VeTen Tal U-Matar

  • by: Dr. Moshe Sokolow
  • Submitted on December 13, 2001

VeTen Tal U-Matar
What is So Holy about the 4th (or 5th or 6th) of December? Some Insights into the Interplay between the Calendar and the Liturgy
By Dr. Moshe Sokolow

Dear Teacher:

In this unit, we will inquire into the basic outline and formation of the Jewish calendar and then explore the details of the liturgical insert on behalf of rain: “VeTen Tal U’Matar.” You should find this material suitable for a variety of disciplinary purposes, including tefillah, holidays, algebra, geography, astronomy, Jewish History, and comparative religions.

I. The Jewish Calendar- General Observations

A. Solar Vs. Lunar

Both the solar and the lunar cycles figure prominently in the Jewish calendar. As Rambam stipulates (Kiddush haHodesh 1:1):

חדשי השנה הם חדשי הלבנה שנאמר עולת חדש בחדשו ונאמר החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים. כך אמרו חכמים הראה לו הקב”ה למשה במראה הנבואה דמות לבנה ואמר לו כזה ראה וקדש. והשנים שאנו מחשבין הם שני החמה שנאמר שמור את חדש האביב.

i.e. The months are lunar but the year is solar.

As he explains, the mitzvah of “kiddush ha-hodesh” (Ex. 12, 2) requires lunar month (note that the English word “month” derives from the word “moon”, just as the Hebrew word “yerah,” a synonym for hodesh, derives from “yare-ah” (moon))—while the mitzvah to observe Pesah during the Spring (Deut. 16, 1) requires solar years.

B. Intercalation

Since the duration of a solar year is 365 ¼ days, while that of a lunar year is only 354 days, it became necessary to “intercalate” or merge the two calendars, through a halakhic process called Ibbur haShanah. As Rambam continues (1:2):

וכמה יתרה שנת החמה על שנת הלבנה קרוב מאחד עשר יום. לפיכך כשיתקבץ מן התוספת הזאת כמו שלשים יום או פחות מעט או יותר מעט מוסיפין חדש אחד ועושין אותה השנה שלשה עשר חדש והיא הנקראת שנה מעוברת. שאי אפשר להיות השנה שנים עשר חדש וכך וכך ימים שנאמר לחדשי השנה חדשים אתה מונה לשנה ואי אתה מונה ימים.

i.e. Since the solar year exceeds the lunar year by about eleven (11) days, as soon as about 30 extra days accumulate we add one month, making a 13-month long “leap” year.

The “ordinary” Jewish year (peshutah), as a result, consists of either 353 days (haseirah) -ח), 354 days (kesidrah-כ), or 355 days (shlema-ש), depending upon whether the months of Marheshvan and Kislev are 29 days each, 30 days each, or one is 29 and the other 30. The arrangement is based upon a series of fixed adjustments, called dehiyyot (postponements), which govern the scheduling of certain key holidays. Rosh haShana, for instance, cannot begin on either Sunday, Wednesday or Friday while Pesah cannot begin on either Monday, Wednesday or Friday.
Each year is designated by an abbreviation (simanei kviut) identifying its length, and indicating the first day of each of these holidays. Bet-Shin-Hey (בש”ה ), for example, identifies the year as a shelma (shin), with Rosh haShana on Monday (bet) and Pesah on Thursday (Hey). Zein-Kuf-Alef (זכ”א) means shana kesidrah (kuf), with Rosh haShana on Shabbat (zein) and Pesah on Sunday (alef). This year, 5749, will be a leap year, and its abbreviation is Bet-Chet-Hey (בח”ה).

The “leap” month (Adar II) is always inserted before Nissan since its purpose—as explained by the Rambam above—is to prevent the springtime holiday of Pesah from slowly retreating into the winter.

[Note: Consider the following: At the rate of 11 days per year, in 10 years’ time the lunar and solar calendars will drift apart by 110 days. If Pesah began one year, let us say, on April 15th, ten years later – without adjustment – it would fall on December 25th !]

Since the leap month adds 30 days to the year, it is instituted approximately every three years, according to a simple algebraic formula: 30 x (representing the added month) = 11Y (the days lost per year). Its solution: X=7, Y=19 (210=209); seven out of every 19 years are leap years, according to the formula: 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, 19). Each 19-year cycle is called a “lunar cycle”, or “minor cycle,” while every 28 years complete a solar, or “major cycle. (This is why birkhat haHamah is recited every 28 years.)

