This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Prince of Rain*

Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season according to the rhythms of the Middle Eastern climate. This transition is acknowledged in the liturgy by the fact that, from Sh'mini Atzeret until Passover, we include in the daily prayers a formula that praises God as the one "who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall."

The season's first insertion of the phrase, during the Musaf service, is commemorated in the Ashkenazic rite with a special "piyut," a Hebrew liturgical poem devoted to the importance of rain and water. The poem enumerates several righteous figures from the Bible whose associations with water should be credited to later generations, when our allotment of rainfall is decreed on high.

The piyut was composed by Rabbi Eleazar Hakalir, perhaps the foremost Hebrew liturgical poet of the classical era. A resident of the Land of Israel, probably during the seventh century, Rabbi Eleazar authored a formidable literary oeuvre, much of which has only recently been retrieved from manuscripts. Like most examples of the genre, his poems are distinguished by their extraordinary erudition, full of obscure allusions to Biblical and rabbinic passages.

The opening words of his piyut for rain tends to jar the sensibilities of many modern readers. The cryptic Hebrew words translate roughly as follows: "Af B'ri spells out the name of the Prince of Rain who forms clouds and mists, which he empties and from which he pours water."

Many contemporary worshipers, brought up with the expectation that God should always be approached directly and not through intermediaries, are understandably taken aback by the poem's mythological tenor, which seems to divert our prayers to an obscure rain-god.

After all, Rabbi Yohanan stated in the Talmud that the key to rainfall is kept permanently in the custody of the Almighty and never lent out to agents. The medieval Tosafot commentary objected to this claim, noting the Biblical account of how Elijah was given the power to bestow or withhold rain. They resolved the apparent contradiction by observing that, though God might hand the proverbial keys to emissaries, those emissaries can never act on their own authority, but always in obedience to the divine command.

A different Talmudic tradition declares that the rainfall in the Land of Israel is taken care of only by God himself; however, when it comes to other lands, he does appoint deputies.

In spite of attempts by Jewish rationalists to provide symbolic or allegorical interpretations for the offending texts, it is clear that our ancestors shared their world with diverse contingents of angels, demons and other supernatural beings.

Who then is this mysterious Prince of Rains who is addressed in our piyut? The words "af b'ri" are taken from the book of Job (37:11), from a passage in which Job's companion Elihu tells how powerful storms provide evidence of God's dominion over creation. The passage is standardly translated into English as: "with moisture he saturates the thick clouds."

Like most of the Book of Job, the original Hebrew text here is inscrutable, and commentators have thrown up their hands in despair at deciphering it. The word "af" is generally assumed to be the common Hebrew particle signifying "furthermore" or "also." As for "b'ri," it's anyone's guess. The King James translation cited above reads it as "with moisture." Other scholars connected it to words for "purity," light" or "lightning." Hardly any of the commentators were persuaded to see an allusion to the name of an angel.

It is to be expected that the poet based his interpretation on a Talmudic or midrashic source; however his source has come down to us.

Quite the contrary, an early guide to Talmudic hermeneutics interprets the word "af" in its normal sense of "also," deducing from it that "the clouds and the rain are stubborn, and the Holy One must implore them to rain. And how do we know that just as he implores them to rain, so must he implore them to cease? From the word' af' meaning also."

Clearly, the author of this text did not understand af to be part of a proper name.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Eleazar Hakalir had an enthusiastic and reputable champion in the person of Rashi, whose commentary to Job states as follows: "Af B'ri is the name of an angel who presides over the clouds, and he distributes the Almighty's rains."

On one occasion in his commentary to the Talmud, Rashi found an additional pretext for squeezing in a reference to the Prince of Rains. This was in connection with a Talmudic passage that reads as follows:

Rain is withheld only on account of the sin of violence, as it states (Job 36:32): "He covereth his hands with the lightning." This implies that for the sin of 'their hands' [i.e., violence] he covers the light"

And 'light' means nothing other than rain, as it states: 'He spreadeth abroad the cloud of his lightning."...

This last-mentioned quotation is in fact the continuation of the "af b'ri" verse in Job, and Rashi takes that fact into account when he observes (unnecessarily, it seems) that "the angel named Af B'ri will scatter the cloud of his light, namely his rain."

Rashi's insistence that Af B'ri is the angel in charge of rain, involves him in an additional difficulty, since the Talmud elsewhere makes reference to a different rain-angel, as we find in the following passage:

Our Rabbis taught: There are three sounds that extend from one end of the world to the other; and they are: the sound of the sun, the sound of the throngs of Rome, and the sound of a soul as it leaves the body.

...Some add: the sound of "Ridia."

In explaining the word "Ridia" Rashi states that "it is the angel in charge of watering the earth with rain from the heavens above and from the deep waters below."

A medieval Babylonian Ga'on reported that in his days it was still possible to hear harsh voices emerging from beneath lakes and pools, which the people, both Jews and Arabs, ascribed to Ridia.

Rashi's explanation is based on an interpretation by the Babylonian Talmudic sage Rabbah. Commenting on the words of the Psalmist (42:8) "Deep calleth unto deep at the voice of thy cataracts," Rabbah reported "I myself have seen Ridia, and he resembles a three-year-old heifer with its lips split. To the upper deep he says 'Restrain your waters.' To the lower deep he says 'Let your waters burst forth'"

As Angels of Rain go, this heifer-like Ridia is indeed an imposing creature. Some scholars have speculated that Ridia is a Judaized version of the Persian angel-goddess Aredvi Sura who was believed to preside over the celestial waters, which were a source of fertility as well as immortality.

When all is said and done, whether we prefer to address our prayers directly to the Almighty, or to convey them via a prince or angel, I am sure that we all join in hoping that the coming year will be one of moisture and abundance for Israel and the world.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressSeptember 23 1999, pp. 8-9.

  • Bibliography:
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