Will the Real Equinox(+60) Please Stand Up?

It’s that time of the year again when astronomically minded Jews are vexed by a strange question…

Why do we annually begin saying ותן טל ומטר – “give dew and rain for a blessing” – in the Shmoneh Esrei prayer on Dec. 4th (or 5th) – for those outside the Land of Israel – when the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch seem to say otherwise?

In the Talmud, Masechet Ta’anit 10a we find:

 משנה  בג’ במרחשון שואלין את הגשמים רבן גמליאל אומר בשבעה בו ט”ו יום אחר החג כדי שיגיע אחרון שבישראל לנהר פרת

 גמרא  א”ר אלעזר הלכה כרבן גמליאל תניא חנניה אומר ובגולה עד ששים בתקופה אמר רב הונא בר חייא אמר שמואל הלכה כחנניה איני והא בעו מיניה משמואל מאימת מדכרינן ותן טל ומטר אמר להו מכי מעיילי ציבי לבי טבות רישבא דילמא אידי ואידי חד שיעורא הוא איבעיא להו יום ששים כלפני ששים או כלאחר ששים ת”ש רב אמר יום ששים כלאחר ששים ושמואל אמר יום ששים כלפני ששים א”ר נחמן בר יצחק וסימנך עילאי בעו מיא תתאי לא בעו מיא אמר רב פפא הלכתא יום ששים כלאחר ששים

 GEMARA. R. Eleazar said: The halachah is according to R. Gamaliel. It has been taught: Hananiah says: In the Diaspora [we do not begin to pray] until the sixtieth day after tekufat Tishrei [=the Tishri equinox]. R. Huna b. Hiyya said in the name of Samuel: The halachah is according to Hananiah. Is it really so? Was not a question asked of Samuel: When do we begin to make mention [of the words] ‘and give dew and rain’? and he replied, ‘When wood is brought into the house of Tabut, the fowler’? — Perhaps the two time limits are identical. A question was asked in the school: Is the sixtieth day counted with those that precede it or with those that follow it? -Come and hear: Rab said: The sixtieth day is counted with those that follow it; and Samuel said: With those that precede it. R. Nahman said: The mnemonic for this is, the highlands need water, but the lowlands do not. R. Papa said: The halachah is that the sixtieth day is counted with those that follow it.

Two rules seem to clearly emerge from this sugya: In the Land of Israel, we begin adding the words ותן טל ומטר on the 7th of the month of Marcheshvan, following Rabban Gamliel’s opinion. The second rule, applicable outside of Israel, is to begin adding the phrase on the 60th day after the autumnal equinox – “tekufat Tishrei“.

Most modern prayer books include the instructions to begin saying this phrase on December 4th or 5th (depending on secular leap years). Some older editions say Dec. 3 or 4. And some even include the confusingly contradictory instruction to begin 60 days after “tekufat Tishrei“. But why?

As astronomers, we all know, that the date of the autumnal Equinox is September 22 (in most years; see here) So why do we not begin on November 22nd – 60 days (inclusively)  later?

Diagram of the Earth's axial tilt with respect to the Sun on the Equinoxes and Solstices
Diagram of the Earth’s axial tilt with respect to the Sun on the Equinoxes and Solstices. Not to scale. (Thompson Higher Education, 2007)

Indeed, R. Yosef Karo, in his magnum opus, the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 117:1 simply states “60 days after the equinox”:

ברכת השנים צריך לומר בה בימות הגשמים ותן טל ומטר ומתחילין לשאול מטר בחוצה לארץ בתפלת ערבית של יום ס’ אחרי תקופת תשרי (ויום התקופה הוא בכלל הס’. הגהות מיימוני פרק ב’). ובארץ ישראל מתחילין לשאול מליל ז’ במרחשון

In the “Blessing of Years”, in the rainy season one must say “give dew and rain”. And we begin asking for rain in the diaspora in the evening prayer of the 60th day after the “Tishrei equinox” (Rema: and the 60th day is included.) In the Land of Israel we begin asking from the evening of the 7th of Marcheshvan.