C. Jewish and Muslim Lunar Calendars Compared

A contrast to the “intercalated” Jewish lunar calendar is provided by the Muslim calendar, which is also lunar, but not adjusted. Since it repeats the same number of days (354) year after year, two interesting results occur:

(1) Unlike Pesah and Sukkot which are seasonally fixed, Muslim holy days—like the month of Ramadan—fall during widely divergent seasons of the year. (In Jews and Arabs, S. D. Goitein tells of the confusion and consternation with which the earliest Muslim travelers to Scandinavia greeted the strikingly different prospects of keeping a daylight fast during the 6 months of night or the 6 months of day.)

(2) Muslims age faster than Jews. When a Jew celebrates his 33rd birthday according to the Jewish calendar, a Muslim born on the same day will be celebrating his 34th birthday according to the Muslim calendar.

NOTE: Take the front page of any issue of the Jerusalem Post and show the students how it is dated according to three different eras and calendars: Jewish, Muslim and Christian. If they have already studied medieval history and know that the “Hijra” – which marks the beginning of the Muslim era – occurred in the year 621, then you can illustrate the difference between calendars this way: Subtract 621 from the current Christian year and compare the result (1997-621 = 1376) with the current Muslim year (1418). See that the same elapsed time counts for 42 more Muslim years than Christian or Jewish.

In this context there are several abbreviations they ought to recognize:

(a) Christian years are designated A.D.,Anno Domini, Latin for “years of the lord” – referring to the (mistaken) notion that Jesus was born in the year before 1. (He was really born in the year 4 B.C.E., which stands for the Common Era, a reference to the conventional dating system established by the Romans.)

(b) Muslim years are designated A.H., Anno Hijri, Latin for “years of the Hijra” (which we explained above).

(c) Jewish years are designated A.M., Anno Mundi, Latin for “years of the world,” referring to the creation which took place, according to our tradition, 5749 years ago.

II. Tal-U-Matar: The Prayer for Rain

A. Mishna and Gemara

The Mishna stipulates (Ta’anit 1:3):

בשלושה במרחשון שואלין את הגשמים. בן גמליאל אומר: בשבעה בו, חמשה עשר יום אחר החג, כדי שיגיע אחרון שבישראל לנהר פרת.

i.e. on the 3rd of Marheshvan we pray for rain. Rabban Gamliel said: On the 7th of the month, that is 15 days after the festival (of Sukkot), in order to allow the tardiest Israelite to reach the Euphrates.

According to Rabban Gamliel (whose opinion prevails), the prayer for rain in the Land of Israel is delayed only long enough to give the last pilgrims time to reach the furthest boundary (with Syria) from Jerusalem before they would be caught by the anticipated winter rains. (Were there no pilgrims, we would surmise, this prayer – like mashiv ha-ru’ah itself – would commence immediately after Shemini Atzeret)

Outside of Israel, however, the practice differed, as the Gemara (to that Mishna) explains (Ta’anit 10a):

חנניה אומר: ובגולה עד ששים בתקופה

i.e. Hananiah said: In the Diaspora (we don’t begin) until the 60th day of the season.

B. Rambam’s Codification

These two laws were codified by Rambam as follows (Tefillah 2:16):

משבעה ימים במרחשון שואלין את הגשמים בברכת שנים כל זמן שמזכיר הגשם. במה דברים אמורים בארץ ישראל אבל בשנער ובסוריא ובמצרים ובמקומות הסמוכות לאלו והדומין להן שואלין את הגשמים ביום ששים אחר תקופת תשרי

i.e., From the 7th of Marheshvan we insert the prayer for rain into the blessing for the Years whenever we mention rain (i.e. until Pesah). This is in the Land of Israel, but in Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and nearby or similar places, we pray for rain on the 60th day of the Tishrei season (i.e., the autumnal equinox).

