Legal Issues in Judaism

The Hebrew Bible contains legal boundaries designed to maintain social and cultural distinctions between Jews and gentiles. In Leviticus 18:3, God commands the Israelites not to copy the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites. A similar injunction appears in Leviticus 20:23 where the Israelites are urged not to follow be-hukkot ha-goy, in the ways of the nation of Canaan.

In their immediate context, the practices referred to are sexual acts, detailed in these chapters of Leviticus. However, the concept of hukkot ha-goy–the ways that non-Jews do things–was later extended to include other practices. In one rabbinic source, written during Roman times, attendance at theatres and circuses is given as an example of forbidden hukkot ha-goy.

legal issues in judaismIn addition to the general prohibition on hukkot ha-goy, the Bible is filled with polemics against idolatry. According to rabbinic legislation, idolatry is one of the three sins–in addition to sexual immorality and murder–which a Jew must die for rather than transgress. The prohibition against idolatry is threefold: worshipping idols, worshipping God with pagan rituals, and creating idols.

The rabbis of the Talmud also instituted laws that govern relations with idolaters. Thus it was forbidden to sell something to a non-Jew that he might use for idolatrous worship, and it was forbidden to drink wine used for an idolatrous libation (yayin nesekh), a prohibition later extended to include all gentile wine.

The biblical and rabbinic tradition does recognize that some non-Jews are not idolaters. The ger toshav, or resident alien, was a gentile who lived in Israel and accepted the seven Noahide commandments: six prohibitions–idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, theft, eating flesh from a live animal–together with the requirement to set up courts of justice.

A gentile who lived in Israel and accepted these laws was eligible for Israelite social services. He could share in all the benefits traditionally afforded to the Israelite poor–including the tithe of the third year and the produce of the Sabbatical year. These benefits were important; the resident alien, by definition, did not own land, and was thus usually a relatively poor laborer or artisan.

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