Genesis 6:16 – You shall make a window (tzohar) for the ark, and to a cubit you shall finish it to the top, and the entrance of the ark you shall place in its side; you shall make it with bottom [compartments], second story [compartments], and third story [compartments].
Gemora Sanhedrin 108a: Rabbi Yochanan taught: God said to Noah, affix precious stones and pearls in the ark in order that there should be light as if it were noon.
Torah Temimah Colloquial Translation on Note #22
Rabbi Yochanan stated his opinion because ‘tzohar’ is from the same root as ‘tzoharaim’[afternoon]. Both these words are from the same root of zohar [shining]. The Hebrew letter tzadee (ts) can be exchanged with the Hebrew letter zayin (z) because they are from the same phonetic source. See also regarding this aggada in the Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim Chapter 1, Halacha 1.
Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion that the word ‘tzohar’ means a precious stone rather than the simple explanation of a window relates to another opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, in a different context. In Parshat Vayera (Genesis 19:17) the angels tell Lot [as he is fleeing Sodom} that he may not look back, behind him [at Sodom, as it is being destroyed.] The Midrash states that the angel actually told Lot, “you are not worthy of seeing the downfall of the wicked. Rather, you should be careful to pay attention to yourself”.
Also note that Noah is described as a “righteous person in his generation”. Rabbi Yochanan comments there and interprets this description as being a negative comment on the degree to which Noah was righteous. [In other words, “in his generation” is taken to mean, if he had lived in a different generation, his degree of righteousness would not have been remarkable.] If, for example, Noah had lived in the generation of Abraham, Noah would not have been considered especially righteous. Rabbi Yochanan also states in Midrash Rabba that Noah’s faith was flawed and he didn’t believe God’s word that He would soon bring a flood.
Thus, we see that it was clearly Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion that Noah was not fit to gaze upon the downfall of Sodom. Also, we know that if one places stones in doors and windows to let some light in – the explicit intent is to not permit looking outside. This is precisely what a window does, it allows light in and also enables those inside to look outside. It is for this reason that Rabbi Yochanan states that the tzohar was a stone rather than a window. It is consistent with his other opinion that Noah was not a perfect tzaddik. Noah was not so righteous that it was appropriate for him to be looking at the drowning of the evil men of his generation.
Editor’s Note: I like the idea that a person needs to be incredibly righteous to be permitted to look at (and presumably rejoice at) the downfall of evildoers. We, regular people, are not fitting for this. Also, note that the normal word for window is “chalon” not “tzohar”. It is for this reason that Rabbi Yochanan interprets the verse as he does.