What Is the Significance of a Rainbow in Judaism?
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:1
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 world.
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 Talmuddisagree about the blessing that should be said.2 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 blessing:
“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 Rainbow
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.3
The Midrash4 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 Yochai5 and the generation of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.6
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 Talmud7 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!”
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