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The Rabbis and Rain – The Religious and the Secular Approaches

Dr. Yair Paz
| 13/10/2010

“The rains come due to the merit of one person, one blade of grass, one field” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Ta’anit 66). The Bible links rain in its season to religious-moral behavior (Deut. 11:8-21; Jeremiah 14; Joel 2; and elsewhere).  Within the plethora of discussion in Rabbinic literature about rain and the water supply, two main approaches are discernible: rain as a divine omen to be understood in a spiritual sense, and as a vital resource to be managed using worldly tools. Did the Rabbis sense a tension between these two?

The Theological Plane

Our Sages sought theological reasons for rainfall and its cessation, as exemplified by the following quotes: “The merit of three things brings rain: the land, mercy and suffering” (Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 66c). “For four sins the rain ceases: worship of false gods, forbidden sexual relations, bloodshed and those who preach charity but do not give it” (Midrash Bemidbar Rabba, Chapter 8). “The skies are shut due to violation of gifts and tithes” (Tractate Shabbat 32b). “Only these cause the rain to stop: gossip and slander… haughtiness…absence of Torah study…stealing” (Tractate Ta’anit 7b). It stands to reason that the prevalent weaknesses of the current generation were identified as the causes of lack of rain, in an attempt to improve the people’s moral behavior.

Regarding the Land of Israel, the rabbis believed that since “God has His eye on the Land from the start to the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:12), not only is rainfall controlled by God, He also determines the yearly rain quota at the start of the year. Is it possible nonetheless to increase the amount of rain? Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai reveals some meteorological secrets of his time: “If at Rosh Hashanah Israel was worthy, and much rain was decreed, and later they sinned, the amount of rain could not be decreased, for it was already decreed. What does the Holy One Blessed be He do? He spreads the rain over seas, deserts and rivers, so that the land does not benefit from it. If at Rosh Hashanah Israel was unworthy, and little rain was decreed, and later they repent – the amount of rain cannot be increased, for it was already decreed. What does the Holy One Blessed be He do? He brings the rains down and sends wind so that the land may also benefit [drip irrigation…]” (Yerushalmi, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 57b).

Thus there was established a religious protocol for increasing the rain, in regular or drought conditions.

Standard Prayer

Each year there were prayers and religious ceremonies at the start of the rainy season (in which numinous traces can be detected). From Shemini Atzeret to Passover we add the phrase “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” to the second blessing in the Amidah prayer (Tractate Berachot, Chapter 5, Mishna 2). Beginning on the 7th day in the month of Cheshvan, we ask in the ninth blessing to “Grant dew and rain for a blessing on the face of the earth” (instead of “Grant blessing”).

The tension that builds as winter approaches is manifest in the ceremonies of the High Holidays, perceived as days of judgment. On Rosh Hashanah we are sentenced for life or death, and on Yom Kippur the High priest prays: “May it be Your will….that this be a rainy year…” (Tractate Yoma 53b). On Sukkot we are handed the “decree of water” (Tractate Rosh Hashana, Chapter 5, Mishna 2). The science of meteorological forecasting tells us that the expected rainfall for the entire winter is largely determined in the month of Tishrei, by the atmospheric altitude flows.

Most of the rain rituals were held in the Temple on Sukkot (“water libation,” Tractate Sukka, Chapter 5). Their purpose was stated by Rabbi Akiva: “The Holy one Blessed be He said, Pour before Me water on the festival so that you may be blessed with rain for the year” (Tractate Rosh Hashana 16a). The Sadducees objected to the ritual performed by the Pharisees, and so the latter added the celebration of ‘Simhat Beit Hashoeva’ (Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing).

After the destruction of the Temple, the Hoshana prayers, recited in the synagogue while circling the bima with the four species in hand, served as a substitute for the Temple rituals, as a kind of judgment day for the coming year’s rain. On Hoshana Raba there are seven circuits made, after which we beat the willow branches as a symbol of our basic need for water.

Rain and Sexual Symbolism 

The many symbols and the powerful tension in these rituals make them seem magical to the outside observer. Rabbinic language also took on sexual nuances. Rain is referred to as ‘fertility,’ ‘fertilizing the earth.’ The earth receives the rain ‘as the female opens towards the male’ (Yerushalmi Brachot 14a); dew is named ‘the husband of the earth’ (Ta’anit 6b). The Sages thus indicated their preference for irrigation by direct rainfall from heaven, so that ‘the earth is impregnated as a bride by her first husband’ rather than by canals, ‘as a widow impregnated through harlotry (!)’ (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 4).

