Seven Universal Laws (of Noahides)

noahide

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):

Stealing

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.

Murder

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.)

Idolatry

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

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.

Sexual Morality

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.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz About Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of five books including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.

Comments

  1. Shannon Harrison says:

    It's intriguing to me how, generally, Jews will consistently try to dissuade potential converts. While I can appreciate that it's a huge responsibility that's not to be taken lightly, why not celebrate those who want to begin properly observing and assist them in their journey? Speaking on a personal level, it took me ages to find a Rabbi who was willing to even respond to my request for guidance. I was getting *so* discouraged thinking I'd have to live the rest of my life ignored by the very community I ached to become a part of. What is the real benefit in turning away those who love God? Surely if they believe the Torah is His word, obeying all mitzvos shouldn't be an issue.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Shannon. I don’t know if your experience is what everyone goes through. A rabbi is supposed to turn someone away three times, but if you had to go through more hoops then that I don’t think that’s how it was supposed to be according to Jewish law.

  2. Rabbi Abramowitz makes the point that he receives “a surprising number of inquiries about conversion.” I think this point needs to be explored. Perhaps one reason he gets so many inquiries is that there are many Gentiles who have come to recognize the moral deficiencies in their own lives, in society at large, and perhaps even in their own religion. The fact that Gentiles ask about conversion shows they see value in the Jewish way of life. Jews should be honored. Also, doesn’t Torah reveal that one of the roles of Jews is to instruct the world in righteousness? Perhaps Gentiles wishing to become Jews is an expression of Gentiles longing for the wholesome truths Jews can teach humanity. I’d love to hear others thoughts on this.

  3. Akiva Powers says:

    Just a slight nuance. G-d gave 7 laws to all of mankind (there were no Jews at the time of Noach). Later on he gave an additional 606 to the Jewish people. Your post makes it seem as if G-d gave 613 plus 7.

  4. Not to be coy, but is neutering a male dog against the law of sexual morality?

  5. Sarah Thomas says:

    Christan faith is banned from noahides practiceing it according to the rebbe on his noahide website also ask noah and noahide nations forbid noahides from it because its idolatry

  6. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Responses to a number of comments above:

    Shannon – We learn to dissuade potential converts from the story of Ruth. But that story also shows us to accept those who are persistent.

    Craig – I agree that our role is to serve as “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, et al.) but that doesn’t mean that others have to become Jewish. That option is exists but it is not necessarily the first course of action.

    Akiva – It’s actually more complicated than that. The seven Noachide laws are really seven categories of laws, each of which includes a number of things that are separate mitzvos for Jews. (The Talmud in Chulin 92a says there are thirty Noachide laws altogether but it does not enumerate them.)

    Sarah – neutering anything, human or animal, does indeed come under the rubric of sexual morality. (Spaying may be okay because the obligation to procreate was only commanded to males.)

    Sarah T – Christianity – and, for that matter, Hinduism – are complicated. (I know Hindus who say they are monotheists.) There are different schools of thought whether these religions are permitted under the Noachide parameters. (Catholicism is perhaps more complicated than Protestantism in this regard.) Authorities differ. If one is a practicing Christian and wishes to follow the Noachide laws, he or she should consult with a rabbi well-versed in the matter.

  7. Sarah Therese Thomas says:

    If a non Jewish person says to a Rabbi " I WANT to convert" That non jewish person should not be dissuade'ed from converting or pushed away for the three times.

  8. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Sarah Therese:

    (1) If a person who wants to convert isn’t dissuaded three times, then who would be?

    (2) There is a difference of opinion in halacha (Jewish law) as to whether or not “shittuf” – that is, worshipping G-d with partners, is prohibited for non-Jews. The sources you mentioned follow the opinion of the Rambam; the Meiri and the Rema feel otherwise and permit shittuf fon non-Jews.

  9. Perel Olen says:

    I’m not sure I understand your comment that” Christianity …. are perfectly acceptable ways for non-Jews to relate to G-D.” Is not belief in a man, idolatry? And can you elaborate on your comment that the “Christian concept of a Trinity is the basis for some discussion in Jewish law”….?

  10. In the old days it was a lot easier and quicker to become a Jew, entire tribes sometimes got converted at once.

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