Given the agricultural economy of ancient Israel and the long dry spells that were the reality of Palestinian climate, praying for rain or dew, represented a central aspect of early worship. The invocation of rain was a most serious matter, for drought meant hunger and death. The date chosen for the chanting of the special prayer for rain was Shemini Azeret.

Shemini Azeret (usually translated "the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly") is the concluding day of the Sukkot festival. During the holiday, the thousands of pilgrims who would come to Jerusalem from all over Palestine, most of them farmers, would watch anxiously the drift of the smoke from the altar in the Temple. If it drifted toward the north, they looked forward to plenty of rain, while if it turned toward the south they were apprehensive that the rain would be scarce.

After Shemini Azeret, a phrase celebrating God's power to bring the rain — "You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall" — is inserted in the Amidah prayer, and recited until Passover. The praise of God as the dispenser of rain is referred to in the Mishnah[1] which ordains that it should be mentioned together with the resurrection of the dead, as both the sustenance of the living and the resurrection of the dead are manifestations of the gevurot ("powers") of God. Another prayer for rain is recited in the ninth blessing of the Amidah.

sOut of this practice developed a special prayer called Geshem (Rain) which has become the most distinctive feature of the day itself, as observed in the synagogue. Although many such poems have been written, only those of Elazar Kallir[2] were actually introduced into the synagogue service.

Although Geshem takes into consideration the specific needs of the Land of Israel, the custom of reciting it has been maintained after the exile, when Jews lived in other countries and in different climes. When a number of Spanish exiles settled in Brazil in the middle of the 17th century and found that the rainy season there came at a different time of the year, they turned to a rabbi in Salonica to inquire whether they would be justified in changing the recital of the prayer for rain from the winter to the summer months. This interesting question is the first recorded legal inquiry directed by Jews of the New World to those of the Old. While this was permitted to them, the Geshem prayer on Shemini Azeret still remained in vogue, as this was intended not merely as a prayer but also as a historic reminiscence of the indissoluble relationship of the Jews with the soil of Palestine.

Elazar Kallir's Geshem is a composition of six piyyutim (liturgical poems); it ends with a short petition for rain or for dew, the last words of which are "for You are the Lord Who makes the wind blow and brings down the rain/dew," recalling the early phrase inserted in the Amidah prayer. The following selection[3] is an alphabetical acrostic in the original Hebrew. The six stanzas recount righteous acts relating to water by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron and the twelve tribes; God is implored to send rain, a source of blessing for the land, for their sake. By offering this prayer at the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, Jews everywhere affirm their eternal bond with the Holy Land.

[1] Ta'anit 1:2; Berakhot 5:2 [Back]
[2] Elazar Kallir is considered the greatest and most prolific of the early liturgical poets and one of the most influential. Although little biographical information is available about his life, we do know that he lived in Erez Yisrael (and resided in Tiberias) some time before the 8th century; his poems had a significant influence on the formation of the festival prayers already in the eighth and ninth centuries. [Back]
[3] Translation by Ben Zion Bokser. "The Prayerbook: Weekday, Sabbath and Festivals" (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1946) [Back] 
From: The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973, 1988. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

RAIN Table of Contents



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