Thursday, July 06, 2006

Must Read Noah's Rainbow Sighted Over Idaho; Correct Peshat in the Pesukim in Parshat Noach

Forget this business of Noah's ark being "discovered" in Iran. I have got even more exciting news: the correct identification of Noah's arc.

The keshet in parashat Noach is not a typical rainbow, but an extremely rare sort of rainbow.

I saw the following on Snopes the other day, labelled as "True." Forgive the ALL-CAPS. I can't be bothered to retype it. The following text was going around:



Snopes' comment on it:
This is a real photograph of an atmospheric phenomenon known as a circumhorizon(tal) arc, the example shown above was captured on camera as it hung for about an hour across a several-hundred square mile area of sky above northern Idaho (near the Washington border) on 3 June 2006.

In general, a circumhorizontal arc (or "fire rainbow") appears when the sun is high in the sky (i.e., higher than 58° above the horizon), and its light passes through diaphanous, high-altitude cirrus clouds made up of hexagonal plate crystals. Sunlight entering the crystals' vertical side faces and leaving through their bottom faces is refracted (as through a prism) and separated into an array of visible colors. When the plate crystals in cirrus clouds are aligned optimally (i.e., with their faces parallel to the ground), the resulting display is a brilliant spectrum of colors reminiscent of a rainbow.
Thus, this is a real, but extremely rare phenomenon. This rainbow is beautiful. It looks like it is made of fire because it is within cirrus clouds. It looks like a celestial rainbow, from God Himself. (Thus, in the pasuk, Hashem refers to it as kashti, My Bow.)

Indeed, there is a dispute between Ramban and others (discussed in DovBear's post from 2005) whether there were rainbows before the mabul. The others maintain that it did not exist before the Flood, for God sets it as a sign with a specific import, and perhaps the simplest reading of the verse is that this is a new phenomenon. The Ramban, while admitting that this would seem to be the most straightforward meaning of the pesukim, disputes this. Based on Greek science, he states that a rainbow is a naturally occuring phenomenon, and of course there would be plenty of naturally occurring rainbows before this. He darshens the past tense of the word natati (as well as the word kashti) as evidence that it was pre-existing, and so God was appointing it with a new message and meaning. See Ramban inside.

But with this celestial fire-rainbow, we need not resort to the "farfetchedness" of the Ramban. Since these are so rare, and very specific conditions need to be met, it is quite possible that (since Adam) until this point a fire-rainbow had not been seen by human eyes, or perhaps could even not have occurred at all. (I am taking the text on a literal level here, so even if you don't accept a literal account, within the framework of the narrative.)

Indeed, we find evidence in the pesukim themselves that this is our rainbow, and we may learn an incredible new peshat in the pesukim in the process. Look at Bereishit 9:

יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, זֹאת אוֹת-הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר-אֲנִי נֹתֵן בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, אֲשֶׁר אִתְּכֶם--לְדֹרֹת, עוֹלָם. 12 And God said: 'This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
יג אֶת-קַשְׁתִּי, נָתַתִּי בֶּעָנָן; וְהָיְתָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִי וּבֵין הָאָרֶץ. 13 I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth.
יד וְהָיָה, בְּעַנְנִי עָנָן עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וְנִרְאֲתָה הַקֶּשֶׁת, בֶּעָנָן. 14 And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the cloud,
טו וְזָכַרְתִּי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, אֲשֶׁר בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, בְּכָל-בָּשָׂר; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה עוֹד הַמַּיִם לְמַבּוּל, לְשַׁחֵת כָּל-בָּשָׂר. 15 that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
טז וְהָיְתָה הַקֶּשֶׁת, בֶּעָנָן; וּרְאִיתִיהָ, לִזְכֹּר בְּרִית עוֹלָם, בֵּין אֱלֹהִים, וּבֵין כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה בְּכָל-בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֶץ. 16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.'
יז וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-נֹחַ: זֹאת אוֹת-הַבְּרִית, אֲשֶׁר הֲקִמֹתִי, בֵּינִי, וּבֵין כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֶץ. {פ} 17 And God said unto Noah: 'This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.'
The pesukim repeat over and over: "and the bow shall be in the cloud." I would posit that the rainbow in the cloud means that the rainbow is in the cloud.

It shall come to pass, states verse 14, when I shall bring (cirrus) clouds over the earth, and the rainbow is seen in the cloud.

