03 November 2010

The Noahide Laws: The 7 Laws of Noah

The Seven Laws of Noah (Hebrew: שבע מצוות בני נח‎ Sheva mitzvot B'nei Noach), often referred to as the Noahide Laws or Noachide Code, are a set of seven moral imperatives that, according to the Talmud, were given by God to Noah as a binding set of laws for all mankind. According to Judaism any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as a Righteous Gentile and is assured of a place in the world to come (Olam Haba), the Jewish concept of heaven. Adherents are often called "B'nei Noach" (Children of Noah) or "Noahides" and may often network in Jewish synagogues.

The seven laws listed by the Tosefta and the Talmud are

  1. Prohibition of Idolatry: You shall not have any idols before God.
  2. Prohibition of Murder: You shall not murder. (Genesis 9:6)
  3. Prohibition of Theft: You shall not steal.
  4. Prohibition of Sexual immorality: You shall not commit any of a series of sexual prohibitions, which include adultery, incest, sodomy, and bestiality.
  5. Prohibition of Blasphemy: You shall not blaspheme God's name.
  6. Dietary Law: Do not eat flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive. (Genesis 9:4, as interpreted in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a)
  7. Requirement to have just Laws: Do not punish by these lessons

The Noahide Laws comprise the six laws which were given to Adam in the Garden of Eden according to the Talmud's interpretation of Gen 2:16 and a seventh one, which was added after the Flood of Noah. Later at the Revelation at Sinai the Seven Laws of Noah were regiven to humanity and embedded in the 613 Laws given to the Children of Israel along with the Ten Commandments, which are part of, and not separate from, the 613 mitzvot. These laws are mentioned in the Torah. According to Judaism, the 613 mitzvot or "commandments" given in the written Torah, as well as their reasonings in the oral Torah, were only issued to the Jews and are therefore binding only upon them, having inherited the obligation from their ancestors. At the same time, at Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel were given the obligation to teach other nations the embedded Noahide Laws. However, it is actually forbidden by the Talmud for non-Jews (on whom the Noahide Laws are still binding) to elevate their observance to the Torah's mitzvot as the Jews do.

While some Jewish organizations, such as Chabad have worked to promote the acceptance of Noahide laws, there are no figures for how many actually do.

According to Judaism, as expressed in the Talmud, the Noahide Laws apply to all humanity through mankind's descent from one paternal ancestor who in Hebrew tradition is called Noah (the head of the only family to survive during The Flood). In Judaism, בני נח B'nei Noah (Hebrew, "Descendants of Noah", "Children of Noah") refers to all of mankind.

The Talmud also states: "Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 105a). Any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as one of "the righteous among the gentiles". Maimonides writes that this refers to those who have acquired knowledge of God and act in accordance with the Noahide laws out of obedience to Him. According to what scholars consider to be the most accurate texts of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides continues on to say that anyone who upholds the Noahide laws only because they appear logical is not one of the "righteous among the nations," but rather he is one of the wise among them. The more prolific versions of the Mishneh Torah say of such a person: "..nor is he one of the wise among them."

According to the Biblical narrative, the Deluge covered the whole world killing every surface-dwelling creature except Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, sea creatures, and the animals taken by Noah on Noah's Ark. After the flood, God sealed a covenant with Noah with the following admonitions (Genesis 9):
Food: "However, flesh with its life-blood [in it] you shall not eat." (9:4) 
Murder: "Furthermore, I will demand your blood, for [the taking of] your lives, I shall demand it [even] from any wild animal. From man too, I will demand of each person's brother the blood of man. He who spills the blood of man, by man his blood shall be spilt; for in the image of God He made man." (9:5-6)
The Talmud states that the instruction not to eat "flesh with the life" was given to Noah, and that Adam and Eve had already received six other commandments. Adam and Eve were not enjoined from eating from a living animal since they were forbidden to eat any animal. The remaining six are exegetically derived from the sentence "And the Lord God commanded the man saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat." in Gen 2:16.

Historically, rabbinic opinion holds that not only are non-Jews not obligated to adhere to all the laws of the Torah, but they are actually forbidden to observe them. The Noahide Laws are regarded as the way through which non-Jews can have a direct and meaningful relationship with God or at least comply with the minimal requisites of civilization and of divine law.

A non-Jew who keeps the Noahide Laws in all their details is said to attain the same spiritual and moral level as Israel's own Kohen Gadol (high priest). Maimonides states in his work Mishneh Torah that a non-Jew who is precise in the observance of these Seven Noahide commandments is considered to be a Righteous Gentile and has earned a place in the world to come. This follows a similar statement in the Talmud. However, according to Maimonides, a gentile is considered righteous only if a person follows the Noahide laws specifically because he or she considers them to be of divine origin (through the Torah) and not if they are merely considered to be intellectually compelling or good rules for living.

Noahide law differs radically from the Roman law for gentiles (Jus Gentium), if only because the latter was an enforceable judicial policy. Rabbinic Judaism has never adjudicated any cases under Noahide law (per Novak, 1983:28ff.), although scholars disagree about whether the Noahide law is a functional part of Halakha ("Jewish law") (cf. Bleich).

In recent years, the term "Noahide" has come to refer to non-Jews who strive to live in accord with the seven Noahide Laws; the terms "observant Noahide" or "Torah-centered Noahides" would be more precise but are infrequently used. The rainbow, referring to the Noahide or First Covenant (Genesis 9), is the symbol of many organized Noahide groups, following Genesis 9:12-17. A non-Jewish person of any ethnicity or religion is referred to as a bat ("daughter") or ben ("son") of Noah, but most organizations that call themselves בני נח (b'nei noach) are composed of gentiles who are keeping the Noahide Laws.

An early reference to Noachide Law may appear in the Book of Jubilees 7:20-28, which is generally dated to the 2nd century BC:
"And in the twenty-eighth jubilee [1324-1372 A.M.] Noah began to enjoin upon his sons' sons the ordinances and commandments, and all the judgments that he knew, and he exhorted his sons to observe righteousness, and to cover the shame of their flesh, and to bless their Creator, and honour father and mother, and love their neighbour, and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity. For owing to these three things came the flood upon the earth ... For whoso sheddeth man's blood, and whoso eateth the blood of any flesh, shall all be destroyed from the earth."
This is R. H. Charles' 1913 translation from the Koine Greek, but Jubilees is also extant in Geez and multiple texts found at Qumran (Q) which are still being examined.

The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Saul of Tarsus states:
According to Acts, Paul began working along the traditional Jewish line of proselytizing in the various synagogues where the proselytes of the gate [a biblical term, for example see Exodus 20:9] and the Jews met; and only because he failed to win the Jews to his views, encountering strong opposition and persecution from them, did he turn to the Gentile world after he had agreed at a convention with the apostles at Jerusalem to admit the Gentiles into the Church only as proselytes of the gate, that is, after their acceptance of the Noachian laws (Acts 15:1–31).
Jewish Encyclopedia: New Testament — Spirit of Jewish Proselytism in Christianity states:
For great as was the success of Barnabas and Paul in the heathen world, the authorities in Jerusalem insisted upon circumcision as the condition of admission of members into the church, until, on the initiative of Peter, and of James, the head of the Jerusalem church, it was agreed that acceptance of the Noachian Laws — namely, regarding avoidance of idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal — should be demanded of the heathen desirous of entering the Church.
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