The Noahide laws are the mitzvot (commandments) that Judaism teaches that all of humankind is morally bound to follow. Although opinions differ on the reach of these laws, all contemporary authorities agree that there are seven main laws.
According to Judaism, the Noahide laws apply to all humanity through their descent from Noah after The Flood. In Judaism, B'nai Noach (Hebrew, "Descendants of Noah"), and Noahide, are non-Jews who live in accord with the seven Noahide Laws (below). Any organization of B'nai Noach is composed of gentiles who follow these rules.
All denominations of Judaism hold that gentiles (non-Jews) are not obligated to follow halakha (Jewish law and custom); only Jews are obligated do so. Judaism has no tradition of active conversion, and modern-day Judaism discourages proselytization. Rather, for non-Jews, the Noahide Laws are considered the way to have a meaningful relationship with God.
Maimonides states in his work Mishneh Torah (The laws of kings and their rulership 8:11) that a non-Jew who is precise in the observance of these Seven Noahide commandments is considered to be a Righteous Gentile and has earned the afterlife. This follows a similar statement in the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 105b). However, according to Maimonides, a share in the World to Come is only earned if a person follows the Noahide laws specifically because they consider them to be of divine origin (through the Torah) and not if they simply consider them a good way to live (in which case they would simply be a wise person). Other authorities do not make this distinction.
The seven laws
The seven laws are first mentioned in Tosefta Sanhedrin 9:4 and Talmud Sanhedrin 56a/b:
- Do not murder.
- Do not steal.
- Do not worship false gods.
- Do not be sexually immoral (forbidden sexual acts are traditionally interpreted to include incest, sodomy, male homosexual sex acts and adultery)
- Do not eat anything of the body of an unslaughtered animal (This is a humanitarian command; in many regions the practice was to cut meat from animals still alive, despite the suffering caused. See Kosher).
- Do not blaspheme.
- Set up righteous and honest courts and apply fair justice in judging offenders.
The Talmud says: "Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 105a). Any person who lives according to these laws is known as "the righteous among the gentiles". Maimonides states that this refers to those who have acquired knowledge of God and act in accordance with the Noahide laws.
Various rabbinic sources have different positions on the way the seven laws are to be subdivided in categories. Maimonides (Melakhim 10:6) lists one additional Noahide commandment forbidding the coupling of different kinds of animals and the mixing of trees. Radbaz expressed surprise that he left out castration and sorcery which were listed in Baraita (Sanhedrin 56B). The tenth century R. Saadiah Gaon added tithes and levirate marriage. The eleventh century R. Nissim Gaon included listening to God's Voice, knowing God and serving God besides going on to say that all religious acts which can be understood through human reasoning are obligatory upon Jew and Gentile alike. The fourteenth century R. Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi added the commandment of charity. The sixteenth century Asarah Maamarot of R. Menahem Azariah of Fano enumerates thirty commandments, listing the latter twenty-three as extensions of the original seven. Another commentator (Kol Hiddnshei Maharitz Chayess I, end Ch. 10) suggests these are not related to the first seven, nor based on Scripture, but were passed down by tradition. The number thirty derives from the statement of Ulla in Hullin 92A though this third century C.E. Talmudic sage lists only three other rules in addition to the original seven, consisting of the prohibitions against homosexuality and cannibalism, as well as the imperative to honor the Torah. Rashi then remarks that he does not know the other Commandments referred to. Though the authorities seem to take it for granted that Ulla's thirty Commandments included the original seven, an additional thirty laws is also possible from the reading.