C. Seasons (Tefkufot) and Hemispheres

First, a word about the seasons. There are four seasons to the year, corresponding to the four quadrants of the ellipse which describes the path the Earth takes in its revolutions around the sun. The following chart describes the seasons:

Northern Hemisphere Southern Hemisphere
A. 22 March – 21 June Spring (day longer than night) Fall (night longer than day)
B. 22 June – 22 September Summer (day longer than night) Winter (night longer than day)
C. 23 Sept. – 22 December Fall (night longer than day) Spring (day longer than night)
D. 23 Dec. – 21 March Winter (night longer than day) Summer (day longer than night)

Now we can see the dimensions of the problem very clearly.

Since the autumn (Tishrei) season commences – in the Northern Hemisphere, which is our primary concern – on the 23rd of September, then the 60th day later is November 21st. Why, then do we not say

Tal U-Matar until the 4th of December (13 days later)?

III. Tal-U-Matar: How we Arrived at December 4th

A. The Problem with Shemuel’s Calculations

To restate the problem we shall now endeavor to solve:

Since the autumn (Tishrei) season commences – in the Northern Hemisphere, which is our primary concern – on the 23rd of September, then the 60th day later is November 21st. Why, then do we not say

Tal U-Matar until the 4th of December (13 days later)?

The determination of the equinox (tekufa) for the purposes of Tal U-Matar was originally made according to the rules set down by the Amora Shemuel – the same who ruled that the halakhah in the Diaspora follows Hananiah – in Eiruvin 56a:

ואין בין תקופה לתקופה אלא תשעים ואחד יום ושבע שעות ומחצה

i.e., The Tekufot are separated by 91 days, 7 ½ hours.

Multiply 91 days 7 ½ hours by four seasons and the result is a year calculated to be exactly 365 ¼ days (364 days + 30 hours). The problem, however, is that a more exact astronomical calculation of the length of a year is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. As a result of this discrepancy of 11 minutes and 14 seconds, the Tekufah has slowly moved forward during the last 2,000 years at the rate of one day every 128 years, and about 8 days each millennium.

11 min. 14 sec. (11.25 hrs.) ÷ 1,440 (minutes. in a day: 60 x 24) = 128
128 ÷ 1,000 years = 7.8

B. Pope Gregory and the New Calendar

The Catholic Church, interestingly enough, was the first to address this discrepancy.

Note: The Nicene Council, in 325, had correctly fixed March 21 (the vernal equinox) as the date which would determine the Easter holiday. Each 128 years, as we explained, March 21 moved forward, relative to the sun, by one full day. By 1582 the discrepancy had reached 10 days.

Pope Gregory XIII decided to drop the extra ten days from the calendar by making the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582, into Friday, October 15, in a new calendar named “Gregorian” in his honor.

To insure that the problem remained corrected, Gregory also eliminated three leap years every 400 years (remember that the Tekufah moves forward one day every 128 years – according to Shemuel – and 3 x 128 = 384), namely, in the century years not divisible by 400. This results in an average year of 364.2425 days, at which rate it would now take 3,300 years to accumulate an extra day.

C. A Little “Jewish” Math

The result of these alterations is that – in the 20th century – the day which would have been September 23 according to the Julian (Shemuel’s) calendar is October 7 of the Gregorian calendar, and the 60th day following October 7 is December 5. Since we begin Tal U-Matar during the Ma’ariv service, it turns out to be said beginning with the night of December 4. Every fourth year, however (in the Jewish year divisible by four), the Tekufah will begin after tzet ha-kokhavim on October 7, so the 60th day on those years will be December 6, and Tal U-Matar will commence on the evening of December 5.

Note: While the Tekufah always falls on October 7, each year it begins 6 hours later – remember that it is still calculated according to Shemuel (and Julian) who assumes an exact 364¼ day year – so in each 4-year cycle the Tekufah begins, sequentially, at 3 AM, 9 AM, 3 PM and 9 PM – which is later than tzet hakokhavim.

If you are wondering how the Tekufah can always remain on October 7 when the year following 9 PM it should fall at 3 AM of October 8, remember that the year in which the Tekufah comes at 9 PM is the year preceding a civil leap year which uses up the extra day.

Since the year 2000 in the Gregorian calendar will be a leap year, too, the December 4-5 dates will continue throughout the 21st century. However, since 2100 will not be a leap year (it’s not divisible by 400), the Tekufah in 2101 will move up one day (to October 8), and Tal U-Matar will move to December 5-6.

This pattern repeats itself, so every 400 years Tal U-Matar is said three days later.

