It is a beautiful and colorful aspect of G‑d’s world, but it’s
also a reminder of tragedy. We are taught not to stare at it, but we do make a
special blessing when it appears in the sky.
Let’s see what the Torah has to say about the rainbow.
As a result of the moral decay of the generation, 1,656 years
after the world was created, G‑d flooded the world and destroyed it. The only
survivors of the Flood were Noah, his family and the animals that were on the
ark with them.
After a year, when they were finally able to leave the ark.
Noah built an altar and brought sacrifices to G‑d. What happened next is
recounted in the Torah portion of Noah:
G‑d smelled the good smell [of Noah’s
sacrifices] and He said to Himself: I will no longer curse the land because of
man, since man’s inclination is evil from the time of his youth. I will never
again destroy all living things, as I’ve just done…
And G‑d said to Noah and his sons: I
will keep my covenant with you and your descendants…and never again will a flood
destroy all life, and there will not be another flood destroying the
earth….This is the sign I am making, testifying to the covenant between Me and
you and all living souls, forever:
I have put my rainbow in the clouds,
and it will be the sign of the covenant between Myself and the world. When I
send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will
remember the covenant between Myself and yourselves and all living souls, and
there will never again be a flood to destroy all life. The rainbow will be in
the clouds and I will see it and remember the eternal covenant between G‑d and
all the living souls on earth.
After the Flood, the Creator promised that—in spite of how man
might sin—He would never again make a flood that would destroy the world. He
created the rainbow as a sign, a reminder of this covenant He made with the
What Blessing Do We Say
When Seeing a Rainbow?
When a rainbow appears in the sky, it is considered a sign that
we have sinned, but G‑d has remembered His covenant. Therefore, when seeing a
rainbow, it is appropriate to thank G‑d for not making another flood. We thank
G‑d by making a special blessing.
The sages of the Talmud disagree about the blessing
that should be said. One opinion is that we should say, “Blessed
are You…who remembers the covenant,” while another opinion prefers, “Blessed
are You…Who is faithful to His covenant and stands by His word.”
The final decision melds the two opinions into the following
“Blessed are You, G‑d,
Ruler of the world, who remembers the covenant, who is faithful to His
covenant, and who stands by His word.”
A Generation Without a
Since the rainbow is a sign that mankind is sinning, a
generation that never sees a rainbow is on an especially high level of
spirituality and righteous conduct.
The Midrash tells of
several generations in which there were such righteous people that no rainbow
was seen in their lifetimes: the generation of King Chizkiyahu, the era of the
Men of the Great Assembly, the generation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the
generation of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.
When no rainbow appeared in the heavens, it was the ultimate
sign that there lived a person so righteous that he was a foundation-stone of
the world. The Talmud tells about
a meeting between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Gan
Eden (Heaven). Rabbi Shimon asked Rabbi Yehoshua if the rainbow had been seen
in his lifetime. When Rabbi Yehoshua modestly hid his greatness by saying that
it had, Rabbi Shimon said, “Then you’re not ben Levi!”
Natural Phenomenon or
A rainbow is a natural phenomenon with a simple scientific
explanation. Since one can assume that the mechanics for rainbows came into
being during the six days of creation,
the question arises: what exactly happened after the Flood, when the Creator
announced that the rainbow would be a sign of the covenant that He’d
established with Noah and his sons?
Several explanations have been given.
that the rainbow existed long before the Flood, but after the Flood, the
Creator decided to make it a sign that mankind was sinning.
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra
and Abarbanel say that, with the
Flood, there were physical changes in the world that allowed the rainbow to
become visible. According to Ibn Ezra, sunlight became stronger. According to
Abarbanel, the atmosphere became thinner.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe
explains in the light of Chassidic teachings: Even though the Flood brought
destruction to the world, there was also an aspect of it that was a blessing.
The Flood purified the world in the sense that it gave man the ability to
refine the material. The clouds, which are formed from the mist that rises from
the ground, represent this transformation of the material into something
ethereal. After the Flood, the clouds were thinner (allowing rainbows to form),
symbolizing the ability for human endeavor to purify the material world.
Kli Yakar has
another explanation: He says that the rainbow was always visible, but in
righteous generations, there was less sin, and the populace was so confident
that nothing would happen to them that they didn’t bother to look at the
rainbow and worry about it being a harbinger of evil.
The Beauty of the Divine
A rainbow isn’t only a sign of sinning; it can also signify
divine revelation. The prophet Ezekiel
described a vision in which he had seen the divine presence “like a rainbow in
the clouds on a rainy day, with a corona around it; this was how the glory of
G‑d appeared, and I saw it and fell on my face and heard a voice speaking….”
Because of this vision, there was a Talmudic sage who said
that when a person sees a rainbow, he should bow down, prostrating himself in
front of G‑d. Others, however, said it was forbidden to do so because it would
look like one was worshipping the rainbow.
However, since the rainbow represents the beauty of the divine
presence and the glory of the Creator, the Talmud
teaches that it’s not proper to stare at a rainbow. However, it is permitted to
look at a rainbow for the sake of making the special blessing on it.
A Sign of the Coming of
The Zohar says that
before the Messiah comes, an especially bright and colorful rainbow will
May we merit seeing it soon, and in our lifetimes.