The Noahide Laws

Seven commandments which, according to Jewish tradition, are incumbent upon all of humankind.

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Later authorities, including Rabbi Moses Sofer (1763-1839), claim that Maimonides did not exclude what Nahmanides had included, but that Maimonides considered all of these laws to be included under the prohibition of "theft." Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893) states that Nahmanides' approach requires non-Jews to legislate on these matters, but the details and formulation of the legislation are left to their discretion.

Natural Law

The Noahide laws bear a striking resemblance to a separate rabbinic tradition that describes the commandments that would have been derived logically even if God had not included them in the Torah:

"'You must keep my rulings' (Lev. 18:4): These are the items which are written in the Torah which, had they not been written should logically have been written, such as the [prohibitions against] robbery, illicit sexuality, idolatry, cursing God, and bloodshed" (Sifra, Ahare Mot, section 140).

The overlap here of five of the seven laws enumerated for Noahides indicates that they may have been understood as a sort of universal, natural morality. This is the way some modern philosophers, such as Hermann Cohen, understood them.

Indeed, based on the Talmudic discussion, Maimonides states:

"Six items were commanded to Adam: concerning idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, illicit sexuality, theft, and laws…God added to Noah, the law of not eating from the flesh of a live animal" (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 9:1).

The association of these laws with Adam implies that they were established as part of the creation of the natural world.

Laws for Non-Jews Under Jewish Rule

A conversation in tractate Sanhedrin assumes that Jewish courts should enforce the Noahide laws . Therefore, later authorities, most notably Maimonides, understood these laws as describing what Jews should require of non-Jews living under Jewish rule. Since Maimonides saw revelation as the clearest form of reason, it would be folly from his perspective, for non-Jews living under Jewish rule to rely upon their own inadequate reasoning powers to determine law when they have access to the superior reasoning of revelation.

Indeed, according to Maimonides, it is unacceptable for non-Jews living under a Jewish authority not to accept the Noahide laws:

"If someone from the other nations wants to convert [they may] as it says '[the law is the same] for you, for a stranger' (Numbers 15:15). But if they do not want to, we do not compel them to accept the Torah and the commandments. Moses did, however, command in the name of God to compel all people to accept the Noahide laws…" (Laws of Kings 8:10).

Maimonides' approach, however, is much disputed among the classical commentators. Some interpreters of Maimonides have argued that he meant to obligate the Jewish court, but not individual Jews, to compel non-Jews to comply with the Noahide laws. Others have argued that the entire issue is irrelevant until the days of the Messiah. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Maimonides intended that whenever it was possible to compel observance, Jews should make an effort to do so.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.