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On the mystical significance of the rainbow


G‑d spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying: “. . . This shall be the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all gene­rations.

“My rainbow I have set in the cloud. . . . When the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud, I shall remember My cove­nant. . . . Never again shall the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

Genesis 9:8–15

The rainbow, of course, is a natural phenomenon. Rays of sunlight pass through water droplets suspended in the atmosphere; the clear, crystal-like droplets refract the light, unleashing the spectrum of colors it contains and displaying them in an arc across the misty skies.

Yet before the Flood this natural occurrence did not occur. There was something about the interaction between the moisture in the earth’s atmosphere and the light emanating from the sun that failed to produce a rainbow. It was only after the Flood that the dynamics that create a rainbow were set in place by the Creator as a sign of His newly formed covenant with His creation.

The spiritual and the physical are two faces of the same reality. This change in the physical nature of the interaction between water and light reflects a deeper, spiritual difference between the pre- and post-Flood worlds, and the resultant difference in G‑d’s manner of dealing with a corrupted world.

Contrary Differences

An examination of the Torah’s account of the first twenty generations of history reveals two primary differences between the world before the Flood and the post-Flood era.

The pre-Flood generations enjoyed long lives—we find people living into their 8th, 9th and 10th centuries (Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, lived 969 years; his father, Lemech, 777 years; Noah himself, 950 years). The Zohar explains that this was an era of divine benevolence, in which life, health and prosperity flowed freely and indiscriminately from Above.

Following the Flood, we see a steady decline in the human lifespan. Within ten generations, Abraham is old at the age of 100.

The second difference is one that seems at odds with, and even contradictory to, the first: After the Flood, the world gained a stability and permanence it did not enjoy in the pre-Flood era. Before the Flood, the world’s very existence was contingent upon its moral state. When humanity disintegrated into corruption and violence, G‑d said to Noah:

The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I shall destroy them and the earth.

Following the Flood, G‑d vowed:

I will not again curse the earth because of man . . . neither will I again smite everything living, as I have done. For all days of the earth, [the seasons for] seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.

No longer would the cycles of life and nature totter on the verge of extinction whenever man strays from his G‑d. The post-Flood world is a world whose existence is assured, a world that is desired by its Creator regardless of its present state of conformity to His will.

And the guarantor of this assurance, the symbol of this new stability, is the rainbow.

An Opaque World

Before the Flood, man’s role in creation lay primarily in reacting to G‑d’s involvement in the world. The flow of divine vitality into the world was plentiful and uninhibited, enabling man to attain great material and spiritual heights; but these achievements were merely man’s acceptance of what was being bestowed upon him from Above, rather than the fruits of his own initiative.

The pre-Flood world was like a brilliant pupil who grasps the most profound teachings of his master, but who lacks the ability to conceive of a single original thought of his own. So, once corrupted—once it had distanced itself from its Master and disavowed its relationship with Him—it lost the basis for its existence. When man ceased to respond, the world held no further use for the Creator.

After the Flood, G‑d imbued the world with a new potential—the potential to create. He granted it the ability to take what it receives from Above and develop it, extend it and expand upon it. The world was now like a disciple who had been trained by his master to think on his own, to take the ideas which he has learned and apply them to new areas. Man was now able not only to absorb the divine input into his life, but also to unleash its potential in new and unprecedented ways.

Such a world is in many ways a weaker world than one that is wholly sustained by divine grace. It is more independent, and thus more subject to the limitations and mortality of the human state. Hence the shorter lifespans of the post-Flood generations. But in the final analysis, such a world is more enduring: even when it loses sight of its origin and purpose, it retains the ability to rehabilitate itself and restore its relationship with its Creator. Because it possesses an independent potential for self-renewal, it can always reawaken this potential, even after it has been suppressed and lain dormant for generations.

Rising Mist

The rainbow is the natural event that exemplifies the new post-Flood order. Moisture rises from the earth to form clouds and raindrops, which catch the light of the sun. A less refined substance would merely absorb the light, but the purity and translucency of these droplets allows them to focus and channel the rays they capture in such a way that reveals the many colors implicit within each ray of sunlight.

The pre-Flood world lacked the rainbow. There was nothing in or about it that could rise from below to interact with and develop what it received from Above. Such was its spiritual nature; as a result, the conditions for a physical rainbow also failed to develop—the mist it raised could only absorb, but not refract, the light of the sun.

Lacking a creative potential of its own, the pre-Flood world was left without reason and right for existence when it ceased to receive the divine effluence from Above. Then came the Flood. The rains that destroyed a corrupted world also cleansed it and purified it, leaving in their wake a new world with a new nature: a world that rises to meet and transform what is bestowed upon it; a world with the translucency and refinement to develop the gifts it receives into new, unprecedented vistas of color and light.

When this world goes astray, G‑d sees its rainbow, and the sight causes Him to desist from destroying it. For the rainbow attests to the world’s new maturity—its ability to ultimately rise above its present lapse and rebuild its relationship with its Creator.1

Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 15, pp. 51–54.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Penina May 12, 2016

Wasn't it creativity for Yuval to invent musical instruments (Bereishis 4:21) and for Noach to invent farming implements (Bereishis 5:28, Rashi)? Reply

Anonymous Israel November 8, 2017
in response to Penina :

If you look up Rashi on the sons of Lemech (Rashi Genesis 4:20,4:22) you will find that their "creativity" was directed solely towards idol worship (Rashi Genesis 4:20,4:22).

The invention of Noah however, was a positive contribution which was a direct correction of one of the punishments for Adam's sin (also from Rashi).

