Should we pray for rain?
"For you make the wind blow and rain fall - for a blessing, not a curse, Amen" (from the Succot machzor)
According to a recent report from Nasa scientists, if current rainy weather patterns continue, we could face worldwide food shortages as a result of widespread ruin of crops. Where does this leave our prayers this year for wind and rain?
The latter half of Succot focuses on water, parties thrown in honour of the festival are called "Water-drawing Simchah" (Simchat Beit Hashoevah) to commemorate water libations in Temple times and the last day of Succot, Hoshana Rabba, is dubbed "Day of Judgment for Water".
The very next day, Shemini Atzeret, we add into the second blessing of the Amidah, a mention of winds carrying rain clouds to our shores.
British summertime weather hardly warrants a prayer like this: so why do we persist? Is there not a danger of too much rain?
Back in the Second Temple era, the High Priest would pray on Yom Kippur that God would pay no attention to the prayer of pilgrims returning to Babylon that the rainy season be delayed until they arrive home, so they would not get bogged down on muddy roads. At the same time, he prayed that mud-hut dwellers would not be deluged and buried in their own homes!
There is a precedent for changing the first weather clause of the eighteen-blessing Amidah. Northern European countries omit reference to summertime dew - morid hatal - hence its absence from the United Synagogue prayer book.
At the other extreme, the Chief Rabbi of the Syrian communities of Argentina, the Hacham, Rabbi Shaul Suthon, ruled in a groundbreaking decision more than 40 years ago that Argentine Jewry recite the request for dew - and not rain - all year round, on the basis that seasons there were not consistent with those the Talmud legislated for. This decision was later endorsed by the ex-Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yossef.
In recent years, an opposing school of thought has revoked the ruling and restored the prayer for rain. Its argument was that owing to the recently drier climate, blamed on increased deforestation of the Amazon, we ought to pray for rain at least half the year, thus bringing South American minhag in line with the rest of the world; even Indian Jewish communities, with monsoon rains arriving in August, pray for rain like the rest of us after Succot - although their location north of the equator is a deciding factor in favour of this custom.
Another ruling, ascribed to British Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler for Australian Jewry, is that no mention of rain should be made during Australian summer if crops were damaged by rainfall as a result.
So where does this leave us? Each rabbinic authority clearly has the right - even responsibility to re-examine new climatic realities and decide how to pray for rain. If our prayers stand a chance of being answered, and a request to ask for - or withhold - rain could damage the environment, there may be a need to treat this as a serious matter for a summit between Nasa and the Beth Din!
Ariel Abel is rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue