Umbrellas needed after two Oakland rabbis go on a fast

With California facing what some experts say could be its worst drought in 500 years, two Oakland rabbis decided to do something Jewish about it. For three days each, they fasted and prayed for rain.

Rabbi Judah Dardik

Guess what. It worked.

Mere days after Rabbi Judah Dardik of Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation and Rabbi Mark Bloom of Conserv-ative Temple Beth Abraham teamed up for fasting, prayer and acts of kindness, the heavens opened. Twice.

“The fact that my head understands that fasting isn’t going to cause rain doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t sense the mystical,” Bloom said after storms soaked the Bay Area over the weekend. “There are things beyond the rational.”

Besides, he added, “it couldn’t hurt.”

The idea is not new. Praying for rain is as old as humankind. The Amidah, a prayer featured in the regular Jewish service, includes a prayer for rain during fall and winter, although the words (“God who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”) are more of an acknowledgement of who controls nature than an actual request. Other prayers for rain can be found among early Jewish texts.

Rabbi Mark Bloom

In recent months, religious leaders from several faiths have put out the call. The California Conference of Catholic Bishops asked Catholics to pray for rain back in January, after which a group of Methodist ministers followed suit. Last month, Muslims gathered at several spots around Northern California to recite the traditional Islamic rain prayer.

For Dardik and Bloom, the idea to add a fast component came from Richard Applebaum, an Oakland resident who belongs to both congregations. He reminded the rabbis that the Talmud recommends fasting for rain, and suggested the rabbis give it a try.

“I looked up the stuff in the Mishnah,” Bloom said. “I said, ‘Why not try what the Mishnah actually suggests?’ These things are not halachic anymore; they are only obligatory when the Temple is standing. But this is how our sages dealt with it. I thought we should try it. I believe prayer works, on some mystical level anyway.”

Initially Bloom sought participation from people in the community, then limited it to rabbis, because that’s what the Talmud says. Only Dardik took him up on it.

The first step, according to the Talmud tractate Mishnah Ta’anit, is that “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.”

Rain gear was necessary near MacArthur BART in Oakland this week. photo/jon roisman

Bloom may not have worn sandals, but he did engage in a three-day daytime fast, along with the appropriate prayers, during the last week of January. Lo and behold, on Feb. 2 the Bay Area got a pretty good drenching, its first measurable rainfall in 53 days.

“Some of the things [mentioned in Talmud] were not available: the silver trumpets, the sacrifices, the special blessings that would be said,” Dardik said. “However, the idea of rabbis fasting and doing acts of charity and kindness was a lovely idea.”

Dardik launched his fast and prayer effort early last week. The next day, a deluge hit the Bay Area, and the rains lasted through the weekend. There were even flood alerts in some areas.

“I have no idea if this rain had the least to do with my prayer,” Dardik said early this week. “I don’t believe my personal prayers are necessarily going to make a difference, but I thought if nothing else, do it for the sake of unity across denominations here in Oakland.”

Bloom, too, does not believe his fasting directly caused the rain — though he doesn’t rule it out. He does, however, think the effort was worth it.

Not only did it increase awareness of water conservation and human dependence on the good earth, it also meant for those hours, both he and Dardik used fewer natural resources. Every drop counts.

Unfortunately, forecasters predict little chance of making up the state’s extreme water deficit. The drought has not let go. So Bloom is considering expanding the fast-and-prayer effort to the entire Bay Area community.

That, coupled with conservation and fighting climate change, might make a difference.

“I take it on faith that we need to do both,” Bloom said. “Pray for rain and pray with our actions, as well.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.