Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Behukotai

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“I will grant your rains in their season” – Sanctifying the Name of G-d


 Prof. Yaakov Spiegel


Department of Talmud


Parashat Behukotai opens with blessings for following G-d’s laws faithfully. The first of these blessings, and presumably the most important of them, is “I will grant your rains in their season (Lev.26:3).”   In his lengthy commentary on this verse Nahmanides noted that rain “is the greatest of blessings.”   Conversely, when the rains are withheld, th;is must be considered the most severe of punishments, and so we have the custom of reciting special prayers along with fasting in order to avert the harsh decree. Much of Tractate Ta’anit is devoted to this practice.

In ancient times, it was also customary for the people to appeal to the righteous of their day when rain was withheld, to request that Heaven have mercy and commute the harsh decree.  Most famous in this regard is the story of Honi ha-Me’aggel, who brought down rain and of whom the Talmud writes (Ta’anit 23a):   “The rabbis taught:   What message did the men from the Chamber of Hewn Stone (the Sanhedrin) send to Honi ha- Me’aggel? They cited this verse from Job: ‘You will decree and it will be fulfilled, and light will shine upon your affairs’ (Job 22:28).  ‘You will decree’ – you will decree from below, and the Holy One, blessed be He, will fulfill your words from above.”   Tractate Ta’anit recounts several other stories of Sages who in time of drought prayed successfully for rain.

The power of the great men of the generation to bring down rain did not cease with the close of the Talmudic period, but is heard of in later periods as well.  Some of these stories involve gentiles – an element that rarely figures in stories of the Talmud [1] – and usually the request for rain came from them.  They saw this as a test of the Jewish faith, while the Jews saw it as an opportunity to sanctify the Name of G-d.  We shall illustrate this below.

Rabbi Abraham Saba, an exile from Spain in the 15th century, wrote in his Tzeror ha- Mor, on the beginning of Parashat Behukotai, as follows:

It says, “your rains [gishmekhem] in its season” (26:4) – and not “I shall give you rain” – indicating that the rain is ours, as the herdsmen of Gerar said, “the water is ours” (Gen. 26:20).  This was our glorious strength when the gentiles received us [amongst them], since we knew how to bring the rain in due season.  In this context they say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people” (Deut. 4:6), for they see the prayer leader wrapped in his prayer shawl, and when he mentions the thirteen attributes he brings down the rain. [2]   Therefore it says “your rain,” since they are yours.  And the reason the rain is ours is that we accepted the Torah which is called water, as it is said, “Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water” (Isa. 55:1).  But the other nations of the world, who did not wish to receive the Torah, do not merit having water given them; this is the meaning of “your rain.”

Rabbi Abraham dwelled on the precise significance of the word “your rain.”   It could have sufficed to say simply “rain”; so why include the possessive pronoun? [3]   In Rabbi Abraham’s opinion Scripture is informing us that the rain is Israel’s, namely that Israel can control the rain.  This control leads to sanctification of the Lord in the eyes of the other nations of the world.

The same Rabbi Abraham wrote the following on the verse in the passage of admonishment, “and I will break your proud glory.   I will make your skies like iron” (Lev. 26:19):

I have already noted that our pride and glory in the hands of those who took us captive was our having the power to bring the rain in its season, through all our prayers.   This is well-known, for it was on this condition that we were received in the lands of other nations when we were exiled.  It happened that in Aragon in time of drought all the Jews were cast out of the city and the gates closed against them until they brought rain.  Rabbi Hasdai Crescas [4] explained this, saying at the outset of his words, “the water belongs to us” [quoting Genesis above]. The Lord remembered His people and gave them rain.  Later, due to our sins, we would cry and shout in a multitude, but there was no one who listened to us, since the words of Scripture, “and I will break your proud glory,” were being fulfilled for us and them on account of our sins. For this is our pride and glory, our ability to bring rain in due season through our prayers.

Here we read that in the eyes of the gentiles our ability to bring rain was “well-known.” Moreover, on the merits of the Jews’ well-known power to bring rain, they were allowed to live settle in other lands in the Diaspora.  That is to say, in time of drought the Jews had to pray and save their neighbors.

Rabbi Hasdai’s feat is mentioned by another rabbi, Joseph Yaavetz, also one of the rabbis exiled from Spain.   He wrote as follows: [5]

Rabbi ibn Hasdai, who excelled in his intelligence over all the philosophers of his day, even the wise-men of the Moslems and Christians, not to mention the wise-men of the Jews, and was a great man before G-d, for he called to the Lord, and He answered him in gatherings of tens of thousands of gentiles, so that the Lord was sanctified by him.

Presumably this passage refers to the same event mentioned by Rabbi Abraham Saba.

