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Taanit 3

Two kinds of prayer.

As we discussed yesterday, Tractate Taanit is primarily concerned with fasts that are designed to seek God’s intervention in the case of a communal catastrophe — especially a drought. But before diving deep into the best response for the worst case scenarios, Taanit opens with a discussion about preventing them in the first place. Namely, when and how should we pray for favorable weather: the dews, winds and rains that ensure a healthy crop and fed bellies. 

We start with rain. In the land of Israel, a rainy winter was critical to ensure a bumper crop the following summer and fall. The Gemara tells us that one makes mention of “the might of the rains” in the daily Amidah during the rainy season, between Sukkot and Passover. Praise God the rainmaker only in the season of rain, the rabbis counseled, and refrain from doing so when rains will not come. Conversely, asking for rain during the dry summer season is inappropriate at best, and an affront to God at worst. Since we need God to bring the rains in their season, let’s not be noodges for the rest of the year!

Other natural occurrences that play a role in agriculture, like dew and wind, are not seasonal. So does this mean they should be mentioned in the Amidah year-round?

⁦It is taught: With regard to dew and with regard to wind, the sages did not obligate one to mention them by reciting “God makes the wind blow and the dew fall,” in the second blessing of the Amidah, but if one seeks to mention them, one may mention them. 

Because wind and dew are year-round phenomena, the rabbis permit us to include them in our prayers, but they do not require us to do so. Why not?

Rabbi Hanina said: Because winds and dew are consistent and not withheld.

We can’t rely on rain but, Rabbi Hanina explains, since wind and dew are reliably “not withheld,” we are not required to mention them in our prayers. It’s like praying for the sun to rise — you could do it, but you can rely on the sun to come up each morning whether you pray for it or not. 

On the other hand, dew and wind are very important for the agricultural process. And not praying for them seems counter to something that we learned on Berakhot 35a:

⁦The sages taught: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without reciting a blessing beforehand. 

According to this teaching, deriving benefit from wind or dew obligates us to say a blessing over them. So wouldn’t it follow that we are required to mention these phenomena in the Amidah as well?

The differences between these two sources don’t truly reflect a conflict. Rather, they highlight a difference between two main Jewish modes of prayer.

Blessings — like those we make over food, lighting Shabbat candles, studying Torah and discovering rainbows — are an expression of gratitude for things that we appreciate in the world. Because wind and dew reliably provide us with benefit, it’s appropriate for us to say a blessing — as it is for any and all things that we enjoy.

The Amidah, however, has a different purpose; it’s our liturgical vehicle to make requests of God. And while we could theoretically ask for anything, the rabbis counsel that we should be more circumspect. Specifically, they suggest that we refrain from requesting things that we know will not come to be, like a summertime rain shower in Israel. Nor would they have us ask for things that will surely come to be, like tomorrow’s sunrise or the morning dew. Prayer, in the rabbis’ view, is for things that we depend upon but, as Rabbi Hanina says, may be withheld. Things like seasonal rains, our health or peace.

It’s not wrong for someone to mention the dew and the wind in their Amidah; they are both part of the world in which we live. But since we can count on them, we don’t need to pray for them. Better, say the rabbis, to focus our attention, and maybe even God’s, on things that we depend upon whose arrival is not guaranteed.

In our day, the additional prayers for the rainy season, added to the Amidah between Sukkot and Passover, go beyond the minimum requirement, identifying God as the source of rain and the one who causes the wind to blow. Further, contra Rabbi Hanina, many communities insert a phrase naming God as the bringer of dew during the dry season. Given that the Talmud gives us this option, why not do so? Who knows — a little extra praise might just do us some good.

Read all of Taanit 3 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 15th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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