The tenth century R. Samuel ben Hophni Gaon's list of thirty Noahide Commandments is based on Ulla's Talmudic statement though the text is problematic. He includes the prohibitions against suicide and false oaths, as well as the imperatives related to prayer, sacrifices and honoring one's parents. The commandments, according to Rav Shmuel ben Hophni Gaon (early Middle Ages), cover:
- No idolatry
- To pray
- To offer ritual sacrifices
- To believe in the singularity of God
- No blasphemy
- No witchcraft
- No soothsayers
- No conjurers
- No sorcerers
- No mediums
- No demonology
- No wizardry
- No necromancy
- To respect father & mother
- No murder
- No suicide
- No Molech worship (infant sacrifice)
- Sexual Immorality
- No adultery
- Formal marriages via bride price & marriage gifts
- No incest with a sister
- No homosexuality
- No bestiality
- Not to crossbreed animals
- No castration
- Food Laws
- Not to eat a limb of a living creature
- Not to eat or drink blood
- Not to eat carrion
- To establish courts and a system of justice
- No false oaths
The contemporary Rabbi Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein counts 66 instructions but Rabbi Harvey Falk has suggested that much work remains to be done in order to properly identify all of the Noahide Commandments, their divisions and subdivisions.
Theft, robbery, and stealing covers the appropriate understanding of other persons, their property, and their rights. The establishment of courts of justice promotes the value of the responsibility of a corporate society of people to enforce these laws, and define these terms. The refusal to engage in unnecessary lust or cruelty demonstrates respect for the Creation itself, as renewed after the Flood. To not do murder would include human sacrifice as being forbidden.
In recent years some non-Jews have tried to create organized Noahide religious movements, but being a Noahide has never been considered to be part of an organized religion. Still, the Jewish authority Maimonides classified Islam as a Noahide religion.
The Chabad Lubavitch movement has been especially active in promoting Noahism among non-Jews and several Christian congregations have abandoned traditional Christianity (rejecting the Nicene Creed) and adopted Noahidism in recent years. In the United States a few organized movements of non-Jews (primarily of Christian origin) have been influenced by Orthodox Judaism; rather than converting to Judaism, they have chosen to abandon previous religious affiliation and live by the Noahide Laws. The rainbow is the symbol of many organised Noahide groups.
Other religions as Noahide
From the Jewish perspective, if a non-Jew keeps all of the laws entailed in the categories covered by the Seven Noahide commandments as a threshold minimum initiation into the path of Torah, he is considered a Ger Toshav (inhabitant foreigner) when with a congregation of Israel. In fact, this is considered the ideal level for all humanity by Jewish theology. A Ger Tzedek is a person who prefers to proceed to religious conversion, a procedure that generally encouraged by all sects of Judaism only after much thought and deliberation over the conversion has taken place.
The term Noahide is not the name of any specific religion but a term used to describe religions and cultures compliant with the Noahide Laws outside of Israel.
Islam has a different tradition on Noah and his descendants; the Qur'an mentions additional narrative on Noah. As stated before, the Jewish authority Maimonides has maintained that the Islam is a Noahide religion, although the Medieval sage Nissim of Gerona disagrees.
Within Judaism it is a matter of debate whether or not all Christians should be considered Noahides.
The strict view is that Christian theology is avodah zarah (loosely translated as "idolatry") for all people, both Jew and gentile. Therefore most Christians cannot be considered Noahides. Of course Unitarian Christians and other followers of Jesus who do not believe that Jesus is God would still be considered Noahides.
The liberal view is that Christian theology is only considered avodah zarah for Jews, but it is permissable for gentiles. The Tosafists (early commentators on the Talmud) R. Jacob Tam (Rashi's grandson), in Bekhorot 2b and Sanhedrin 63b, ruled that trinitarianism could be permitted to gentiles as a form of shittuf ("association"). This view was accepted by R. Moses Isserles (Rema, Orah Hayyim 156:1.) The view of Maimonides is difficult to ascertain due to text alterations in different editions of his Mishneh Torah (code of Jewish law), Ma'akhalot Asurot 11:7. In any case, in this view Christian theology is not forbidden to gentiles, and all Christians are Noahides. Today most of Reform and Conservative Judaism view all Christians as Noahides.
