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THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL NOAHITE LAWS

October 1, 2013

In the Talmud “Sanhedrin” (98.b), Abaye asked Rabbah: “Why do you not want to see the Messiah’s arrival?”

“Is it because you fear the travail of the Messiah?”

Rashi explains that this “travail” refers to the anguish that will be felt when the foreign armies invade Israel; which is destined to occur at that time (Talmud Shabbos, 118 a).

Rabbi Elazar was asked, “What can a person do to be spared the “travail”

(which Rashi compares to the pain of a man giving birth) accompanying the arrival of the Messiah?”

Rabbah and Ulla both chanted “May He Come but may I not be there to see Him”.

Apparently, even Rabbah was afraid, that despite his diligence in following the Law, perhaps he had inadvertently sinned, thereby forfeiting his merits.

A central tenet of all Western, Judaic-derived religions, is the belief that all humanity will eventually stand before the Creator to be judged.

Biblical terms such as “Oath”, “Testament”, or “Law”, all imply that ancient man forged a dynamic contract with the Creator that remains eternally binding.

Furthermore, since He owns this universe, and is not time-limited, there is no escape from judgment, even in death.

Theologians accept that the Seven Laws given to Noah after the flood are perpetually in effect.

The perpetuity of this tradition is its appearance throughout biblical sources such as the Talmud and Midrash.

Hindu scripture, in the Upanishads, agrees that “The Law” is a crucial feature in the creation of the Universe: “He created the most excellent Law (dharma). Law is the power of powers; therefore, there is nothing higher than the Law. Thereby even a weak man overpowers the stronger, as if receiving the help of the King”. (Robert O. Ballou, Editor,  The Bible of the World. Viking Press, New York, 1939, page 41)

Theologians accept that the Seven Laws given to Noah after the flood are perpetually in effect.

The perpetuity of this tradition is its appearance throughout biblical sources such as the Talmud and Midrash.

Theologians, in general, agree that the seven categories of Noahide Law not only maintain civilization, but also demonstrate “obedience to a Creator”.

For instance, the Gaon Nisim, in the introduction to the Talmud Tractate Berachot, makes it clear that an integral part of believing in G-d requires the obedience to Seven Laws.

A another source, is the renowned seventeenth century scholar, Hugo Grotius who cited the Laws of Noah as the early source of international Law.

“The Jewish Teachers of the Talmud have declared that the pious ones of the gentiles will need to have observed the laws given to Adam, and Noah. These require mankind to abstain from idols, from blood (murder) and other things that will be mentioned in their appropriate place”. (Hebrew Union College Annual, Volume II, pages 381-417, translated by F.W. Kelsey, London, and published by Wildy and sons, 1964).

The oath taken between Noah and the Creator following the Flood provide a code of conduct, ancient but eternally relevant, preparing humankind to be judged favorably.

Aaron Lichtenstein, in his Scholarly rendition on the “Seven Laws of Noah” (1981 &1986), brings Noahism into modern history by relating the story of a French Roman Catholic named Aime Palliere (1875-1949).

Born into a strong Catholic atmosphere, he sought priesthood as his career. Having learned Hebrew, he decided to read the Old Testament in its original form. He delved particularly into those verses upon which important Catholic dogma rests. He writes that his beliefs concerning the advent of the Messiah suffered a decisive blow from which he never recovered (“The Unknown Sanctuary”, Aime Pallier, Bloch Publishing, 1928).

During his ideological wanderings, Palliere turned to Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh who encouraged him to convert to Judaism. However, the rabbi to whom he was sent educated him instead in the Laws of Noahism.

This background is relevant since it allows a profound  debate regarding the Divine origins of Universal Law within the life-narrative of two ethical scholars using excerpts from letters left by Benamozegh ” (The Benamozegh Epistles).

In one letter, he responds to Palliere saying, “You ask why I would direct you from the teachings of 1900 years of Christian Gospel to a rudimentary set of Laws instituted after the Flood”.

“Is it not possible that you have failed to see the value of perpetuity? The immutability (of truth) is that it could not exist, save that it also existed in the past”.

The Benamozegh Epistles propose that antiquity (in general, and in particular regard to Noahism) is the most infallible sign of truth. “The further back it goes, the more it should appeal to us”.

“Since the revelation of Sinai took place about 1300 years B.C.E., would

G-d, who was so concerned about the moral conduct of the descendants of Noah, wait (from 2104 B.C.E.) until the appearance of Christianity, thereby abandoning the human race (for millennia) without moral direction or Law?

“Admit then, that if this code did not exist, it would be the fault of G-d, an impossibility) for not having established it”.

