This Friday the seventh of Cheshvan the people of Israel begin asking “Veten tal umatar livracha al pnei ha’adama” let there be dew and rain upon the land. In the Diaspora this request is not recited until the 4th of December. We will attempt to understand the background for these differing customs and their relevance globally.
The Mishna in Taanit (10a) relates a dispute between Tana Kama, (the first unnamed opinion in the Mishna) who is of the opinion that we begin asking for rain on the third of Cheshvan, and Raban Gamliel, who feels that Bakashat Geshamim (asking for rain) should commence on the seventh of Cheshvan. Raban Gamliel’s position, as explained in the Mishna, is that though it would be preferable to begin with Bakashat Geshmim immediately after Succot, we postpone our request until all of the Olei Haregel (those who come for the Holiday to Yerushalayim) have returned to their homes so as not to trouble them with rains during their travels. As to the opinion of Tana Kama we find several varied understandings.
The Ritva understands that both Tanaim feel that the rain season begins after Succot, yet they differ on how much should we delay asking for rain on account of the Olei Haregel. Raban Gamliel feels we should wait until all of the Olei Haregel have returned to their homes. Tana Kama feels we should create a balance between the needs of rain and the hardship of the Olei Haregel; therefore we should wait to ask until a majority of the Olei Haregel have returned home. The Ran, on the other hand, understands the dispute of the Tanaim as pertaining to the question of the relationship between asking for rain and the beginning of the rain season. Tana Kama is of the opinion that Bakashat Geshamim should commence with the opening of the rain season, which according to Rabi Meir begins on the third of Cheshvan. Raban Gamliel on the other hand feels that there is no need to link the asking of rains to the start of the rain season. Accordingly, due to the need to consider the hardship of the Olei Haregel we should postpone the commencement of Bakashat Geshamim until they have returned to their homes.
Two other opinions are found in the Gemara. According to one understanding (Taanit 4b), Rabi Yehuda is of the opinion that we must commence asking for rain immediately after Succot regardless of the Olei Haregel. (The other understands the position of Rabi Yehudah only when there are no Olei Regel.) A second opinion quoted in the Gemara (Taanit 10a) is that of Chananya who states that in “The Diaspora” (Bavel) Bakashat Geshamim should commence on the sixtieth of Tekufat Tishrei. (Halacha recognizes a Solar year divided into four periods, one of which is called Tekufat Tishrei. The sixtieth of this period correlates to the 4th of December.)
The Gemara (Taanit 10a) teaches us that Rabi Eliezer declared that we should rule like Raban Gamliel and commence with Bakashat Geshamim on the seventh of Cheshvan. Shmuel ruled that we follow the opinion of Chananya to commence asking for rain on the sixtieth of Tekufat Tishrei. Since Chananya’s opinion is limited to Bavel, we can conclude that the Halacha is to begin reciting Bakashat Geshamim in Eretz Yisrael on the seventh of Cheshvan and in Bavel on the sixtieth of Tekufat Tishrei, the fourth of December.
We find several varied opinions in the Rishonim on what should be the proper practice in the Diaspora, outside of Bavel, and what should be the practice in Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the Mikdash, (See Ritva Taanit 10a and Rambam Hilchot Tefila 2/16-17). The accepted custom as found in Shulchan Aruch (OC 117/1) is: In the Diaspora we begin asking for rain on the eve of the fourth of December while in Eretz Yisrael we commence asking on the seventh of Chesvan.
The Rosh in a Halachic Responsa (Shut Harosh Klall 4 siman 10) proposed a completely different understanding. According to the Rosh the Gemara concluded that there is no pre set time to begin Bakashat Geshamim, rather different places commence according to local needs. The Rosh limits this by defining that specific needs apply to an entire country not an individual city. He explains this limitation on the grounds that the Gemara (Taanit 14b) states that Rebi defined the people of Ninve as individuals and not a community in the matter of asking for rain in the summer months.
Though most Rishonim rejected the opinion of the Rosh and he himself felt compelled to accept the view of the majority of Poskim, it has become a central focus in the Halachic discussion of what should be done in the Southern Hemisphere. Some Poskim feel that the opinion of the Rosh was rejected only in reference to places where the general seasons of summer and winter are the same as in Bavel. Places where the seasons are reverse have no reason to do as in Bavel. In practice we find several different halachic rulings and practices.
On one side of the spectrum, we find the view of Rav Kook (Orach Mishpat 24) who felt that the Southern Hemisphere should do just as is done in all other countries of the Diaspora. On the other end of the spectrum is the opinion of Rav Shlomo Vozner, as elaborated by his son, (Shevet Halevi section 9 siman 148) that the people of the Southern Hemisphere follow their seasons and ask during their winter months. Midway between the above views is the opinion of Rav Yitzchak Weiss (Minchat Yitzchak vol. 6 siman 171) who suggests that during the winter months of the Southern Hemisphere rain should be asked for in Shomea Tefila as an individual’s request. During the time Bakashat Geshamim is recited in the Northern Hemisphere, they too should recite it unless rain in that period of time is considered harmful.
In practice those residing in the Northern Hemisphere outside of Israel should recite Bakashat Geshamim from the fourth of December until the first day of Pesach. Those in countries in the Southern Hemisphere should follow the direction of the local authorities and the accepted local custom.