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In the Rains, Talmudic Symbols of Goodwill, Punishment, and a Deep Covenant

The Torah sages study and respond to natural phenomena in an effort to understand our place on Earth

Adam Kirsch
June 24, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo ecstaticist)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo ecstaticist)

Literary criticAdam Kirschis readinga page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you may live.” These words from Deuteronomy 30:19 are some of the most famous in the Torah, since they perfectly summarize the Jewish idea that the service of God through his mitzvot is the key to life itself. But while the identity of God and life might strike us today as an inspiring metaphor, in its original context it is anything but metaphorical. Most of Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ final speech to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land, and the climax of that speech is an extremely concrete set of promises and threats. If the Israelites obey God faithfully, they will enjoy plenty, security, and success in battle; if they stray from God’s path, they will be punished with famine, disease, defeat, and exile. Nowhere in the Torah does God’s covenant more clearly resemble a contract, with built-in penalties for non-performance.

For an agricultural people—as the Israelites became when they settled in the Land of Israel, in contrast to their cattle-herding ancestors—the single most important blessing, the most overt sign of divine favor or punishment, was rain. The rain was literally a gift from Heaven, and an essential one: Without the right amount of rainfall at the right season of the year, the people starved. Naturally, every human culture developed techniques for urging the gods to send rain—charms, dances, incantations, rituals. For the Jews, the crucial technique for ending a drought was fasting, a physical ordeal that symbolized spiritual abjection. If, according to the logic of Deuteronomy, God withheld the rain as a punishment for sin, then only repentance could bring the rain back.

Only once the close connection between rain and fasting is established can we understand why Tractate Ta’anit—whose name comes from the Hebrew word for fast-day—begins with a long discussion of rain. This tractate, which Daf Yomi readers began last week, is devoted to the laws governing fasts; but we are now 10 pages into chapter 1, and the word “fast” has not yet been mentioned. Instead, the rabbis begin their discussion by talking about when and how Jews should pray for rain. This involves figuring out when the rainy season in the Land of Israel starts and ends, and whether those dates are different in other countries, especially Babylonia, where many of the sages of the Talmud lived. Along the way, the rabbis engage in a good deal of biblical analysis, bringing up many passages where rain is mentioned as one of God’s greatest powers.

During the rainy season, the words “He makes the wind blow and the rain fall” are inserted into the Amidah prayer. This is both an acknowledgment of God’s power over the rain and an implicit request that he send it at the appropriate time. By the same token, in the summer, when the crops are growing and additional rain would be bad for them, we do not mention the rain, since we don’t want to remind God of a blessing that at this time would be a curse. But when do we start and stop inserting these words into the prayer? When do we want the rain to fall?

The mishna on Ta’anit 2a explains that the timing of the prayer is tied to the festivals. We begin to “mention the might of the rain,” in the Talmud’s words, on Sukkot, the autumn festival, and we stop mentioning it on Passover, the spring festival. The rabbis disagree, however, about exactly what days of these festivals are meant. According to Rabbi Eliezer, we begin to pray for rain on the first day of Sukkot, while Rabbi Yehoshua says we should begin on the last day. Yehoshua makes the cogent point that, in fact, we do not want God to start sending rain at the beginning of Sukkot, because that would make it impossible for us to dwell in the sukkah, which has an open roof. Indeed, the notes to the Koren Talmud explain that, according to Rashi, when it rains during Sukkot it is a sign that God is angry at the Jewish people, since he is rejecting their attempt to fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah.

Eliezer acknowledges the justice of Yehoshua’s objection. However, he maintains that we can still insert the words “He makes the wind blow and the rain fall” starting on the first day of Sukkot, because this is not actually a request for rain, simply an acknowledgment of God’s power over the rain. But Yehoshua is not convinced, and he rebuts Eliezer’s argument, pointing out that by this logic, we might as well mention rain in the Amidah all year long. No, the mishna concludes, “One requests rain only preceding the rainy season.” Specifically, we begin to mention rain during the last prayer service on the last day of Sukkot, and we continue to include these words in the Amidah until the first prayer service on the first day of Pesach.

‘Any Torah scholar who is not as hard as iron is not a Torah scholar.’

The subject of rain naturally leads the Gemara to make a series of meteorological observations. What is striking about these is that the rabbis are full of practical wisdom about the weather, yet they never attribute their conclusions to their observation or experience; rather, they manage to find a scriptural basis for all their maxims. In Ta’anit 9b, for instance, Rabbi Eliezer comes close to describing what we now know as the water cycle when he says, “The entire world drinks from the waters of the ocean.” This is basically accurate—ocean water evaporates and turns into precipitation, returning to the earth in the form of rain. (When Rabbi Yehoshua objects that ocean water is salty while rainwater is not, Eliezer says that “the waters are sweetened in the clouds.”) Yet Eliezer’s statement rests not on scientific argument, but on Genesis’s account of Creation: “And there went up a mist from the earth and watered the face of the whole ground.” It’s a good question whether Eliezer really derived his theory from this biblical description, or whether he simply wanted to buttress his scientific principles with scripture, just as the sages regularly tie their legal reasoning to specific verses.

Less scientifically plausible is the rabbis’ pious notion that God reserves the best rainwater for the Land of Israel: “Eretz Yisrael drinks first, and the entire world afterward.” Just so, the Gemara explains, “a person who kneads the cheese after it has curdled takes the food and leaves the refuse.” Enough of the rabbis had experience of life in Babylonia and the Land of Israel to be able to compare the rain in the two countries and know that they were not qualitatively different. But their reverence for the Holy Land leads them to accept this metaphysical difference in rainfall.

Still less empirical is Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s remark that “the entire world drinks from the runoff of the Garden of Eden.” But the Gemara not only accepts this idea, it uses it as the basis for a geographical calculation. Ordinarily, the rabbis argue, “from the runoff of a beit kor, a half-se’a can be watered.” The Koren Talmud helpfully explains these measurements, which boil down to the idea that a field is 60 times larger than the area watered by its runoff. By this logic, the Garden of Eden must be 60 times larger than the Earth. This equation reverses our usual sense of the Garden of Eden as a particularly choice region of the planet; rather, the planet itself is just a particular region of the much larger realm that is the Garden. The Gemara goes on to say that, just as the Garden is 60 times larger than the Earth, so Eden itself is 60 times larger than its Garden; and Gehenna, the Jewish Hell, is 60 times larger than that. Indeed, “the entire world is like a pot cover for Gehenna.” This is a disturbing cosmology, in which all of existence is just a tiny fragment of a much larger hellscape.

During the long discussion of rain, the sages take a moment to turn aside and discuss one of their favorite subjects, which is the characteristics of sages. This might seem like egotism, and perhaps it is, but it is also a reflection of the rabbis’ sense that Torah study is the acme of human existence—a subject so important that it can never be out of place. Thus in Ta’anit 4a, Rava lists several kinds of precipitation and the benefits they bring: “Snow brings benefits to the mountains; strong rain to trees; light rain to fruit; and drizzle is even beneficial to a seed under a clod of earth.” Rava goes on to compare the Torah scholar to such a seed: “Once he sprouts, he continues to sprout.”

This is the cue for the Talmud to mention other sayings about Torah scholars—for instance, “The Torah scholar who grows angry, it is his Torah study that angers him.” This is in keeping with a number of other things we have heard about Torah scholars in the Talmud; they are often described as difficult men, short-tempered and prone to wrath. Rav Ashi seconds the point: “Any Torah scholar who is not as hard as iron is not a Torah scholar.” No wonder the pupil is supposed to tremble before his teacher. Yet Ravina goes on to make another point that the Talmud frequently insists on: “And even so, one is required to teach himself to act gently.” Anger, the Talmud suggests, is the sage’s standing temptation; after all, he is a pious man surrounded by a lot of Jews who don’t know or perhaps even care about the law. Who wouldn’t get angry? Yet the temptation must be overcome, both for the sage’s own sake and because an effective leader can’t be mad all the time. To combine strength with sweetness is the difficult ideal the Talmud demands of those who would be its servants.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study,click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.