Geshem and Tal: The Prayers for Rain and for Dew in our Liturgy
David B. Brooks
Delivered at Adath Shalom on 05 November 2005
Geshem and Tal are two common words in both modern and Biblical Hebrew. The former means rain, and the latter means dew (occasionally it also means rain). However, these two words are also used to refer to two particular prayers (more accurately, Tefilat Geshem and Tefilat Tal)[i] said, respectively, at the start of the rainy (winter) season and at the start of the dry (summer) season in Israel. (You can find the prayers on pp. 217-19 in Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals or pp. 478-85 in Siddur Sim Shalom.)
More precisely, the prayer for dew is said in the Musaf Amidah on the first day of Pesach; the prayer for rain is said in the Musaf Amidah on Sh’minah Atzeret, which is also the last day of Sukkot. (And also supposedly the day on which the stores of dew in heaven were opened.[ii]) In place of a d’var today, I want to look at how these two prayers fit into our liturgy, how they have fared in practice over the years, and particularly some similarities and some differences in wording and practice. You might already have noticed one similarity: They are both inserted into the Musaf Amidah. And one difference: We start praying for rain at the end of the holiday, but for dew at the beginning of the holiday. I will come back to these points in a moment.
In order to understand these two prayers, which are really supplications, one must recognize that, in Biblical times and for many centuries thereafter, rain and dew were regarded as gifts from God. God rewarded the Jewish people with ample rain and dew when they observe the laws and commandments, and God punishes the people by withholding rain and dew when they fail to observe them (cf. Deut. 11:11–17; I Kings 17:1). This view is explicit in the second paragraph after the Sh’ma, which we say in each of our services.[iii] I do not like this direct linking of human cause and ecological effect, but that is the subject of a different dvar.
In Ashkenazi practice, Geshem and Tal occur as an expanded version of the second blessing of the Amidah, which is called Gevurot. This placement reflects a nice rabbinic analogy between restoring human life to the dead (or maintaining life for the living) and restoring (or maintaining) plant and animal life on earth. In fact, Geshem is inserted right where, on every day thereafter in winter, we insert the phrase Mashiv ha-ruach oo-morid ha-geshem (You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall). Sephardic practice is a little different. They hesitate to interrupt the Amidah for any purpose, so Gehsem and Tal are recited just before the silent Musaf Amidah. This pattern is norm in Israel for all but hasidic congregations. Sephardic practice also varies from Ashkenazi by replacing Mashiv ha-ruach oo-morid ha-geshem with Morid ha-tal (You cause the dew to fall) to thank God for dew in summer months. Unfortunately, in my view, there is no comparable insertion for summer months in Ashkenazi services.
The importance of the prayers for rain and dew is emphasized by the fact that the ark is opened for the reading, and the congregation stands. In very traditional congregations, the Cantor wears a kitel for the reading;[iv] and he chants the Kaddish just before the Musaf service using the nusach for Yom Kippur.
It is not clear when special prayers for rain and for dew began to be said, but it was certainly early. Mishnah Rosh HaShanah (1:2) says that the world is judged for water on Sukkot, and, during the time when the Temple was standing, large parts of Sukkot celebrations were devoted to water. At times, the mini-services for rain or dew during the Sukkot and Pesach festival services expanded to include about a half dozen prayers and piyyutim (supplications). At other times they diminished to nothing at all. My impression is that, until the creation of the modern State of Israel, Geshem and Tal had all but disappeared, even for Orthodox services. As evidence, The Authorized Daily Prayer Book by Rabbi J. H. Hertz, which was published in 1941 and republished in 1946, has neither Geshem nor Tal. Daily Prayer Book (Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem) by Philip Birnbaum, published in 1949, has Geshem but not Tal. In contrast, Sim Shalom and the Arts Scroll siddur contain both. Today, all branches of Judaism include the insertions in the 2nd blessing of the Amidah, and more and more congregations are saying Geshem and Tal in their Pesach and Sukkot services.
It must be emphasized that the references to rain and dew in the 2nd blessing of the Amidah are praises of God for creating rain and dew, not petitions to God for them. Petitions come later in the 9th blessing, Ha-Shanim (see Annex C). The distinction is important because we include praises in every Amidah, but petitions only in the weekday Amidah. An amusing controversy in the Mishnah (Ta’anith 1:1) both elucidates and confuses things. It goes back to the question of why we insert Morid ha-Tal at the beginning of Pesach, but Mashiv ha-Ruach at the end of Sukkot. R. Eliezer argued that we should start praying for rain at the start of Sukkot, not at the end. R. Joshua retorted that rain would be curse, not a blessing, during Sukkot when everyone is supposed to be living out of doors. Eliezer responded that he was not urging that it rain but only praising God for rain. Joshua then got the last word by arguing that, if the words are only a matter of praise, we should say them all the time and not just during the rainy season. We follow Joshua’s view, which explains why we say Geshem at the end of Sukkot. Unfortunately, his reasoning about not praying for rain earlier makes sense only if we are petitioning for rain, which, in principle, we are not.
