Pray for Rain: On Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot, there is a long prayer inaugurating the start of the rainy season.

What's an Angel of Rain Doing in a Jewish Sukkot Prayer?

The Israeli and Eastern Mediterranean climate is one of hot, rainless summers and — barring drought — cool, rainy winters, with spring and autumn as transitional seasons. This is why, though it has nothing to do with their own local weather (unless they’re living in Southern California), Jews all over the world pray briefly for dew every day from Passover to Sukkot and for rain from Sukkot to Passover, and why on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot, there is a longer prayer inaugurating the start of the rainy season.

In reality, of course, since Sukkot can come anywhere from mid-September to mid-October, and the first rains in Israel can fall as early as September and as late as November, praying for rain and getting it are not that well coordinated, but whose prayers are always answered, anyway?

At the heart of the Shemini Atzeret rain prayer is a poem by the renowned sixth- or seventh-century liturgical poet Eleazar Kallir that begins with the line “Af-bri utat shem sar matar,” “Af-bri is [literally, “is how one spells”] the name of the angel of rain.” If not as many worshippers in synagogue are as startled by this line as might be expected, this is in all likelihood only because Kallir’s Hebrew is so dense and difficult that few of them, even if they know Hebrew, ever take the trouble to understand it. An angel of rain named Af-bri? They never taught us that in Sunday school — or, for that matter, in yeshiva.

Putting aside for the moment the question of what an angel of rain is doing in Jewish prayer, let’s concentrate on his name. Where does the odd-sounding Af-bri come from?

In the sense of an angel, it seems to have originated with Kallir himself — or at least there is no older source to which it can be traced. But the word af-bri can be found in one place in the Bible, in the book of Job. There, in Chapter 37, in a passage describing God’s rain and storm-making powers, there is a verse that reads in Hebrew “Af-bri yatriaḥ av, yafitz anan oro.” In English this can be translated as — well, if anyone knew for sure how to translate it, we wouldn’t need angels to help us out.

Let’s look at some of the renditions that have been given. The third- or second-century BCE Greek Septuagint gives us (translated into English), “And if a cloud obscures what is precious to Him, His light will disperse the cloud.” The first- or second-century C.E. Aramaic Targum of Onkelos has, “Even in brightness He tasks the cloud, the clouds disperse their rain.” The fourth-century Latin Vulgate offers, “The grain desires the clouds and the clouds spread their light.” The 17th-century King James Version is, “Also by watering, He wearieth the thick cloud; He scattereth His bright light.” The 1980 Jewish Publication Society Bible translates, “He also loads the clouds with moisture and scatters his lightning-clouds.”

Without going into the intricacies of why a handful of Hebrew words can be understood in such different ways, one might observe that the greatest problem for all the translators is af-bri. While the common Hebrew preposition af generally means “even” or “also,” which most of the translations cited reflect, bri occurs nowhere else in the Bible. In coping with it, these translations sought variously to connect it with bar, the outside or surface as opposed to the inner facet of something; bar, winnowed grain; barur, bright or clear, and a combination of b’, “with,” and a hypothesized word ri meaning moisture, from the root rava, to be saturated. None of these readings is very convincing, and it is possible that the text was already garbled or miscopied in antiquity.

Kallir, in any case, clearly was not satisfied with any of the explanations of af-bri that were known to him, and so he came up with one of his own — to wit, that an angel called Af-bri made the rain clouds. A belief in angels who performed God’s bidding and administered various aspects of Creation was all but universal in Kallir’s day, both in Judaism and other religions, and although Af-Bri would have been an unusual name for an angel, the idea of a celestial being responsible for precipitation would not have seemed outrageous.

Medieval Jewish commentaries on the book of Job took different positions on this. The pietistically inclined Rashi, while not mentioning Kallir as his source, says of af-bri that it is “the name of the angel in charge of clouds.” The rationalistically inclined Ibn Gabirol, on the other hand, wrote that the bri of af-bri came from barur and that the meaning of the verse was that even in clear weather, God can cause clouds to form suddenly and bring down rain. Another medieval commentator, Levi ben Gershon or Gersonides, agreed with Ibn Gabirol’s etymology but took bri to refer to the clear or invisible water vapor from which clouds are formed. Whoever is right, my Mediterranean garden has gotten only a few light drizzles so far this autumn and is parched. Your prayers for rain will be welcome.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

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