixtieth day after the Autumnal Equinox. This date was chosen, say some commentators, since it was at this time that the Jews of Babylon, where the vast majority of the Diaspora Jews lived, had finished drying their crops in the fields and now needed the Winter rains.

    Since the Autumnal season commences on September 23rd, the sixtieth day would fall on November 22nd. However, the basis of the Talmud’s astronomical calculation is that a solar year is exactly 365¼ days. For this reason, in every third year of a four year cycle (i.e. the year prior to a leap year), the Autumnal season would begin ¾ of the way through November 22nd which would be already after night-fall, and hence we would start praying for rain one day later than in other years. By the fourth year, the extra day added to the year on February 29th would have put the sixtieth day back to the beginning of November 22nd.

    But in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the calendar to take account of the fact that a solar year is a little less than 365¼ days long. His calendar, that we use today and call “Gregorian” in his honour (as opposed to the previous one designed by Julius Caesar and hence the "Julian" calendar), omits a leap year every century, except for every fourth century. To take account of the discrepancy that had arisen prior to 1582, ten days in October were omitted from 1582. For the purpose of determining the date of starting to say “v’tein tal u’matar” (but not many other observances based on the solar cycle), the Jews continued to follow the Talmud’s calculations, that each year had a full 365¼ days. Therefore this date in 1582 had to be ten days after the “new” November 22nd – namely, December 2nd.

    1700 was a leap year according to the Talmudic calendar but not according to Gregory. Therefore in this year, the date had to be advanced again, to December 3rd, and similarly in 1800 to December 4th. It appears that no account was taken off the extra day’s discrepancy that would have occurred in 1900 since siddurim printed in the twentieth century use the date of December 4th (and December 5th preceding a civil leap year) just as they did in the nineteenth century.

    This issue did not arise in 2000 (and nor in 1600) since that was a leap year according to both the Gregorian and the Talmudic / Julian calendars. The next time that the calendars will differ will be in 2100 and it is to be hoped that editions of siddurim printed after that date will reflect this. But it will be even better if all Jews live in Israel by then, and the only date for commencing “v’tein tal u’matar” will be the 7th of Cheshvan.

  2. Yes Rabbi Kennard, for simplicity sake I didn't go into all the calendar complexities but I did put a link to it from the Sephardic Institute that goes in some depth explaining it. Thanks again for providing the detail here and yes may we all merit to change on the 7th of cheshvan.


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