Furthermore, in his earlier work, the Beit Yosef (117:1) he is even more specific, explicitly giving the secular dates, November 22 or 23:

וכתב הר”ד אבודרהם ויום ס’ יבוא בכ”ב מנובי”מברי (ד’ דעצעמ’) אם היה אותו פיברי”ר מכ”ח יום אבל אם היה פיברי”ר מכ”ט יום תהיה השאלה בכ”ג נובי”מברי (ה’ דעצעמ’) כי תקופת תשרי לעולם שבעה ימים קודם (ד’ או ה’ אקט”ברי

R. D. Abudraham wrote: And the 60th day will come on the 22 of November (4 Dec.) if that [year’s] February was of 28 days, but if Feb. was of 29 days, then the beginning of “the requesting” [of rain] is on the 23 of November. (5 Dec.) because the Autumnal Equinox is always seven days before (4 or 5 October).

However, note that in parentheses, this edition also includes the dates December 4 or 5. These parenthetical dates were certainly added to the text of R. Karo’s original version, as we shall see. (It also seems likely that the final parenthesis after the word “October” really belongs before it, so that the original reading without parenthetical emendation would have concluded “… Equinox is always 7 days before October.”)

Grave of R. Yosef Karo, a.k.a. The Beit Yosef, author of the Shulchan Aruch (in Tzefat, Israel)
Grave of R. Yosef Karo, a.k.a. The Beit Yosef, author of the Shulchan Aruch (in Tzefat, Israel)

Now here’s why… In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced corrections to the previous Julian Calendar, to correct a slight mistake. This is known as the Gregorian Calendar – the “secular” calendar in use today. The (average) length of a Julian calendar year was 365 1/4 days, which is approximately 11 minutes (and some seconds) shorter than the actual “tropical” or solar year.

Detail Pope Gregory's tomb by Camillo Rusconi (c. 1723); Antonio Lilio is genuflecting before the pope, presenting his printed calendar.
Detail Pope Gregory’s tomb by Camillo Rusconi (c. 1723); Antonio Lilio is genuflecting before the pope, presenting his printed calendar.

The “tropical year” (or solar year) is defined as the time it takes for the Sun to return to the same position in the sky – as viewed from Earth – as in the previous cycle of its apparent motion in the sky. This is slightly shorter than the amount of time that it takes for Earth to complete an actual orbit around the Sun as measured against the background of “fixed” stars – known as a sidereal year – but only by about 20 minutes.

Due to this difference, the dates on the Julian calendar had, over the centuries, drifted from their intended astronomical correspondence. 11 minutes times 1000+ years adds up! Thus, by the 16th century, the spring equinox was 10 days away from its putative date of March 21. This mattered a lot to the Church and the Pope, most importantly because of the calculations to determine when Easter should be celebrated.

In the 16th century, christian scholars undertook to correct this problem, culminating in the 1582 proclamation by Pope Gregory, which resulted in the adoption of what we call the Gregorian Calendar. In addition to adjusting the average length of the years to be more precise by changing leap year rules, the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar included a one-time skipping of 10 days in October 1582, to get the calendar “back on track” – i.e. to put the dates of the equinoxes (and solstices) back on the 21st’s of their respective months.

Papal edict, Inter Gravissimas, establishing the Gregorian Calendar, 1582
Papal edict, Inter Gravissimas, establishing the Gregorian Calendar, 1582

As an interesting aside, it is notable that the church only corrected the dates of the equinoxes/solstices to match their “original” dates in the 4th century, since the Easter calculations which interested them went back to the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. But the drift had occurred since the time of the first century BCE, when the Julian calendar had been instituted – when the equinoxes/solstices were originally on the 25th of their months (as discussed in an earlier post on Chanukah a couple of years ago.)

If these changes were followed by Jews, then R. Karo’s specified dates in the Beit Yosef – in November, 60 days after the actual equinox – would be the correct dates on which to being saying ותן טל ומטר. However, sadly unscientifically, the jewish community has not done so. With respect to this mitzvah, the tradition has remained to follow the Julian calendar.