Traditions of Origin
One tradition is that the Noahide Laws are seven laws from the covenant made between God and Noah after the 40 days and 40 nights of rain which flooded the whole world killing everyone except Noah and his family and the creatures of the ark. They are never explicitly enumerated in the Bible, but the covenant that God made with Noah (Genesis 9) contains these admonitions:
- Also, flesh with the life -the blood- in it do not eat. (4)
- I will also inquire about your blood, your life, from all animals, and from each human I will inquire about his brother's blood.
- Who sheds the blood of man, by man his blood will be shed, because in the image of God was man made.
A common tradition (mentioned in the Talmud) is that six were given to Adam and Eve in Paradise and one to Noah in Genesis chapter 9.
In the story of Noah we see mention of Sacrifice, Kashrut, and "Uncovered Nakedness" (a biblical euphemism for incest within a patriarch's family). In the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) Heaven puts an end to the experiment in dictatorship (indicated by the phrases "the people is one") when it had replaced the plurality intended in the original Law-Court system. Others have interpreted it that the command for a plural legal system instead of any dictatorial system was initiated at this time.
Christian critics of the Noahide laws contend that insisting upon a basic set of moral laws is contrary to religious pluralism. Some believe that their existence implies that Jews may set up a legal system that would outlaw Christianity. The Jewish community responds by noting that it makes laws and customs for its own members (like all faiths) and does not set up world or national governments to force Jewish beliefs on non-Jews; in contrast it is only non-Jewish faiths that have carried out such actions in practice.
While most Christians would consider the Ten Commandments to be binding on them and would see some of the Noahide laws as essentially a subset of these (though the requirement to set up courts, and the dietary regulation, are not explicit in the commandments), many Jewish thinkers consider Noahide Laws as "general categories of commandments, each containing many components and details," the execution of which is left to Jewish rabbis. This, in addition to the teaching of the Jewish law that punishment for violating one of the seven Noahide Laws includes a theoretical death penalty (Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 57a), is a factor in the opposition of the notion of a Noahide legal system. The Jewish community responds by noting that Jews in practice never carry out the death penalty, even within the Jewish community. Jewish law, in practice, sees the death penalty as an indicator of how serious an offense should be understood, and not as an actual call to kill someone. (See also: Jewish view of the death penalty.)
According to the New Testament book of Acts (15:20,29), the idolatry, blood, and immorality laws were recognized as laws laid down for gentiles by the early disciples of Jesus (though ante-exile Jewish, Christian, and Rabbinical Jewish interpretations as to what these mean differ); however the extent to which Jewish law in general was binding on gentile Christians was a matter of dispute in the early church, as is clear from some of the letters of Paul, especially Galatians (written before Acts, though referring to later events). The ordained, decided at the Council of Jerusalem (mentioned in Acts) that the Law of Moses is not binding at all on Christians in se as "the Law of Moses," though some of it is applicable in effect because it is reflects the Divine Law that is written into the hearts of men (Jeremiah 31:33). As a result, many Christians would see the adoption of the Noachide laws as unnecessary.
This meeting in Jerusalem is considered by some to be the first documented Jewish council dealing with Gentiles who had expressed interest in living under a Jewish legal system. Here James the Just dictates the first epistle to gentiles who wish to be under Israel's law. It is apparently taken for granted that such gentiles understood the prohibitions against Idolatry, Blasphemey, Murder & Stealing, but specific problems of contact with things polluted through Idolatry, Kashrut (the term "Strangled" referring to meat that has been killed without draining the blood) and Sexual Immorality needed to be outlined by the Jewish Court of Law.
- Clorfene C and Rogalsky Y. The Path of the Righteous Gentile: An Introduction to the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah. New York: Phillip Feldheim, 1987. ISBN 087306433X.
- HaMayim.org (http://www.hamayim.org) - Noahide group
- Aish haTorah (http://www.aish.com/wallcam/7_Noachide_Laws.asp) - Explanation on the 7 laws
- Chabad-Lubavitch site on Noahide laws (http://www.noahide.com/lawslist.htm)
- Noahide site with a somewhat wider definition of Noahidism (http://www.christocracy.org)
- The Noahide Laws from a Catholic perspective (http://www.kensmen.com/catholic/jc2.html)