I was asked to explain the following Halacha in light of this week’s portion, Noah:
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 229:1:
One who sees a rainbow should say:
“Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant, and fulfils His word.”
It is prohibited to continue looking at the rainbow after reciting the blessing.
My questioner requested an explanation of the blessing that, seems to her, to be redundant. She is also troubled by the “superstition” of not continuing to look at the rainbow, especially by the idea that viewing a rainbow can lead to loss of vision. She asked whether one must see the entire arc of the rainbow before reciting the blessing and if we recite the blessing when we see a second rainbow within thirty days of the first. Finally, if we know that a rainbow is a natural occurrence, how can we understand each rainbow to be a sign of God’s covenant and the sins of humanity?
It is not simply a superstition not to look at a rainbow too much; it is actually a matter of Halacha. (TBChagigah 16b; Shelah HaKodesh; Mishna Berurah 229:5)
We do not recite a blessing when we cannot see the arc of the rainbow because we do not know whether we are obligated upon seeing only a section of a rainbow, (Bi’ur Halacha 229) and we do not recite a blessing with God’s name, when we have a doubt.
We recite a blessing even if we have already recited the blessing within the previous 30 days. (Sha’arei Teshuva 229:1) Each rainbow is considered a miracle and a reminder of God’s covenant with Noah after the Deluge.
Lessons of the Rainbow:
Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama (1420-1494) in the Akeidat Yitzchak, chapter 14, (Translated by Eliyahu Munk) explains that the rainbow, as a naturally occurring phenomenon, is an indication of how human beings were actually incomplete creations until after the flood:
The nature of man prior to the deluge could be traced to a single cause, his common ancestor. From now on, only his personal immaturity could account for man’s mistakes, but he would not be weighed down by the collective guilt of earlier generations and its hereditary impact. In other words, the burden of “the original sin” had now been removed from the post Noachide generations.
God changed the application of His Midat HaDin, Attribute of Justice, because of the change in human beings’ responsibility. Collective punishment would only be applicable when the wicked have acted collectively rather than individually, separately.
The rainbow is a visible sign of this new state of affairs. The fact that it refracts light into different colors, is parallel to the fact that from that point in history and on, man refracts into different types through he simultaneous experiences of Noah’s three sons during the Flood. Each one will bequeath a slightly different outlook to his respective offspring. The naturalness of the rainbow that recalls this change in our very nature that protects us from a punishment similar to the flood.
The different colors reflect diversity, which also means a lack of unity. We appreciate the creative force of diversity. We understand the dangers of a single vision for all humanity (The Tower of Babel). However, as long as creation lacks unity we cannot fully appreciate or even understand the unity of God. Such unity existed only at three distinct points in time: 1) Creation, a fragile perfection. 2) Immediately after the Deluge. 3) In messianic times when perfection will no longer be so fragile since it will result of individual responsibility and development.
We refer to three levels of God’s reliability:
1) The basic covenant not to repeat the total destruction of the Flood.
2) God’s commitment to deal with us as individuals. God’s covenant is with each one of us as individuals. Direct Divine Providence developed from this point in history. (“He sustains the living with kindness” Amidah; Second Blessing)
3) God’s ultimate commitment that all of existence will be unified and give meaning to all that happened over the course of history. “And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead”
It certainly seems superstitious to speak of any danger associated with looking at a rainbow. I suspect that there have been people who stared at a rainbow for long periods of time and did not lose any of their vision. I am tempted to say that the sources listed above were not referring to physical eyesight but a person’s vision of the world. (Numerous, and for us, nameless, commentaries.) I do not have a satisfactory explanation. I will try, with God’s help to look into this further.