When We Pray for Rain, Is It Because We Actually Want It?

When We Pray for Rain, Is It Because We Actually Want It?

The Hebrew month of Shevat looms large in Jewish ecological consciousness, and for me doubly so. For in addition to Tu B’shevat, the holiday of trees, the 21st of Shevat is the yahrzeit of my brother Jonathan. A few months before he passed away from cancer, my shul took it upon itself to purchase a grove of olive trees in the north of Israel. Dedicated to my brother’s healing – and eventually to his memory – our goal in purchasing this grove was to establish an educational farm, a place where people unfamiliar with farming could work the land, grow their own personal roots, and learn about Judaism and agriculture. 

Over the last few years I’ve come to amend that mission. No longer do I suggest to visitors that they’ll learn about Judaism’s view of agriculture, but rather, they’ll learn about Judaism itself. For as it turns out, more than 240 mitzvot of the 613 traditionally ascribed to the Torah actually emanate from working the land. In other words, more than a third of our tradition draws inspiration from agricultural practice. And yet, most Jews, myself included, are urban-dwellers, which among other things means we’ve most likely missed out on appreciating a great deal of what Judaism has to offer the world.

Given the breadth of such content, this blog post can only possibly address a small portion of what Jewish agricultural practices have to teach us about Judaism itself. I, therefore, will focus on one particular idea. And in the spirit of Sinai and Synapses, this idea will focus on how Jewish practice endeavors to be consistent with the best available scientific information at any given time.

Here are but a few examples:

Prayer for Rain 

In truth, there are two additions to our daily prayer service that include prayers associated with rain. The first addition – “Who makes the wind blow and the rain fall” – is included in the second blessing of the silent amidah, or devotional prayer, which otherwise discusses God’s many powers, including the ability of someday resurrecting the dead. Rain is mentioned again in the ninth blessing, which is primarily concerned with financial or physical well-being. 

Although both of these additions mention rain, with the first one added on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, immediately following Sukkot, and the second added 15 days later, on the 7th of Heshvan (at least in Israel) – they contain different motivations. We pray for rain in the second addition, acknowledging both our need – and desire – for rain for the well-being of our crops and economic livelihood. Before the 7th of Heshvan, though, we don’t actually want rain to fall, for during this time many Jews will still be traveling the roads, returning to their homes near the Euphrates from their pilgrimage during Sukkot to Jerusalem. If it rained during this time, their travels would be more arduous and potentially dangerous. So, since we don’t want the rain, we don’t pray for it. 

What, then, is the first addition referenced above, the one recited two weeks earlier on Shmini Atzeret? Here, we mention rain – but don’t pray for it – as this is the time in Israel, which has both a rainy and a dry season, that rain is likely to fall. So while we may not actually want any rain at this time, our words must acknowledge the meteorological truth. Halacha follows the scientific reality.

Perhaps we should add here that not only does halacha rely on scientific reality, but sometimes theological values do as well. Consider the first addition of rain we mentioned above, the one placed in the second blessing of the amidah, which thematically includes the resurrection of the dead. Why is it placed there? Would it not be more logical, given the connection between rain and material prosperity (the root for both of these words is the same -–g, sh, m), to include it in the ninth blessing, where financial well-being is addressed and the prayer for rain appears? 

One answer offered specifically connects rain to God’s power of resurrection. The problem with this power, of course, is that no one has ever witnessed it in action, and this lack of verification, in turn, makes it difficult to believe in resurrection on purely rational grounds – unless, the Rabbis seem to be saying, you look to nature. Each year there is a cycle. As winter approaches, the trees seem to die; fruit is harvested, leaves fall, trees become barren, crops disappear. It is exactly at this time, though, that the winter rains come and secretly resurrect all of nature. True, we don’t see any of it just yet. It is taking place under the ground, at the level of the roots, hidden to humanity. But it is taking place. And thanks to rain – which in Israel is often accompanied by storms, wind and dismal weather in general – the spring will bring forth a new crop, new fruits, new life. The Rabbis placed this prayer for rain, therefore, in the blessing of resurrection. It is not about financial success, but rather the possibility for spiritual growth.

Orlah and the First Fruits

Another agricultural example where science and halacha are in sync with one another relates to the commandment of orlah. This mitzvah, as described in Leviticus 19:23-25, commands, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten.” Why do we have to wait three years before enjoying the literal fruits of our labor?

