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Insertions for Shemoneh Esrei (2)

  • Rav David Brofsky



            Last week, we began our discussion of insertions, as we focused on Mashiv Ha-ruach.  We explained that we begin mentioning God's power to bring rain (gevurot geshamim) on Shemini Atzeret, the final day of the festival of Sukkot (Chag in the Talmud), during the Musaf prayer.  We explored various halakhot related to Mashiv Ha-ruach, including what one should do upon inadvertently omitting or adding it in the wrong season.


            This week, we will study the laws of Ve-ten Tal, which the Talmud calls "she'elat geshamim," the petition for rain, inserted into the ninth blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei, Birkat Ha-shanim (the Blessing of the Years).


Ve-ten Tal: Petitioning for Rain in Eretz Yisrael:


            The need for rain, which is so crucial for life in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, lies at the center of the spiritual life of a Jew in the Holy Land.  The Torah (Devarim 11:13-21) explains, as we recite twice each day in the Shema, that rain — indeed, the very success or failure of a year’s crops — are a function of the Jewish people's adherence to the mitzvot.  In fact, the tractate of Ta'anit is dedicated, primarily, to the Jewish people's pleading for rain and their response to drought.  (All Talmudic sources in this shiur are from there unless otherwise indicated.)    


            The Mishna (1:3) teaches:


On the third of the month of Marcheshvan, we begin petitioning for rain.  Rabban Gamliel says, "On the seventh, fifteen days after Chag, allowing the last of the pilgrims to reach the Euphrates."


            This indicates that the Jews in Eretz Yisrael took the plight of their brethren, who had to return to Babylonia, into account; in fact, Rabbi Elazar rules in the Gemara (10a) that the halakha follows Rabban Gamli'el.  Some Rishonim (see Ritva and Me'iri, ad loc.) explain that we are concerned not only about their journey; we are also afraid that they may regret their decision to travel to Yerushalayim for the festival and may refrain from doing so in the future.


            The Gemara (4b) mentions another reason for delaying the petitioning for rain in Eretz Yisrael.  The Talmud fears that early rains may ruin the fruits still in the fields ("peirei be-davra"). 


            The Rishonim (see Ritva10a, Ran 2a) discuss whether in our days, after the destruction of the Temple, we should begin inserting Ve-ten Tal immediately after Sukkot, as there is no longer any reason to delay petitioning for rain. 


            While the Ritva and the Ran rule that one should begin petitioning for rain immediately after Sukkot, the Rif, and the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 2:15) rule that even after the destruction, one should still wait until the seventh of Marcheshvan.  The Ran explains that we still must be concerned with those who continue to visit Yerushalayim even AFTER the destruction of the Temple.  Others assume that Rabban Gamli'el simply records a "lo pelug," an "indiscriminate" ruling which no longer takes specific situations into account.


 Asking for Rain in the Diaspora — Julian and Gregorian Calendars:


            The Gemara (10a) states further that in the Diaspora, we begin petitioning for rain on the sixtieth day after the autumnal equinox.


            The equinox, i.e. the moment in time (not a whole day) when the center of the sun can be observed to be directly above the Earth's equator, occurs twice a year, the vernal in spring and the autumnal in fall.  As the latter is on 23 September each civil year, the sixtieth day of the autumnal equinox would occur on 21 November.  However, our custom is to begin inserting Ve-ten Tal on the evening of 4 December, thirteen days later!


            Interestingly, the Talmud's calculation is based upon the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE), which assumes that the year consisted of four seasons, each consisting of 91 days and 7½ hours, equaling 365 and ¼ days (364 days + 30 hours).  The Roman Catholic Church, in the sixteenth century, realized that a more precise astronomical calculation of the length of a year is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds, a difference of 11 minutes and 14 seconds each year. 


            This seemingly harmless discrepancy caused the autumnal and vernal equinox to move forward in relation to the secular calendar at a rate of one day every 128 years, and about 8 days each millennium.  In other words, the equinox would occur earlier and earlier each year!


            The Church's involvement concerned the celebration of Easter.  The Nicene Council, in 325, fixed 21 March, the vernal equinox, as the date which would determine the Easter holiday.  Yet, every 128 years, as we explained, the vernal equinox occurred another day earlier than 21 March.  By 1582, the discrepancy had reached 10 days!


            Pope Gregory XIII decided to "drop" the extra ten days from the calendar, a decision the apparently only the pope can make, by making the day after Thursday, 4 October, 1582, into Friday, 15 October, in a new calendar named the "Gregorian calendar" in his honor.  Furthermore, he decreed that century years not divisible by 400 would not be leap years.


            Accordingly, in the twentieth century, the autumnal equinox would fall out on 7 October of the Julian calendar, and on 23 September of the Gregorian calendar.  


            The custom throughout the world is for Jewish communities to begin inserting Ve-ten Tal on the sixtieth day following the Julian autumnal equinox, on 5 December.  While usually, since we begin inserting Ve-ten Tal during Tefillat Arvit the night before, we actually begin on the night of 4 December, every fourth year (preceding the February which will have 29 days, such as 2007) the equinox occurs on the NIGHT of 7 October, and therefore the 60th day after the autumnal equinox in those years is on 6 December.  If so, Ve-ten Tal is inserted the night before, on 5 December.  Interestingly, in 2101 the equinox, according to the Julian calendar, will move up one day, to 8 October, and we will begin inserting Ve-ten Tal on 5 or 6 December.