IV. Problems for Europe and the Southern Hemisphere

Thus far, we have explained how the nuances of the Julian and Gregorian calendars determine the dates on which the prayer of Tal U-Matar is inserted into birkhat hashanim. However, one major problem remains.

The Gemara in Ta’anit (see above) stipulated the 60th day of the Tishrei season as the date for beginning Tal U-Matar in the Diaspora (Golah), which refers specifically to Babylonia, and even Rambam (see above) broadened the halakhah only enough to include Syria, Egypt and countries nearby or with similar (climatological?) conditions. What has any of that to do with Europe and North America – let alone the entire Southern Hemisphere – whose climates are significantly different? Should the Jews of Brazil or Australia pray for rain from December through April, when their winter months are June-September (see the Tekufah charts above)? Does it make any sense for the Jews of the United States to pointedly stop praying for rain on the first day of Pesah when that is not too late – in some places – even for snow and, in any event, it continues to rain throughout the year?

A. Mishnah and Gemara

To answer these questions, we have to go back to the Gemaraand return, via medieval and modern responsa, to the present. The Gemara, first of all, makes provision for different climates, allowing the prayer for Tal U-Matar to be inserted in the blessing of Shome’a Tefillah, rather than Birkhat haShanim (Ta’anit 14b):

שלחו ליה בני נינוה לרבי: כגון אנן, דאפילו בתקופת תמוז בעינן מטרא, היכי נעביד? כיחידים דמינן או כרבים דמינן? כיחידים דמינן- וב”שומע תפלה”, או כרבים דמינן ובברכת השנים? שלח להו: כיחידים דימתו, וב”שומע תפלה”.

i.e., The inhabitants of Nineveh inquired of Rabbi (Yehuda the Nasi): We who need rain even during the summer – how shall we act? As individuals (who insert their prayer) during Shome’a Tefillah, or as a community (entitled to add the insert) during Birkhat haShanim? Rabbi replied: You are regarded as individuals and (should pray for rain) during Shome’a Tefillah.

The Gemara rules according to Rabbi, but it also records the conflicting opinions of Rabbi Yehuda and Rav Nahman who permit local communities – such as Nineveh – to recite Tal U-Matar in the Birkhat haShanim at whatever time suits them best:

בזמן הזה- הכל לפי השנים, הכל לפי המקומות, הכל לפי הזמן!

While it is clear, then, that Diaspora communities can only say Tal U-Matar in Birkhat haShanim during their winter, it is unclear whether the Gemara intended them to follow the custom of Eretz Yisrael and begin on 7 Marheshvan, or to follow Bavel and begin on the 60th day of the Tekufah. Furthermore, since – even with Nineveh – it only relates to the summer season in Eretz Yisrael–it still fails to resolve the dilemma created by the unique situation of the Southern Hemisphere!

We shall deal, here, with two representative examples: Provence and Brazil.

[Note: A comprehensive survey of all the data pertaining to this problem, drawn from a host of rishonim and acharonim, is contained in an essay entitled: The Jewish Prayer for Rain in the Post-Talmudic Diaspora by Arnold and Daniel Lasker, which appears in the A.J.S. Review vol. IX no. 2 (Fall, 1984), particularly on pages 150-161.]

B. Provence and the Custom of R. Asher

In the Middle Ages we find, in practice, that Europe (and North Africa) followed the Babylonian custom – with the definite exception of Provence (and the possible exception of Kairouan, Tunisia) which followed the custom of Eretz Yisrael. While their actual practices are well attested to, their origins, however, are not, and it remains uncertain whether they were originally based upon Talmudic exegesis or meteorology.

In other words, when Hananiah describes the practice of Babylonia, he refers to it as “the Golah.” Is that just an idiomatic expression, or was it intended all along to denote ALL Diaspora communities? On the other hand, it just so happens that in Provence (and Tunisia) the rainy season begins in September or October.

