Q. Why do we pray for rain on Sh’mini Atzeret?
Because the antipodean seasons are – from the northern hemisphere point of view – upside down, certain Australian congregations used to reverse the prayers for rain and dew, reciting the former on Pesach and the latter on Sh’mini Atzeret.
This local custom has long since been abandoned, and the Antipodes do what the rest of the Jewish world does – with perfect logic, since so much of Judaism is linked to Israel.
Rain is one of the supreme Divine blessings. The Shema promises it as a reward for obedience to God’s commands and says that disobedience may cost us the blessing of rain (Deut. 11:11-17). Elijah warns King Ahab that drought will come as a punishment (I Kings 17:1; cf. the Haftarah for the first day of Sukkot, Zech. 14:1-21).
The Mishnah solemnly states that “the world is judged through water” (Rosh HaShanah 1:2). The Mishnah Ta’anit records how our ancestors prayed and fasted in time of drought.
There are many accounts of the piety of Choni the Circle-Drawer, who had such power of intercession with God that on a celebrated occasion he drew a circle around himself and refused to budge until the Almighty sent rain (but then, when too much rain fell, he had to plead with God not to be so generous!).
The Sh’mini Atzeret prayers for rain in the Ashkenazi tradition are by Elazar Kalir and remind God of the righteousness of the Patriarchs, of Moses, Aaron and the twelve tribes of Israel, adding, “For their sake, withhold not water.”
The final words ask that the rain be “for blessing, and not for a curse; for life, and not for death; for abundance, and not for famine”: a reminder that every boon has the capacity to be a bane.
Rain is a precious gift that makes nature revive; it can also be a flood that engulfs and destroys. Fire can give warmth and light, enable us to prepare food, and drive industry; it can also devastate and cause havoc.
The human brain can think, plan, and achieve the miraculous; it can also cause suffering and calamity. The human heart can love passionately; it can also become fanatical and rob others of their dignity.