In this week’s parashah, we read “The Lord G-d commanded Adam: ‘You may surely eat from every tree of the garden” (Bereshis 2:16). This passuk is quoted in Maseches Sanhedrin (56b) as the source for the Seven Noahide Laws. What are these basic laws that pertain to the world’s entire population? What are the details of the laws, and how are they applicable today? The basic list of rules consists prohibitions against worshipping idols, cursing G-d, murder, sexual immorality, theft, eating flesh torn from a living animal, as well as the obligation to establish courts of justice. What they actually include and how they are applied today is the topic of this week’s article.
The Seven Mitzvos of Bnei Noach
Adam Harishon, when welcomed to Gan Eden, was given instructions on how to function in the world. Originally, there were only six rules, as man was not permitted to partake flesh of living things. After the Flood, when Noach exited the teiva he was granted permission to ingest the animal world and an additional mitzva was given to him – the rule how to partake of the animal world. After the Flood, the mitzvos, or rules for a world of order and peace amounted to seven, and so, they are called the Seven mitzvos of bnei Noach.
Assisting a Non-Jew
Knowledge of these mitzvos is essential for Jews and non-Jews alike. The Gemara (Avoda Zara 6b) states that a Jew is prohibited from assisting a non-Jew in performing an act that will violate one of these mitzvos when the non-Jew has no way of doing it without his assistance. This is an integral part of the prohibition of lifnei iver – not to place an obstacle before a blind man. Therefore, if a non-Jew asks a Jewish taxi driver to drive him to church, for example, where there is no other way for the non-Jew to travel there, he is prohibited from driving him. However, the issur d’rabonon of mseyeah l’dvar aveira – for a Jew to assist another Jew in performing an aveira where the prohibition can take place even without the Jew’s assistance – is not applicable in relation to a non-Jew.
In addition to the original 7, the Gemara in Maseches Chulin details another 30 mitzvos that obligate non-Jews. Rashi (ibid.) notes that the source for these mitzvos is unknown to him. Rabbenu Nissim Gaon (Preface to Mafteiach Manulei HaTalmud) notes that additional mitzvos were added on after Adam Harishon was obligated to keep the original seven. By the time the Torah was given at Sinai they amounted 28, and some say — 30.
The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzva 416) writes that the Seven Noahide Laws are simply titles, generalities that include numerous details. For example, the law of giluy arayos is considered one mitzva, although it includes numerous details – a married woman, homosexuality and zoo-philia as well as several other relatives. For Jews, however, each detail makes up a separate mitzva. Hashem gave numerous mitzvos to the Jewish people so to give them added merit. The Rama of Pano (Asara Ma’amaros, Ma’amar Chikur Din, part III, chapter 21) explains that the 30 mitzvos are an outgrowth of the original 7, and lists them all (although some are not l’halacha).
The Gemara explains that only negative prohibitions are included in the Big Seven, while positive commandments are not. In addition, there are other prohibitions that pertain to non-Jews which will be discussed further on.
Details of the Seven Mitzvos
The Seven Noahide mitzvos are, as was explained, general titles for numerous consequential commandments.
Mitzva 1: Idolatry
Simply put, a non-Jew who worships idols is guilty of transgressing this prohibition of Avoda Zara. Islam and Christianity, though, raise a question. Are they too considered idol worship?
Christianity for non-Jews
The definition of Christianity in respect with idolatry is debated among the poskim. There are three main approaches to the matter:
1) The Tosefos (Sanhedrin 63b; Bechoros 2b) maintain that a Jew should not cause a Christian to swear because they swear by both the Name of G-d and a foreign god. A non-Jew is not prohibited from serving G-d in combination with another deity, while a Jew — is. This is also the Rama’s psak (Shulchan Aruch Orech Chayim 156:1). According to the Shach (Yore Deah 121:7) this means that a non-Jew is permitted to serve Hashem in combination, just as Christians serve G-d in combination with oso haish. The Gra (Succa 45b; Sanhedrin 63a) points out the source for this: “He who slaughters [a sacrifice] to the gods shall be destroyed, except to the Lord alone” (Shemos 22:19). This passuk teaches that a Jew is prohibited from serving G-d along with another deity, but for a non-Jew there is no source for the prohibition. According to this approach, the non-Jew is permitted to practice Christianity which is avoda zara b’shituf.
- The Olas Tamid (156:3) writes that a Christian who believes that G-d is above oso haish is not obligated to disregard the hevel, but one who believes that both are equal is guilty of a Avoda Zara. As a result, every Christian denomination is ruled differently.
