Thoughts on the Prayer for Dew
Dr. Issachar Yakovson in his multi-volume work Netiv Binah, Paths of Understanding, which explains most of the prayers of our liturgy in some detail and is primarily a text for teachers, writes about the piyyut, the liturgical poem, recited on the first day of Pesach, when we pray for dew; tal is the Hebrew word. Yakovson tells his teachers, that the material for Passover is so vast it is hard to cover it all in class. We focus on the laws of chametz and matzah, the preparations for the seder meal, and of course, the text of the haggadah. Who has time to look at this poem? Yet he urges them to find some time to look at this piece by the great poet from the 8th or 9th century, Rabbi Eliezer (or Elazar) Kalir. He writes, “Though only the Ashkenazic tradition preserves the poem before us, knowing it is an important spiritual possession for all the communities.”
The opening of the Mishnaic tractate of Taanit, which deals ostensibly with fast days, teaches us that the person who leads services on Shemini Atzeret, does not mention God's power to bring rain (Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem – who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall– in the Amidah) during the morning service, the Shacharit, but begins to mention it in the Musaf of that day (and from then on). On the first day of Pesach, the reverse happens. The reader at Shacharit still mentions the rain, the geshem, but at Musaf we stop adding Mashiv Haruach throughout the summer months when it does not rain in Israel. In Israel, Mashiv Haruach is replaced by the insertion of Morid hatal, who causes the dew to fall.
Last fall, I wrote about the Geshem prayers, the traditional liturgy introducing the mention of God's power to bring rain, the Mashiv Haruach addition, to the Amidah as the rainy season in Israel begins. A couple of weeks later, on the seventh of Cheshvan, people in Israel begin actually praying for rain as an insertion into the daily prayer for good crops. We add the words, v'ten tal umatar livracha al p'nei ha-adamah, grant dew and rain for a blessing upon the face of the earth. Outside of Israel, we follow the practice of the Babylonian academies and don't add this prayer until the 5th of December which corresponds to the 60th day of the Fall season in accordance with the Julian calendar in use in rabbinic times. Now, at Pesach time, as the rainy season ends in Israel and the Talmud claims that rain at this time is viewed as a curse, possibly damaging the crops about to be harvested in the field, we stop praying for rain during the week of Passover and in particular, beginning at Musaf on the first day of the holiday, we stop even mentioning God's power to bring on the rain. We no longer add Mashiv haruach to the Amidah.
To mark this transition, on the first day of Pesach, we perform a similar ritual to that which we did on Shemini Atzeret, the Tal prayers. The leader of the worship, the chazan or shaliach tzibbur, puts on a white kittel and white kipah as on the High Holidays. He chants the half kaddish to the same distinctive ancient tune that he used for the Geshem service and continues in that melodic mode through the opening words of the Amidah. We open the ark at the beginning of the Amidah and when we get to the point where we have been saying Mashiv Haruach, he begins chanting this special piyyut of Kalir's written for the Tal prayers.
Akiva Zimmerman in an article about the Tal prayers asks why all of this solemnity, the white robes and the atmosphere of facing judgment as on the High Holidays. This is understandable, he writes, for the Geshem prayers, for rain is a matter of life and death and if the rains are withheld, it is a sign of a curse upon the people and the land, particularly since that prayer comes at the season where we have just gone through the judgment of the Days of Awe. Zimmerman says it is hard to understand the atmosphere of Judgment Day that surrounds the shaliach tzibbur for the Tal prayers, whether in his dress or the distinctive melodies identical for geshem and for tal, reminiscent of the High Holiday tunes. After all, he notes dew, unlike rain, is not subject to a drought, it falls whether or not we pray for it. The mention of “Morid hatal” who causes the dew to fall, in our daily prayers is not even practiced in most communities (outside of Israel). Some folks choose to add it as a kind of solidarity with the people in the State of Israel, but it is not a regular feature of our Ashkenazic prayerbook, though the latest Conservative prayerbooks include it as an option in a footnote. Zimmerman cites an early work on the liturgy that says that we are not all that particular on who leads the Tal prayers as we might be regarding the leader of the Geshem liturgy. But officially that view is rejected. Rather, we are supposed to enlist a prayer leader for Tal with the same sterling qualities we look for in a cantor for the High Holidays and for the Geshem prayers. Why do we make this such a big deal? Clearly there is more in the prayers for Tal than meets the eye.
Let's look at Kalir's poem first before suggesting an answer to this question. The piyyut is preceded by the reader addressing God, as in the Geshem prayer, as our God and God of our ancestors. The poem proceeds in the form known as Tashrak, a reverse alphabetical acrostic, each line beginning with a letter of the alphabet from tav to alef, thus tav, shin, reish, kuf, etc., hence “tashrak.” The content of the poem goes back and forth between mention of agricultural needs and more general hope for redemption of the Jewish people. Thus (using the Artscroll translation): “Dew - give it to favor Your Land; establish us for blessing in Your pleasure; with abundant grain and wine may you strengthen us; establish the city containing Your delight – with dew.” Each of the succeeding stanzas also begins with the word “tal” and end with it as well.