            While clearly the Gregorian calendar is far more precise, and therefore theoretically we should begin inserting Ve-ten Tal on 21 November, our custom is to rely upon the Julian calendar, and to begin to petition for rain on 4 or 5 December. 


For more information regarding these calculations, see



 Petitioning for Rain in Alternate Climates:


            Aside from the technical task of identifying the proper time of sixty days after the autumnal equinox, the Rishonim question whether one's petition for rain outside of Eretz Yisra'el should take the different agricultural needs of the Diaspora communities into account. 


            On the one hand, the Gemara (14b) records:


            The inhabitants of Nineveh inquired of Rabbi: "We, who need rain even during the summer, how shall we act? As individuals [who insert their prayer] during Shome'a Tefilla, or as a community [entitled to insert it] during Birkat Ha-shanim?"

            Rabbi replied: "You are regarded as individuals and [should pray for rain] during Shome'a Tefilla."

            The halakha is that [one may insert Ve-ten Tal] in Shome'a Tefilla.


            According to this passage, a Diaspora COMMUNITY which needs rain during the summer should insert Ve-ten Tal during the berakha of Shome'a Tefilla, the thirteenth and final blessing of request in Shemoneh Esrei


            However, while the Gemara quite clearly allows individuals or even communities to insert Ve-ten Tal in Shome'a Tefilla, it does NOT indicate whether an entire country or geographical area which needs its rainfall during a different time than Eretz Yisra'el or Babylonia may actually insert Ve-ten Tal during different times than those mentioned by the Gemara.


            The Rambam, in his Commentary to the Mishna (1:3) writes:


            This (i.e., the laws of fasting in response to droughts) applies in Eretz Yisrael, as well as in areas of similar climates…

            However, in other lands, the petition [for rain] should begin at a time which is appropriate for rain in that place, and that day is to be considered like the seventh of Marcheshvan, in which case if rain does not come according to the proportions mentioned here, then they must fast as is mentioned here…

            There are some places in which Marcheshvan would be during their summer, and rain would not be a blessing, but rather would destroy and obliterate; therefore, how can the residents of those areas ask for rain?!


            While the Rambam posits in his Commentary to the Mishna that the petition for rain should depend upon one's location, he seems to reject this stance in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefilla 2:17). 


            The Rosh (1:4) writes, regarding this issue:


            I am surprised that we follow the Babylonian practice in this regard.  While our Talmud is Babylonian, the matter 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 Marcheshvan, so why delay the prayer until the 60th day of the season?  Why should we not follow the ruling of the Mishna?  In Provence, I have seen that they pray for rain beginning with Marcheshvan, and I heartily approve!


            The Rosh argues that one may begin inserting Ve-ten Tal immediately after Sukkot.  Furthermore, in his responsum (4:10), written in 1313, he argues that, because in Europe the rains are most needed after Pesach, one may continue saying Ve-ten Tal even until Shavuot.


            The Rosh bemoans that while he had repeatedly complained that the communities of Ashkenaz should insert Ve-ten Tal when they actually need precipitation, he himself had to refrain from this practice, as it contradicted the common custom. 


            While the Shulchan Arukh clearly rejects the Rosh's opinion, he rules that one who mistakenly petitions for rain during the summer months in an area that indeed needs precipitation should NOT repeat the Shemoneh Esrei, in deference to the Rosh's view; rather, one should but rather should offer a tefillat nedava, a voluntary prayer. 


She'elat Geshamim in the Southern Hemisphere:


            While the Rosh grapples with the appropriate time for inserting Ve-ten Tal during the winter and spring months in Europe, in the southern hemisphere, where the winter months are between Nisan and Tishrei, the question becomes even more acute.


            One of the first Jewish settlements in the New World was founded in 1637, in the Portuguese colony of Recife, Brazil.  One of the first questions with which they struggled with concerned the liturgy and the appropriate time to petition for rain.  Congregation Tzur Yisra'el wrote to Rabbi Chayyim Shabbetai of Salonika, author of the Torat Chayyim, and posed their question.


            Rabbi Shabbetai rules, in his Teshuvot Torat Chayyim (3:3), that the Jews of Brazil should omit Ve-ten Tal and Mashiv Ha-ruach in their usual contexts; rather, they should insert Ve-ten Tal into Shome'a Tefilla during THEIR winter months. 


            He bases his ruling upon the Rambam's comments in the Commentary to the Mishna, mentioned above, as well as the position of the Rosh.  Furthermore, he points out that the potential damage to the peirei be-davra, according to the Gemara (4b), is a sufficient reason to delay (or omit) Ve-ten Tal.   


            Similarly, Rabbi Natan Adler, in the mid-nineteenth century (see She'arim Metzuyyanim Be-halakha 19:3), advised the Jewish communities of Australia to follow the ruling of Rabbi Chayyim Shabbetai. 


            Others distinguish between cases in which summer rains will actually cause damage, in which case one may omit Ve-ten Tal, and situations in which rain is not harmful, in which case the community should follow the custom of their brethren throughout the world who petition for rain between Sukkot and Pesach.  See Ishei Yisra'el, Ch. 23, Note 163 for further discussion.



            Next week we will conclude our study of Ve-ten Tal as we discuss the laws relating to one who mistakenly omits or adds she'elat geshamim during the wrong season.  Furthermore, we will address the quandary of one who travels between Israel and the Diaspora after 7 Marcheshvan and before 4 December.