Ah Gezunten Vinter

At various times over the past few weeks, we wished each other “ah gezunten vinter – may you have a healthy winter.” What do we mean by this somewhat odd blessing and what is its significance?

I would like to suggest an explanation that may also help us get through the occasionally dreary days of winter. Chazal usually refer to the winter as the yemos hegeshamim, literally the days of rain. Indeed, in Eretz Yisroel, not only is the upcoming season colder than the other three, but it is also the only time when it rains regularly. During Sukkos, we all davened for geshem, and in many shuls, opening the aron kodesh for this prayer was sold for hefty sums. It was understood by all that the segulah associated with this symbolic honor wasn’t only about precipitation. Geshem is clearly shorthand for all gashmiyus, the sustenance and prosperity we seek. Yet, for some reason, although most of us aren’t farmers or even particularly excited about the prospect of rain in our lives, we still utilize the metaphor of rain for all our parnassah hopes and aspirations. Why this eternal connection?

In one of his “winter zeman” blessings to his chassidim, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Aharon Teitlebaum (Yomim Noraim, page 124) quotes the Ateres Tzvi as saying that the “holy winter nights carry the kedusha of Chol Hamoed.” In other words, when properly dedicated to Torah study, the long winter nights extend the special status of Sukkos for the entire season. However, whereas during Sukkos the rain was a bad sign, during the winter ahead we welcome the rain along with our seasonal learning opportunities. Again, we wonder about the peculiar shidduch of learning and rain, and the source of our parnassah in the raindrops and even torrents seemingly making our lives more difficult and occasionally muddy.

Rav Yechiel Michel Stern (Otzar Hayedios 1:38) points out an interesting dichotomy. When we ask for rain in Shemoneh Esrei, we refer to it as matar, but when we prayed on Sukkos and when we recently began mentioning rain without actually requesting it, we called it geshem. He demonstrates that the seeming discrepancy goes back to a disagreement between Tannaim (Taanis 9a) about the source of rain. Rav Eliezer states that it comes from the oceans and Rav Yehoshua holds that it comes from the heavens. Rabbeinu Bachya (Devorim 11:17) reconciles the two opinions by noting the two words for rain. The exclusively heavenly source is called matar, while that which comes from heaven or the ocean is called geshem. He explains that we pray for matar because it always comes with a blessing. However, geshem sometimes comes with a ferocious force (Taanis 2a) and can be quite destructive.

To understand this more fully, we turn to the definitive statement by the Vilna Gaon (Divrei Eliyahu, Taanis 7) that “Hashem’s strength (gevurah) is recognizable in the rain more than any other entity. The resurrection of the dead is also clearly a supernatural phenomenon.” Now, although we know that techiyas hameisim and rain are often linked, here the Gaon is referencing the Gemara that states categorically that “a rainy day is even greater than the day of techiyas hameisim.” How do we understand this statement of superiority?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the Rashi we learned in last week’s sedra, Parshas Bereishis. Rashi (2:5) teaches that Hashem did not bring rain until Adam, the first man, prayed for the rain to come. There is an intricate relationship between rain and prayer, as exemplified throughout Maseches Taanis. The entire planet waited for the much needed rain until man requested it in prayer. Our avodas hatefillah – our mandate and gift of prayer – is inexorably entwined with rain because rain is the most obvious manifestation of something that comes from heaven. During our early days as a nation, this phenomenon was manifested in our daily bread as well. We made the blessing of motzie lechem min hashomayim instead of hamotzie lechem min ha’aretz so that the concept of G-d-given sustenance became engrained in our very DNA (heard from Rav Avigdor Miller). Rain thus becomes our conduit for both actual irrigation and a metaphor for every type of gashmiyus we require.

The Sefas Emes (Sukkos 5648) puts all this quite pithily when he states that “Klal Yisroel was fortunate enough to receive the rain from the Hand of Hashem Himself.” We are now in a position to understand the intricate connection our sages made between winter and the days of rain. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Bemaaglei Shanah 2:114) points out that “Lashon Hakodesh is the only one wherein the word for winter does not conjure up scenes of darkness, aging and gloom. On the contrary, the word choref, meaning winter, evokes youth and freshness, blossoming and new growth, as Iyov (29:3) speaks yearningly of his youthful years as yemei chorfi. Indeed, for centuries and even millennia, Torah giants would refer to their earliest chiddushim as having been nurtured during yemei chorfi. It is of great consolation and comfort that Judaism does not look back to the winter days with disdain or disappointment. It sees the winter as the season that gives birth to spring.”

Chazal (Brachos 33a) teach us to mention the power of rain in the blessing for the resurrection of the dead because they are really one. Just as the Creator never gave away to the power of resurrection, so does He retain the power of rain and its corollary so that we will always be connected to Him through prayer. Just as we always look to the sky above for our heavenly showers, so does He want us to realize that our good health comes from Him as well. In Shemoneh Esrei we make sure to conclude the blessing for health and healing with the words “for You are our praise.” These words could conceivably have been placed in other blessings, but it is mentioned here so that we never forget that it is the L-rd Who heals, not the doctor who is merely an agent of the Divine.

When we wish each other ah gezunten vinter, we are confirming what we learned over Sukkos, that our lives are fragile indeed without the constant involvement and intervention of our Father in heaven. If the choref reminds us of the crops and fruits to come, the winter also reminds us of how fragile we really are. Our mutual blessings for a healthy winter remind us all of the source of our physical well-being and how it is intertwined with harnessing the long winter nights for what they were created, to make the sounds of Torah heard as loudly in our homes as they were in our Sukkos. When we link the winter to Sukkos, we reflect upon the transition from sukkah to home. In the sukkah, it was easy to be a believer in Hashem, for we were literally living upon our bitachon in His benevolence. However, we must do this in our seemingly secure homes as well. When we feel the rain upon our foreheads and tongues, when we catch a cold more easily and tremble a bit in the dropping temperatures, we recall that we are truly dependent upon our Father in heaven for virtually everything, so we wish each other a healthy winter, knowing that only G-d can provide that, along with the other gifts we receive from Him on a daily basis.

Ah gezunten vinter to all.