The Seven Noahide laws - a brief outline

According to Judaism, a Noahide is obligated to keep seven basic commandments.

by Rabbi Oury Cherki
Posted Tuesday, 29 March 2011

According to Judaism, a Noahide is obligated to keep seven basic commandments:

The Seven Noahide Laws:

1) Prohibition of Idolatry

2) Prohibition of Blasphemy

3) Prohibition of Bloodshed

4) Prohibition of Sexual Immorality

5) Prohibition of Theft

6) Prohibition of Eating Flesh from a Living Animal

7) Requirement to Establish a Just Legal System

 

These Seven Laws can be divided up into several groups:

The first two laws deal with the relationship between Man and G-d.

The next two commandments deal with the realm between Man and Man.

The fifth and sixth commandments deal with the realm of character traits, between Man and Himself.

The last commandment, to establish just courts, is meant to create the social framework necessary for implementing these commandments.

According to this division, the Torah of Israel demands that the Noahide should mend his ways in three areas of his existence: the theological, the social, and that of the soul.

  1. 1.    Idolatry

A Noahide is prohibited from engaging in pagan worship.  It should be noted that there is no positive commandment for a Noahide to believe in the existence of G-d, rather the definition is a negative one.  Aspects of this prohibition include: prayer, sacrifice, burning of incense, libation offerings, prostration, and any other act of worship that is customary for that idol. 

Rejection of idolatry is considered a great virtue, so much so that our Sages stated (Megilla 13a): "He who rejects idolatry is called a Jew."

The importance of this law lies in the fact that idolatry enslaves man to nature, while service of G-d brings one into an encounter with the source of his life, thus rendering him free.  Also, a multiplicity of deities harms the internal harmony of the psyche, forcing one to choose one value over the others –  such as love, judgment, peace, truth, justice, or beauty – while monotheistic belief makes peace between all of the values together.

  1. 2.     Blasphemy

A Noahide is prohibited from expressing words of contempt towards Heaven.

The importance of this commandment stems from the fact that contempt for the honor of Heaven is in essence denial of the source of one's life.  In certain respects it may be said that the obstruction of the source of life is worse than murder, for murder hurts the living, while contempt for Heaven harms the roots of life itself.  Thus we find in the Book of Leviticus that the transgressions are ordered in rank of severity; first comes blasphemy, and then murder, and then the killing of animals, and then causing an injury to a human being.

  1. 3.     Bloodshed

It is forbidden for a Noahide to kill another human being.  Included in this prohibition is: euthanasia, abortion, and – by association – humiliating another person.

The foundation for this prohibition is not the need to preserve social order, but is rather to be found in the expression of a fundamental moral value: "G-d created Man in His own image".

According to the Torah, the public does have the authority to defend itself, and in certain cases even to go out to war.  Such cases of permissible bloodshed are in the realm of the laws of states. 

  1. 4.    Sexual immorality

Several sexual relations are prohibited for Noahhides.  These include:  one's mother, one's father's wife, one's sister from one's mother, one's daughter, one's fellow's wife, fellow males, and relations with animals.

The importance of this commandment stems from the fact that the use of the power to create life must remain within certain limits so that it can elevate man and not degrade him.  Holiness in intimate relations is fulfillment of the blessing from G-d, "Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it" that was given to Adam.

From the prohibition against sexual immorality we derive the rules of modest and holy behavior that are desirable for all who were created in the image of G-d.

  1. 5.    Theft

It is forbidden for a Noahide to steal his fellow's property.  Included in this prohibition is: withholding employee's payments, kidnapping and enslaving, and stealing another man's wife.

The importance of this commandment stems from the fact that one's property is, in a certain measure, the extension of his soul.  This is what the Sages say (Baba Kama 119a): "If one steals from his fellow a p'ruta [a coin of small value], it is as though he took from him his soul."  Thus, the prohibition against theft is something of a subsidiary of the prohibition against bloodshed.

The prohibition against theft includes money or property that is of small value – even less than a p'ruta.  The assumption at the basis of this law is that someone might insist that his fellow restore even this small amount.  Human society has progressed in the course of generations so that it has become normative to ignore such small amounts, so that the law concerning theft of 'less than a p'ruta' remains today theoretical.

Theft of more than a p'ruta entails the obligation of returning the stolen possession to its owner.

  1. 6.    Eating Flesh from a Living Animal

A Noahide may not eat flesh that was removed from an animal while it was alive.  Included in this prohibition is:  clams, blood from a living animal.

The importance of this commandment stems from the general compassion that the Torah has for living animals.  Even though humans were given permission to eat animals (due to the downfall of humanity during the generation of the Flood), to act towards them in a cruel way is forbidden.

This prohibition is also in effect after the death of an animal that was treated cruelly.

  1. 7.    Courts of Law

The Children of Noah are commanded to establish a judicial system in each society.

In Maimonides' opinion, this commandment involves the establishment of a judicial system that will deal with transgressions of the previous six commandments.

According to Nachmanides, the commandment requires establishing a judicial system that will organize order in all matters of human society, and among them: governmental arrangements and laws of state.

Theoretically, this commandment includes the option of invoking the death penalty.  In practice, punishment must be meted out in accordance with the given society's particular situation and moral progression. accordance with the given society's particular situation and moral progression.

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