In polytheistic religious traditions, different gods are often associated with different roles or natural phenomena. Take, for example, the god Baal. Baal was the head of the pantheon worshiped in ancient Canaan and lands to the north of it. He was most strongly associated with fertility — especially when it came to agriculture. His worshipers believed that he was the source of the rains which irrigate the earth and cause new life to grow, using very “adult” language to describe this process. In fact, many polytheistic religions have male rain gods who are understood to “fertilize” the earth in exactly this way.
The ancient Israelites knew all about Baal. In fact, numerous biblical prophets called out the ancient Israelites for straying from God and worshiping Baal themselves (Hosea 2:16-17, for example). And the prophet Elijah had a dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, in which he called down fire from heaven to ignite a soaking wet altar, proving once and for all that the God of Israel is supreme (1 Kings 18). The Bible is consistently clear that Baal is not God, and that the Canaanite vision of the divine world is wrong.
So it’s striking that today’s daf actually contains echoes of this older polytheistic language:
Rabbi Abbahu said: What does revia (literally: rainfall) mean? It is referring to a matter that penetrates (rove’a) the earth.
In case this is too vague, the Gemara explains that Rabbi Abbahu’s statement is:
In accordance with Rav Yehuda, as Rav Yehuda said: Rain is the husband of the earth, as it is stated: “For as the rain comes down and the snow from heaven, and returns not there, except it waters the earth, and makes it give birth and sprout.” (Isaiah 55:10)
What is implicit in Rabbi Abbahu’s statement is made explicit by Rav Yehuda, using the poetic language of Isaiah: Rain is the husband of the earth, and together they give birth to an agricultural bounty.
Later on in today’s daf, Rabbi Abbahu doubles down on this sexually charged imagery:
Rabbi Abbahu said: From when does one recite a blessing over rain? From when the groom goes out to meet the bride.
In other words, we start saying prayers for rain just at the time of year when we wish for the groom (i.e. the rain) to join with its bride, the land. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that this refers to the rain splashing down onto puddles on the ground, evoking an image of mutual splashing and saturation that is surprisingly cinematic for its time (naturally, one must picture it in slow motion).
Of course, neither Rabbi Abbahu nor any of the other rabbis of the Talmud were Baal worshipers. The rabbis did not worship any of the male fertility gods that were worshiped in this time. They were solid monotheists. So what are we supposed to make of their vivid descriptions of rain impregnating the soil like the virile god Baal? Let me offer two suggestions:
First, it is possible that the rabbis use metaphors that circulate in their time divorced from their original context. After all, today we might talk about the black sheep in a family though few of us shepherd flocks. We also hang up a call, even though most of us no longer mount our phones on the wall. We also “pay the piper” (whatever that means) and “see the writing on the wall” (check out Daniel 5). It’s possible that, for the rabbis, the metaphor of rain as husband and soil as wife was simply in widespread circulation and it did not feel particularly associated with Baal.
Alternatively, perhaps the rabbis employ this “adult” themed imagery because it depicts a profound degree of intimacy and is emotionally charged. It personifies the natural world and envisions the elements of nature in relationship with one another — underlining the joy, urgency and miracle of each growing season.
Read all of Taanit 6 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 18th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.