During the rainy winter months of the year, a rainbow is sometimes sighted. Sometimes, one may feel some confusion upon seeing a rainbow. On the one hand, Chazal make some negative statements about seeing and looking at a rainbow, but on the other hand a special berachah is made upon seeing it.
In this article we will discuss the halachic issues pertaining to the rainbow. Do you need to see the entire arc of the rainbow to recite the berachah, or is half a rainbow enough? Is a berachah recited over a rainbow seen at night? Should you tell a friend about a rainbow visible in the sky? Is there a problem with gazing at a rainbow?
We will discuss these questions, among others, in the present article.
The Secret of the Rainbow
According to the Mishnah (Avos 5:6), the rainbow is among ten special creations that were created at the very end of the Days of Creation, at twilight on the eve of Shabbos (during bein hashmashos). As part of creation, the rainbow is therefore a natural phenomenon. Indeed, the rainbow is, simply put, “an arc of light separated into bands of color that appears when the sun’s rays are refracted by drops of mist or rain.”
And yet, the Pesukim of Bereishis (Chap. 9) explain that the rainbow is a covenant between Hashem and humanity, declaring that He will never again bring a flood upon the world. As the verse says: Hashem will “see the rainbow to remember the eternal covenant between Me and you, and between all living flesh – and there shall never be once more a flood to destroy all flesh.”
Several commentaries have noted the apparent difficulty between considering the rainbow as a naturally and physically understood phenomenon, and taking the rainbow as a sign of a Divine covenant that was struck between Hashem and mankind after the Flood.
Ibn Ezra (Bereishis 9:14) explains that after the Flood, “Hashem strengthened the power of sunlight after the flood” – a reinforcement that allowed the light to be split into its constituent colors. This new power is the sign of the renewed covenant after the Flood.
Abarbanel takes a somewhat different approach, and explains that the change was not in the light of the sun but rather in the makeup of clouds. After the flood, clouds became less dense and more airy, which permitted the passage of light through them and hence the formation of rainbows. Other commentaries suggest a similar approach.
Rainbow in the Clouds
As noted in the introduction, the Sages enacted a berachah over the rainbow. According to the conclusion of the Gemara (Berachos 59a), as cited by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 229:1), the berachah is: “Who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to His covenant, and keeps His promise.”
We do not recite the berachah over the rainbow as a natural phenomenon, but specifically over the rainbow as a symbol of an eternal covenant. Based on this it stands to reason that a berachah is only made on a rainbow seen in the sky – a rainbow in the clouds – and not on an “artificial rainbow” created by a waterfall or by a prism. The verse in Bereishis makes specific mention of the “rainbow in the cloud,” and even the Gemara writes: “One who sees a rainbow in the cloud,” recites the relevant blessing.
Although the Shulchan Aruch (229:1) does not mention (as the Rambam does) seeing a rainbow in the cloud, several Poskim (see Shut Rivevos Efraim 6:103; Shut Nahalas Pinchas 1:30) write that the berachah is only recited on a rainbow seen in the clouds.
Note that unlike the berachah on other sights and phenomena, for the rainbow one recites the berachah every time one sees it, even if the new sighting is within thirty days of the previous time. Each rainbow is distinct, since each rainbow is the result of a different cloud and water situation (Shaarei Teshuvah).
Seeing Half a Rainbow
The Shulchan Aruch (229:1) writes that one who sees a keshes (rainbow) should recite the berachah. The Biur Halacha (s.v. haroeh) raises the question whether one must see the entire rainbow, as in the full arc of the bow (a keshes), in order to make the berachah, or whether it is sufficient to see any part of the arc. He leaves the question unanswered.
Shut Teshuvos V’hanhagos (3:76:6) concludes that since it is a matter of doubt, one should not recite the berachah unless one sees the entire bow-shape of the rainbow.
This ties in well with the symbolism of the rainbow as given by the Ramban, who writes that the rainbow is actually an “inverted bow” to show that the skies are not firing their arrows at us. He adds that the way of warring nations was to reverse their bows as a call for peace.
Rainbow at Night
A rainbow at night, also known as a moonbow or lunar rainbow, is a rare phenomenon – but it does occasionally occur. It is a rainbow produced by light reflected off the surface of the moon (as opposed to direct sunlight), refracting off of moisture-laden clouds in the atmosphere.
Moonbows are relatively faint, due to the smaller amount of light reflected from the surface of the moon, but they are sometimes visible to the naked eye (almost always when the moon is full).
Concerning the berachah for a rainbow at night, the Maharsham (2:124) writes that one should recite a berachah, since we do not find that Chazal make a distinction between the day and the night (see also Shvil Emunah, Nesiv 2; Sefer HaBris 1:10 Chap. 12). In the hashmatos, the Maharsham adds that it seems from Tosafos (Rosh Hashanah 24a) that there cannot be a rainbow at night – but this does not bring him to change his ruling.
Looking at the Rainbow
The Gemara in Chagigah (16a) writes, “One who is flippant about the honor of his Creator – it is better that he should not have come to the world.” One of the cases in point given by the Gemara for in this category is, “somebody who looks at the rainbow.” The Gemara adds that “If one looks at a rainbow, his vision will dim.”
The explanation given for the prohibition is that the rainbow symbolizes the glory of Hashem, so that it is inappropriate to look at the rainbow – just as it is wrong to look at the glory of Hashem (see Shemos 24:10-11). Tosefos HaRid explains the comparison between a rainbow and Hashem: Just as the colors of a rainbow are indiscernible (one cannot tell where one color ends and another begins), so too we cannot know Hashem, and we must symbolize this ignorance by refraining from looking at the rainbow.
At the same time, we know that a berachah is recited on the rainbow, which implies that it is permitted to see it. The Rosh (cited in the Abudraham) was asked how one is permitted to look at the rainbow as he recites the blessing, and he answers by distinguishing between gazing and seeing: It is permitted to see the rainbow, but forbidden to gaze (at length).
Thus, the the Shulchan Aruch (229:1) writes that it is prohibited to look at a rainbow “for a prolonged time.” The Gra adds that there is no prohibition of looking briefly (see also Machazis Hashekel). The Iyun Yaakov writes that it is a mitzvah to see the rainbow in order to recite the berachah.
Note that the Meiri explains that there is no prohibition against physically looking at the rainbow. Rather, the prohibition is to delve into the mysteries of the passage dealing with the rainbow in Parshas Noach, and to seek to comprehend the secrets of the rainbow. The Rambam also refrains from mentioning the prohibition of gazing at the rainbow.
Telling Others About the Rainbow
We know from the laws of Aveilus (Pesachim 3b; Yoreh De’ah 402:12) that one should refrain, wherever possible, from being the harbinger of bad tidings. Based on this idea, the Chayei Adam (63:4) rules that one should not tell a friend that there is a rainbow in the sky, since this, too, is a bad omen. The halachah is mentioned by the Mishna Berurah (229:1).
This reflects the negative side of seeing a rainbow, since it recalls Divine anger and the desire to destroy the world (see Rashi, Bereishis 9:14). Indeed, we find that in the days of Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai a rainbow was never seen in the sky (see Kesubos 77; Yerushalmi, Berachos 9:2).
However, the sefer Bris Kehuna (Orach Chaim 1:100:3) notes it was customary in Jerba to publicize the appearance of a rainbow, in order that others should be able to recited the blessing over it. As for the negative omen of the rainbow, he writes that the rainbow also has a positive message, namely that Hashem, in His mercy, will never again bring destruction to the world.
May Hashem have mercy upon us, and send us swift salvation from all our troubles.