While many commentators offer what one might call “religious” responses, the Sefer HaChinuch suggests a practical reason as underpinning any theological goal: 

“God wanted man to be inspired to praise God, and this is easier with the beginning of the best fruits of his trees; so that one associates the pleasantness of God with the blessings of his fruit. And the Ramban explained in his commentaries (on Leviticus 19:23) that … within the first three years, the fruit is not fit to offer, since it is meager; and also because the tree does not give taste or a good fragrance into its fruit then; also because most trees do not put out fruit at all until the fourth year from their planting. So it makes logical sense to wait. And he also wrote that the truth of the thing is also that the fruit at the beginning of its planting until the fourth year is full of moisture that is very clingy, which injures the body and [so] is not good to eat.” 

A quick Google search of when fruit trees begin to produce fruit will confirm this perspective in a few ways. First, almost all horticultural sites note that most fruit trees don’t produce any fruit for the first couple of years, and many may only begin in years 3 – 5. They will then also note that even when fruit is produced, it is often lacking in quality until those later years. Indeed, this has been my experience with olive trees. 

But the link between good halacha and good science is not just to be found in this general overview. As one enters further and further into the field of halachic study, it becomes more and more obvious that the Rabbis constructed the halacha with a deep sensitivity to proper agronomic behavior. For but one small example, consider the question of how one is to behave during the first couple of years after planting a fruit tree. During this time, the halacha advises one to pick the orlah fruit from one’s tree, even though one is ultimately prohibited from benefiting from such fruit in any way (and thus it is usually burned, buried or thrown away in any event).

Why waste the time and effort of picking the fruit just to dispose of it? Two answers are provided: First, in removing the prohibited fruit, we ensure one doesn’t accidentally use something forbidden in an instance when someone mistakenly thought the tree was older than it actually was. Second, and more relevant to our discussion, from an agronomic perspective, it is recommended to clip the flowers during orlah years to prevent fruit from developing. This avoids wasting the tree’s energy, which can now be invested in the roots and branches, encouraging a better harvest during permissible years. Hence, we see how good agricultural practice inspires halachic decision-making.

Shmita and Focusing Nourishment

One last example. During the Shmita, or Sabbatical, year, it is forbidden halachically to prune a tree. At first blush, this seems an odd prohibition. The mitzvah is not to “plow and sow, reap and harvest.” Why is pruning not permitted? Because, as any good farmer knows, pruning a tree is one of the most profound ways to permit the tree to conserve its energy and thus to ensure its growth. 

Thus, in our olive grove, the harvest takes place between Sukkot and Hanukkah (October for olives to eat, November for olives for oil), while January and February are the months for pruning, so as to assure the winter’s rains and summer’s sun are concentrated on the branches and fruits most likely to flourish. During Shmita, in avoiding pruning, we permit the energy of the rain and sun to be wasted by being distributed to good and bad alike. 

But there is a halachic exception with regards to olive trees. Unlike many other trees, in olive trees, new sprouts appear around the base of the main tree all the time. Left unattended, these sprouts will eventually grow into actual trees and compete with the main tree. This is usually to its detriment, as they sap its water and nutrients. As a result, the Rabbis viewed these sprouts with great suspicion, feeling that their mere existence frustrated the very purpose of shmita, for rather than letting the land lay fallow so that it could regenerate, these thirsty sprouts inhibit the process. 

This hostility toward the sprouts, in turn, led to two interesting developments, one literary and one halachic. The literary one is to be found in the amusing appellation ascribed to these ravenous sprouts: Hazirim, or pigs. The halachic one? Although it is clearly a form of pruning, one is permitted to remove these “pigs”’ without hesitation during shmita. Once again, the halachic practice merged with the agricultural need.

Conclusion

In ending, I reflect on the words of my late mentor, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler. Whenever I would inquire about a possible conflict between religion and science, he reminded me that God, as Creator of the world, is also Creator of the scientific rules that govern the world. Thus, there cannot be a conflict between science and religion, as God is the source of both. “If there appears a conflict,” he would say, “either your science is bad … or your religion is bad.” I imagine the corollary of this statement may not always be true. Presumably, there are times when science, no matter how sound it might be, does not mandate the creation of a particular religious practice, just as a religious insight, no matter how brilliant, may not necessarily portend a great scientific awakening. The two disciplines, after all, have different concerns and animating features. When it comes to agricultural practice, though, the two quite often seem comfortable walking together hand in hand.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Ian Pear is Rabbi of Congregation Shir Hadash in Jerusalem).

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