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Home >> Essays >> Studies by Rabbi Lopes Cardozo >> Studies >> Mitzvot

Written by : Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Added : 09/01/2006, Viewed : 315

(published in his book ‘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]
2. to refrain from blaspheming
3. to refrain from idolatry
4. to refrain from murder
5. to refrain from theft
6. to refrain from sexual immorality [8]
7. to refrain from eating flesh torn from a living animal

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]

All together, sixty-six biblical precepts are included in the Noachide laws:

Civil law










Sexual immorality


Eating flesh torn from a living animal


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:

"Any pre-Sinaitic law which was not repeated at Sinai applies solely to the Israelites and not to the Noachides." (Sanhedrin 59a)

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.


[1] Bereshit 11:1-9.

[2] The human race is descended from the three sons of Noach, who survived the flood (Bereshit 8-10)

[3] Sanhedrin 56-60; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:10, 10:12

[4] Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 8:4; Sanhedrin 56a

[5]This included the establishment of courts in all cities. The Noachide laws are often discussed within the framework of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, partly inhabited by non-Jews. In such a case the Jewish courts would enforce Noachide law among the non-Jewish inhabitants, or appoint a non-Jewish court to judge non-Jews by these seven commandments (Hilchot Melachim 10:11). Whether the establishment of such a system allows for an independent non-Jewish judiciary based on the seven laws is a matter of discussion (see Responsa Chatam Sofer 6:14).

[6] Non-Jews are not required to have a profound knowledge of God; rather, they must abjure false gods (Megillah 13a; Kiddushin 40a; and Hilchot Melachim 10:2). The prohibition refers only to actually committing idolatry, not to studying it. Furthermore, a non-Jew is not required to martyr himself as is a Jew, although he must give his own life rather than take another's (see Sanhedrin 74a; Jerusalem Talmud, Shevuot 4:2, and Rashi on Pesachim 25b). It has long been a matter of debate whether Christianity is a monotheistic religion and thus permissible according to the Noachide laws. Later Jewish scholars feel that the doctrine of the trinity is a form of shittuf - associationism - and is not forbidden to the non-Jew. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 156:1; Tur, Yoreh Deah 148 and Beit Yosef ad loc.; Meiri on Bava Kamma 37b; and Noda BeYehudah , first edition, introduction.

[7] Including dishonesty in business or military conquest (Sanhedrin 57a).

[8] . i.e., relations with one's mother; with one's father's wife; with a married woman, whether she is married to a Jew or a gentile; or with a sister born of one's mother. Pederasty and bestiality are also forbidden (Sanhedrin 55).

[9] It is generally assumed that this prohibition only became applicable after the flood, since before that time all men were forbidden to consume meat. (Rashi, Bereshit 9:3) It is questionable whether a gentile may eat the meat of an animal that dies naturally. (See Torah Shelemah, Bereshit 9:13.)

[10] Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 8:6.

[11] Sanhedrin 56b. Gentiles are permitted to wear clothing made of linen and wool and to sow diverse seeds together. See Vayikra 19:19; Devarim 22:11.

[12] Chullin 92a.

[13] For the halachic differences between all these prohibitions, see the commentaries and Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah, New York, 1981, chapter 11.

[14] Ascribed to R. Aharon Halevi of thirteenth-century Barcelona. See precept 424

[15] Bereshit 28:11.

[16] Hilchot Melachim 8:10.

[17] Hilchot Melachim 8:10.

[18] Sanhedrin 59a

[19] Hilchot Melachim 10:8-10

[20] Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 4.

[21]Often, scholars have voiced the opinion that the Code of Hammurabi was a forerunner of Jewish law. The existence of the Noachide laws from the beginning of Creation refutes this argument

[22] See his main study: De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625).

[23]Selden refers to the Noachide laws as "natural law." The Talmud (Yoma 67b expresses the opinion that five of the seven laws would have been mandatory even if God had not revealed them.

[24] See Netherlands International Law Review 5, 1958, pp. 128-130; and Nathan Isaacs, The Legacy of Israel (Oxford , 1927), p. 385.

[25] Selden writes in his introduction, "Now the word 'naturalis' in the title refers only to that which in the opinion, beliefs, and customs of the Jews - and according to the scholars in the accepted colleges - is taken as universal/common to all, and as the law of the world, in all countries and ages, even from the very foundation.... so that at one and the same time it was made for mankind by the Maker of all creation, disclosed, imparted and ordained. This the Jews call the 'precepts' or the 'law of the sons of Noah.'"
[26] The late Dr. I. Herzog, former chief rabbi of Israel, wrote: "As illustrative of the lengths to which Selden can go, I may instance the view he expresses in the opening chapters that very probably Pythagoras heard Yechezkel delivering his prophetic addresses and hence, as a logical consequence, Greek jurisprudence was indebted to Jewish law." ("John Selden and Jewish Law," Judaism: Law and Ethics, London, Soncino. Edited by Chaim Herzog, 1974, p. 71.)

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