Religious Ceremonies in Times of Drought

Much of Tractate Ta’anit is devoted to the struggle with drought. The length of the rituals is in direct proportion to the severity of the drought: “If by the 17th of Cheshvan the rains have still not come, individuals (‘special’ people) take upon themselves three fasts…if by Kislev, the court decrees three fasts for the public…if the rain still does not come, the court decrees an additional three fasts and prohibits work, washing, footwear, and marital relations… beyond this, the court decrees another seven….over the first ones, accompanied by the blowing of the shofar and closing businesses…beyond this, trade, building, planting, betrothal and marriage, and issues between man and his fellow are all suspended, and individuals repeat their ordeal until the month of Nisan” (Tractate Ta’anit, Chapter 1, Mishna 7). In these seven fasts: “They take the Ark [of the Torah Scroll] out to the open space, and ashes are placed on the Ark and also upon the head of the Ab-Beth-din, and everyone else puts ashes upon his own head, and the elder among them addresses them with words of admonition” (Tosefta Ta’anit, Chapter 1). The ceremony induces a feeling of Judgment Day (these fasts are now obsolete). When the month of Nisan ends, prayers for rain stop, despite their importance for water reserves, for fear of damage to the first summer crops.

End of Drought

The agricultural definition of the drought’s end is dependent upon whether sufficient rain fell to end the fasting, and several definitions are brought to denote the level of moisture of the earth: “Rabbi Meir says, [Until the rain has penetrated] as far as the knee of the plough enters the soil; The Sages, however, say: In the case of arid soil one handbreadth, in the case of moderately soft soil two handbreadths, and in the case of cultivated soil three handbreadths” (Ta’anit 25b). Rabbi Shimon ben Eliezer identified a phenomenon known today as ‘capillary action,’ in which water rises: “Not a handbreadth of rain coming down from above but that the deep with two handbreadths comes up from below to meet it.” The Rabbis also recognized that the force of rainfall can be either beneficial or harmful (used by the Committee on Drought Damages in today’s Ministry of Agriculture). The story of Honi Hameagel(Honi the Circle Drawer, Ta’anit 19a) defines three levels of force: “dripping rain,” rain that “fills the cisterns, ditches and caves,” and “rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty.”  Today’s farmers know that the breadth and force of rain are more important than its quantity. Thus the Rabbis taught: “And I will give you rains in their season. [This means that the soil shall be] neither soaked nor parched, but moderately rained upon” (Ta’anit 22b).

Bountiful rain created a dilemma; some prayed: “Master of the universe, Your people Israel can tolerate neither good nor trouble in excess…May it be Your Will that the rains stop and the wind blow;” and, on the other hand, there were those who opined, “In the case of any public distress, may it never befall us, the shofar must be sounded – except in the case of too much rain.” (Tractate Ta’anit, Chapter 3 Mishna 8).

Practical Water Management

At the same time, the Sages encouraged rational water management. A breita on the first and last rains of the season explains: [‘Former rain is termed] ‘yoreh’, because it warns people to plaster their roofs and to gather in their fruits [left to dry on the roof]” (Ta’anit 6:1).

The sages were also lenient in the matter of the seventh year and the holiness of chol hamoed (intermediate days): they permitted fortification of terraces and other vital work during the shemita year during the rainy season, and on chol hamoed it was permitted to “fix roads, open spaces and water reservoirs” (Tractate Moed Katan, Chapter 1, Mishna2). Thus the festival became a season of renovations, at the start of the winter on Sukkot and at its close on Passover. The importance of these tasks was understood by the Rabbis, who therefore allowed them to be carried out during chol hamoed.

The Tosefta describes the maintenance work performed on water apparatuses at the end of winter: On the fifteenth of Adar messengers from the Bet Din (court) go out and dig holes and caves to make water cisterns” (Tosefta Shekalim, Chapter 1). The Court was responsible for the development of the water infrastructure, acting as a religious judicial body as well as a municipal manager. Those who contributed towards the digging of pits for public use were praised for their charitable act. “There was once a hasid who used to dig water holes for passersby” (Yerushalmi, Tractate Demai 22a). The many stories of arguments over water holes have granted us much insight into the types of public and private water systems used.

