Beginning today, December 6, 2015, Jews in the Diaspora will add a supplication for rain to the Amidah prayer said three times daily – a petition they will continue reciting through the first day of Passover, next April, when they revert to the request for dew.
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The prayer for rain, which asks God to “bestow dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth,” has a number of curious characteristics. First, it is the only Jewish ritual whose start in the Diaspora is tied to the Gregorian civil calendar, rather than the Hebrew one, though its termination (back to dew) reverts to Hebrew timing. The reason for this is simple, even if its scheduling requires some explanation.
Don't rain on my parade
The blessing, which has been part of the liturgy since at least the Second Temple period (538 BCE to 70 CE), is a request for adequate winter rains, and is timed to begin with the start of the wet season.
There are two special, long prayers for rain said specially on Yom Kippur and on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day after the start of Sukkot. The Amidah also has an earlier section, the “Gvurot” (“Powers”), the second of the prayer’s 19 benedictions, that mentions rain as one of the wonders practiced by God, but not explicitly requesting rain, Jews everywhere add this to their daily prayers too on Shemini Atzeret.
But the routine daily request for rain only starts after Sukkot, and not by coincidence. In the Land of Israel, at least until climate change began to kick in, the rains have always reliably begun only after Sukkot.
Sukkot is the festival when Jews dwell in roofless booths for a week, and when, in ancient times, they journeyed to Jerusalem, to sacrifice at the Temple. Since rain is not conducive to either of those activities, they gave themselves a window of 15 days to get home safely before adding the lines about rain to their daily prayers.
In Israel, the daily prayer begins to include the supplication for rain - “Vetein tal vematar” (“bestow dew and rain”) - on Heshvan 7, which is 15 days after Shemini Atzeret (this year falling on October 20).
In the Diaspora, however, the prayer is linked to the season, not to Sukkot. While the Hebrew calendar is lunar-based, the seasons of the year, even in the Jewish tradition, are tied to the solar year, meaning the period of time required for the earth to complete a full revolution of the sun, 365-plus days.
Because the rainy season in the Diaspora (which two millennia ago basically meant Babylonia) was understood to start later, the rabbis ruled that the supplication for rain should begin there 60 days after the start of “halakhic autumn.”
The halakhic seasons were determined by the Talmudic Rabbi Samuel of 2nd-century C.E. Babylonia, who succeeded in calculating the length of the solar year at 365 days and six hours, and divided that year into four seasons, which basically approximate the seasons as they were marked on the Julian calendar.
In 1582, the Western world moved from the Julian calendar to the more accurate Gregorian calendar, which is based on a slightly longer solar year. Without entering into all the technical details, suffice it to say that, on the Gregorian calendar, during the current century, 60 days after the start of halakhic autumn is December 5. In years, such as 2015, that precede a leap year, Diaspora Jews begin saying the prayer for rain a day later, December 6. Because the Jewish day begins at nightfall, the recitation of the prayer actually commenced last evening.