Thoughts on Tefillat Geshem
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
As we come into the Autumn months, the dry summer months in Israel come to an end and the rainy season starts just in time for the holiday of Sukkot. If our friends in Israel are lucky, the rains will hold off for a few more days so they can go out and spend time in their Sukkot. Outside of Israel where rains can come any time during the year, we hope to have a dry period long enough to celebrate the holiday each year. Holidays aside, the land and the farmers there are very much dependent on the winter rains, the Yoreh, the fall rain and Malkosh, the spring rain, mentioned in our prayers.
In the Talmudic tractate of Ta'anit, that deals with various fast days, there is a discussion regarding prayers for rain. A distinction is drawn between the mention of God's power to bring rain and the prayer actually requesting rainfall. Beginning on Shemini Atzeret, we mention God's power to bring rain as part of the second blessing of the Amidah. We add the line “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem” “God causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” We continue to add this phrase throughout the winter months until the first day of Passover. Rain after that point is considered to be a curse, for it might damage the wheat harvest at that time. In Israel during the summer months, this phrase is replaced with the words “Morid hatal” “who brings on the dew.” As for actually praying for rain, in Israel they begin adding a phrase into the blessing for a good year of crops a couple of weeks after Sukkot, while outside of Israel we wait until the 60th day of the fall season (based on the old Julian calendar to make things interesting) or December 4th or 5th to make this change and pray for rain. However, this week we are just mentioning God's power by adding mashiv haruach.
To mark these transitions, before Musaf, the Additional service on the first day of Passover, the cantor dons a white robe as on the High Holidays and recites the prayers for dew, Tefillat Tal. This Shabbat, on Shemini Atzeret, before Musaf, I will put on my white robe, and chant the prayers for rain, Tefillat Geshem. The white robe symbolizes the feeling of judgment upon the land and its farmers at these seasons.
I have not been able to determine exactly when this addition of a few words to the Amidah became a whole ceremony. The piyyut (liturgical poem) which is the main element of that ceremony apparently goes back to the late 6th or early 7th century. Some attribute it to the great liturgical poet, Eleazar HaKalir, author of at least 200 extant poems from that era. Other scholars question that identification, but also believe it goes back to that classical era of the composition of piyyutim. When exactly it was introduced into our liturgy, I am not at all certain.
It is customary for the cantor who leads the musaf on Shemini Atzeret not only to put on the white robe or kittel, but to chant the half Kaddish and the opening ot the Amidah to a distinctive melody somewhat reminiscent of the melody used for the Neilah prayers at the end of Yom Kippur. The same melody is used for the Tal ceremony in the spring. In the traditional version of Geshem, there are a couple of short introductory poems inserted into the opening blessings of the Amidah as well, however the main portion of the ceremony occurs when the cantor reaches the point in the second blessing where we will add the line “Mashiv Haruach umorid hagashem.” Here he recites the poem asking for rain.
That poem, like many other liturgical poems contains a series of twenty-four verses, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in succession with two verses each for the last two letters shin and tav. Every stanza begins with the word “Zachor” calling on God to recall the biblical hero mentioned in it. Every line ends with the word “Mayim” “water.” Between the six stanzas we have two alternating refrains: “Ba'avuro al timna mayim” “For his sake, do not withhold water.” and “b'tzidko ( or b'tzidkam) chon chashrat mayim.” “For the sake of his (or their) righteousness, grant the gift of flowing water.” Thus we ask God to remember these biblical ancestors and for their sake provide water, much needed rain, to us their descendants. This is very much in keeping with the whole theme of the opening blessing of the Amidah which builds on the concept of “Zechut avot” the merit of the ancestors. Answer our prayers, we pray, even if we are not worthy, for the sake of our worthy predecessors.
As is often the case, the poet while speaking of various biblical figures, purposely does not name them, but lets his readers recognize them from the description he provides. That description may come from the biblical stories or may draw upon the midrashic legends about each figure. The original poem mentions five figures, the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the two brothers Moses and Aaron, though the fifth stanza may apply to any High Priest. The sixth stanza speaks of the twelve tribes and their descendants, us the Jewish people. Recent versions of the Geshem prayer have suggested some newly minted poems about female figures, the four matriarchs and such an alternative version appears in our Siddur Lev Shalem, with the patriarchs and matriarchs mentioned alternately and the last stanza devoted to Miriam rather than her brothers Moses and Aaron.
In the original version, we begin with mention of Abraham. “Remember the patriarch drawn after You like water.” The combination of these words to draw after You is reminiscent of a phrase in Song of Songs, “Mashkeini acharecha narutza, draw me after you, let us run,.” implying a sense of love and devotion between God and His follower who left his home and birthplace in the East and followed God to the land of Canaan.. “You blessed him like a tree planted amid the flowing waters.” an expression found in the first Psalm referring to the righteous. “You protected him and saved him when he went through fire and water.” Here we draw upon two separate midrashim about Abraham. One midrash speaks of him being cast into a fiery furnace in Ur of the Chaldees when he refused to worship its ruler. Yet like the later friends of Daniel during the Babylonian exile, he survived the flames. The other midrash referred to is of Satan's attempt to interfere with Abraham's fulfillment of God's order to sacrifice his son Isaac by turning into a flood that threatened to drown Abraham and Isaac en route to Mount Moriah. God hears Abraham's prayer and sends Satan packing. The final verse is “You loved him as he sowed righteousness upon all the world's waters. The commentators say that the waters mentioned here refer to Torah and good deeds, though admittedly this verse is a little cryptic. Remembering Abraham, we ask God not to withhold water.
