From the second night of Passover until the day before the holiday of Shavuot, the Jewish people engage in an unique mitzvah called Sefirat HaOmer (counting of the Omer). The Torah commands us that during this time each year we count seven complete weeks, for a total of 49 days. At the end of the seven-week period we celebrate Shavuot, which means “weeks.”
This is considered a mitzvah, so the count, which takes place each night, is preceded by a blessing. However, we may recite the blessing only if we have not missed a single day’s counting. If we have omitted the counting even one night during that stretch (and did not make it up during the daytime without reciting the blessing), we may no longer recite the blessing, but instead must listen as a friend says the blessing and then do the counting.
During the times of the Holy Temple, at the beginning of the Omer count and on the following holiday of Shavuot, special grain offerings were brought. These offerings were waved in different directions, similar to how the lulav is waved during the holiday of Sukkot, to demonstrate G‑d Almighty’s all-encompassing presence.
Why do we count these days? We learn several reasons. The foremost is that the count demonstrates our thrill for the impending occasion of receiving the Torah, celebrated on Shavuot. Just as a child often counts the days until the end of school or an upcoming family vacation, we count the days to show our excitement at again receiving the Torah (as we do in fact receive the Torah in a renewed sense every year).
We also learn that this period is meant to spiritually prepare and refine ourselves. When the Jewish people were in Egypt nearly 3,400 years ago, they had assimilated many of the immoral ways of the Egyptian people. The Jews had sunk to an unprecedented level of spiritual defilement, and were on the brink of destruction. At the last possible moment, the children of Israel were miraculously redeemed. They underwent a spiritual rebirth and quickly ascended to the holiest collective state they had ever reached. They were so holy, in fact, that they were compared to angels when they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.
It was during that 49-day period that they underwent such a radical transformation. From the lowest lows to the highest heights in just seven weeks!
The commandments of the Torah are not meant merely as our history, but instead represent on ongoing life lesson for every Jew. We view the Torah as freshly received every day of our lives, and approach it and its commandments with appropriate vigor.
So too must we digest the lesson of the counting of the Omer. It is specifically during this time that we strive to grow and mature in our spiritual state. The Torah does not allow us to become satisfied with our current level of spirituality. Instead it tells us to set high goals for ourselves, and then methodically strive to reach that goal.
The growth that occurs during this time is akin to a marathon. We pace ourselves and seek to improve day by day until we reach the day that we again receive the Torah. In this process, we look deep within ourselves and work on all of our negative attributes. If we are challenged in the realm of acts of kindness, we go out of our way to do more charitable works. If we are lacking in the area of justice, we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards and are exacting and demanding in our personal behavior and habits. And so it goes for all of our traits.
My siddur tells me to start saying the prayer for rain in the Amidah on the night preceding December 5 or 6. Why does it use a secular date rather than a Jewish one?
Good question! As a rule of thumb, Jewish holidays and customs always follow the , which is linked to the phases of the moon. One exception to this rule is the special prayer requesting rain, which Jews in the Diaspora begin saying on the night preceding December 5 (or 6).
To understand why, let’s take a look at the history and significance of this small but important prayer.
Praying for Rain
Jews have been praying for rain for millennia. In the ancient land of Israel, rain was a life-and-death concern. A good rainy season meant a good harvest and ample drinking water, while a drought could be fatal to livestock and cripple the economy.
So when the set out to codify the prayers, they made sure to add a prayer for rain to the daily (silent prayer).
In fact, rain appears twice in the Amidah.
It is first mentioned in the second blessing, as one of a string of natural and supernatural wonders that G‑d performs. Not least among them is that “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”
Here we are praising G‑d, who brings rain, but we are not actually asking for rain. It is only later, in the blessing requesting a bountiful year, that we ask G‑d to “bestow dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth . . .”
In both instances, the rain-related phrase is said only during the winter (Israel’s rainy season). However, the two prayers follow slightly different schedules. We begin to say “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” on . But, as you point out, we start saying the second prayer, the actual request for rain, only at the beginning of December.
Why the differing start dates? It’s an interesting story . . .