So not only were the 10 “correction days” ignored – which would lead to us beginning adding ותן טל ומטר on Dec. 2 – but correcting for the shortness of Julian years since the 16th century has also been neglected. This has led to further drifting over centuries, hence the current practice to begin on the 4th/5th of December.

It should be noted that the longer this remains uncorrected, the later and later we will start saying ותן טל ומטר, until eventually if unchecked, it would drift as far as Pesach! Then what…? (Granted that will take many thousands of years, so it’s hardly an imminent crisis.)

Hence the parenthetical emendations of the dates in the Beit Yosef by some later editor. Curiously, over the course of centuries of publishing, these emendations require continuous updating for newly published editions. In an 1861 edition, they say 3rd and 4th of December, unlike the more recent edition cited above. (I am curious to know, but have not yet managed to research this enough, what the first edition published was that had such emendations. The first editions were published in R. Karo’s lifetime, before the Gregorian calendar existed.) The same is true for siddurim, which is why older editions often have different dates than more modern editions.

However, most later halachic authorities still adhere to the Julian calendar. This is due to its being identified with what is called “tekufat Shmuel“. Shmuel was the 2nd century rabbi (mentioned above in the quote from Taanit) who was also an expert astronomer. On Eiruvin 56a Shmuel is cited:

אמר שמואל אין תקופת ניסן נופלת אלא בארבעה רבעי היום או בתחלת היום או בתחלת הלילה או בחצי היום או בחצי הלילה ואין תקופת תמוז נופלת אלא או באחת ומחצה או בשבע ומחצה בין ביום ובין בלילה ואין תקופת תשרי נופלת אלא או בשלש שעות או בתשע שעות בין ביום ובין בלילה ואין תקופת טבת נופלת אלא או בארבע ומחצה או בעשר ומחצה בין ביום ובין בלילה ואין בין תקופה לתקופה אלא תשעים ואחד יום ושבע שעות ומחצה ואין תקופה מושכת מחברתה אלא חצי שעה

Samuel stated: The vernal equinox occurs only at the beginning of one of the four quarters of the day viz., either at the beginning of the day or at the beginning of the night or at midday or at midnight. The summer solstice only occurs either at the end of one and a half, or at the end of seven and a half hours of the day or the night. The autumnal equinox only occurs at the end of three, or nine hours of the day or the night, and the winter solstice only occurs at the end of four and a half, or ten and a half hours of the day or the night. The duration of a season of the year is no longer than ninety-one days and seven and a half hours; and the beginning of one season is removed from that of the other by no more than one half of an hour.

Based on Shmuel’s statement, that a season is no longer than 91 days and 7.5 hours, the length of a year is 365.25 days. Thus Shmuel’s year is essentially that of the Julian calendar. Now, Shmuel with his astronomical expertise was surely aware that this is only an approximation. His statement was probably made for simplicity rather than precision.

There also exists a more accurate calculation of the length of a year attributed to the talmudic Rav Ada, and it is used for the calculation of our lunar-solar 19 year calendar cycle. Despite that, Shmuel’s statement has been preferred with respect to the date on which ותן טל ומטר is said and with respect to the once in 28 year blessing Birkat Hachamah – the Blessing of the Sun. With respect to the latter, it would be difficult to nigh impossible to follow the Rav Ada calculations. However, for ותן טל ומטר it would be quite simple – as simple as accepting the Gregorian calendar dates for the equinoxes/solstices and counting 60 days.

But that has not been accepted as practice. Why…? Tradition! Maybe…? Also, in the 16th century, Jews would hardly have viewed favorably decrees of the pope, or give them any binding authority, even in the event that he was correct (this time.)

Furthermore, to be fair to us Jews, there were other significant “holdouts” against the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, outside the influence of the Catholic Church. Britain and her (American and other) colonies only switched in 1752. The latest of national holdouts, Greece and Turkey, only adopted the Gregorian calendar in the 1920’s! It might even be safe to say that a large fraction – if not the majority – of the world’s Jews did not live in locales that adopted the Gregorian calendar until much later, perhaps even until the early 20th century.

