Question #1: Showing a Rainbow
Should you call someone’s attention to the fact that there is a rainbow?
Are you supposed to look for a rainbow?
Question #2: Niagara Falls
Does one recite a brocha when seeing a rainbow that is not after a storm, such as what one sees at Niagara Falls?
Question #3: How much?
How much of a rainbow must one see to recite a brocha?
An entire chapter of Shulchan Aruch is devoted to two short brochos, one recited when one sees a rainbow, and one called birkas hachamah, which we recite only once every 28 years. Both of these brochos are included under the general category called birchos ha’re’iyah, brochos recited upon seeing specific things, whose halachos are spread across nine chapters of Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, from chapter 221-229).
Since the next recital of birkas hachamah will not be for a number of years, and the brocha on the rainbow is based in this week’s parsha, this article will discuss the latter brocha. The common text that we recite for this brocha is, “Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam Zocheir habris ve’ne’eman bivriso vekayom bema’amaro,” “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant and fulfills His word.” It should be noted that the version quoted by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 229:1) has a slight difference – it is missing a vov before the word “ne’eman,” thus reading: “Boruch… Zocheir habris, Ne’eman bivriso vekayom bema’amaro,” and is translated as two sentences, “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, Who remembers the covenant. He is trustworthy in His covenant and fulfills His word.”
Isn’t this a strange text for a brocha referring to Hashem? In what other brocha do we discuss Hashem’s trustworthiness and memory?
The answer is that the world is full of evil people who could be the cause for its destruction. The reason that the world is not destroyed is because Hashem promised Noach that He would not put an end to it. The additional words, that “He… fulfills His word,” are because, as we will soon see, the Torah does not mention that there was any promise or oath — simply Hashem’s declaration to Noach (Avudraham, page 187).
Before analyzing further the brocha and the Gemara that teaches us this mitzvah, let us read the pesukim in this week’s parsha, upon which this brocha is based.
Rainbow way up high
After Noach and his family exited the teivah, Hashem tells them, “I am establishing My covenant with you and the descendants that will follow you… and I will confirm My covenant with you that I will never again destroy all flesh with the waters of the flood, and there never again will be a flood to destroy the earth. And G-d said: This is the sign of My covenant that I am providing between Me and between you and all living creatures that are among you, for all future generations. I have placed My rainbow in the clouds, and it will provide a sign of a covenant between Me and between the earth. And it should be, when I place a cloud over the earth and the rainbow becomes visible in the cloud. I will then remember My covenant that is between Me and you and all living creatures, and the water will never become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the rainbow is in the cloud, I will see it and remember the eternal covenant between G-d and between all living creatures on the earth” (Bereishis, 9:11-16).
The dreams you dare to dream
Seeing a rainbow should evoke mixed feelings in us. On the one hand, it is a beautiful phenomenon of nature that truly demonstrates the nifla’os haBorei, Hashem’s wondrous Creation. The Gemara shares with us an event that bears this out. Once, it was in the middle of the dry season in Eretz Yisroel, when it never rains. Several of the tanna’im were studying intently some deep kabbalistic ideas. Suddenly, the Heavens became covered with clouds and a rainbow appeared in them, and the ministering angels gathered together, the way people gather to see the celebrations of a bride and groom, in order to hear the kabbalistic words emanating from the scholars (Chagigah 14b).
Similarly, we have the following passage of Gemara (Brochos 59a): “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘one who sees a rainbow in a cloud should fall on his face, as the verse states, Kemar’eih hakeshes asher yihyeh be’anan beyom hageshem kein mar’eih hanogah saviv shehu mar’eih demus kevod Hashem, As the rainbow appears in the cloud on a rainy day, so appeared the brilliant surrounding light; this is the image of the Honor of Hashem (Yechezkel 1:28).”
The Gemara there concludes not in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and therefore one should not prostrate himself upon seeing a rainbow, for the following reason: In Eretz Yisroel, they criticized the practice of bowing when seeing a rainbow, because it gives the appearance that one is worshiping the rainbow.
On the other hand, the rainbow also demonstrates Hashem’s covenant that He will never again bring a flood to destroy life on earth. Yet, seeing the rainbow implies that the covenant is necessary to avoid that destruction. This is not very reassuring about the state of mankind’s behavior and Hashem’s justified wrath. For this reason, in the era of the Gemara, it was a source of pride for one to have lived in a generation when a rainbow never appeared (Kesubos 77b)!
Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch concludes the laws of reciting the brocha on the rainbow with the following: “And it is prohibited to gaze at it (the rainbow) more than necessary.” The Gemara (Chagigah 16a) reports that gazing at the rainbow is bad for one’s eyes.
