Noah and His Ark’ by Charles Willson Peale, 1819, oil on canvas
The Noahide Laws: A universal code for peace and unity
And God spoke unto Noah, and to Noah’s children with him, saying, ‘And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you.’
By Richard Mather
Judaism is not a religion that seeks converts. Although conversion is not prohibited (far from it), Maimonides and other authorities teach that the Seven Noahide Laws, or Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noach, are the sacred inheritance of all humanity. Those gentiles who observe the Seven Noahide Laws in accordance with the Torah will merit a share in the World to Come.
What are the Seven Noahide Laws? As enumerated in Sanhedrin 56a of the Babylonian Talmud, they comprise one positive commandment and six negative commandments given to Noah and his offspring after the Flood, and are as follows: to establish courts of justice; to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, bloodshed and robbery; and to never eat flesh cut from a living animal. This last commandment is usually interpreted as behaving compassionately towards animals.
All descendants of Noah, which means all of humanity, are required to follow these laws. Gentiles who actively follow the Seven Laws of Noah are called B’nai Noach or Noahides. Sometimes they are referred to as “righteous gentiles” or “the pious among the nations.” Historically, the term B’nai Noach applied to all gentiles as descendants of Noah. These days, however, it is used to refer specifically to gentiles who observe the Seven Noahide Laws.
The Noahide Laws were give to Moses and also preserved by the sages of the Talmud. It is important to note that B’nai Noach observe the Seven Laws because they were reaffirmed at Mount Sinai and not because the sons of Noah received them previously. As a priestly nation, the Jewish people are to safeguard these universal principles and to teach them to the nations. According to Maimonides, “Moses was commanded by the Almighty to compel all the inhabitants of the world to accept the commandments given to Noah’s descendants.”
(Also worth noting is that a Noahide is only considered righteous if he or she accepts the Seven Noahide Laws as coming from G-d. A person who derives the laws from his or her own intellect is not considered righteous.)
Interestingly, the Seven Noahide Laws are more than just seven commandments. They are actually seven category headings or headlines under which a number of other commandants are compiled. For instance, the injunction against theft includes the prohibition against defrauding your neighbour. The commandment to establish laws and courts of justice includes the injunction not to kill a suspected murderer before he stands trial. Depending on the rabbinical authority, there are not just seven laws, but thirty or even sixty-six commandments.
Gentiles who acknowledge and observe the Seven Noahide Laws are not in the business of creating another religion, which is forbidden by the Torah. Rather it is about acknowledging Hashem as the One G-d of both Jews and gentiles, and recognising that He is a righteous and loving G-d, Who is intimately concerned with His creation.
Some Noahides attend synagogues and most study under a rabbi. B’nai Noach reject pagan holidays such as Christmas and Easter. But they are not supposed to create new religious festivals; nor are they allowed to observe Jewish religious holidays in the manner of their Jewish brethren.
However, there are a number of prayers and blessings that have been especially written for Noahides. Rabbi Moshe Weiner, the overseeing rabbi of Ask Noah International, has published a number of suitable prayers. These prayers do not encroach on the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people, and no attempt is made to establish additional obligations for gentiles beyond the Noahide Code.
The Noahide Way is gaining in popularity in the West, especially among former Christians who wish to have a relationship with Hashem without the baggage of Christian dogma (such as the trinity) and two thousand years of Church-sanctioned anti-Semitism. In fact, not since the days of the Second Temple when G-d-fearing gentiles regularly attended synagogues throughout the Diaspora, has the Torah played such an important part in the lives of non-Jews.
It is probably fair to say that Chabad Lubavitch has done the most in recent years to reach out to gentiles. In my home city of Manchester, England, for example, Hasidic Jews have been known to hand out Noahide literature to members of the public. In Manchester, London and other English cities, there are small Noahide study groups, which discuss the Torah and Halachic matters.
There are also Noahide groups and communities in Australia, Europe and North America. Significantly, in 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed into law an historic Joint Resolution of both Houses of Congress recognising the Seven Noahide Laws as the “bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization.”
And in 2006, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel met with a representative of Chabad to sign a declaration calling on all non-Jews in Israel to observe the Noahide Laws. A year later, Chabad brought together ambassadors from Poland, Japan, Ghana, Latvia, Mexico and Panama, who all championed the Noahide Laws.
The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who launched the global Noahide Campaign, commented that a particular task of Chabad (and of religious Jews in general) is to educate and to encourage the observance of the Seven Laws among all people. “The religious tolerance of today and the trend towards greater freedom gives us the unique opportunity to enhance widespread observance of these laws,” he said.
The Seven Noahide Laws – given to the sons of Noah after the Flood and reaffirmed to Moses at Mount Sinai – are not only an expression of G-d’s divine goodness, they also help to ensure that human beings are united and bound by a common moral responsibility to G-d, and to each other. As it says in Midrash Tanchuma, “God gave the Torah to the Jewish people so that all nations might benefit from it.”