Monday, October 14, 2013

Is it forbidden to look at rainbows?

I saw this the other day, presenting the halachot of rainbows and became somewhat upset. If this is the halachah, so be it, but it is taking one of the beautiful things in the world, a gift from Hashem, and turning it into something ultra-negative, which shouldn't be looked at and enjoyed because it is so darned negative. As it turns out, I think an examination of the sources reveals a very different picture, but I am getting ahead of myself.

According to this, rather than a thing of beauty, a rainbow is a negative omen. See Rashi who notes on parashat Noach, Bereishit 9:12, for the beginning of an introduction into this idea:
for everlasting generations: It [the word דֹרֹת] is written defectively [without the letter “vav”] because there were generations that did not require the sign because they were completely righteous, such as the generation of Hezekiah, the king of Judah, and the generation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Gen. Rabbah 35:2).
Thus, the idea that each generation that sees a rainbow was worthy of being destroyed, but Hashem was held back by his covenant established with Noach.

However, the halacha of not looking at a rainbow is not actually sourced in it being a negative omen (that Hashem wanted to destroy the world but didn't), but of it being such a wonderful sight, containing an aspect of kevod Hashem.

Thus, if we actually look at the mentioned siman in Orach Chaim, 229:1, but looking at the Tur and Bet Yosef to understand how this halacha developed, we see the following:

Tur: "One who sees a rainbow should say "Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu melech haOlam who recalls the covenant and is trustworthy
in His covenant and establishes His word. And it is forbidden to look at it overmuch."

On the side, we have the commentary on Tur of Rav Yosef Karo in Bet Yosef. It pays to read this Bet Yosef commentary before turning to Shulchan Aruch, also by Rav Yosef Karo, where he only gives his halachic conclusions.

Bet Yosef writes:

 "And it is forbidden to look at it overmuch -- in perek Ain Dorshin (Chagiga 16a) 'whoever does not have consideration for the honor of his Creator refers to what? Rabbi Abba said that this is one who stares at a rainbow.' And afterwards they said [Resh Lakish:] that one who stares at a rainbow, his eyes dim. And Rabbenu [Tur] explains that this is only to look at it a lot [overmuch]. And so wrote the Rad"a, and these are his words: The Rosh was asked how one could look [mistakel] at the rainbow when we bless, for behold we say that one who looks [mistakel] at the rainbow, his eyes are dimmed. And he answered that mistakel is not the same thing as roeh, for one who is mistakel adds on and is precise in his gaze more than one who [merely] sees, and it is forbidden, end quote."

See also the Perisha:

At issue are two apparently conflicting gemaras. The first is in Berachot 59a:

R. Alexandri also said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: One who sees the rainbow in the clouds should fall on his face, as it says, As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud, and when I saw it I fell upon my face.16  In the West [Palestine] they cursed anyone who did this, because it looks as if he was bowing down to the rainbow; but he certainly makes a blessing. What blessing does he say? — 'Blessed is He who remembers the Covenant'. In a Baraitha it was taught: R. Ishmael the son of R. Johanan b. Beroka says: He says: Who is faithful with his Covenant and fulfils his word.

Here, we see that there is a blessing. And we already see, in Eretz Yisrael, that there is perhaps a bit too much veneration of rainbows. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, an early Amora of Eretz Yisrael, speaks of falling on one's face, which is a form of bowing, because a pasuk in Yechezkel compares Hashem's presence to a rainbow, in its appearance. And because of the danger of rainbow-worship, in Eretz Yisrael they banned this practice and cursed anyone who did this.

In the other relevant gemara, Chagiga 16a, we see further concerns related to this veneration of rainbows. Because it is related to the appearance of kvod Hashem, it is inappropriate to stare at it.

Thus, first:

WHOSOEVER TAKES NO THOUGHT FOR THE HONOUR OF HIS MAKER, IT WERE A MERCY IF HE HAD NOT COME INTO THE WORLD. What does this mean? R. Abba said: It refers to one who looks at the rainbow. R. Joseph said: It refers to one who commits transgression in secret. ‘One who looks at a rainbow’, for it is written: As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.18 R. Joseph said: ‘It refers to one who commits a transgression in secret’, in accordance with R. Isaac's teaching. For R. Isaac said: When anyone commits a transgression in secret, it is as though he thrust aside the feet of the Divine Presence, for it is said: Thus saith the Lord: The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool.19
It is the Amora from EretzYisrael, Rabbi Abba, who venerates rainbows as a partial manifestation of the Divine Glory and therefore restricts their viewing. Meanwhile, Rav Yosef is an Amora from Bavel and he applies the appellation of "one who takes no thoughts for the honor of his maker" in a completely different way.

So too, a bit later on the same amud, that:
R. Judah b. R. Nahmani, the speaker24 of Resh Lakish expounded: Anyone who looks at three things, his eyes become dim; at the rainbow, and at the Prince,25 and at the priests. At the rainbow, because it is written: As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain . . . This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.26
Once again, these are Amoraim from Eretz Yisrael (e.g. Resh Lakish), and the restriction at gazing at a rainbow is related to veneration of the rainbow, rather than it being a negative sign.

The gemara inside in Chagiga:

Note that the statement that receives the superscript Bet referring us to Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah. It is not on the earlier statement by Rabbi Abba, but on the later statement by Resh Lakish. And it is on the word Kohanim -- because Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah, perek 14, halacha 7) does not mention any prohibition regarding rainbows, only regarding staring at the Kohanim duchening in Bet Hamikdash, and only mentions hesech hadaas, not eyes dimming. And even Rosh seems to refer specifically to the eyes dimming part. (I don't see any Rif or Rosh on Chagiga.)

So there you have it. While I am sure other considerations came into play in framing that original statement quoted at the top of this post, I don't think that it accurately reflects the prohibition framed by Chagiga and then the Rosh.

And even if it is is prohibited to stare at rainbows, it is prohibited for a much nicer and positive reason -- in which a beautiful rainbow is a wonderful thing, rather than a negative omen that should be suppressed.

I am not really (personally) convinced that it is assur to look at rainbows, nor that it is the daas rabbim -- nor do I think that that pasuk in Yechezkel, on a peshat level, really is saying something about rainbows, rather than something about the Divine Presence. As to your personal conduct, consult your own soul, as well as your local Orthodox rabbi.

Here, by the way, is someone appreciating the glory of a double-rainbow:


Aba said...

Thanks v much for the research.
I have been meaning to look into this for a while also.

KT, Nordechai Cohen

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that you're drawing the correct conclusion. It could be that H' is manifesting His glory to remind us of his promise that he will not destroy the world. And falling on ones face indicates submission and a desire for forgiveness as seen in the Beis HaMikdash and Moshe when proclaiming the 13 middos.

joshwaxman said...

You cannot ignore context and prooftexts. The gemara does not mention destruction of world, it does mention not being chas al know kono, using the very same ask as proof

joshwaxman said...

darned Autocorrect! Anyhow, while it might be possible to inject the negative omen into a gemara Which doesn't mention it, it would result IMHO in a much more forced reading, for Zero gain.

David Ohsie said...

Thanks for doing this bit of research.

Perhaps the guy in the video is what motivated the Palestinian Amoraim to dial it back :).


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