Voices from the field

Tekufat Hashanah: Bring On The Rain

By Dan Brosgol

Rain over Haifa (Photo credit: ReutC)As the calendar page inches towards September and the full moon of Elul serves as the warning that Rosh Hashanah is just two weeks away, we stand on the verge of what the Torah refers to as tekufat hashana, literally “the turn of the year.” While one can interpret this as the autumnal equinox, the start of Sukkot, a general comment on the cyclical nature of the Jewish calendar, or something else, one thing is certain—Rosh Hashanah and the holidays of Tishrei are getting closer every day.

Our upcoming festivals have their roots in both ancient texts and ancient traditions that our ancestors had in the Land of Israel. In the Torah, we read about yom zichron teru’a, a day to be commemorated with shofar blasts, when it refers to Rosh Hashanah, and also of the shabbat shabbaton, the Shabbat of all shabbatot or a “complete rest,” when Yom Kippur is mentioned.

We are also given instructions about how to wield the lulav and etrog, and read about the atzeret that takes place on the last day of Sukkot.

What does all this mean? It means that you’d better get out your Tanakh and your Mishna as there is a lot to keep track of.

But what gets lost sometimes in all of this translation is one of the more elemental and earthier reasons why the fall holidays are of the utmost importance in Judaism: rain.

More precisely, the holiday of Sukkot is the official beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and we note that change with both liturgical practice, i.e., the reading of the mashiv ha’ruach line in the Amidah and the Geshem prayer on Sukkot, and with religious rituals, as the waving of the lulav is meant to sound like rainfall and help bring on the rainfall. The crops and land of Israel, having survived the dry season of ancient Israel only by tal, the morning dew, are thirsting for rainfall, and that rain simply had to come once the latter half of Tishrei came around.

And once the prayers and rituals of Sukkot are performed, even today, we look at the heavens, or at our iPhones, and wait for the most cherished of rainfalls in Israel—the yoreh.

The yoreh is more than just rainfall. It is the first rainfall in Israel in the fall, one that ushers in the rainy season and provides crops with the nourishment they are seeking following a long, hot, and dry summer. Particularly for our agrarian ancestors, that first rain was of unparalleled importance in a time before drip irrigation and modern Israeli water technology. As the sages famously proclaimed, “Im ein kemach, ein Torah” (If there is no [food], there is no Torah)… but what they maybe should have said was “Im ein geshem, ein kemach, v’ein Torah” (If there is no rain, there is no flour, and no Torah).

On the flip side, a different word, malkosh, refers to the last rain in Israel in the spring. The rainfall that when it ends, turns off the heavenly faucet until it is opened again in the fall. More precisely, the malkosh is the final soaking rain of the spring, and while it might rain again lightly before the heat really arrives in May or June, the last heavy rain is the one we refer to with that word.

To make things more complicated, while yoreh refers to the first rainfall, malkosh to the last one, and geshem just means “rain,” the word that refers specifically to rain that God sends upon the Land of Israel is another word entirely—matar. We see the word matar in the Sh’ma, referring to the rain that God provides to the people and Land of Israel in its proper time as a reward for following the mitzvot.  We also see the matar used to describe the plague of hail in Exodus and the rain of fire and brimstone that destroys Sodom in Genesis, both of which were deliberately sent upon the earth at God’s instruction. With that in mind, one can be tempted to think of geshem as rain that occurs naturally, and as matar as divinely-sent precipitation for a specific purpose.

But not to worry, Hebrew scholars, there’s more to Israeli precipitation than just tal, yoreh, malkosh, geshem, tal, and matar. Go ahead and add hatzafah (flood), mabul (THE flood), shitafon (flash flood), zarzif (drizzle), and raviv (droplet) to your vocabulary sheet, and in the meantime, enjoy your preparations for 5779.

Shana Tovah.