Seven Universal Laws (of Noahides)
In both Jew in the City and my day job, I receive a surprising number of inquiries about conversion. While Judaism accepts converts, we discourage them because taking on Judaism is such a huge commitment. If someone wasn’t born Jewish, they have no obligation to assume all that responsibility. Judaism does not require others to join us in order to secure a place in Heaven. The Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 105a), “The righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come.” For someone born non-Jewish, there’s a much simpler path.
God gave the Jews 613 mitzvos (commandments) but He also gave seven laws to all mankind. These are called the “sheva mitzvos b’nei Noach” – the seven laws for the descendants of Noah. Six of these – or possibly all seven – were originally commanded to Adam. They were restated to Noah after the flood, to be passed down to his descendants, which includes everybody on Earth. Very briefly, these are the seven universal or “Noahide” laws (adapted from my book The Taryag Companion):
Neither Jews nor non-Jews are permitted to steal. This includes taking something with stealth, robbing by force, kidnapping, cheating a customer, and other forms of depriving a person of what is rightfully theirs. We see that theft was prohibited from the time of Adam. God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which they did. Taking something that one has been told not to touch is the very definition of theft. Rashi on Genesis 6:11 tells us that theft is the sin that ultimately condemned the generation of the flood.
We can easily see that murder was also prohibited from the time of Adam since Cain was held responsible for killing Abel. After the flood, God explicitly prohibited murder, including suicide (Genesis 9:5-6). One may kill in self-defense or to save a potential victim from being murdered but one may not employ deadly force where it is not necessary. (The Talmud in Sanhedrin 57b tells us that the prohibition against murder includes abortion but that is definitely a topic for another day.)
Judaism does not require non-Jews to convert to Judaism. Christianity and Islam, while prohibited for Jews, are perfectly acceptable ways for non-Jews to relate to God. (The Christian concept of a Trinity is the basis for some discussion in Jewish law, again beyond our scope here.) What non-Jews may not do, however, is worship idols instead of God. This includes not only statues but also heavenly bodies, works of nature or anything else that one might worship. Even if one acknowledges God as the Creator, he still may not worship an idol under the misguided intention that he is honoring God by honoring one of His servants.
Blasphemy is considered particularly reprehensible – so much so that this mitzvah is called “birkas Hashem” (blessing God) because we can’t even bring ourselves to say the opposite. We see that non-Jews, like Jews, are not permitted to curse God throughout the Book of Job. When Job’s life goes completely down the tubes, he is advised to “curse God and die.” This does not mean that he would be Divinely struck dead; it means that he would be liable for blasphemy, which was a capital offense. (Job was not Jewish.) The obligation for non-Jews to pray also falls under the aegis of this mitzvah.
Usually translated as “adultery,” this category includes far more; incest, homosexuality, bestiality and other prohibited relationships are all a part of this prohibition. (Again, we’re not able to address homosexuality fully in this piece.) This mitzvah also includes the prohibition against castrating any human or animal. We see that this mitzvah was given to Adam before it was restated to Noah from Genesis 2:24, that a man should cling to his wife (to the exclusion of anyone or anything else) and they should be like a single person. (Rape is not part of this mitzvah, which only addresses inherently-forbidden relationships; the union in a case of rape might have been permitted were it consensual. Rape is, however, prohibited under the category of theft, since the offender takes something from the victim by force.)
The Limb of a Live Animal
Like Jews, non-Jews may not eat a limb torn from a live animal. This law was stated explicitly to Noah in Genesis 9:4. This mitzvah is the one that may or may not have been commanded to Adam. In Genesis 9:3, Noah was given permission to slaughter animals for food, something that had been forbidden to previous generations. If Adam was a vegetarian, then whether or not he could eat the limb of a live animal is moot. But was Adam a vegetarian? We know that he couldn’t slaughter a lamb for food, but what if he found one that had been killed by a lion? Could he eat it? If so, then this mitzvah would have applied had he found a limb lost by an animal in an accident.
Courts of Justice
The final mitzvah commanded to all mankind was to establish courts of justice, not only to enforce the other six laws but also to legislate for the betterment of society. This mitzvah includes appointing judges, treating the litigants equally, not accepting bribes, not to testify falsely, and more. This is another mitzvah that we see in action before the Torah was given. When Shechem raped Dina in Genesis chapter 34, her brothers took it out on the entire city because they turned a blind eye to the crime. Shechem was a VIP, so they refused to bring him to trial. This made them guilty of failing to enforce justice.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; there are many more details. (There are several good books on the subject – though also a few no-so-good books, so look for reputable authors and publishers!) If any non-Jewish readers believe in the Torah from Sinai and want to do what we believe God desires of them, the seven universal laws are a quicker and easier path than conversion. For those who choose to convert, the journey is more challenging but it yields its own unique rewards.