Staring at Rainbows, a dialogue

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Jessie: Today, Sarah saw a rainbow and I remember hearing that you are not supposed to tell someone when you see a rainbow. We found that difficult to understand because rainbows are beautiful and unusual, and we would want to share the experience with someone. Also, you make a blessing upon seeing one. So why wouldn’t it be a good thing for another person to be involved in it? If a blessing is recited over seeing a rainbow, there is a concept that a person can benefit from it.

Thanks, Jess

Moshe Ben-Chaim, for I believe the true violation is to “stare” ... not that you cannot recount what you saw. This makes sense, as the rainbow recalls the promise by God to never flood the Earth again. It recalls man’s evil nature. Staring might express a feeling of haughtiness, as if to say, “I am above this, I can look upon that which embodies the destruction of others.” Instead, one should be humbled by God’s generosity in promising not to destroy man again. Therefore, not staring demonstrates humility.

The Talmud, Tractate Chagiga 16a states:

“Anyone who does not care about his Creator’s honor, it would be a mercy to him that he should not have come to the world.” In other words, better off that this person was never created. “Who is such a person? Rabbi Abba says this (refers to one) who stares at the rainbow. As it says, ‘Like the appearance of the rainbow that will be in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brilliance all around. That was the appearance of the similitude of God’s honor’.”

From here (Ezek. 1:28) all the Sages derive the equation of rainbows to God’s honor. In fact, this very verse makes such an equation.

Further in Tractate Chagiga it is stated:

“There explained Rabbi Judah, son of Rabbi Nachmani: one who stares at three things, his eyes will grow dim; at the rainbow, at the prince, and at the priests: at the rainbow, as it is written, ‘like the appearance of the rainbow that will be in the clouds on a rainy day’…’it is the appearance of the similitude of God’s honor’.”

Both statements relate the act of staring at the rainbow, to either a lack of honor for his “Owner” (kono), or for “God”, respectively. Of course they both refer to God, but have slightly different meanings. But the main question is how staring at a rainbow is a lack of honor for God. Also, why does one rabbi say it is preferred that this soul would not have been created, and the other, that the violator is met with some degree of blindness?

The latter opinion seems readily understandable: one’s corruption is with his eyes, so God directs this violator to correct his flaw by underlining it, with blindness. But Rabbi Abba, whose is the first view, is not focusing on the “act” of the violation, but on the underlying corruption. One who stares at the rainbow, according to Rabbi Abba, has no regard for the honor of his Creator. Why does he refer to God as “Creator”, in this specific capacity? The second rabbi did not do so. We must ponder this.

Finally, we must ask the primary question: what is it about a rainbow – over all other creations – that possesses such status? Why is staring at this object a violation of God’s honor? If one stared at the sun, moon, meteor, or other objects or phenomena, he would not be in violation. Why? What in the rainbow gives it its distinction? Let us read more of what the other Sages write.

The Hagahos HaBach takes a different approach:

“Anyone who stares at the rainbow must fall on his face, as it says: “Like the appearance of the rainbow that will be in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brilliance all around. That was the appearance of the similitude of God’s honor. When I saw, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice speaking.” (He continues) “In the West they cursed one who gazed at the rainbow, for it appears as heresy. Rather, a person should recite, ‘Blessed (is God), He remembers his covenant’. A person who sees a rainbow must bless. What does he bless? Blessed (is God), He remembers his covenant. Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Beroka said (one should recite) ‘Blessed (is God), He Who remembers the covenant, He is trustworthy in His covenant, and He sustains His statements.”

The Hagahos HaBach says that since the verse ends with the fact of Ezekiel “falling on his face” in humility, we too must fall on our faces. What is it about seeing a rainbow that demands such a response? Additionally, what is the concept behind this blessing?

The Maharsha says that the rainbow is one of three things that are manifestations of a similitude of God’s “shechina”, or presence. (Not to be confused with God Himself, Who in no way exists in physical space) He quotes the verse, “For man cannot see me and live,” for the teaching that staring at the rainbow is akin to being in a state where one cannot live. This explains Rabbi Abba’s strict response that one is better off never having been born.

How is a rainbow connected to God’s shechina, to His presence, more than anything else? Prior to the Flood in Noah’s generation, rainbows were already part of creation, as Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi once taught: “The Torah states, ‘My bow I have placed in the cloud’. It does not read, that I ‘created’ in the clouds.” As the rainbow was already created, God only designated it (“placed it”) to now serve as a sign of His covenant for future generations, that He would never flood the entire Earth as He had done.

The rainbow is beautiful. It appears precisely when rain might fall – as in the Flood. The presence of moisture in the clouds is essential to refract sunlight into the seven colors of the bow. We are reminded of the Flood. Perhaps due to its rarity, we are enamored by its presence, its height, its colors, its lofty expanse crossing miles and parading over mountaintops into the horizon. It is something so immense that it dwarfs us. What is improper about “staring” at it? Rabbi Reuven Mann asked why it was proper, and even warranted, that the Jews stare at Moses’ hands when battling Amalek, and at the Copper Snake when the the people were being bitten. Why then is staring improper in regards to the rainbow? I feel the attractions just mentioned above are at the root of the answer.

The rainbow is beautiful. But it is a reminder of that which is evil: our corruptions, which led to the Flood. As such, man will be tempted to see only the good in the rainbow, (i.e., its colors and magnificence) and lose all sight of its true designation as a reminder of God’s mercy, and our faults. Therefore, the act of staring at it for beauty opposes God’s will; that it be a reminder of evil. Staring is therefore philosophically prohibited.

We must recall God’s exclusive role as our Creator, and fully grasp and appreciate that our lives are in His hands. He allows us to exist without visiting death upon us…again. Seeing the rainbow must generate in us the response of falling on our faces in complete humility. We now understand Hagahos HaBach and Rabbi Abba. Rabbi Abba said that we have no honor for our “Creator” when we gaze at the rainbow. “Creator” refers to the One in whose hands our “created life” abides. We therefore recite, “Blessed (is God), He who remembers the covenant, He is trustworthy in His covenant, and He sustains His statements.” We recite this concept that god keeps His word; He has not abolished human life.

The rainbow signifies God’s continued sustain of His oath. The rainbow represents God abiding with us, His “shechina”.

Jessie: thank you very much! I discussed it with Sarah and Tamar. We thought of what we learned about Shemona Esrei [The "Eighteen" - that is, Israel's standard prayer, the heart of the three daily prayer services. Also known as the Amidah, the Standing Prayer (one stands while reciting the Shemona Esrei)]. The Shulchan Aruch [Code of Hebrew Torah Laws] mentions that a person should daven (pray) with his or her head bowed, and we had discussed that it is inappropriate for the servant to look in the master’s eyes, as that implies equality. Sarah mentioned that if the servant wanted to look at the master because the master was wearing beautiful clothes, the servant would only peek and would never stare. So we concluded that the rainbow reminds us of God’s honor, and we behave like a servant in front of the master.

I very much liked the point about it being specifically the rainbow as the rainbow reminds us of God’s mercy. It makes a lot of sense that when seeing a rainbow; a person would be struck by his smallness in front of God’s honor and mercy.

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