Let’s now look at Tefilat Geshem and Tefilat Tal themselves, for again there are similarities and differences. Both prayers were composed by Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Kallir, who lived in 7th Century Palestine (not 8th Century as stated in Sim Shalom), probably making his living as a cantor in Tiberias. He was a prolific liturgical poet, but little of his work has survived, and only these two poems remain in common use. The fact that few of Kallir’s poems have survived is not surprising. He loved to incorporate obscure references to midrashic and mystic texts. And, if this was not enough to keep him off best-seller lists, he wrote in a Hebrew that was already archaic in 600 CE.
Happily, Geshem and Tal did survive and are once again part of our liturgy. As indicated by their parallel structure, the two are meant to be a pair. Each begins with the same line; just before the end, each includes the short formula of praise to be read thereafter in the 2nd blessing of the Amidah; and each ends with the same three lines, to which the congregation says Amen. Between the common first line, and the common closing, each prayer has six 4-line stanzas. And each of the two poems is an acrostic, with the letters going from Aleph to Taf in Geshem but Taf to Aleph in Tal. (Kallir must have had some reason for making one go up and the other down, but no one knows so it is a good game to guess what his reason might have been.)
Despite structural similarity, the two liturgical poems are very different in the middle six verses. Geshem is an appeal based on the merit of our ancestors with wild use of metaphors involving water in patriarchal times and in the wilderness. Thus, we are supposed to deserve water because Jacob struggled with a creature of fire and water. And, quite against the usual interpretation, we are supposed to deserve water because Moses struck the rock to get it. Some lines refer to animals drinking or people bathing, but they are more to expand the range of references to water than anything literal. In essence, we ask God for water on theological, not human, grounds.
Tal, in contrast, could have been written by a modern ecological poet rather than an ancient liturgical one. Links between dew and both the beauty and the productivity of the land are explicit. Not just rural but also urban life are said to depend on dew. (Early agricultural communities in semi-arid environments recognized that, if not so important as rain, dew still played a critical role in their livelihoods.[v]) The only real metaphor comes in the last verse when Kiallir suggests that the role of dew in maintaining livelihoods in Eretz Ysrael is like the return of Jews from the Diaspora to Israel.
I have no explanation as to why the content of the two prayers is so different. If anything, I would have expected Geshm to focus on ecology and Tal on theology, not the reverse. Happily, both prayers are beautiful, and they to serve to punctuate the changes in season, and to link us more closely to the agricultural cycle that is not so different in modern Israel from the way that it was in Biblical times. I hope that we will always continue to recite Tefilat Geshem and Tefilat Tal .
ANNEX A: Excerpt from entry on Dew in Encyclopedia Judaicia
The Bible places so much importance on dew as a source of water for plant life (Hos. 14:6–8) that in its absence a drought is considered to prevail (Hag. 1:10–11). Dew, like rain, is a symbol of life and God's beneficence (Zech. 8:12). (It should be noted, however, that in biblical Hebrew lt may also refer to rain.) As a figure of speech dew expresses a source of abundance (Gen. 27:28), silent and sudden coming (II Sam. 17:12), and ephemerality (Hos. 13:3). Several verses referring to dew appear in the Bible, according to which the main season of dew is late spring-early summer, or harvest time (e.g., Hos. 14:6; Prov. 19:12; Isa. 18:4; Job 29:19; Song 5:2). Soon after harvest time in the Harod Valley, Gideon "wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water" (Judg. 6:38). This valley, however, does not receive much dew . . . and is situated near the hills of Gilboa which David, in his lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan, cursed to enjoy neither dew nor rain (II Sam. 1:21).