So the second stanza reads, “Dew – decree it for a year that is good and crowned; may the fruit of the earth become the pride and splendor; the city deserted like a sukkah – let Your hand make it a crown – with dew.” We might note that the sukkah referred to here is not the holiday booth, but a structure erected in the fields during the harvest season and now left abandoned afterwards. The city in both stanzas is, one might assume,Jerusalem that the author prays will be re-established and filled once more with people. Some of the awkwardness of these translations is because of the rhyme that exists at the end of each line and the use of words drawn from biblical sources as unfamiliar metaphors.
The third stanza is similar: “Dew – let it drop sweetly on the blessed land, with the delicacies of heaven sate us with blessing, to enlighten from amid the darkness the fundamental nation that is drawn after You – with dew.” The allusions are much more subtle than in the Geshem prayers in each of whose stanzas we can recognize a biblical figure. Here, those versed in the Bible will recognize familiar phrases, but not really any midrashic allusions to speak of.
After three more similar stanzas combining the desire for a bountiful harvest with prayers for redemption and renewal of the Holy Land and its capital, we come to the concluding prayer of this section where the reader chants as he did regarding the prayer for rain in the fall, “She-atah hu Adonay Eloheinu – for you are the Lord our God, mashiv haruach umorid hatal, who makes the wind blow and makes the dew descend.” As in the Geshem prayer, he add, “Livracha v'lo liklalah, for a blessing and not a curse. L'chayim v'lo l'mavet, for life and not death. L'sova v'lo l'razon, for plenty and not for scarcity.” After each line, the congregation answers “Amen.” The ark is then closed and the reader continues with the second blessing of the Amidah.
In the Midrashic work of Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer, dated by scholars to the same period roughly as Kalir, eighth or ninth century, we find an interesting reference to Tal, to dew. Anachronistically, in the midrash, we're told it was the eve of Pesach, when Isaac called his son Esau and told him, “This night, the entire world is saying Hallel (the Psalms of praise said on the holidays) and the storehouses of dew are opened, and on it the ones on high (the angels) are offering song (shirah). Make for me a tasty dish (matamim) so I may bless you.” So, as we recall, Esau went off to find the game his father likes so he could present him with the tasty dish as requested. Meanwhile, according to the midrash, Rebecca says to Jacob, “My son, this night the treasuries of dew are open and the angels are offering song. On this night in the future your children will be redeemed. This night in the future they will offer song. Make a tasty dish for your father so he may bless you.” After some exchange with his mother, he goes and brings back two goats, two kids. The midrash asks, “Was he planning to feed Isaac two goats, would not one be sufficient?” Rather one was in place of the Pesach offering and the other to make the matamim, the tasty dish. The midrash then recalls the dialogue between Isaac and the disguised Jacob, where we read that the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. Rabbi Yehudah says that Jacob went forth from Isaac with ten blessings for the dew of the heavens and the grain of the earth. Ten gifts he receives in accordance with the ten statements by which God created the world. The midrash concludes, “When Jacob went forth from his father Isaac, he went forth crowned like a bridegroom...there descended upon him the reviving dew from heaven and his bones were renewed and he became a mighty man of valor and strength, gibor chayil v'koach.”
So aside from the connection to Passover that the midrash draws, we see that dew in Jewish tradition is associated with the revival and renewal of life. The rabbis connect dew with the resurrection of the dead. At this season, we celebrate not only the past redemption of our people, the Exodus from Egypt, but it is a season of renewal when we anticipate future redemption and the rebirth of our people. The karpas on the seder plate, the roasted egg, are both symbols of birth and new beginnings at this season. When there is an intermediate Shabbat on this holiday, we read Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones, the prophecy of renewal and rebirth. So in the piyyut for Tal, the emphasis is not merely on moisture on the ground to sustain our crops, but it speaks of the revivifying dew of resurrection that will bring the dry bones of our scattered nation back to life, back to our homeland, that will fill the cities of Israel with people once more and bring about a spiritual renewal for all our people Jacob is blessed with the treasuries of dew that pour out blessing upon him and in the midrash he becomes a new person. No longer is he the nebbish who sits around in the tent helping Mommy, making lentil stew. He is ready now to go off and to battle first with the “Arami oved,” the Aramean who sought to destroy us, Laban, and then to face down his brother Esau, who represents the enemies whom his children will encounter in generations to come. We pray at this season for dew. We're praying not just for wet grass, but for a renewing flow of energy and confidence in order to work for a better world, a world where freedom blossoms for all people, where we can apply the lessons learned from our years of slavery on behalf of all people. We know the heart of the stranger. We celebrate Pesach to renew our commitment to those still seeking freedom, those still denied their basic rights, those for whom justice has been perverted. Pour out that renewing dew at this season and may we all become mighty warriors, people of valor, in the struggle for justice and freedom for all.