My siddur tells me
to start saying the prayer for rain in the Amidah on
the night preceding December 5th or 6th. Why does it use a secular date
rather than a Jewish one?
Good question! As a rule of thumb, Jewish holidays and
customs always follow the Jewish calendar,
which is linked to the phases of the moon. One exception to this rule is the
special prayer requesting rain, which Jews in the Diaspora begin saying on
the night preceding
December 5th (or 6th).
To understand why, let’s take a look at the history and
significance of this small but important prayer.
Jews have been praying for rain for millennia. In the ancient
land of Israel, rain was a life-and-death concern. A good rainy season meant a
good harvest and ample drinking water, while a drought could be fatal to
livestock and cripple the economy.
So when the Men
of the Great Assembly set out to codify the prayers, they made sure to add
a prayer for rain to the daily Amidah
In fact, rain appears twice in the Amidah:
It is first mentioned in the second blessing, as one of a
string of natural and supernatural wonders that G‑d performs. Not least among
them is that, “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”
In this case, we are praising G‑d, who brings rain, but we
are not actually asking for rain. It is only later, in the blessing requesting
a bountiful year, that we ask G‑d to “bestow dew and rain for blessing upon the
face of the earth...”
In both instances, the rain-related phrase is only said
during the winter (Israel’s rainy season). However the two prayers follow
slightly different schedules. We begin to say “He causes the wind to blow and
the rain to fall” on Shemini Atzeret.
But, as you point out, we only start saying the second prayer, the actual request
for rain, in the beginning of December.
Why the differing start dates? It’s an interesting story...
The Jews of ancient Israel made three pilgrimages to
Jerusalem each year for the holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. Now the
official rainy season begins on Shemini Atzeret,
when the Jews were about to start their journey back home after the festival of
Sukkot. As much as they wanted the rain, they chose to delay their
supplications in the interests of a safer and easier trip.
That is how the practice of delaying the prayer for rain
began. In Israel, the prayer was begun only 15 days after Shemini Atzeret (the
7th of Cheshvan), allowing enough time for even the Jews living near the
Euphrates to return home.
This custom is followed by Jews living in Israel until today.
Outside of Israel, however, a more complicated calculation
For much of our history, the primary Jewish community in the
Diaspora was in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), where the climate is much hotter
than Israel’s, and the autumn rains do not begin until much later. Therefore
the sages instituted that Jews living in the Diaspora should start praying for
rain only 60 days after the start of the halachik
autumn, which is known as tekufat Tishrei.
(This should not be confused with the autumn equinox, which is usually
September 22 or 23)
I will explain soon when exactly that is.
Nowadays, very few Jews live in Babylonia, and the Jews of
North America need rain at a different time than the Jews in Singapore.
Nevertheless, we all start asking for rain on the day established for the Jews
in Babylonia, regardless of when rains are actually needed in our respective
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that even Jews
living in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, should
follow the schedule established for the Jews of Babylonia, because we pray for
the needs of the Jewish people as a whole, most of whom reside in the Northern Hemisphere.
Obviously this does not preclude us from praying for rain at
other times. An individual or community that needs rain at a different time may
add a personal prayer into the sixteenth blessing of the Amidah, “Shomeiah Tefilah,” where we add our
We now know that the custom of Jews in the Diaspora is to
start praying for rain 60 days after the onset tekufat Tishrei. But when exactly is that?
In the third century, the Talmudic sage Shmuel calculated the
length of the solar year as 365 days and 6 hours. Since the year is subdivided
into four seasons, or tekufot in
Hebrew, it follows that each tekufah
is 91 days and 7 ½ hours (365.25 ÷ 4 = 91.3125).
This calculation happens to correspond with the
Julian calendar, which was what was widely used from the year 45 BCE, until the
introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.
Based on this, Tekufat
Tishrei always began on September 24
on the Julian calendar,
and 60 days into tekufat Tishrei was November
In the era of Gregory XIII, it became clear that the solar
year is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter than previously calculated,
and that the calendar was slowly but surely drifting ahead. So in the year
1582, the spring (vernal) equinox--which had been on March 25th at the
introduction of the Julian calendar--actually took place on the 11th
of March. This was about 10 days earlier than March 21st,
which is the day that was “fixed” as the vernal equinox in a previous, one-time
correction to the civil calendar in the year 325.
To remedy this, Gregory made two changes:
He shifted the calendar back by removing 10 days in October,
making October 5 of the year 1582 into October 15. This restored the spring
equinox to March 21.
To insure that the calendar would not shift again, Gregory
implemented that every 128 years, (or three times every 400 years), one day
would be removed from the calendar. (This is because the 11 minute, 14 second
discrepancy accumulates into a whole extra day every 128 years).
day normally appended to the month of February every four years (causing a
would not be added to all centaury years, except for those years which are
multiples of 400. (Thus it was not added in the years 1800, 1900, 2100. However, it was added to the years 1600 and
still following me, it should be clear that the old calendars (Jewish and Julian)
drift away from the new (Gregorian) calendar at a rate of three days every 400
It’s important to note that the Jewish sages were well aware that
this calculation was not completely accurate. In fact, for most
purposes, the Jewish calendar follows the more accurate calculations of Rabbi
Adda bar Ahavah, who gives the length of the solar year as 365 days, 5 hours, 55 minutes and
25.4 seconds. However the sages of the Talmud chose to calculate the length
of a solar year as 365.25 days for the prayer for rain and the Birchat Hachamah (blessing of the sun),
because it made the calcuations much simpler for the average person to perform.
What to Do?
We know that the prayer for rain should be said 60 days after
the beginning of the halachic autumn.
Since this date is based on the calculation of Shmuel (and the Julian
calendar), and not the Gregorian calendar, we now have to translate this date into
our Gregorian calendars.
Here’s our final calculation: As mentioned earlier, in the
Julian calendar, the sixtieth day after the tekufah
is November 22. Now, keeping in mind that the Gregorian calendar chopped off 10
days from the Julian calendar, we have to add them back. Thus, the sixtieth day
would be--in the year 1582--on December 2nd.
Additionally, every centurion year (except for the years
divisible by 400) the Gregorian calendar loses one day not dropped from the
older calendar. Thus, from the year 1700 and onward, the sixtieth day of the tekufah moved one day every 100 years. In
1700 it was on December 3rd, in 1800 it moved to December 4th,
and in 1900 to December 5th..However, since the year
2000 is divisible by 400, and the Gregorian calendar did not drop the leap day,
and the day that is considered the sixtieth day of the tekufah did not move, and remains December 5th until the
year 2100, in which it will move to December 6th.
The reason that we begin saying the prayer on December 6th in
the year before a leap year is that, although the Gregorian calendar adds a day
to the month of February every four years for a leap year, the extra day has
essentially really been accumulated at the start of the winter season.
Therefore, every December preceding a
leap year, the sixtieth day is adjusted to December 6th.
Also bear in mind that since the halachik day starts on the preceding night, we start reciting the
prayer for rain during the Maariv Amidah on the night preceding the dates given above.
So, after all that, what you really need to know is that
until the year 2100, in a regular year we start saying the prayer for rain on
the night of December 4th and the year before a leap year, on the
night of December 5th.
As we begin to recite the prayers for rain this winter, let
us have in mind that we are joining Jews all over the world--especially those
in our Holy Land, where every drop of water is precious--united in our request
for bounty and blessing for all of humanity.