It should be noted that at least one of the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, the Machatzit Hashekel, who lived in the 18th (& early 19th) century – well after the Gregorian calendar corrections (which were accepted in his native Bohemia in 1584) – still cites the dates in November from the Beit Yosef (and Abudraham) without emendation! (And apparently, later editors have neglected to emend the text of the Machatzit Hashekel…)

Machatzit HaShekel 117:1

Machazit Hashekel on tal umatttar date

In the Beit Yosef he brought in the name of the Abudraham that we always begin on the 22 of November, on a condition; for the month of February is sometimes 28 days and sometimes 29 days, and therefore if the February before November was 28 days then the “requesting” [of rain begins on] the 22 of November. But if February was 29 days then requesting begins on the 23 of November. And this matter depends on their months, to be [that?] the nations of the world count by the Sun and the equinox also is according to the path of the Sun.

It would appear that the Machatzit Hashekel, at least, really held that the dates to begin saying ותן טל ומטר should be the “original” dates in November that are actually 60 days after the actual autumnal equinox!

Nevertheless, most later halachic authorities in recent generations still insist that we adhere to the Julian/Shmuel calendar. As mentioned, some, if not most of them, may have grown up in places (such as Russia, Eastern European countries or the Middle East) that had only quite recently accepted the Gregorian calendar.

In a related dispute, the 13/14th century scholar Asher ben Yechiel, a.k.a. the Rosh and others disagree with the idea that communities in Europe (and presumably elsewhere other than Mesopotamia) should begin saying  ותן טל ומטר sixty days after any tekufah! He/they are of the opinion that every locale/land should base the beginning date on the agricultural needs for rain in its own place, not the dates in Mesopotamia!

The Rosh (as cited by his son, The Tur; almost exactly the same as in his own commentary, but easier to find, copy and paste online…) on the above quote from Taanit 10a comments:

תמהני למה אנו נוהגין כבני גולה, נהי שהתלמוד שלנו הוא בבלי, מ”מ דבר שתלוי בארץ למה ננהוג כמותם, אם בבל היתה מצולה ולא היתה צריכה למים, כל הארצות הם צריכות למים במרחשון ולמה נאחר אותו עד ס’ יום בתקופה, ולמה לא נעשה כמשנתינו, ובפרובינציא ראיתי שהיו שואלין הגשמים ז’ ימים במרחשון וישר מאד בעיני

I wonder why we practice like the Benei Golah [i.e. Babylonian Jews], although our Talmud is the Babylonian, nevertheless, this is a matter dependent on the land, why should we follow them? If Babylonia was lowlands/wetlands and did not require water, all [other] lands need water in Marcheshvan, why should we delay until 60 days into the season? Why shouldn’t we do as out mishnah [and begin on the 7th of Marcheshvan]? And in Provence I saw that they ask for rain [from] 7 days of Marcheshvan. And this is very right in my eyes.

The Rosh’s perfectly logical idea has also been generally rejected as practiced halachah, but at least a smidgen of it may have influenced this ruling by the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema (117:2):

ומיהו אם בארץ אחת כולה הצריכים מטר בימות החמה טעה בה יחיד ושאל מטר בברכת השנים (אם רוצה) חוזר ומתפלל בתורת נדבה בלא שאלה בברכת השנים (אבל אינו מחויב לחזור כלל) (בית יוסף בשם מהרי”א והרמב”ן והר”ן סבירי להו כהרא”ש

However, if in one whole land where rain is needed in the “summertime” one mistakenly asked for rain in the Blessing of Years [i.e. added ותן טל ומטר] (Rema: if one wishes one may) go back and repeat the prayers in the category of a voluntary prayer without asking in the Blessing of Years (Rema: but one is not required to repeat it at all.)

So at the very least, despite all the unscientific reasoning associated with this matter, the Rema says that if you “mistakenly” asked for rain when it is needed in your whole land, you can “get away with it” without invalidating your prayer!

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