As a matter of fact, the rishonim ask this question: How can one look at the rainbow to recite the brocha, if gazing at it is harmful? They answer that it is only harmful to gaze at a rainbow, but not to notice it or glance at it. Thus, when noticing it, one should recite the brocha, but not look at it again afterwards (Rosh, cited by Avudraham).
Really do come true
Let us now examine our opening question: Should you call someone’s attention to the fact that there is a rainbow? Are you supposed to look for a rainbow?
The Chayei Odom (Klal 63:4) mentions, “I saw in a work, whose name I no longer remember, that one should not tell someone else that he saw a rainbow, since this is disparaging information.” The Mishnah Berurah and the Kaf Hachayim both quote this Chayei Odom. The question is that we usually assume that we are allowed to share bad news, for example, so that people know to attend a funeral or to make a shiva visit. Why not tell people about a rainbow, so that they can recite the brocha?
The answer appears to be that although the news of someone’s passing is something not good, it is not disparaging regarding anyone. However, the appearance of the rainbow is understood to demonstrate that Hashem is telling us that He is keeping His deal not to destroy the world with a flood. This statement has highly negative connotations for the entire world’s level of ethics and morality, and we want to avoid implying anything disparaging.
An alternative, similar explanation that I once heard is that one should not call attention to the rainbow, since it might make them dejected to see how wretched and undeserving the world is.
Skies are blue
A question relative to these verses is raised by the rishonim. The pesukim imply that the rainbow was created after the mabul, as a covenant. Indeed, the Ibn Ezra explains the verse this way, disputing an earlier interpretation of the posuk from Rav Saadiya Gaon. However, scientifically, if the correct factors of moisture in the air and sunlight exist, the resultant refraction of light causes a rainbow, which means that the factors causing the rainbow existed from Creation and not only after the mabul. This question was already asked by the Ramban in his commentary, which I will now quote: “‘This is the sign of My covenant that I am providing.’ One is given the impression that the rainbow in the clouds was not existent as part of Creation, but that now Hashem created a rainbow in the Heavens… . However, we are compelled to believe the words of the Greeks, that the light of the sun through moist air creates a rainbow, since taking a vessel of water before the sun will cause something similar in appearance to a rainbow.”
The Ramban continues: “When we examine further the phraseology of the verse, we will also understand (as did the Greeks), for it says ‘I have placed my rainbow in the cloud,’ rather than ‘I am now placing my rainbow in the cloud.’” The Ramban proceeds to explain that the rainbow, indeed, existed since Creation, but now, after the mabul, it became the testimony to the covenant. In other words, an already existing item now assumed a role as a testament and reminder to an agreement or covenant. The Ramban demonstrates that there are many other examples of this in Chumash.
Text of brocha
Germane to the text of the brocha we recite, the Gemara records the following: “One should certainly recite a brocha (upon seeing a rainbow). What brocha does he recite? ‘Blessed is He who remembers the covenant.’ A beraisa teaches a different text: Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rav Yochanan ben Beroka says, ‘He is trustworthy in His covenant and fulfills His word.’ Rav Papa ruled, ‘Therefore we should recite both texts: Blessed is He Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant and fulfills His word” (Brochos 59a). This is the source for the text of the brocha as we recite it, Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam zocheir habris vene’eman bevriso vekayom bema’amaro.
Nevertheless, we find that there were other ways of understanding the conclusion of the Gemara and different versions of its concluding text. There was an old custom to recite the following text to this brocha: Ne’eman bevriso vekayom bema’amaro, Boruch Attah Hashem Zocheir habris,” “He is trustworthy in His covenant and fulfills His word, Blessed are You, Hashem, Who remembers the covenant.” This version does not begin with our standard introduction for all brochos, nor does it mention at all that Hashem is King of the world. (The Shelah Hakodesh mentions a slight variation of this text which includes also Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam in its closing.) With the exception of a brocha that is a later one in a sequel, called a brocha hasemucha lachavertah, all brochos begin with our well-known formula Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam. (Examples of brocha hasemucha lachaverta are the brochos of shemoneh esrei, bensching, birchos kerias shma and sheva brochos. In these instances, the brochos that do not begin with the word boruch follow other brochos.) This is not the case with the brocha on a rainbow, which is not a sequel to another brocha, and therefore should begin with the words Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam.
In addition, brochos that are short and not multi-themed do not have a closing of Boruch Attah Hashem. These endings are restricted to brochos that are lengthier.
