Today’s page opens with a series of mishnahs — in fact the entire third chapter of Mishnah Taanit — that describes the various calamities that can befall a community which will then sound an alarm (by blowing a shofar) and fast. These include not only insufficient rain but also plague, collapsed buildings, various kinds of blight that kill crops, dangerous animals, invading armies — a list of some of the communal tragedies that could and did befall an ancient community. In fact, the only item on the list that does not elicit this response, as we learn, is an overabundance of rain. The mishnah then brings the famous story of Honi the Circle Drawer to explain that law. (We’ll discuss it when the Gemara catches up in a few pages’ time.)
One thing we learn from this mishnah is that there are in fact many ways that rain can be insufficient. For instance, you can have rain that:
Fell for the vegetation but didn’t fall for the trees.
This is a gentle rain that serves small plants well, but doesn’t adequately soak the ground to supply the needs of large trees.
Likewise, you can have rain that falls:
For the trees but not for the vegetation.
This kind of substantial rain penetrates deeply into the earth and nourishes tree roots, but overwhelms smaller and more delicate plants. Both kinds of rain — light and heavy — are needed to properly water the plants that feed people with grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts.
There’s more. The mishnah also notes that sometimes there have been rains that satisfy both trees and vegetation but:
Not cisterns, ditches, and caves.
How might this be the case? If there isn’t an abundance of rain that properly accumulates into both natural and human-made reservoirs, then there will not be adequate drinking water.
Our Gemara notes, by way of a beraita (early teaching), that it could also happen in the reverse: rain would fall and fill the cisterns, ditches and caves, but not be good for the plants. As the sages explain, this is what happens when the rain falls in a downpour. Picture a flash flood; this kind of heavy abundance of rain washes quickly over the earth and rapidly fills these reservoirs but can do significant damage to crops and other plants.
These rain alarms are sounded at different times depending on the need. So, for instance, the sages worry about rain for trees leading up to Passover, because as they begin to bud in early spring is when trees need rain the most. But they cry out for the rain that fills cisterns and caves at any time when drinking water is needed.
Likewise, the alarm is sounded only in locations that are in need. Towns experiencing drought blow a shofar and declare a fast — towns with sufficient rainfall do not. This practice is clearly meant to be performed as needed, by those who need it, and not more than that.
The sages also explore the interesting question of whether or not the alarm is raised when rain is insufficient in shmita (sabbatical) years — years during which the land is not farmed and allowed to rest. One opinion holds that in those years the community only prays for rain to fill the cisterns, but not to grow produce. However, Rabban Gamliel disagrees, stating that even in sabbatical years the alarm is sounded if there is insufficient rain for the produce in the field, because this helps along the crops that grow spontaneously and feed the poor.
This page reminds us that the sages clearly lived in tune with the rhythms of the natural world — including the different kinds of rain that fall and the knowledge of how they will affect crops and also the water supply. This knowledge is important, because sometimes the most severe consequences of too little rain are not felt for some time. They also understood that weather conditions are local, and each community must decide for itself when it is in danger.
Read all of Taanit 19 on Sefaria.