So to align this with the article you could say: Perhaps Noach's demonstration of his capacity for *positive* creativity merited him to be the "correction" of the pre-flood society, a society which only demonstrated capacity for negative (or no) creativity.
These are just my thoughts so hopefully someone with more knowledge can come along and let us know if this is the correct interpretation. Reply

Molly TX October 15, 2015

A fun thing to consider is the fact that the first great "creative" idea the people post-Deluge had was to build a great, tall building to reach the Heavens. That's just kind of cute to me. Then HaShem was like, well it looks as though we will need to confuse the language a bit to make things more challenging. Reply

Deborah Seattle October 13, 2015

Blessing Rabbi Torvek - What is the blessing one should say when one sees a rainbow? Reply

sunil subba India October 11, 2015

After reading your article i would definately be reminded of the creator deeply once the rainbows are seen.Its his assuring promise of this beautiful world to reamain as it is. Reply

Brian S Simsbury, CT October 18, 2012

Rainbow is a Sign Where is the rainbow? It is nowhere, in the sense of having a location. It is an artifact caused by the interaction of light, water droplets, and an observer. Since the rainbow is not present in any physical sense; can't be touched, a scientist who has collected the droplets and brings them in for study will look in vain for any sign of the rainbow. Electron microscopy, x-ray refraction, gas spectrometry all negative for rainbow. Yet we experience seeing rainbows. We are used to seeing things "out-there" external to ourselves, and with an existence independent from ourselves. Here, however, we ourselves are required for the phenomenon. The SIGN of the Rainbow: Without observers there are no rainbows. Thus God is promising that there will always be observers! Reply

Anonymous Israel November 8, 2017
in response to Brian S:

The fact that the rainbow is not present in any physical sense but rather arises from the interaction of billions of particles also demonstrates nicely the original point of the article, regarding something that could "rise from below to interact with and develop what it received from Above:" What better demonstrates this than the rainbow that rises from the dark realm of random particle interaction. We can learn that G-d created a world in which beauty is an emergent phenomenon, that the divine is not present physically in any single atom but rather requires the cooperation of all to be revealed in all beauty and splendor; and that cooperation is the endeavor of human creativity; i.e. to love our neighbors as ourselves. Reply

David Mansfield Sanford, NC/USA March 7, 2011

Need to study some more Andrew stated that the author has an understanding of science which is not true. It is not so much a phenomenon but the fact that light bends according to it's wavelength and the index of refraction of the mediums as it passes into and out of a medium. The colors of the rainbow each have a different wavelength and therefore bend more or less as it enters and leaves a medium. At the proper angles light can be contained in a medium. That is how we have fiber optics. Reply

Jacob Solomon Segal Kiev, Ukraine October 8, 2010

Beautiful) Reply

Rabbi Shmuel Tornek rehovot, Israel October 23, 2009

re: a call to teshuva. chasidus teaches that there are specific times for sadness. these times we choose. we do not respond to the sadness if it falls upon us. when we do choose to be sad it is only for the purpose of teshuva and the sadness should be changed to bitterness immediately since bitterness causes action, that is the action of teshuva. all other times one must maintain a state of happiness. the rainbow is a beautiful creation of G-d's and can be a form of joy letting us know that we can always do teshuva. it is also an opportunity to make a brocha since there is a special blessing made upon seeing a rainbow. making a blessing is a mitzvah and all mitzvahs must be done with joy. if it then arouses within you thoughts of teshuva that is wonderful. set a side time during the prayer before going to bed and do your teshva, believe that G-d accepts your teshuva fully and immediately, then there is only reason to rejoice, knowing that your teshuva was accepted. Reply

Andrew Maxwell Fredericton, NB/Canada October 18, 2009

I like this article because it combines a scientific understanding of the rainbow as a physical phenomena with a higher significance to said phenomena.

The poet John Keats felt that when Sir Isaac Newton reduced the formerly mysterious rainbow to mere optical refraction, that he destroyed its beauty. Of course, as Richard Dawkins points out in his book Unweaving The Rainbow, it's just as beautiful to understand as it is to not, maybe even more so (which, bizarrely, synchs up with Keats's own assertion that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty").

This looks at the rainbow in that way that Dawkins does, but from a Jewish, rather than atheist, perspective. The symbolism is stunning, and I think I'll be passing this on next time I see a rainbow with friends.

Comments also thought-provoking. I find that the majority of things in life are mixed. Maybe Carlos Castenada was right in saying that we should see things as challenges, not blessings or curses. But can you see a rainbow as a challenge? Reply

Menachem Posner for October 30, 2008

RE: A call to teshuvah? Interestingly, the rainbow represents a double and seemingly conflicting message. On one hand, it reminds that we may not be up to snuff—and therefore deserving of destruction. On the other hand, G-d will not destroy us, because He loves us so much that no matter what we do, we are His beloved creations. So are we to be happy or said? Perhaps a bit of both. But the joyful route is always better. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY October 26, 2008

A call to teshuvah? I was taught that when I see a rainbow it's not a good sign and it means that Hashem is not happy with my behavior.

The past two summers I saw a rainbow in the sky and as beautiful as it was it really upset me.

What should my reaction have been? Reply

Anonymous October 11, 2007

Mists demystified…
Truly inspirational! Reply

Lisa Queen City, Texas November 2, 2005

Noah and the rainbow Beautifully, descriptively written! What promise it guarantees for a sinful world~~there is HOPE! Thank you for sharing this timely promise. Reply

Anonymous October 13, 2004

Great article. Once again we see how every story in Torah, sheds so much understanding into our lives, even into science. Reply

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