A similar approach is that of the She’elas Ya’avetz (Part 1 chapter 41). He explains that the combination permitted to a ben Noach is belief that G-d rules creation but allowed medial forces to reign the lowly world, and those he honors. But the Christians, who believe in shilush (“The Trinity”) don’t believe in One Supreme Being and are worse than shituf (combination). Therefore, in his opinion, all Christians are idol worshippers.
- Many Achronim opine that both the Tosefos and the Rama allow causing a non-Jew to swear by shituf deities, but neither permit this form of worship. This is also the opinion of the Pilpula Charifta (Sanhedrin chapter 7:3), Sha’ar Efrayim (24); Veshav HaKohen 938); Me’il Tzedaka (22); Noda BiYehuda (Yore Deah 148); Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Hagahos on the Shulachan Aruch Orech Chayim 156); and others.
What is the difference between swearing and worship?
1) A gentile who swears by oso haish and does not pronounce him god, or swears by G-d without explaining to Whom he is referring, has not transgressed any prohibition.
2) Swearing by the name of an idol is prohibited by a negative commandment. Therefore, when a non-Jew swears by shituf it is not prohibited for him. But to worship, even b’shituf, is prohibited for a non-Jew.
According to the Shach and the Gra Christianity is not forbidden for a ben Noach because he believes in Hashem along with nonsense. Only Jews are forbidden from believing or worshipping any other power besides Hashem.
The Olas Tamid and Ya’avetz maintain that a non-Jew is forbidden from believing there is any additional power equal to the Creator, while there are ways for a non-Jew to believe there are powers beneath the Creator. Many Achronim maintain that non-Jews are prohibited from worshiping and praying to any other entity beside G-d. The only exemption here is taking of oath — there is no prohibition involved in causing a Christian to swear by whatever he believes.
In Islam, Mohammad is portrayed as a prophet, not a deity. As such, is a non-Jew permitted to practice Islam, the religion that professes that G-d is one?
The Gemara mentions (Avoda Zara 11b) a form of idolatry called Nishra B’Arvia. The Aruch explains that this was a stone with a carving of an eagle (nesher) that was situated in Arabia. The glosses on the Aruch mentions that this stone is located the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Rambam (Blau edition, response 448) describes the large black stone in the city of Mecca on which there is a carving of an eagle. In earlier times, this was the site of three different forms of idol worship: Pe’or, Markolis and Kamosh. When Mohammad conquered Mecca and abolished idolatry, he left the black stone and continued worshipping it as was accepted at the time, while attributing a different meaning to the same rites. While worshipping Pe’or included exposing that part of the body which all persons usually take the utmost care to conceal or lowering one’s head and raising one’s lower body parts, Islam changed the act to bowing to G-d. [Although originally, Muslims would bow away from the stone towards Jerusalem]. The act of throwing stones at Markolis or the Roman god Mercury, was reframed as the rite in which Muslims throw stones in a pile to “stone the devil” or stone the figurines that were there. The worship of Chemosh required standing before it in a disheveled and unsewn clothing, which Muslims redefined as a rite of subduing oneself before G-d and remembering how one will rise from his grave.
As Muslims continue performing the rites of their forefathers, the issue of Avoda Zara in Islam is debated in the Rishonim. In their works, we find 3 different approaches:
1) The Rambam (ibid) rules that although idol worship was indeed present in Mecca, since today their rites are directed towards G-d, there is no Avoda Zara involved in those activities.
2) The Iben Ezra (Daniel 11:30) writes that the reason “The Meshugena” didn’t abolish the pagan symbols was because the Meccaian locals refused to accept him till he swore to retain the service of Markolis. Therefore, even today, Muslims who worship the Black Stone in Mecca are considered ovdei Avoda Zara.
Similarly, the Kuzari writes (Ma’amar 4:11) that although they say they believe in One G-d, they contradict themselves with their actions because they continue worshipping the same foreign gods. He proves this from the passuk “And there you will worship gods, man’s handiwork, wood and stone, which neither see, hear, eat, nor smell” (Devarim 4:28) – wood is the shtii va’erev made of wood in Christian lands; stone is the Black Stone revered in Muslim lands.
This seems to be the opinion of the Yad Rama (Sanhedrin 60b); the Eshkol (Albek, chapter 16) quoting Rav Nachshon Gaon, and the Meiri (Avoda Zara 57a) quoting Spanish scholars.