An appeal to the Jews to bring rain in Spain was also reported by Rabbi Solomon Ibn Verga, he too an exile from Spain, in his famous work, Shevet Yehudah.  In the debate described in his book, between King don Alfonso and Rabbi Joseph Ibn Yihye, Rabbi Joseph said, among other things, “As for bringing rain, in our Talmud there are several righteous men who did so; also, the Jews living in Toledo were asked by the Christians to bring rain and they did so through their prayers.” [6]

Rabbi Joseph Sambari, who lived in Egypt and as far as we can tell finished his historic book, Divrei Yosef, in 1673, also briefly mentions the story about Rabbi Hasdai and adds another two stories about righteous men who brought rain:  Rabbi Isaac Hayyun and Rabbi Isaac Abouhab, both of them famous rabbis active in the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. [7]

Hassidim, in the mishnaic sense of righteous men, and men of action who could bring the rains were not unique to rabbis from Spain; rather, rabbis from other places are also reputed to have done so, although this is not the place to go into further detail. [8]   Suffice it to cite one more example from the writings of Rabbi Yom Tov Tzahalon, from Safed in the mid-sixteenth century, who heard the following story from his father: [9]

This can be understood more correctly, to my mind, from what I heard; namely, that when the Moslem kadis prayed for rain unsuccessfully in time of drought, it is said that the great judges amongst them disheveled their hair (removing their headcoverings) and prayed.   Some show even greater subjection, instead of a fine scarf that they put around their necks, making a scarf of shoes which they link one into the next and place on their necks instead of a scarf and pray in subservience; so I have heard from my master and father, of blessed memory, who saw that the great judges did this in Jerusalem in time of drought; yet with all this they were not answered, until they finally had to force us to pray.  Then the Torah scroll was taken out into the city’s streets and the rabbis of Israel came out; and the Lord heard them and answered them, and they did not return into the city except in a triumphant rainfall; and all the great men of the other nations came to greet them, and the gentile leader came out and spread his shawl over the Torah scroll so that it not be ruined by the heavy rain; and His great name was sanctified.  Thus I heard from my father and master, who saw it with his own eyes.

Thus we see from the above that bringing rain, both in the land of Israel and abroad, is a sanctification of the name of the Lord in the eyes of the nations of the world.

Indeed, the historical experience of our people has taught us that if such sanctification of the name of the Lord in the eyes of the gentiles had any impact, it was lasted but a short while, quickly passing away and dissolving.   However, this week’s reading also mentions sanctification of the name of the Lord as something perpetual, whose impact on the nations of the world will be significant.  This can be seen in Nahmanides commentary on Lev. 21:11:

Even though they are hidden miracles, of which the world takes no special note, yet they become publicized by virtue of their always being throughout the land.   For if one righteous person should happen to live, the Lord removing illness from him and giving him long life, this might also happen to a few wicked persons.  But when an entire land and a single nation always has rain in its season, enjoys bounty, tranquility, peace, good health, mightiness, and victory over its enemies – something which is unparalleled throughout the entire world – then it all acknowledge that this came from the Lord.  Therefore it says, “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Lord’s name is proclaimed over you, and they shall stand in fear of you” (Deut. 28:10).

Therefore, let us pray that we may yet merit this elevated stage of sanctifying the Name of G-d.

[1] On the structure of stories about bringing rain in works of the Sages and later works, see D. Noy, “Tefillat ha-Tamim Moridah Geshamim,” Mahanayim 51 (1961), pp. 34-45.

[2] Rabbi A. M. Cohen Rappaport, in Minhah Belulah, Verona 1594, wrote on this week’s reading:  “The rain is in Israel’s hands, for to this day in the Land of Israel when the prayer leader wraps himself in his prayer shawl and says the thirteen attributes with full concentration, he brings down rain.”  The author wrote that this book contains material gathering from various other sources, as the name of his book indicates, however he generally did not give explicit citation of his sources.  Perhaps Tzeror ha- Mor was the source here as well, except that the author made a change, adding the words, “to this day in the Land of Israel,” and perhaps this passage was taken from another source.

[3] This was already noted and remarked upon by the Sages, in Sifra, loc. sit.

[4] A disciple of Ran and teacher of Rabbi Joseph Albo and other rabbis.  He wrote a famous philosophic work entitled Or ha-Shem.  He passed away circa 1410.

[5] Rabbi Joseph Yavetz, Or ha-Hayyim, Lublin 1910, p. 48b.

[6] Shevet Yehudah, Shohat ed., Jerusalem 1947, p. 142.

[7] Cf. Divrei Yosef, Stauber ed., Jerusalem 1981, pp. 260-261.

[8] For additional sources, cf. D. Noy’s article cited in note 1; S. Stauber, Divrei Yosef, cited in the previous note; Tzeror ha-Mor ha-Shalem, R. B. Wichholder, Bne Brak 1990, in the notes; A. Gross, R. Joseph ben Abraham Hayyun, Ramat Gan 1993, pp. 25-26 and notes; Y. S. Tefillinsky, Ma’aseihem shel Tzadikim, Jerusalem 2001, pp. 182-187.   Further stories, not mentioned by them, are documented, but this is not the place to expand on this topic.

[9] Resp. Maharitatz ha-Hadashot, Jerusalem 1980, par. 200.  Rabbi Yomtov Tzahalon ( Mahritatz) was born circa 1559, and was a noted rabbi in Safed, as I wrote in the introduction to the book, p. 14.  I also noted there, p. 17, that this story is briefly recounted by Rabbi Gedaliah of Simjatovitz, in Sha’alu Shlom Yerushalayim, printed in A. Ya’ari, Mas’ot Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem 1976, p. 356.