published in The Written and Oral Torah
The primary message of the Torah is mitzvot - precepts. As we have already stressed, the Torah is a moral code designed to train man for his mission on Earth. As such, it commands us to obey certain precepts, for they are the God-given directions for fulfilling our role. These precepts deal with societal organizations, the service of God, and man's responsibilities to himself and others. Some mitzvot are logical and understandable; others are beyond our comprehension. Regardless, man is obligated to observe them all, for the performance of the mitzvot fulfills the will of God and is the key to creating Heaven on Earth.
The precepts can be classified in several ways. The notes accompanying this chapter deal with how some rabbinical scholars have categorized them. First, however, we would be well-advised to examine the more familiar ways in which the mitzvot have been classified.
The Noachide Laws
Not only does the Torah provide legislation enabling the nation of Israel to attain a high moral standard; it also ordains an educational and legal system for the non-Jewish world.
The Torah considers Adam and Chavah the progenitors of the entire human race. Until the building of the Tower of Babel 1 we find no distinction between the nations or between Jews and non-Jews. Only after Avraham's birth do we read about the Ivrim (Hebrews), who developed into the nation of Israel.
The Torah is universal in its outlook, and contains a universal message as well as universal legislation. These legal norms are called the Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach (the seven laws of the children of Noach), or the Noachide laws - although they were actually given to Adam, the first man - and b'nei Noach refers to all gentiles. 2 They incorporate the minimal moral duties enjoined by the Torah for the whole of mankind. 3 The Talmud 4 lists them as follows:
1. to establish
a legal and judicial system 5
Other laws are understood as subheadings of the seven (e.g., the bans on drinking the blood of a living animal, 9 emasculating animals, practicing sorcery as outlined in Devarim 18:10, 10 offering blemished sacrifices, crossbreeding, and grafting trees; 11 and the obligations to give charity, procreate, and honor the Torah.) 12
Similarly, the proscription of theft encompasses the biblical prohibitions of taking stealthily (Vayikra 19:11) or forcibly (Vayikra 19:13), shifting landmarks (Devarim 19:14), cheating (Vayikra 19:11), and coveting (Shemot 20:17; Devarim 5:18). 13
sixty-six biblical precepts are included in the Noachide laws:
Clearly, it is incorrect to claim that Jews are obligated to observe 613 precepts while gentiles need only observe seven.
The original Noachide legislation was probably exhaustive but much of it seems to have been lost through the ages. Sefer Hachinuch 14 maintains that it could be reconstructed by means of the same hermeneutical principles used to redevelop the orally transmitted Torah.
Rashi notes that Noach's sons Shem and Ever founded an academy to teach the Noachide laws. 15 Rambam adds that Moshe was obligated to teach them to mankind. 16 Yet the sages never codified these precepts because the gentile world rejected them. Nevertheless, the scholars of the Babylonian Talmud remarked that at least their gentile neighbors "do not write marriage contracts for males, or peddle human flesh, and they respect the Torah" (Chullin 92b).
The prevalent opinion in the Talmud is that only the seven precepts are obligatory upon all mankind; other laws mentioned in Bereshit (e.g., circumcision 17 and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve) are only applicable to the Jews, even though they were ordained before the rest of the Torah. The following rule is laid down:
Although they personally were given certain precepts that were not obligatory upon all mankind, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov are considered Noachides inasmuch as the Torah had not yet been revealed in their times. 18 Rambam 19 notes that, with two exceptions (Shabbat and Torah study), gentiles may choose to observe other laws. Indeed, the Midrash 20 states that Moshe was commanded to transcribe the Torah in all seventy languages on twelve stones. Some commentaries maintain that this was done to enable interested gentiles to acquaint themselves with the Torah.
Since the Noachide laws were known from the beginning of human existence, it is understandable that all legal systems - including the Code of Hammurabi? 21 have been influenced by them. They are the foundation of international and natural law. The Dutch jurist Hugo de Goot (Grotius), considered to be the father of international law, quotes these laws frequently as the source of "the law of all nations." 22
John Selden (1584-1654), an English jurist, based his conception of international law on Jewish and Noachide law. His treatise, 23 De Jure Naturali et Gentium Juxta Disciplinam Ebraeorum (1640), 24 abounds in international applications of Jewish law. 25 Since Selden's day, Noachide law has become a common element in all judicial systems. 26
The Noachide laws are obligatory upon Jews as well, for "nothing is permitted to an Israelite yet forbidden to a non-Jew" (Sanhedrin 59a). However, the extent of the liability sometimes differs and gentile transgressors are punished more severely (Sanhedrin 57b).
Rambam maintains that non-Jews are obligated to observe the Noachide laws only because they are divinely ordained and were revealed to Moshe: "If one observed them because of logical conviction, he is considered neither a resident alien nor a righteous person nor a wise man" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:11).
The Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2:1) records a difference of opinion as to whether the Noachide laws are an eternal code for the non-Jewish world or a provisional one, before humanity embraces the Torah.
Because a gentile who observes the Noachide laws is assured a place in the world to come (Sanhedrin 105a), Jews have never seen any reason to proselytize so as to offer eternal life. Contrast this with Christianity, which has always viewed itself as man's only means of salvation.
Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo
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