ANNEX B: Excerpts from entry on Rain in Encyclopedia Judaicia
RAIN (Heb. rtm ,MQf). The large number of quotations referring to rain in the biblical and talmudic sources may be attributed to the fact that rain is the most important climatic element for the agriculture of Israel, particularly in non-irrigated areas. In comparing these quotations with modern knowledge of rainfall in Israel it is evident that although part of the quotations are in the realm of folklore, many of them are valid and correspond to contemporarily measured data, although the descriptions of rain in the Bible and talmudic literature are mainly qualitative. This correspondence not only shows the keen observations of weather phenomena made in ancient times, but also indicates that during the last 3,000 years there were fluctuations but not fundamental changes in the climate of Israel. The importance of a normal rainfall regime, i.e., an appropriate seasonal distribution of rainfall, for the success of agricultural crops is clearly stated in the Bible on several occasions (Lev. 26:4; Deut. 28:12; Ezek. 34:26), sometimes with special emphasis on the first and last rains of the season (the yoreh and the malkosh) whose importance for agriculture is particularly great (Deut. 11:14; Jer. 5:24). The local nature of rainfall, expressed in Erez Israel particularly at the beginning and end of the rainfall season, is also mentioned (Amos 4:7; cf. Ta'an. 6b). An impressive description of the results of droughts is available in Jeremiah 14:1–6. Late and strong rains at the beginning of June are as rare and notable nowadays as they were at the time of Samuel (I Sam. 12:16–18). Similarly, three consecutive drought years in the region of Samaria are as rare and notable in the last 50 years of rainfall measurements (1931/32, 1932/33, and 1933/34) as they were at the time of Elijah and Ahab (I Kings 18:1).
Rain is referred to on many occasions in the Talmud and midrashic literature, particularly in tractate Ta'anit (Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds). In the Mishnah there is a quantitative definition of drought (Ta'an, 3:1). The following references are examples of keen observations of weather phenomena: R. Eleazar b. Perata paid attention to the variations from year to year in both amounts and times of rain occurrence (Ta'an. 19b). R. Johanan and R. Papa determined that thin clouds under thick clouds are a sign of rainfall (ibid. 9b); the ragged fragments of low cloud, known as scud (nautical term) or stratus fractus (meteorological term), often moving rapidly below rain clouds, indicate rainy weather (which is also the case today). On the same page in the Babylonian Talmud a weather forecast is given by R. Ulla, using the above-mentioned sign. Even a forecast for the rainfall of a whole year is given in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'an. 2:1, 65b). The dates of the beginning and end of the rainfall season in Israel also fit modern conditions (Ta'an. 1:1; Ned. 8:5; see also Yal., Num. 29). As for rain intensities, there are various expressions for slight, moderate, and heavy rains in the Bible (e.g., I Kings 18:45; Ezek. 13:11; 34:26; Ps. 68:10; Prov. 28:3; for the Mishnah see Ta'an. 3).
Annex C: The 10th blessing – Petition for Rain
The 9th blessing of the weekday Amidah is called HaShanim, and it asks God to make this a fruitful year for us. As befits an agricultural people, it goes on to ask for dew and rain in the winter, but only for a blessing in the summer. (In the Sephardi tradition, the petition is quite a bit longer.) I have no explanation as to why, in this blessing, we ask for rain and dew in the winter, but nothing particular in the summer, whereas in the 2nd blessing we praised God for rain in the winter and for dew in the summer. However, I do have an explanation for another difference. As I have stated, in the 2nd blessing of the Amidah, we change the wording from its winter to its summer version on the first day of Pesach. So too with the 9th blessing. However, whereas in the 2nd blessing, we change from summer to winter versions at the end of Sukkot, we do not change the wording in the 9th blessing until the 4th or 5th of December (3rd of Cheshvan). As explained in Mishnah Ta’anith (1:3), it is more likely that there will have been rain by this time, but, if not, they delay in its arrival at least allows pilgrims from as far away as Babylon to get home before heavy autumn rains made travel difficult. (In one of those eminently practical Talmudic rulings, those Jews living beyond the Euphrates were exempt from the obligation to come to Jerusalem for the three festivals.)
[i]. In Sephardic practice, the prayers are called Tikkun ha-Tal and Tikkun ha-Geshem (Formula for . . .).
[ii]. Pirke de-R. Eliezer 32; cited in Dew, Prayer for, in Encyclopedia Judaica.
[iii]. Cf. Also Gen. 27:28, 39; Deut. 33:13; Judg. 6:37–40), as cited in the articles on Dew and Rain in Encyclopedia Judaica.
[iv]. These practices occur in Ashkenazi practice for the first two blessings of the Amidah, and in Sephardic practice for the reading of Geshem or Tal before the Amidah.
[v]. The article entitled “Dew, Prayer for” in The Encyclopedia of Judaism edited by Geoffrey Wigoder cites several examples: Ber 27:28, Mic 5:6, Ps. 133.3. It also cites examples where dew is cited symbolically.