According to these opinions, although worshipers do not intend their rites to be paganism, since they continue their forefathers’ practices, it is idolatry.
3) An additional opinion found in the Ran (Sanhedrin 61b): although they do not regard the stone as a deity, since Muslims prostrate themselves before it as one would do before G-d, this pagan act is forbidden and defines Islam as Avoda Zara. Although they don’t believe the stone has divine power, Islam has the status of Avoda Zara.
Although many Rishonim maintain that Islam is Avoda Zara due to the pagan elements that remained in its worship and the status of the Black Stone, the poskim accepted the Rambam’s ruling and agree that Islam does not have the status of Avoda Zara.
Forced Conversion to Islam
It is important here to note that although there are opinions that a ben Noach is not forbidden to practice Islam, the Ritva (Pesachim 25b) and Ridvaz (Part 4, chapter 92) write that a Jew who is forced to convert to Islam must give his life and not do so, because Muslims deny the Torah. Therefore, there is an issur of yehareg v’al ya’avor in practicing Islam.
Mitzva 2: Murder
For a ben Noach murder is an even more severe than for Yisroel. At times, it is punishable by death for a non-Jew while for a Jew, although very grave, it is not cardinal. For example:
- Killing of a fetus (Rabbi Yishmael, Sanhedrim 57b; Rambam, Hilchos Melachim chapter 9:4).
- Killing of a person who is defined as a treifa [i.e. his body has one of the signs of a treifa which prevents his survival for 12 months.] (Rambam, ibid.).
- Causing death indirectly– placing a bound person before a lion or leaving a bound person till he dies of hunger (ibid.).
- Killing via a deputy (Bereshis Rabba chapter 34:14).
Mitzva 3: Adultery
The prohibition of adultery for non-Jews contains two parts: one – forbidden behavior regardless of relation, and different relatives forbidden for non-Jews.
Non-related adulterous behavior includes relations with a married woman, homosexuality and zoo-philia. These issurim are mentioned in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) and are derived from the passuk (Bereshis 2:24) “And shall cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh” – “And shall cleave to his wife” – one is permitted to cleave only to his own wife and not to another’s. “And they shall be one flesh” — indicates the prohibition of relations with an animal. Man and woman unite with their offspring’s, but no life can result from a union of human and beast.
Relation-induced prohibitions include (according to the Rambam, Hilchos Melachim, chapter 9:5) only 3 relatives: mother, father’s wife or partner, and a maternal sister. Other Rishonim count additional relatives and when applicable, a competent rabbi should be consulted.
Ketubah for Alternative Relationships
The Gemara in Chullin 92a reads:
Ulla says: These are the thirty mitzvot that the descendants of Noach initially accepted upon themselves; but they fulfill only three of them. One of these three mitzvot is that they do not write a marriage contract for a union between two males; although they violate the prohibition against engaging in homosexuality, they are not so brazened as to write a marriage contract as for a regular marriage.
We find in Midrash Raba that the Generation of the Food was not eradicated until they wrote a Ketubah for a male and animal. A non-Jew who leads a homosexual life is one thing, but the current brazenness in which homosexuality is a legally accepted “alternative” lifestyle, is another.
Mitzva 4: Flesh of a Living Animal
The issur of ever min hachai includes a whole limb cut off a living animal, as well as a part of it (Chulin 121b). The Tano’im (Sanhedrin 59a) disagree as to whether a non-Jew is permitted to drink blood from an animal while it is living. According to Rabbi Chanania ben Gamliel it is prohibited, while chachomim rule it is permitted. The Rambam follows chachomim and permits it.
A gentile who curses God’s Name is liable for death whether using God’s specific Name or one of His other titles, in any language. This punishment does not apply to Jews (Rambam Hilchos Melachim chapter 9:3).
Taking a False Oath
The Mishne L’melech (Melachim chapter 10:7) asks how Avraham required Eliezer to swear, and how Avraham and Elimelech swore to each other as well as other such occasions. A gentile is not required to uphold his oath since it is not one of the Seven Noahide Laws, so of what value is his oath? He answers, that keeping one’s word is included in the prohibition against cursing G-d. Since with every oath one swears by the life of G-d, i.e. should he violate his oath, G-d would (so-to-speak) not exist, therefore, one who breaks his oath is considered to have cursed G-d. This explains the gravity of breaking a promise.