Not just any rainbow, but this specific, extremely rare meteorological phenomenon.

(Note: Sorry for that error in Jrants that made this post look inordinately large. I was trying to make it a bit bolder and misHTML-ized it, such that it came up much larger than anticipated. Attempts to fix just resulted in reposts, so I gave up.)


Josh M. said...

Interesting idea, especially in how it's implied by the p'sukim, but how rare is a fire rainbow, anyway, that we would be able to discount the challenge of the Ramban?

joshwaxman said...

well, rare enough that Snopes had to have a post on it.
as the breathless email going around stated," the rarest of all" - there are all of these conditions that need to occur - cirrus clouds, greater than 58 degrees, a specific height.

this web site:

lists it among infrequent rainbows.
and this web page

explains why these rainbows are infrequent. In fact, it *is* the least frequent halo.

From that last page, the most frequent, the 22 degree halo occurs on average in Europe 100 days a year. From the chart on that page of relative frequency, a circumhorizon halo has a relative frequency of 0.1.
A relative frequency of 1 would mean a dedicated sky watcher might catch sight of it once a year.

That means with a relative freq of 0.1, a dedicated skywatcher might catch sight of it 1 time every 10 years.

Still not really good enough for the Ramban - there should have been a few hundred such rainbows occuring until then.

However, unlike regular rainbows which occur everywhere, these occur under specific circumstances and if Hashem wanted, he could have guided the weather to avoid these specific circumstances. I imagine the Ramban might have agreed to such a position.

Further, people were not such dedicated skywatchers and, at least according to the Biblical narrative, had not yet spread out over such a wide area, and so might very well not have witnessed the phenomenon, which would thus make it even rarer.

Anonymous said...

How does this type of rainbow resemble a bow so that it would have merited the name keshet?

joshwaxman said...

firstly, it has the colors of a rainbow so could merit the Hebrew term regardless.

secondly, it does actually arc. Look carefully at the above picture. not as much as a regular rainbow, but there is a reason it is called a circumhorizon *arc*. That is that it *arcs*.

It is perhaps clearer is this picture:

An interesting note on this second picture also could explain the rarity. They write there:

"Circumhorizon arcs must often be sought between lower obscuring clouds."

Since they are so high up and can be obscured by other, lower clouds, it decreases probability of their being seen.

Anonymous said...

If it matters, someone once told me this years ago, without identifying the specific form of rainbow. Just that it was not the usual rainbow, but a rainbow that is in a cloud.

Anonymous said...

why would we make the bracha of zoher habb'rith on a regular rainbow as well if this was not the rainbow shown to noah?

joshwaxman said...

great question, and I have three possible answers, deliberately in no particular order of declared correctness.

#1 challenges certain presuppositions:
because Chazal, who instituted the bracha, interpreted the pasuk differently, as referring to a regular rainbow. whether halacha should change as a result (it shouldn't, IMHO) is a separate issue.

#2 is that this is based on the gemara in Berachot 59a:
וא"ר אלכסנדרי אמר ריב"ל הרואה את הקשת בענן צריך שיפול על פניו שנאמר (יחזקאל א) כמראה הקשת אשר יהיה בענן וגו' ואראה ואפול על פני לייטי עלה במערבא משום דמחזי כמאן דסגיד לקשתא אבל ברוכי ודאי מברך מאי מברך ברוך זוכר הברית במתניתא תנא ר' ישמעאל בנו של ר' יוחנן בן ברוקא אומר נאמן בבריתו וקיים במאמרו א"ר פפא הלכך נימרינהו לתרוייהו ברוך זוכר הברית ונאמן בבריתו וקיים במאמרו

where the phrasing is once again the keshet in the anan, the rainbow in the clouds. which would make our present (post-Talmudic) interpretation of the gemara incorrect.

#3 is that I am incorrect in this explanation of the pesukim in Noach. One can certainly muster up an argument in favor of this, in light of the pasuk in Yechezkel 1:28, cited in the aforementioned gemara:
כְּמַרְאֵה הַקֶּשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בֶעָנָן בְּיוֹם הַגֶּשֶׁם, כֵּן מַרְאֵה הַנֹּגַהּ סָבִיב--הוּא, מַרְאֵה דְּמוּת כְּבוֹד-יְהוָה; וָאֶרְאֶה וָאֶפֹּל עַל-פָּנַי, וָאֶשְׁמַע קוֹל מְדַבֵּר
"As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spoke."


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