The second stanza refers without mentioning his name, to Isaac. “The one born with the proclamation 'let a little water be taken'.” This refers to Abraham's hospitality to the angelic visitors who come to announce the forthcoming birth of Isaac. “You spoke to his parent to spill his blood like water,” clearly a mention of the Akedah,, the binding and would-be sacrifice of Isaac. “He also was careful to pour out his heart like water.” While this could refer to the Akedah story, there is a more specific mention of Isaac praying on behalf of his barren wife Rebecca, leading to the birth of their twin sons, Jaoob and Easu. “He dug and found wells of water.” He not only dug wells, but re-dug the wells that had been dug in Abraham's time. For the sake of Isaac's righteousness grant the gift of flowing waters.
Jacob is the subject of the next stanza. “He carried his staff and crossed the waters of the Jordan.” As we're told, Jacob arrived in Haran empty handed, bearing only his staff. The midrash claims he was held up and robbed by Esau's men as he left Canaan. “He united his heart and rolled the stone off the well of water.” This refers to Jacob's superhuman feat accomplished as an act of love for Rachel, by rolling away the massive stone that covered the well in Haran, so he could water her sheep. “He wrestled with an angel, who was a mixture of fire and water.” The night before his encounter with his brother Esau he wrestled with “a man” whom we assume was really a heavenly being and traditionally we're told angels are a combination of fire and water that live in harmony with one another. Hence God is said to make peace on high (Oseh shalom bimromav) so that the water does not extinguish the fire and fire does not evaporate the water “And therefore You promised him that You will be with him in fire and in water.” There is no apparent reference to any specific event, just a generic term for being with us in times of trouble, through thick and thin, fire and water. For Jacob's sake do not withhold water.'
The fourth stanza is for Moses, “the one who was drawn in a reed basket from the water.”We recall the biblical story of how Pharaoh's daughter saved him and raised him as her son. “He was asked to draw water and give water to the sheep.” This is a reference to Jethro's daughters who reported that “an Egyptian man” had driven away the harassing shepherds and drawn water for their flocks. Moses married one of the daughters, Zipporah. “Your treasured ones thirsted for water for a time.” The Israelites are described as am segulah, a treasured people. “He struck the rock and waters gushed forth.” This miracle is described in the book of Exodus. Later he got in trouble for striking a rock rather than speaking to it. But here we speak of the earlier incident and for the sake of Moses's righteousness we ask for water.
As mentioned, this fifth stanza could be any high priest or specifically Aaron. “ Remember the official of the Temple (the word 'shatot” as a reference to the Temple, is supposedly taken from Even shtiyah, the foundation stone upon which the Temple was built) who immersed himself five times in water,” referring to the five immersions of the high priest on Yom Kippur. To maintain his alphabetical acrostic, the poet chooses a rather arcane word, tzoeh, to mean going. “He goes and washes his hands (and feet) in holiness with water.” Before his service in the Temple on any occasion, a kohen needs to purify himself by washing his hands and feet. “He reads from the Torah (in preparation for entering the holy of holies) and sprinkles the water (mixed with the ashes of the red heifer0 for purification.” “He separated himself from the people whose carelessness flowed like water.” The term “pachaz kamayim” is used by Jacob to refer to his firstborn Reuben and his sin with Jacob's concubine. Here it is applied to the people who sinned with the Golden Calf. For the sake of Aaron the High Priest, we ask for water.
The final stanza asks that God remember the twelve tribes both in ancient times and now, the tribes “that You brought across the water”(splitting the Red Sea). The people for whom “You sweetened the bitterness of the water” at Marah in the desert. “The blood of their descendants for Your sake was spilled like water.” “Turn to us for we are surrounded by water.” This last phrase appears in the book of Jonah as he prays from the belly of the fish that we just read about on Yom Kippur afternoon. For the righteous among our people grant the gift of flowing water.
Following this poem, the reader continues, “For You are the Lord our God, mashiv haruach umorid hagashem, who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” We should note that the word ruach not only is wind, but also spirit, while geshim is not only rain, but material substance, thus we pray for the spiritual and material gifts we need in the year to come. The reader ends by asking that the rains fall, “for blessing and not curse” The congregation responds “Amen.” “For life and not death.” “Amen.” “For abundance and not for familne.” And we all say, Amen.”
I was interested to see how an early authority, Rabbi Tzidkiah HaRofei, the author of an important halachic work from the 13th century, Shibolei Haleket, describes this ceremony. Rabbi Tzidkiah was an Italian rabbi who studied in Germany. He writes, “At Musaf (on Shemini Atzeret) we mention the power of rain. But I found in the customs of Speyer that the chazan announces before the congregation prior to musaf “Mashiv haruach.” The congregation answers, “Livracha” “for a blessing.” just as they do when Rosh Chodesh is announced.” He goes on to say, “Some have the practice not to mention “Mashiv haruach in the silent amidah until they hear the chazan recite the Amidah aloud. Then the chazan says, “For You are the Lord our God who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall, for blessing and not for curse, for life and not for death, for plenty and not for famine. For favor (ratzon) and not for want (razon). Causing death and bringing forth life, there is none like You. Praised are You, Lord, who revives the dead.”
Reading this, I'm thinking that perhaps this was the prototype of our more elaborate ritual prayer for rain, the piyyut being added prior to the blessings offered by the chazan. It is our prayer as we come to end of the fall holiday season that the new year ahead will be one of blessing and not curse, of life and not death, and of plenty and not deprivation. May the Almighty listen to our prayers for the sake of our righteous ancestors and for our sake. May He breathe into us His spirit and rain down upon us all the material gifts that we need in the coming year.