The Jews of ancient Israel made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem each year, for the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Now, the official rainy season begins on Shemini Atzeret, The Talmud (Taanit 1:1) explains that in truth, even this mention of rain should have theoretically started earlier, at the beginning of the festival of Sukkot. However, it was deemed inappropriate to mention rain during Sukkot, when we are obligated to eat in the sukkah.
The Talmud (Taanit 1:1) explains that in truth, even this mention of rain should have theoretically started earlier, at the beginning of the festival of Sukkot. However, it was deemed inappropriate to mention rain during Sukkot, when we are obligated to eat in the sukkah.
That is how the practice of delaying the prayer for rain began. In Israel, the prayer was begun only 15 days after Shemini Atzeret (the 7th of Cheshvan), allowing enough time for even the Jews living near the Euphrates to return home. Ibid. 1:3.
Outside of Israel, however, a more complicated calculation became necessary.
In the Diaspora
For much of our history, the primary Jewish community in the Diaspora was in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), where the climate is much hotter than Israel’s, and the autumn rains do not begin until much later. Therefore, the sages instituted that Jews living in the Diaspora should start praying for rain only 60 days after the start of the halachic autumn, which is known as tekufat Tishrei. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:1.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:1.
Nowadays very few Jews live in Babylonia, and the Jews of North America need rain at a different time than the Jews of Singapore. Nevertheless, we all start asking for rain on the day established for the Jews in Babylonia, regardless of when rains are actually needed in our respective locales. Shulchan Aruch ibid.; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 117:2; Responsa of Rabbi Asher bar Yechiel (Rosh) 4:10. See also Shaarei Halachah u-Minhag, vol. 1, pp. 159–163 for an extensive list of halachic authorities who discuss this.
Shulchan Aruch ibid.; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 117:2; Responsa of Rabbi Asher bar Yechiel (Rosh) 4:10. See also Shaarei Halachah u-Minhag, vol. 1, pp. 159–163 for an extensive list of halachic authorities who discuss this.
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explains that even Jews living in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, should follow the schedule established for the Jews of Babylonia, because we pray for the needs of the Jewish people as a whole, most of whom reside in the Northern Hemisphere. See Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 4, p. 2119, and Torat Menachem 5743, vol. 1, p. 387.
See Torat Menachem 5742, vol. 4, p. 2119, and Torat Menachem 5743, vol. 1, p. 387.
Obviously, this does not preclude us from praying for rain at other times. An individual or community that needs rain at a different time may add a personal prayer into the sixteenth blessing of the Amidah, “Shomei’a Tefillah,” where we add our unique requests. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:2.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:2.
Now Some Math
We now know that the custom of Jews in the Diaspora is to start praying for rain 60 days after the onset of tekufat Tishrei. But when exactly is that?
In the third century, the Talmudic sage Shmuel calculated the length of the solar year as 365 days and 6 hours. Since the year is subdivided into four seasons, or tekufot in Hebrew, it follows that each tekufah is 91 days and 7½ hours (365.25 ÷ 4 = 91.3125). See Talmud, Eruvin 56a.
See Talmud, Eruvin 56a.
This calculation happens to correspond with the Julian calendar, which was widely used from the year 45 BCE until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 CE.
Based on this, tekufat Tishrei always began on September 24 on the Julian calendar, Currently October 7 on the Gregorian calendar. See, for example, Beit Yosef to Orach Chaim 117, where Rabbi Yosef Caro, who lived before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, gives November 22 as the day we start praying for rain.
Currently October 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
See, for example, Beit Yosef to Orach Chaim 117, where Rabbi Yosef Caro, who lived before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, gives November 22 as the day we start praying for rain.
It eventually became clear that the solar year is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter than previously calculated, and that the calendar was slowly but surely drifting ahead. In the year 1582, the spring (vernal) equinox—which had been on March 25 at the introduction of the Julian calendar—actually occurred on March 11. This was about 10 days earlier than March 21, which is the day that had been “fixed” as the vernal equinox in the year 325.
To remedy this, Gregory XIII made two changes:
He shifted the calendar back by removing 10 days in October, making October 5 of the year 1582 into October 15. This restored the spring equinox to March 21.