Whose responsibility?

There is tension revolving around the question of who is responsible for the water infrastructure and its funding. A well-known discussion of the Rabbis about the Roman government relates: “They [the Romans] have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths” (Tractate Shabbat 33b). And, “The Shiloah was gushing forth through a mouth of the size of an

Issar [thin spray]; the king commanded and it was widened so that its waters be increased, but the waters diminished” (Tractate Arachin 10b). Also, “it once happened that the people of Tiberias did thus: They conducted a pipe of cold water through an arm of the hot springs” (Tractate Shabbat 38b). It seems that the Roman customs took hold among the Jews, and there is archaeological evidence of developed water systems (at Tzipori, Tiberias, Kazrin, Bet Shearim and other sites), indicating that not all was left to Divine determination.


Yosef ben Matityahu (Josephus) writes of riots in Jerusalem that were sparked by use of Temple funds by the Roman governor for building aqueducts for the city’s water supply (Antiquities of the Jews 13:3b). This perhaps is the source of the halakha in the Talmud Yerushalmi: “The aqueduct and the city’s wall, towers and all its needs are to come from the Temple” (Tractate Sota 17a). There are additional examples that indicate that water works were funded from the Temple treasury.

Laws for Safeguarding Water Works

“A tree must be kept away from a pit [in a neighbor’s field] twenty-five cubits – a sycamore or a carob fifty cubits; it makes no difference whether the tree is on higher or lower ground or on a level with the pit” (Tractate Baba Bathra, Chapter 2, Mishna 11). A stone tablet from late in the period gives archaeological evidence of the importance attached to this issue; found near the conduit from Solomon’s Pools to Jerusalem, it threatens capital punishment to one who plants within 15 feet of the water conduit.

Similarly, “One must erect a rail around a public well” (Tractate Eiruvin, Chapter 2, Mishnas 1-4), to protect passersby or to define the well boundaries and facilitate supervision. Or, “Prayer is compared to a mikveh, because as the mikveh [reservoir] is opened twice and closed twice so are the gates of prayer” (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehilim 789), indicating that the reservoir was locked from time to time.

Priorities of Water Usage

Control of water sources allowed management, prioritization of its use and enforcement. The Tamud Yerushalmi, Tractate Baba Bathra 13a, states that when rainwater accumulated in the reservoir and people wanted to use it for laundering, a minority who objected could prevent it; similarly, when people wanted to convert a laundry pool into clean water, the protests of the launderers were not heeded. In sum, clean water always took priority. Moreover, Tractate Baba Kama 81a states that the poor of the town have first priority for fresh spring water.


We see a dual approach towards water: 1) a belief that all is determined from above in response to our moral behavior – this approach led to religious responses to routine and emergency water situations; and 2) a rational, operational approach (encouraged by the religious leadership) to act to prevent a water shortage, even entailing halakhic leniency when needed.

This perhaps resembles the manner in which the Rabbis dealt with illness – doctors were permitted to heal (Tractate Berachot 60a) despite the belief that illness was a punishment. If drought was also a punishment, why develop water purification systems? Perhaps water preservation was perceived to be a natural human act not representing a struggle against the Divine decree.

Whatever the approach, it is clear that the joy over rain was absolute: “Rainfall is as wondrous as the creation of heaven and earth” (Tractate Ta’anit 7b); Rainfall is greater than the giving of the Torah, for the Torah is a joy unto Israel, and rain for all the nations and the entire world, human and animal” (Midrash Psalms (Buber ed.) 117).

Dr. Yair Paz is a Senior Lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at the Schechter Institute.

Photo by Dafnai Ish Shalom, KKL’s Photos Archive.

Yair Paz is Senior Lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at Schechter. He received his PhD in Land of Israel Studies from Bar-Ilan University. He has written on Safed as a Holy City in the 16th Century; Jerusalem and its surroundings during the British Mandate and the early years of the establishment of Israel. Dr. Paz’s research also deals with the pioneering neighborhoods just outside the Old City walls; as well as the conservation of the architectural heritage of abandoned Palestinian neighborhoods following the 1948 War. He began his career working with at-risk youth as a counselor and administrator at a youth village.

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