Taanit 5

Weathered debates.

You know the saying that Inuit have a hundred words for snow? It’s not true. But Hebrew has several words for rain, and today’s daf gives us a chance to explore three of them.

At issue is how far into spring one should include prayers for rain in the Amidah. The mishnah on today’s daf quotes two opinions: 

Rabbi Yehuda says: We request rain until Passover has passed.

Rabbi Meir says: Until the month of Nisan has ended, as it is stated: “And He causes to come down for you the rain [geshem], the first rain [moreh] and the last rain [malkosh], in the first month.” (Joel 2:23). Since the verse states that it rains in Nisan, the first month, this indicates that the entire month is considered part of the rainy season.  

The verse from Joel uses three words for rain: geshem, which refers to rain generally; yoreh (sometimes moreh), which refers to the season’s “first rain” or a “soaking rain,” which typically falls in autumn; and malkosh, or “last rain,” which comes in the spring. Tomorrow’s page dives to the supposed etymology of each of these words, so we’ll limit ourselves to understanding the implications of this verse for prayer.

The Gemara challenges Rabbi Meir’s use of the verse from Joel to justify his position: 

Rav Nahman said to Rabbi Yitzhak: Is the first rain in Nisan? The first rain is in Marheshvan, as we learned in a beraita: The first rain is in Marheshvan and the last rain is in Nisan.

Rav Nahman reads Joel as saying that God causes all three types of rain — geshem, yoreh and malkosh — to fall for all of the spring month of Nisan, which was the “first month” of the year in talmudic times. This would be quite odd, to say the least. While rain in Israel typically arrives in mid-fall, continues through winter, and ends in the early spring, if the first rain really didn’t come until Nisan — around Passover — it would be remarkable. Therefore, the verse cannot be saying what Rabbi Meir suggests it does. Or if it does, it represents an extreme and unprecedented climatological event. 

Rabbi Yitzhak responds to the challenge by relating a story about a year in which this is precisely what happened: All three three types of rain — first, last and regular — fell in Nisan. Given the potentially catastrophic implications of this for the food supply, the people questioned whether it was even worth it to sow what seeds they had. But the prophet Joel tells the people to sow anyway. 

They went out and sowed on the second, third, and fourth days of Nisan, and the rain of the second rainy season fell for them on the fifth of Nisan. The crops grew so quickly that they were able to sacrifice the omer offering in its proper time, on the sixteenth of Nisan. Consequently, grain that normally grows in six months grew in eleven days, and consequently, the omer that is generally sacrificed from grain that grows in six months was sacrificed that year from grain that grew in eleven days.

And with regard to that generation the verse says: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Though he goes on his way weeping, who bears the measure of seed, he shall come home with joy, bearing his sheaves.” (Psalms 126:6)

Despite the lateness of the rains that year, a miracle occurred and the crops grew sufficiently in Nisan that there was enough grain to bring the omer offering on Passover, which falls in the middle of the month. 

So what do we take away from this? The condensing of a winter’s worth of rain into half a month, followed by extraordinarily speedy grain growth, constitutes a miracle so unbelievable that it left the rabbis of later generations (and certainly us today) incredulous and skeptical.  While we can appreciate the creativity behind Rabbi Yitzhak’s story, we can’t rely on miracles to save us when the climate is out of whack. Better to aspire to fulfill our obligation to follow God’s commandments and rely on the conditional promise in Deuteronomy 11:14 that if we do, the first and last rains will fall in season, putting things back where they belong.

Read all of Taanit 5 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 17th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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