Chagigah 16

Somewhere over the rainbow.

“The way I see it,” said Dolly Parton, “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” Which is true. After all, rainbows typically come out after a rainstorm. And according to the Bible, the first rainbow came out after the biggest rainstorm of them all: the flood that covered the earth during the time of Noah. The rainbow became a symbol of God’s promise to never again destroy humanity by flood. 

While rainbows these days have a variety of meanings, today’s daf offers a surprising warning about them: 

It is taught in the mishnah: Whoever has no concern for the honor of his Maker deserves to have never come to the world. The Gemara asks: What is “lack of concern for the honor of one’s Maker”? Rabbi Abba said: This is one who looks at a rainbow.

That’s unexpected. According to Rabbi Abba, one who looks at a rainbow is disrespecting God. But what does looking at a rainbow have to do with honoring God? The Gemara continues:

As it is written: “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.” (Ezekiel 1:28

According to Rabbi Abba, rainbows are the equivalent of God’s likeness, and staring at God’s likeness is dishonorable. Rabbi Yehuda echoes Rabbi Abba’s position and adds a specific consequence:

Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi Nahmani, the disseminator of Reish Lakish, interpreted a verse homiletically: Whoever looks at the following three things, his eyes will grow dim: One who looks at a rainbow, at a Nasi, and at the priests.

While a rainbow isn’t so bright as to be literally blinding, we can infer that the text is speaking metaphorically about the overwhelming splendor of God’s symbol in the sky. But the teaching is nevertheless confusing: There’s a blessing traditionally said upon viewing a rainbow. If we don’t look at rainbows, how can we say the blessing? If you follow Ashkenazi practices, it can’t be because someone else notifies you that there’s a rainbow in the sky. The Mishnah Berurah specifically says that you shouldn’t tell other people about rainbows, equating doing so with gossip. (Sephardim say it’s OK to spread the word about rainbows.)

The Shulchan Aruch, the medieval law code, presents a compromise: “One who sees the rainbow says, ‘Blessed are you, God our Lord, king of the world, who remembers the covenant, who is faithful to his covenant, and who fulfills his word.’ And it is forbidden to look upon it further.” In other words, look at the rainbow enough to serve as a basis for the blessing, but that’s it.

So yes, Dolly Parton’s wisdom rings true and can buoy us through challenging times. But if we’re hewing closely to the instructions in today’s daf, we should be careful about how we look at the rainbow that comes after the storm. 

Read all of Chagigah 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 25th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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