A smoky view of the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, Nov. 15, 2018
A smoky view of the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, Nov. 15, 2018

UPDATED: Will this Oakland rabbi’s three-day fast bring the rains?

Updated Nov. 21, 2018: It worked! Congratulations to Rabbi Bloom on another successful fast.

With fires raging to the north and smoky air here in the Bay Area, there’s no doubt that Northern California could use some rain. Rabbi Mark Bloom is doing his part — with a three-day fast, an obscure Jewish ritual for bringing rain at this time of year.

It’s not the first time the Oakland rabbi is calling upon this tradition. Four years ago, during a period of extreme drought, a member of his Conservative synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, suggested a Talmudic response: a three-day fast, as prescribed in Mishnah Ta’anit 1:4.

Bloom and Rabbi Judah Dardik, then rabbi of Oakland’s Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, loved the suggestion. They fasted — and it worked. The rains came.

Rabbi Mark Bloom
Rabbi Mark Bloom

Bloom is hoping for repeat success this week. Today is the second day of the three-day fast.

Here’s how it goes: Mishnah Ta’anit says that if by the 17th of Cheshvan (the current month on the Jewish calendar) there is no rain, “men of eminence begin to fast for three days. They may eat and drink by night. But they may work, and wash, and anoint themselves, and put on their sandals, and use their couches.”

“Those laws don’t necessarily apply anymore,” as the Temple is no longer standing, Bloom told J. this week. Still, he said, “we seek our guidance on everything from our sacred texts, and this is what the Talmud says to do.”

Rabbis Art Gould and Chaya Gusfeld, both members of Bloom’s congregation, are joining him in the fast. But when he tried to get rabbis from other congregations to join the effort, he found no takers.

“I have young kids at home and fasting several days in a row would be challenging as a parent,” said Rabbi Gershon Albert, Dardik’s successor at Beth Jacob. “But I think it’s a good idea.”

Some of the rabbis Bloom tried to recruit were dismissive of the idea. “Lots of rabbis did not want to do it because they think it’s too hocus-pocusy,” Bloom said.

“In thinking about fasts, it occurs to me that we’re using fewer resources,” he said, by not consuming as much food. “It’s of critical importance in terms of climate change in California. It’s an interesting opportunity to connect with nature and with our ancestors.”

Bloom admits that it’s not exactly rational. “In my head, I know that fasting may not literally cause rain,” he said. “But I can make room for something mystical, beyond the rational.”

If the fast doesn’t work, the Talmud continues, a series of increasingly restrictive three-day periods of fasting for the entire community commence. And, at that point, special passages are to be added to the congregation’s daily prayers, including a portion of Rosh Hashanah liturgy and verses from four psalms.

Accordingly, Bloom is prepared to ask others in his congregation to fast if the rain doesn’t come. “I’ve already had a few people say they want to,” he said.

And why stop with fasting? There are other Jewish tools one could bring to bear on the problem.

“If it doesn’t rain by Thanksgiving, Rabbi Bloom and I will probably organize a … rally for our communities to say Psalms for rain,” Albert told J. in an email.

But the need for any additional steps seems unlikely. With rain forecast for the wee hours of Wednesday morning, it looks like Bloom’s fast is on track to work — again.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.