“If the world is destroyed again through another flood, this one is on
us.” – Dr. Joshua Kulp
Glancing at the Rainbow
Dr. Joshua Kulp
The story of Noah and the Flood concludes by G-d giving humanity the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of G-d’s covenant never to destroy the world again through a flood (Genesis 9:12-17).
Rainbows are one, if not the most, beautiful of all the heavenly phenomena and certainly the most photographable. Today, when a rainbow appears in the sky, most of us will rush out with our cameras and try to take as many pictures as possible. We quickly send them off to our friends, bragging, “We saw a rainbow.” Here I want to note that halakhah is somewhat ambiguous about our desire to look at the rainbow and what we should do when we encounter one.
In Tractate Berakhot (59a), Rabbi Alexandri, citing Ezekiel 1:28, rules that “One who sees a rainbow in a cloud must fall upon his face.” The rainbow in Ezekiel has become not just a sign of G-d’s covenant, but the “likeness of the Glory of G-d” and therefore an object of worship. However, the Talmud immediately notes that Rabbi Alexandri’s ruling is not universally accepted–in the West (the Land of Israel) they forbid this practice for it looks like one is mistaking a physical phenomenon for an ineffable G-d.
Ambiguity is also echoed later in the 14th century halakhic compendium written by R. Ya’akov bar Asher, the Tur. In Orah Hayyim 229 the Tur writes, “One who sees a rainbow must say, ‘Blessed are you…Who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to the Covenant and who upholds His Words.’ But it is forbidden to look [at the rainbow] for a long time.” The ambiguity is palpable–we are commanded to bless G-d upon seeing G-d’s sign, but we are forbidden to look at that sign for too long.
These two halakhot are a combination of two different Talmudic passages. The blessing is found in the passage from Berakhot above. While the rabbis of the West do not allow one to bow down to the rainbow, which is a sign of mistaking the rainbow for G-d, they do mandate the recitation of a blessing, a more intellectual reminder of what the rainbow symbolizes. We do not worship anything in the world as if it was G-d, but we can bless many things in the world for they remind us of G-d’s goodness.
The second halakhah, the prohibition of looking at the rainbow for too long, is taken from Hagigah 16a: “Whoever has no concern for the honor of his Maker deserves to have never come to the world: What is lack of concern for the honor of one’s Maker? Rabbi Abba said: This is one who looks at a rainbow.” Later in the passage the Talmud goes on to say the eyes of one who looks at the rainbow will be dimmed. Unlike the passage in Berakhot, this passage seems to absolutely forbid even looking at the rainbow.
R. Asher (the Rosh, the Tur’s father) as quoted by R. Yosef Karo in his commentary on the Tur (the Bet Yosef), notes the obvious practical problem–how can one recite a blessing upon seeing the rainbow when one should not even look at a rainbow! The Rosh resolves the conundrum by ruling that one should look at a rainbow, but not for too long. One who looks for too long, explains the Rosh, is questioning the authenticity of G-d’s promise.
We want to have faith in the rainbow as a sign of G-d’s everlasting covenant not to destroy the world. This is especially true in our world, for we who live with the fear that destructive floods will return to our precious planet. I might even argue that we need to look at the rainbow, to bless it in confidence that G-d will keep G-d’s words. But we shouldn’t look at it for too long, for as the Rosh said, when one looks at something for a long time, one can begin to question it. We need to have confidence in G-d’s blessing in order to continue with our day to day lives here on Earth. And in a more modern take on this, I might add that overconfidence, also a potential result of looking at the rainbow, a sign of G-d’s eternal promise, might “dim our eyes” to the harsh fact that if the world is destroyed again through a flood, this one is on us. The halakhah reminds us that the rainbow is a positive sign of G-d’s love, but that human beings need to figure out how we act in response to this love.