“The Seven Commandments Given to the Descendants of Noah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, G-d blesses Noah and his children after the Flood, and graces them with the identical blessing that He bestowed upon Adam and Eve–be fruitful and multiply and fill up the earth (Genesis 9:1).

Whereas Adam and the ten generations that followed him until Noah were permitted to eat only fruit and herbs that grew from the earth, Noah and his descendants are now granted permission to eat the flesh of animals and of fowl. The Al-mighty, however, places limitations on their eating of meat. Genesis 9:4 states: “Ach basar b’naf’sho, da’mo lo to’chay’loo,” but flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat. Rashi explains that this verse prohibits the eating of “ayver min ha’chai“–a limb cut from a living animal.

Soon after this restriction, another limitation is forcefully declared (Genesis 9:6): “Sho’faych dahm ha’ah’dahm bah’dahm, da’mo yee’sha’faych,” whoever sheds a human being’s blood… his blood shall be shed, for in the image of G-d made He the human being.

Based on these first seven verses of Genesis 9, the rabbis declare the existence of seven fundamental laws that apply to all humanity. The rabbis call these laws “Sheva Mitzvot B’nay Noah“–seven commandments given to the descendants of Noah. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his commentary on the bible, suggests that these laws constitute what might be called “natural religion,” because they are essential to the existence of human society.

In Jewish tradition, a “Noahide” is the name given to a non-Jew who abides by these fundamental principles and conducts himself according to the laws of the state and “observes” the “Torah of humanity.” The Israelite people, as well, before they were given the Torah at Mt. Sinai, were bidden to follow these seven Noahide principles.

These principles are:
1. The establishment of courts of justice
2. The prohibition of blasphemy
3. The prohibition of idolatry
4. The prohibition of incest, adultery and other illicit sexual behavior
5. The prohibition of murder
6. The prohibition of robbery
7. The prohibition of eating flesh cut from a living animal

These seven laws, in effect, constitute the Torah’s concept of the minimal laws of civilization and humanity.

The seven laws teach that all of humankind must set up courts of justice and establish laws governing civil and commercial life. Idolatry is prohibited because there must be no more than a single source of ethical truth for humankind. It is not so much the prohibition of worshiping idols, such as the sun, the moon or stones that is the issue, but rather the need to recognize one G-d who established inviolate moral principles for all. Blasphemy does not only mean not cursing G-d. It is any act that might prevent any person from worshiping in a monotheistic manner. The prohibition of incest and adultery is essential to ensure the sanctity of the human family, which is the basis of societal structure. The prohibition of murder ensures the sanctity of human life. The prohibition of robbery assures the sanctity of property. Tearing a limb from a living animal and eating it is one of the greatest barbarisms that can be afflicted upon an animal. If it were freely permitted, people would become even more cruel than they might be naturally.

According to several opinions cited in the Talmud (Chulin 92), these seven principles are the bases of many other laws of civilization that apply to humankind. Some sages suggest that these seven laws actually represent a total of 30 more extensive and detailed statutes.

In a fascinating historical footnote, one of the reasons that Jews discourage conversion to Judaism is due to the Seven Noahide Principles. After all, a non-Jew who abides by these seven principles and lives a fundamentally moral life is assured a place in the “World to Come.” On the other hand, a non-Jew who converts to Judaism must observe 613 mitzvot (or as many as apply, now that there is no longer a temple). Since a Jew is judged by his/her observance of the 613 mitzvot, it is, in effect, a disservice to convert any non-Jew, as this raises the threshold for entry into the World to Come and for receiving divine reward. Consequently, there are rigorous standards and a host of barriers that are built into the process of converting to Judaism.

Another remarkable, though uncomfortable, conclusion emanates from the fact that the seven Noahide principles truly represent the minimal acceptable standards for human behavior. Consequently, it is impossible to ignore the conclusion that there is a point where human beings lose their privilege to be considered “human beings”–that point is if they fail to abide by at least these seven Noahide principles. While liberal-minded people throughout the world identify with the oft-stated principle of “Live and let live,” most people would hardly accept the inevitable conclusion that those people who do not allow others to live should not be allowed to live! While many can justify putting a murderer to death (and even that is subject to great controversy today), it is not at all easy to accept the conclusion that a person who doesn’t respect the sanctity of another person’s property, or another person’s family, also has no right to live, but that, in effect, is precisely what the seven Noahide principles teach.

As a possible response to this ponderous conclusion, it may be appropriate to invoke the well-known verse found in the book of Ecclesiastes (7:16), “Al t’hee tzaddik har’bay,” don’t be overly righteous. The Midrash, Kohellet Rabbah 7:16, teaches: “Kol mee sheh’nah’ah’seh rah’cha’mahn bim’kom ach’za’ree, sof sheh’nah’ah’seh ach’zah’ree bim’kom rach’ah’mahn,” one who is compassionate at a time when he should be cruel, will ultimately be cruel at a time when compassion is called for.

It is interesting to note that there are today significant numbers of non-Jews who choose to live as Noahides. Some are known as “Chavurath B’nei Noah.” Check out their interesting website on the internet.

May you be blessed.