Precisely for these reasons, the authorities universally reject the text Ne’eman bevriso vekayom bema’amaro, Boruch Attah Hashem Zocheir habris, since it violates the structural rules for brochos established by Chazal (Bach; Pri Megadim). The poskim contend that this errant version was based on a misunderstanding of the text of the Gemara (Drisha, Orach Chayim 229, quoting his rebbe, the Maharshal).
Tosafos quotes a slightly different version of the brocha, which might have been based on a variant text of the Gemara passage: Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam ne’eman bivriso vekayom beshevuaso vezocheir habris,” “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, Who is trustworthy in His covenant, fulfills His oath and remembers the covenant” (Tosafos, Brochos 59a s.v. Hilchach I).
One of the interesting points about this text is that it mentions that Hashem swore an oath regarding the rainbow. Although this idea is not mentioned in the Torah, it is mentioned by the prophet Yeshayohu (54:9), Ki mei Noach zos li asher nishbati mei’avor mei Noach od al ha’aretz, kein nishbati mi’ketzof alayich umi’ge’or boch, “These shall be for Me like the waters of Noach, which I swore never to bring again onto the earth. So, too, have I sworn not to become angry with you or to rebuke you.” These words are part of the reading for this week’s haftarah, as well as for that of parshas Ki Seitzei.
Somewhere over the rainbow
At this point, let us discuss our third opening question: “How much of a rainbow must one see to recite a brocha?”
Strangely enough, this question is not discussed by any of the standard, early authorities. The Mishnah Berurah, in his Biur Halacha commentary, does raise this question, stating that there are no halachic sources that clarify whether one recites the brocha only when he sees the entire arch of a rainbow, which is a 180 degree arc, or even if one sees only a small section.
Dreams really do come true
Among the things one sees that require a birchas ha’re’iyah, some require a brocha only when one has not seen them in the last thirty days, such as the brochos on magnificent mountains and seas, or the brochos upon seeing destroyed cities of Israel. There are also brochos that are recited more frequently, should the occasion present itself, such as the brocha recited when seeing lightning. The halacha is that, once the storm clears, should one see lightning accompanying a new thunderstorm, one recites the brocha again. What is the halacha regarding a rainbow? In the event that a new rainbow is the result of a different rainstorm, should one recite a new brocha? The halachic conclusion of the authorities is that one does (Shaarei Teshuvah 229:1 and other acharonim.).
A land that I heard of once
At this point, we can address the second of our opening questions: Does one recite the brocha only if one sees a rainbow after a storm? What is the halacha if one saw a rainbow elsewhere, such as at Niagara Falls or at Paterson Falls, right near New York City; does one recite a brocha?
The wording of the posuk, the Gemara and the poskim implies that the brocha is recited only when the rainbow appears in the clouds, related to a storm. Thus, there should be no brocha recited on a rainbow from any other source.
Way up high
A natural phenomenon that occasionally occurs is a double rainbow, in which a reversed-direction rainbow appears in the sky, high above a lower rainbow. There is an opinion among the late poskim that one recites the brocha only when seeing this particular type of rainbow, which means that one would rarely recite the brocha of Zocheir habris ve’ne’eman bivriso vekayom bema’amaro. One can rally an earlier comment as a source for this position, since one finds that the Seforno, in his commentary to the posuk in parshas Noach, understands that this was the type of rainbow that Hashem described to Noach as His covenant.
However, the well-known later authorities who quote this opinion conclude that one may ignore it, since none of the established early halachic authorities mentions this requirement for reciting the brocha (Ben Ish Chai, Parshas Eikev #17; Kaf Hachayim, 229:4). The Ben Ish Chai mentions that if an individual, when seeing a regular rainbow, chooses to omit the mention of Hashem’s name when reciting the brocha out of concern for this opinion, one should not rebuke him for this, notwithstanding that this approach is not the accepted halacha.
One of the understood messages of the rainbow is that it points upward, whereas the archer’s bow, which is a weapon, is always bent in the direction of its target. Thus, one of the symbolisms of the rainbow is that Hashem is pointing the potential weapon in the wrong direction, rendering it useless.
Rav Hirsch, in his beautiful explanation of Tehillim 75, notes that Asaf prophesies the end of warfare, when man’s weapons will become useless. Thus, our major hope is that man lose interest in his ability and his incentive for all warfare, and allow for the teaching of Hashem to permeate the earth. This fulfills the famous words of the prophet Yeshayohu (2:4) and echoed by Michah (4:3), Vechitesu charvosam le’itim vachanisoseihem lemazmeiros. Lo yisa goy el goy cherev velo yilmedu od milchamah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks. No nation will raise a sword against another, and they will no longer learn warfare.”