The Epistles then propose that the precepts given to Noah and his offspring given as a Covenant in the Book of Genesis, and subsequently recalled by Isaiah (54: 9) establishes a universal code of law of pure monotheism.

“Not only is Noahide Law a Divine Covenant accompanied by a promise for the perpetuity of mankind, but it has never ceased to be in force”.

Benamozegh concedes that while Mosaic Law establishes a more elaborate scheme of laws for the Jewish nation at Sinai, there is a practical distinction:

Noahism, while protecting the gentiles from sinking into pure rationalism, preserves the Monotheism of Moses and the prophets.

However, it grants gentiles more freedom to explore diverse metaphysical and theological speculations (Aaron Lichtenstein: “The Seven Laws Of Noah”, Berman Books, New York, 1981).

The first written relics of the narrative of Noah, the Flood, and the Oath taken between G-d and man, are written in the Book of Genesis.

Maimonides writes, that while Adam was given six Laws (excluding the prohibition of consuming the Limb of a Living Creature), Noah was given this additional prohibition, for a total of seven Laws (Laws on Kings, 9:1).

According to the Midrash Rabbah, this prohibition was omitted from the Oath taken by Adam since he was already prohibited from eating meat (Midrash Rabbah, Vol. I,  page 143, Grossman Publishing).

In “Margolioth Hayam” (Mosad Harav Kook, 1958, volume II, page 18), Rabbi Reuben Margolioth, asserts that Noahite Law obligates all humanity to believe in G-d. He derives this ruling from the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin, 56 a).

To quote: “It is astonishing that there is no mention of that principal principle, the most fundamental of fundamentals: the belief in the existence of G-d! It is the belief in G-d which must serve as the foundation for all the Commandments and Prohibitions….”

The modern-day halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, derives from Maimonides, (Laws on Kings, Chapter 8), that

  • “When the Seven Laws are observed without concern for the fact that G-d commands their observance, they are not being properly observed; and
  • Observing the Seven Laws without believing in their Divine origin disqualifies the observer from inclusion amongst “the pious people of the world”. (Igeret Moshe, 1964, “Orach Chaim”, Vol. II, Responsum 25).

This explains the Words of Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar “Those who are born are destined to die. Moreover, those who die are destined to be revived” (“Ethics of the Fathers”, Seder Nezikin, Chapter 4, Mishnah 10).

Then the Mishnah continues “And the living will be judged”. The Hameiri explains that this applies both to those who are still alive on that Day, or have specially been revived for the purpose of judgment.

What follows is a brief overview of the biblical references to the “Seven Noahide Laws”.

In practical terms, there are really seven broad areas of legislation, each consisting of specific statutes.

For example, “the prohibition against illicit intercourse” bundles together specific prohibitions, against one’s parents, siblings, adultery, and so on.

If this is indeed the case, one can understand Rabbah`s concern whether his merits would protect him from the war and other calamities that are predicted.

An example of the negative dimension of failing to respect this Divine Oath is the prohibition against blasphemy.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines blasphemy as denigrating the Divine Majesty:

“Using words concerning G-d calculated and designed to impair and destroy the reverence and respect due to Him as the intelligent Creator, Governor, and Judge of the world” (Henry Campbell Black Dictionary, third addition., West Publishing).

It therefore behooves ethicists of all denominations to disseminate these seven Noahide laws.

In 1928, Philip Biberfeld published a book listing the Noahite laws according to their serial arrangement in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56 a (“The Bible and the Ancient Code Laws” –appendix, Universal Jewish History, New York, Spero Foundation, 1948):

  1.   Justice:  There is an imperative to enforce all forms of social justice, and a prohibition against the miscarriage of justice.
  2.  Blasphemy:  The prohibition against speaking about G-d in a disrespectful or profane way.
  3. Idolatry:  Prohibits worshiping idols, monuments, or celestial bodies
  4. Illicit Intercourse: The prohibition against unnatural sexual behavior or incest.
  5. Homicide: The prohibition against extrajudicial killing a non-combatant
  6. Theft: The prohibition against taking another`s possessions.
  7. The prohibition of removing or eating the flesh or limb of a living animal eating the flesh of a living animal).

In conclusion, centuries of discussion regarding the Seven Noahide Laws appear to impose on all of mankind an eternal moral code of truth based on antiquity

  • Have  sources in the Midrash and Talmud
  • Constitute an enduring legal and moral authority on all mankind
  • Provide a legitimate reference for international Law

Maimonides explains that at the end of days “The Supreme King will reveal His Presence which will become as apparent as the water fills the oceans”.

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