Susan Tarcov, author of Maya Prays for Rain, is our guest blogger. She grew up next to the Bronx Zoo, a great inspiration for writing children's books. She is married, has three children, and lives in Chicago. Maya Prays for Rain is the first (and only!) picture book about the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which falls at the end of the fall harvest festival of Sukkot.
The holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah fall at the end of Sukkot. In Israel they are celebrated on a single day; outside of Israel they are celebrated as two separate holidays. While these holidays are often thought of as part of Sukkot, they are actually holidays in their own right. Shemini Atzeret literally means "the assembly of the eighth (day)" as it falls after the seven days of Sukkot. Rabbinic literature explains that Sukkot is a holiday intended for all people, but when Sukkot is over, God invites the Jewish people to stay for an extra day and continue the celebration. Part of the Shemini Atzeret service is a prayer for rain, which officially begins Israel’s rainy season. Since the land of Israel relies so heavily on rain for its crops, this prayer is our request for the seas of Israel to fill and the crops to grow, providing both food and water for the people of Israel.
"I can’t say that Shemini Atzeret is my absolute favorite holiday, even though I just wrote a book about it. But I have always been moved by the little instruction in the Amidah that says that from Shemini Atzeret to Pesach we are to insert the words “You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” Our rabbi explained that it was because that’s the rainy season in Israel. I like that Jews in the Diaspora pray for rain in Israel.
An interesting sidelight that turned up in my researches: The first halachic query from the New World was about the prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret. In the seventeenth century, Jews newly settled in Brazil wrote to Rabbi Chaim Shabsi in Salonika complaining that they needed rain not between Shemini Atzeret and Pesach, but between Pesach and Shemini Atzeret. The rabbi replied that they could omit the prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret, for “no congregation need pray against its want and need.” But for the sake of the unity of the Jewish world, their congregation couldn’t pray for rain at another time. They would each as individuals have to include a prayer for rain in their private prayers.
A further curiosity: the Brazilian Jews complained that “excessive rain in winter causes diseases and epidemics.” They must have meant the mosquito-borne illnesses that are a feature of summer. It seems that the first colonists of the southern hemisphere didn’t automatically call their hot season summer and their cold season winter. Instead they thought of their winters as being hot and their summers as being cold.
About Susan's book: It's a sunny fall day in Maya's neighborhood, and all her neighbors are busy with outdoor activities, from releasing some young butterflies to organizing a birthday scavenger hunt. But Maya learns that today is Shemini Atzeret, when the Jewish community prays for rain. Rain will ruin her neighbors' day! Maya rushes to warn them. Luckily, as her rabbi explains to her, it turns out that she doesn't need to worry.