The Provencal custom is reported approvingly by R. Asher in his commentary on Ta’anit 12 b, as follows:

ותמה אני למה אנו נוהגין כבני גולה בהא. נהי דהש”ס שלנו בבלי מ”מ דבר התלוי בארץ אם בבל היתה מצולת מים ולא היו צריכות למים כל הארצות צריכין למים במרחשון למה נאחר השאלה עד ששים לתקופה. והדבר ידוע אם לא היה מטר יורד עד ששים לתקופה היה הזרע אבד ולמה לא נעשה כמשנתנו. ובפרובינצא ראיתי שהיו שואלין את בגשמים המרחשון וישר מאד בעיני.

i.e., I am surprised that we follow the Babylonian practice in this regard. While our Talmud is Babylonian, the matter (of praying for rain) depends upon the Land (of Israel). Why should we not follow their custom? Even if Babylonia has abundant water and does not need rain, other countries need rain in Marheshvan so why delay the prayer until the 60th day of the season? Why should we not follow the ruling of the Mishnah? In Provence I have seen that they pray for rain beginning with Marheshvan and I heartily approve!

R. Asher, in fact, not only argued for starting Tal U-Matar in Marheshvan, but – in a Teshuvah he wrote in 1313 (number 4:10 of his responsa) – argued that the prayer could even be continued beyond Pesah and all the way to Shavu’ot if local conditions warranted it. This opinion, however, was rejected even by his son in the Tur, and the phraseology of the Shulchan Arukh dispels all the ambiguity which inheres in the Talmudic term Golah by stating categorically (Orah Hayyim 117:1):

ומתחילין לשאול מטר בחוצה לארץ .. יום ס’ אחר תקופת תשרי

i.e., Outside of the Land of Israel one begins the prayer … on the 60th day of the autumn season.

Note: To contrast two more recent opinions, Abraham Geiger, the Reform leader, ruled that German Jews might say Tal U-Matar all year round, while the Arukh haShulchan – perhaps in reaction? — stipulates that:

וכן הלכה וכל המפקפק בזה ראוי לעונש

i.e., Whoever doubts the law [decided in the Shulchan Arukh] deserves to be punished.

Incidentally, in referring to the rejection of the decision of R. Asher, he adds:

מ”מ כתב הרא”ש בעצמו שלא נתקבלו דבריו כלל ע”ש ואכלו יצא בת קול לעשות כבני בבל.

Since R. Asher himself acknowledged that his opinion was not accepted, it is as though a heavenly voice (bat kol) decreed to follow Babylonian custom.

C. The Southern Hemisphere

Interestingly enough, the first she’elah to be sent back to Europe from the “New World” concerned Tal U-Matar.

The first Jewish settlement in the New World began, in 1637, in the Portuguese colony of Recife, in Brazil, and one of the first religious problems they encountered was reckoning the proper time to say Tal U-Matar. On the one hand they were all accustomed to following the Babylonian custom, which had won out, time and again, over all attempts — such as that of R. Asher — to modify it in accordance with local conditions. On the other hand, however, was the overwhelming illogic of praying for rain during Brazil’s summer, and forgoing the prayer precisely when rain was needed, just because the tradition was founded in another era and a different hemisphere!

Congregation Zur Yisrael raised this question in a letter to Rabbi Chaim Shabbetai of Salonica, whose answer set the precedent by which most of the Jews of South America and Australia abide to this very day. Basing himself upon the opinions of Rambam [one in his commentary to Mishna Ta’anit, and the other in the Mishne Torah, Tefillah 2:17, and taking the responsum of R. Asher into consideration, Rabbi Shabbetai ruled that since during the months of Nisan through Tishreiprayers for rain may be recited only in Shome’a Tefillah as individuals], and since one should not have to pray for rain at a time in which it would be harmful for him, therefore the Jews of Brazil should:

(a) never say Tal U-Matar in Birkhat haShanim;
(b) never even say Mashiv haRu’ah U’Morid haGeshem
(c) during their winter they were entitled, however, to say Tal U-Matar in Shome’a Tefillah if the need arose.

[Note: While Veten Tal U-Matar Uveracha constitutes the entire prayer for rain in the Ashkenazic liturgy, the Sephardic prayer for rain actually changes the whole text of Birkhat HaShanim. Here, for purposes of comparison, are their versions of this brakha: Sephardic-Summer, and Sephardic-Winter. The Sephardic texts are from the Siddur of the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue, known as She’erith Israel.]

It may be of interest to note, in closing, that since South American Sephardic Jews do not say Tal U-Matar in Birkhat HaSHanim at all, many of them have never seen the Winter version!


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