The Sages of the Talmud composed many berachot (blessings) to be recited for nature’s wonders and pleasures, including one for seeing a rainbow (a full arc in the sky):
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, zokher ha-brit, ve-ne-eman be-vrito ve-kayem at ma’amaro.
ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם, זוכר הברית ונאמן בבריתו וקים במאמרו
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the world, who remembers the Covenant and is faithful to the covenant and keeps the divine promise (made in the Noah story).
Despite this blessing, there was a certain ambivalence toward rainbows in traditional Rabbinic thought. I remember when I went to a year of college at Bar Ilan University in Israel, I saw a beautiful rainbow from my dorm window and ran to tell my friends. One of my Orthodox Israeli friends said that I shouldn’t tell others about seeing a rainbow, because they are reminders of divine anger at humanity in the Noah story! A rainbow looks like a weapon (a bow) but pointed away from earth in act of peace and forgiveness. The Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 77b) relates that no rainbow was ever seen during the lifetime of the great mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, which was a good thing because it meant that God wasn’t angry enough to have to display it.
On the other hand, rainbows are regarded with a measure of awe because of the reference in Ezekiel 1:28. In the Talmud Chagigah 16a, there is a caution not to stare at rainbows because of their association with the Divine Glory, the Shechinah (Luckily for this page, this traditional prohibition does not extend to photos of rainbows!). Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir explains that the bow is regarded in tradition as a metaphor for prayer because “be-kashti” (“with my bow,” Genesis 48:22) is a pun on bakashati (my request) and the same Hebrew word, kavanah, is used for aiming a bow as well as for deep intention in focusing our prayer.
Featured photo: Rainbow in Ashland, Oregon, by Rabbi David Zaslow.