The Noahide Laws

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

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Other medieval authorities, rather than attempting to re-interpret Maimonides' statement, simply disagreed. Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud clearly rejects any obligation to compel observance of the Noahide laws, even in a situation where Jews have subjugated non-Jews in war. This seems to be the opinion of Rashi, Tosafot, Nahmanides, and Rashba, as well. In dealing with individual non-Jews as employees or slaves, none of the legal codes, aside from Maimonides', mentions an obligation to impose Noahide laws or to punish non-Jews for violation of the Noahide laws.

By way of contrast, when Jews are likely to sin, other Jews are obligated to try and prevent that sin through intervention and education. In general, in modern times, no such obligation is mandated towards non-Jews who violate the Noahide laws. A notable and forceful exception is the opinion of the late Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of Lubavitch Hasidism. Schneerson wrote:

"We must do everything possible to ensure that the seven Noahide laws are observed. If this can be accomplished through force or through other kinder and more peaceful means through explaining to non-Jews that they should accept God's wishes [we should do so]…Anyone who is able to influence a non-Jew in any way to keep the seven commandments is obligated to do so, since that is what God commanded Moses our teacher ("Sheva Mitzvot Shel Benai Noach," Hapardes 59:9 7-11, 5745).


That Jews perceive non-Jews as bound by a set of laws--even if they are not bound by the full range of Torah law--is a significant statement. The expectation that non-Jews will set up their own system of justice became the basis for peaceful interactions between Jews and non-Jews. The Noahide laws separated humanity after the flood from the lawless violence which brought God to the point of destroying the world. The Noahide laws stand as a testament to the Jewish belief in the need for the rule of law to protect all peoples.

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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.