Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Pope and the Jewish Prayer for Rain

Did you know that several centuries ago, a Pope impacted Jewish law?

Most Jewish events of note are based on the Jewish calendar. That’s why it’s surprising to learn that the date when Jews in the Diaspora begin requesting rain (for the Holy Land) in their prayers is based on the Gregorian calendar, not its Jewish counterpart.

The Mishnah in Ta’anit 10a claims that while we begin mentioning rain in our prayers on Shemini Atzeret, we do not actually begin requesting rain until the 7th of Cheshvan, 15 days later. The reason for the delay is to allow the Jewish pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for Sukkot to travel home without fearing for precipitation as a travel impediment. The travel time back to Babylon, crossing the Euphrates River, was about 15 days.

Regarding prayers for rain in the rest of the Diaspora, the Talmud then states that the prayers do not begin until 60 days from the “season” have elapsed. The reason for the delay in this case is not due to traveling, but because in those days, the Diaspora was on a lower altitude and did not need the rain as badly.

Since the seasons are based on the solar calendar, the date for the Diaspora is indeed based on the secular calendar. The autumnal equinox referenced above takes place on September 22 or 23rd. If this is the case, why is the prayer not scheduled for the end of November, sixty days later?

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII manipulated the secular Julian calendar in three ways, two of which were related to the frequency of the leap year. His new “Gregorian” calendar skipped February 29th in the century year (1900, 2000, 2100…). Pope Gregory’s alteration that impacts our liturgy stems from his decision to have the Julian calendar skip 10 days. The Pope decreed that in 1582, October 4th should be followed by October 14th. For these reasons the 60 days fall out about 10 days later. In the 21st century, the Julian date of September 23 becomes October 7 in the Gregorian Calendar. Hence December 4th and 5th.

Rabbeinu Asher claims that the Talmudic date of 60 days past the autumnal equinox only has bearing in Babylonia, due to its abundant rainfall. Other locales should follow the 7 Cheshvan date identified with the Land of Israel as did Provence (Southern France) and he approved of this practice.

Tonight, during the evening service (Ma’ariv) Jews outside the land of Israel begin praying for rain by inserting the phrase v’ten tal umatar’(please cause dew and rain to fall) in to the prayers. This prayer is recited until the last prayer prior to Passover.

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