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Thought for the Day: Changing a Habit/Praying For Rain/Goring Oxen

Ok... before we go any further, we need to be absolutely clear about one thing: "Ox" is not a species of animal any more than "computer programmer" is a species of human.  Any bovine that is used as a draft (draught for us snobs) animal -- ie, to do work around and for the farm -- is an ox.  Sometimes they also take freshman physics, as I remember from my teaching days.  Whew... I feel much better.

We recognize two seasons in our prayer -- rainy and not rainy.  Our prayers, of course, change with the season in two places: the second bracha (גבורה) because rain goes with תחית המתים/resurrection, and the ninth bracha (ברך עלינו) because rain goes with livelihood.  We (human beings) are creatures of habit, which has benefits and drawbacks.  A benefit for prayer is that our prayers become more fluent with repetition; a drawback is that we could stop thinking and start just reciting.  Because of that, Chazal decreed a 30 day window during which one needs to be mindful that he could easily slip into old speech patterns and just say the words he was reciting... err... davening... before the change.  The halachic ramification of that nervousness is that is one is not sure during the first 30 days after the change what he said, then he must repeat.  How much to repeat, where to repeat, what's called not sure, whether the 30 day rule just a decree or is for the average person (therefore your mileage may vary), are all interesting topics and all out of scope for today's TfdD (though, of course, you are welcome and even encouraged to think on your own time).

The Tur says that instead 30 days, one can just repeat 90 times an excerpt of the part of the prayer that includes the the insertion "משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם".  Where does the Tur get that rule?  From a the way an innocent ox becomes a goring ox (ha! and you were wondering what in the world praying for rain had to do with oxen).  The rule is that if an ox gores three times in three days, then he becomes a goring ox.  R' Mayer says: if three times in three days works, then all more so (a fortiori) three times in one day.  Says the Tur: "Aha!  So if thirty days of three prayers per day work to cancel the worry about habit, all the more so (a fortiori) 90 times in one day."

There are at least two issues with this Tur.  One relatively minor issue is that included in those 30 days are four Shabbosim, two days of Yom Tov, and two days of Rosh Chodesh -- all of which have a musaf service that adds another "משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם".  So... maybe it should be 98 times.  Or maybe 101 (Chasam Sofer); I don't know why.  Or maybe Chazal meant "30 days of regular prayer" and never meant to be referring to those specific days (makes a lot of sense, since they apply the same rule to the change in ברך עלינו, which has few weekday prayers than 90, so should only be 78); which is likely how the Tur learns it.

A more serious problem is: what do goring oxen have to do with changing a habit, anyway?  There is disagreement among the Rishonim about whether an ox reveals itself to be a goring ox with three gorings or if it trains itself to be goring being repeating the action three times.  If the latter, then we have a good proof (or, at least, a reasonable proof).  If the former, though (that is, its a sign of the animal's nature), then it provides no proof that repeating a phrase 90 (or 98 or 101) times will change ones habit.  You'll find poskim on both sides.

Personally, I don't repeat the requisite phrase 90 (nor 98, nor 101, nor 78) times.  Not because I am taking sides in a discussion among the poskim.  I have a much simpler view: I don't think its a bad idea to pay more attention to my prayers for a month to be sure I don't make a mistake.  Enough negative and double negatives for you?  Fine!  I think its a good idea to pay attention and ensure that every word of prayer is send correctly; at least three months out of the year, anyway.

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