The premise of this tractate is that by instituting public fasts in a time of drought, the people can change God’s mind about withholding the rains. It’s a bold move to think that by denying ourselves food and calling out to the heavens we can compel God to act, yet Tractate Taanit, much of the time, operates on the assumption that it is so.
Except when it doesn’t.
On today’s daf we read a number of examples about times when activating rabbinic protocols fails to bring about the rains. In some cases, standout individuals can accomplish what the entire people fasting does not. For example, the Talmud reports that:
Rabbi Yehuda Nesia decreed a fast and prayed for mercy, but rain did not come. He lamented: How great is the difference between the prophet Samuel, for whom rain fell even when he prayed for it in summer, and myself, Yehuda ben Gamliel. Woe to the generation that is stuck with my leadership.
While Rabbi Yehuda, who rabbinic tradition tells us served as the head of the Sanhedrin like his grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, follows the steps outlined in the mishnah, his actions are not sufficient. More is needed. How much more? Well, in this case, the Gemara reports:
He grew upset, and rain came.
Rabbi Yehuda is distressed that he cannot do what Samuel the prophet did for the people. The Aramaic phrase used by the Gemara here (chalash da’tei) often indicates not only emotional distress, but also a reduced mental capacity that makes him unable to function in his role as teacher, scholar, and judge.
While fasts and prayers were not enough to end the drought, Rabbi Yehuda’s anguish appears to be and, in response, God is moved to action.
We see this same motif presented in a much stronger way in a story about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa that follows:
Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was traveling along a road when it began to rain. He said before God: “Master of the Universe, the entire world is comfortable, because they needed rain, but Hanina is suffering, as he is getting wet.” The rain ceased. When he arrived at his home, he said before God: “Master of the Universe, the entire world is suffering that the rain stopped, and Hanina is comfortable?” The rain began to come again.
In contrast to Rabbi Yehuda, Hanina ben Dosa’s prayers have immediate impact. He seems to have, as we might say colloquially, the magic touch. God even stops the rain to allow him to get home without getting drenched and restarts it after Hanina calls to share his safe arrival.
The rabbis understand why people who are on the road would ask for a cessation of rain until they arrive safely at home. However, when it comes to rainfall, communal sustenance clearly outweighs individual comfort. In fact, the Gemara relates that when the Temple stood, the high priest would beseech God not to heed travelers who pray for a rain free journey.
So why are Hanina’s prayers answered? Because, as Rav reports, of his unique relationship with God:
Each and every day a Divine Voice emerges from Mount Horeb (Sinai) and says: The entire world is sustained by the merit of my son Hanina ben Dosa.
While the mishnah suggests that the proper response to drought is a public communal atonement, today’s daf suggests that it is the merit of particular individual people that ultimately relieves communal suffering. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa is in a class by himself (or, perhaps, with Honi) in bending the ear of heaven. His power to do so is almost too great — God will stop the rain just to convenience him on a journey. But others, like Rabbi Yehuda Nesia, can also get God’s attention — particularly if they are in deep distress.
Read all of Taanit 24 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 6th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.