To ensure that the calendar would not shift again, Gregory implemented that every 128 years (or, more roughly, three times every 400 years), one day would be removed from the calendar. (This is because the discrepancy of 11 minutes and 14 seconds accumulates into a whole extra day every 128 years.)
The extra day normally appended to the month of February every four years (causing a leap year) The leap year is in both calendars to compensate for the fact that a solar year is approximately 365.25 days; thus, every four years there is an extra day.
The leap year is in both calendars to compensate for the fact that a solar year is approximately 365.25 days; thus, every four years there is an extra day.
If you’re still following me, it should be clear that the old calendars (Jewish and Julian) drift away from the new (Gregorian) calendar at a rate of three days every 400 years.
It’s important to note that the Jewish sages were well aware that this calculation was not completely accurate. In fact, for most purposes the Jewish calendar follows the more accurate calculations of Rabbi Adda bar Ahavah, who gives the length of the solar year as 365 days, 5 hours, 55 minutes and 25.4 seconds. However, the sages of the Talmud chose to calculate the length of a solar year as 365.25 days for the prayer for rain and for (the blessing of the sun), because it made the calcuations much simpler for the average person to perform. For more on the accuracy of the calculations, and the reasons why they chose inexact ones, see
For more on the accuracy of the calculations, and the reasons why they chose inexact ones, see
What to Do?
We know that the prayer for rain should be said 60 days after the beginning of halachic autumn. Since this date is based on the calculation of Shmuel (and the Julian calendar), and not the Gregorian calendar, we now have to translate this date into our Gregorian calendars.
Here’s our final calculation: As mentioned earlier, in the Julian calendar, the sixtieth day after the tekufah is November 22. Now, keeping in mind that the Gregorian calendar chopped off 10 days from the Julian calendar, we have to add them back. Thus, the sixtieth day would be—in the year 1582—on December 2.
Additionally, every centurial year (except for the years divisible by 400) the Gregorian calendar loses one day not dropped from the older calendar. Thus, from the year 1700 and onward, the sixtieth day of the tekufah moved one day every 100 years. In 1700 it was on December 3, in 1800 it moved to December 4, and in 1900 to December 5. However, since the year 2000 is divisible by 400, and the Gregorian calendar did not drop the leap day, the day that is considered the sixtieth day of the tekufah did not move, and remains December 5 until the year 2100, in which it will move to December 6.
The reason that we begin saying the prayer on December 6 in the year before a (civil) leap year is that although the Gregorian calendar adds a day to the month of February every four years for a leap year, the extra day has essentially really been accumulated at the start of the winter season. Therefore, every December preceding a leap year, the sixtieth day is adjusted to December 6.
Also bear in mind that since the halachic day starts on the preceding night, we start reciting the prayer for rain during the Maariv Amidah on the night preceding the dates given above.
So, after all that, what you really need to know is that until the year 2100, in a regular year we start saying the prayer for rain on the night of December 4, and in the year before a (civil) leap year, on the night of December 5. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:1.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 117:1.
As we begin to recite the prayers for rain this winter, let us have in mind that we are joining Jews all over the world—especially those in our Holy Land, where every drop of water is precious—united in our request for bounty and blessing for all of humanity.
I think this is a beautiful tradition, and I want to learn all I can about it. However, is it actually written in Torah to light a candle, or does it say only to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy?
The most precious things in life are said silently. Those who need to understand—those who are not strangers, those who hear the words from the inside—understand. Similarly with Shabbat: when G‑d gave it to us, He did not need to spell out its most precious customs.
Take a look: whenever the Torah mentions Shabbat, it always seems to be assuming that we know what it’s talking about. The Torah admonishes us to “keep the Shabbat” and “remember the Shabbat.” We are to rest on the seventh day from the work of the other six, and so are our servants and domesticated animals. Don’t make a fire. Exodus 35:3. Ibid.
The prophet Isaiah, however, does elaborate a little on what Shabbat entails. His audience was, after all, a little more distant from the light of Sinai—and so needed things spelled out. He says, “If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you will call the Sabbath ‘a delight’ and G‑d’s holy day ‘honored’ . . .” Isaiah 58:13.
