Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

The “Seven Laws of Noah” or the “Noahide Laws,” are a set of moral laws commanded by God and binding on all “children of Noah,” namely, all of humanity. According to Judaism, any gentile who adheres to the Noahide laws is regarded as a Righteous Gentile and is assured of a place in the World to Come.

Jews don’t believe in proselytization or seeking converts. We don’t believe there is any reason for non-Jews to convert and become Jewish. The Noahide Laws are regarded as the way through which non-Jews can have a direct and meaningful relationship with God. As the saying goes, “Any non-Jew who keeps these seven goes to Heaven!” It is interesting to note that according to most rabbis and decisors of Jewish law, non-Jews are not only not obliged to observe the other mitzvot of the Torah, but they are actually forbidden to do so.

In recent years, the term “Noahide” has come to refer to non-Jews who strive to live in accordance with the seven Noahide Laws. The rainbow is the symbol of the Noahide movement.

The Seven Laws of Noah are:

The prohibition against idolatry;

The prohibition against murder;

The prohibition against theft;

The prohibition against sexual immorality;

The prohibition against blasphemy;

The prohibition against eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive; and

The requirement to maintain courts and a system of justice.

Additional Laws

Some authorities add, or more precisely, extend the Seven Laws to include additional prohibitions. For example, some sources include a prohibition against mixing species of seeds or animals, castration and sorcery. Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (14th century) argued that gentiles are obligated to give charity as well. The 16th-century work Asarah Maamarot by Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano, Italy, enumerates 30 commandments, listing the latter 23 as extensions of the original seven, which includes prohibitions on various forms of sorcery as well as incest and bestiality. The 10th-century Shmuel ben Hophni Gaon lists 30 Noahide commandments, including prohibitions against suicide and false oaths, as well as obligations related to prayer, sacrifices and honoring one’s parents.

According to Jewish tradition, God gave most of these seven laws to Adam and the remainder to Noah. The Talmud states: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come.” What this means is that any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as one of “the righteous among the gentiles” and is assured of a place in Heaven.

As the great 12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides writes:

“Anyone who accepts upon himself and carefully observes the Seven Commandments is of the Righteous of the Nations of the World and has a portion in the World to Come.”

Coincidental Observance vs. Faith in God

Maimonides does add, however:

“This is as long as he accepts and performs them because he truly believes that it was the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Who commanded them in the Torah, and that is was through Moses our Teacher that we were informed that the Sons of Noah had already been commanded to observe them.”

What this means is that it is not enough to simply live an outstanding ethical and moral life. Rather, one has to live such a life because it is what God had commanded. Moral living by coincidence is great, but its merit is limited. One has to live a moral life with the intent that one is doing so because it was commanded by God!

Maimonides also teaches us that Moses (and by extension, all Jewish people) was commanded by God to try and compel the non-Jewish world to observe these seven commandments. For many centuries, however, circumstances did not allow this to be done.

U.S. Recognition of Noahide Laws

In 1983, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, said that it was time to revitalize this long-dormant role of the Jewish people. In 1987, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation speaking of “the historical tradition of ethical values and principles, which have been the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization when they were known as the Seven Noahide Laws, transmitted through God to Moses on Mount Sinai.” In 1991, the United States Congress declared and established “Education Day” in honor of the birthday of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad movement. In the words of Congress:

Whereas Congress recognizes the historical tradition of ethical values and principles which are the basis of civilized society and upon which our great Nation was founded; Whereas these ethical values and principles have been the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization, when they were known as the Seven Noahide Laws…”

In January 2004, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of Israeli Druze, signed a declaration calling on non-Jews living in the Land of Israel to observe the Noahide Laws.

In earlier times, a gentile living in the Land of Israel who accepted the Seven Laws in the presence of a rabbinical court was known as a Ger toshav, or “resident stranger.” Jewish law only allows the official acceptance of a Ger Toshav as a resident in the Land of Israel during a time when the Jubilee Year (yovel) is in effect. There is much discussion in the codes as to whether some of the laws that apply to a Ger Toshav may be applied to some modern gentiles. A Ger Toshav should not be confused with a Ger Tzedek, who is a person who ultimately prefers to proceed to total conversion to Judaism, a procedure that is traditionally only allowed to take place after much thought and deliberation and only after the potential convert has been turned away a number of times.