The Avnei Nezer (Yore Deah 306:17) is of the opinion that there is no prohibition for a gentile to break a vow, but common sense requires one to honor his word. Therefore, a gentile who does not keep his word is not punishable in Jewish court but punished by Heaven.
Mitzva 6 – Theft
The prohibition of theft for a non-Jew includes many different issurim, including: theft of items worth less than a pruta (Eiruvin 62a); a non-Jew who learns Torah (the Jewish Nation’s inheritance – Torah tziva… morasha kehilas Ya’akov) (Sanhedrin 59a), and more. According to the Chinuch (Mitzva 416) the issur of gezel includes thinking or desiring another’s belongings and property. The Brisker Rav is quoted having said that the definition of gezel for a gentile is different than that of a Jew. For a Jew, the prohibition is non-justified removal of property while for a gentile, the act itself is prohibited. Therefore, for a non-Jew theft includes removal of property even without benefiting from it.
Mitzva 7 – Courts of Law
The Gemara (Maseches Sanhedrin 56b) explains that gentiles are obligated to set up a judicial system that will judge people fairly. The Rishonim disagree as to what is included in this obligation:
The Sheiltos (Sheilta 2) writes that violent settlement of disputes is forbidden for Jews and non-Jew alike. Rather, one is obligated to take his case to court and to accept the ruling of the court.
The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim chapter 9:14) is of the opinion that this mitzva does not have any added halachos. There is an obligation to set up a judicial system in every city that will oversee residential compliance with the Seven Mitzvos. This obligation rest upon each resident of the city and a city that failed to set up such a system is punishable by death. Therefore, the residents of the city of Shechem who ignored Shechem ben Chamor’s forceful abduction of Dina were punishable by death. Hence, Shimon and Levi were permitted to kill them.
The Ramban writes (Bereshis 34:13) that a gentile who failed to set up a judicial system or protest against an injustice is not punishable by death because the death penalty for a gentile is only for transgression of a negative commandment, not a positive one. This mitzva includes the halachos of Choshen Mishpat just like Jews. The Rama (10) and Chasam Sofer (part 6:14) are unsure of the meaning of this statement – does this mean that the halachos of Choshen Mishpat obligate a non-Jew like a Jew – including, for example, hilchos shomrim? Or, perhaps, this statement is meant to indicate that they are obligated to establish laws that make sense for the common peace of the city?
The bottom line in this matter seems to indicate that there is a dispute among the Amoraim in the matter, but the Netziv (Ha’amek Sheila, Shelita 2) is of the opinion that gentiles are not obligated to judge according to the Torah laws, but rather establish a judicial system that makes sense for public benefit.
The Ramban adds that a gentile who harmed his fellow in any way is punishable by death, and a judge who accepts bribery or otherwise distorted the law is also punished by death. A judge can, however, ask to be exempted from ruling in a case. Practically, a Jew whose case is brought before a state court is forbidden to try and bribe the judge under the law of lifnei iver – the non-Jewish judge is obligated to serve a logical judgement and he is forbidden from receiving bribery.
There is a dispute in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 56b) if a ben-Noach is forbidden to sterilize an animal. The Rama (Even Ha’ezer 5:14) quotes a machlokes how to rule l’halacha.
The Gemara notes a machlokes (ibid.) regarding a ben Noach‘s position versus crossbreeding two animals or grafting plants. Other forms of hybridization are permitted according to all opinions. According to the She’iltos (99) and the Rambam (Melachim chapter 10:6) a gentile is forbidden to crossbreed animals or graft trees. This is also the ruling of the Drisha (Yore Deah 297). But the Ritva (Kidushin 39a) allows a ben Noach all forms of hybridization. The Shach (Yore Deah 297) rules accordingly.
Regrading witchcraft, the Gemara cites (Sanhedrin 56b) a machlokes:
Rabbi Yosei says: it is prohibited for a descendant of Noach to engage in every type of sorcery that is stated in the passage about sorcery. This is derived from the verses: “When you come into the land that the Lord your G-d gives you, you shall not learn to do like the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a diviner, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a warlock, or a charmer, or one who consults a necromancer and a sorcerer, or directs inquiries to the dead.”
According to the Kesef Mishne it seems that this is an undecided issue between the Rambam and the Ra’avad (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim chapter 11:4). According to the Radvaz and Lechem Mishne (Melachim chapter 10:6) the Rambam agrees that these actions were not forbidden for a ben-Noach.
The seven laws entail many additional prohibitions some of which are more stringent than the parallel laws that obligate Jews.