So, Shabbat is a day we are to honor and delight in. But how do you honor and delight in it? Apparently, Isaiah’s audience needed no further explanation. But in Talmudic times, things got to the point that it was necessary for the rabbis to spell out every word: you honor the Shabbat with clean clothes, and delight in it with fine food and drink. Talmud, Shabbat 113a and 118b; Mishneh Torah, Hil. Shabbat 30:1; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 242 and 262.
Talmud, Shabbat 113a and 118b; Mishneh Torah, Hil. Shabbat 30:1; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 242 and 262.
Now, here’s where the Shabbat candles come in: Mishneh Torah (ibid. 5:1) describes ner Shabbat in terms of delight. In 30:5, however, it is described in terms of honoring Shabbat. The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 11, p. 295) resolves this: lighting before Shabbat honors the Shabbat by preparing for it. Once Shabbat has entered, the light provides delight. I focus here on the second aspect, since (see Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, 263:11, end) the main mitzvah of ner Shabbat is not the lighting, but the enjoyment of the light on Shabbat (and for this reason, a woman who has not made the blessing at the time of lighting can make a blessing later on Shabbat, when she benefits from the light). Yoma 74b.
Mishneh Torah (ibid. 5:1) describes ner Shabbat in terms of delight. In 30:5, however, it is described in terms of honoring Shabbat. The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 11, p. 295) resolves this: lighting before Shabbat honors the Shabbat by preparing for it. Once Shabbat has entered, the light provides delight. I focus here on the second aspect, since (see Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, 263:11, end) the main mitzvah of ner Shabbat is not the lighting, but the enjoyment of the light on Shabbat (and for this reason, a woman who has not made the blessing at the time of lighting can make a blessing later on Shabbat, when she benefits from the light).
And so, as long as Jews were interested in “calling the Shabbat a day of delight,” they must have had a lamp lit for the nighttime meal. It had to be lit beforehand, since—as we are told explicitly Exodus 35:3.
Yet it seems that later down the line, there were Jews who felt okay skimping on the visual experience. Maybe the cost of oil was escalating. True, you can’t eat a meal without light and enjoy it. But people said, “Let’s just eat it that way anyway, and say we did.” Now, if people don’t want to enjoy, it’s hard to tell them, “You must enjoy!” But sitting in a dark home all Shabbat creates other problems. Shabbat is meant to be a day of peace and harmony. A dark house, with people tripping over every unseen obstacle Rashi to Shabbat 25b, s.v. hadlakat.
Rashi to Shabbat 25b, s.v. hadlakat.
So, at some unspecified point in history, for the sake of shalom bayit (family harmony), Shabbat 23b. Rambam appears to consider ner Shabbat to be principally for the sake of enjoying Shabbat. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, however, seems to consider shalom bayit the chief factor. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 16, p. 374. Mishneh Torah, ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 263:1. Proverbs 6:23. Shabbat 23b and Rashi ad loc.
Shabbat 23b. Rambam appears to consider ner Shabbat to be principally for the sake of enjoying Shabbat. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, however, seems to consider shalom bayit the chief factor. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 16, p. 374.
Mishneh Torah, ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 263:1.
Shabbat 23b and Rashi ad loc.
Nevertheless, the principal lamp is the one that shines over the Shabbat meal. Ohr Zarua, Hilchot Erev Shabbat 11; Rema, Orach Chaim 263:10; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 263:1.
Ohr Zarua, Hilchot Erev Shabbat 11; Rema, Orach Chaim 263:10; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 263:1.
Now you can see that the Shabbat lamp, even though it is technically a rabbinic institution, has always been an integral part of the Shabbat. Our tradition is that Abraham and Sarah kept the entire Torah even though it was not yet given. They knew the Torah from their understanding of the inner mechanics of the universe. Sarah lit the Shabbat lamp, as did Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It’s reasonable to believe that at no time in our history did a Friday night pass without that light. And with that light we will enter into the “day that is entirely Shabbat and rest for eternal life.” May that time come sooner than we can imagine.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman