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Origin and details of the Seven Universal Laws
One of the best-known biblical accounts is the story of Noah and the global Flood. Many ancient cultures recorded or referenced this historic event, although the details vary considerably. The secular sciences, with their discoveries of frozen animals at the North Pole with freeze dried vegetation still in their mouths and similar findings, support the notion that something like a global flood did indeed occur as described. Whether it was a global or massive regional deluge is debated, but it is recorded across the globe. The considerable amount of evidence from ancient sources from the Middle East to India to the Americas lend solid support to Moshe's description of what happened as recorded in the Torah (i.e. Genesis - Deuteronomy in the Bible). The flood occurred.
Shortly after the flood waters subsided and the survivors left the ark, our common father Noah (Noach) released the animals he had rescued. He then built an alter and worshiped the One True God (Elohim) with thanksgiving (Genesis 8:20). Like Noah, we should be thankful to HaShem for the innumerable blessings He showers on us each and every day. Maintaining an intentional consciousness of HaShem's Presence should be the central focus of our lives. As Jews we are to do this by remaining mindful of His mercies through Shabbat observance, observing the 613 Laws, through the recitation of the three daily prayers, by practicing Hitbodedut, and so on. For the other nations the Seven Laws are the prescribed method.
Technically all humans are "Noahides" or the children of Noah. Just as a Jew is Jew but not all Jews practice our family religion, so too, all humans are Noahides but not all practice the prescribed religion, the Derech Noachide, the Way of the Children of Noah. Those who do are commonly referred to as Noahides.
The Seven Laws are generally attributed to Elohim's revelation to Noah as universally binding Laws. In truth however, these Laws are eternal principles. As Jews have the 613 mitzvot, Noahides (B'nei Noach or Noachidim) have the Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach. These are the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah. HaShem has not left humanity without clear instructions! These Laws are implied in the Written Torah and specifically described in the Oral Torah as we read:The Torah spoke in the language of man (according to popular parlance).
תנו רבנן Our rabbis taught: שבע מצות נצטוו בני נח The Noachides were commanded regarding seven commandments: דינין וברכת השם ע"ז גילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים וגזל ואבר מן החי (1) Justice, (2) Blasphemy, (3) Idol Worship, (4) Sexual Immorality (5) Murder, (6) Robbery (7) Eating the limb of a living animal (Sanhedrin 56.B).
Our sages noted that, "The Torah spoke in the language of man (according to popular parlance)."
Rebbe Nachman confirms this:No sophistication is needed in serving God - only simplicity, sincerity and faith.And again:
Simplicity is higher than all else. For God is certainly higher than everything else, and God is ultimately simple! -- Sichot Haran #101Even after all the wisdom and sophistication - even if you possess true wisdom - you must cast aside all wisdom and sophistication and serve God with complete innocence and simplicity, with no sophistication whatever.Don't allow yourself to be ensnared by the legalistic teachings of some "experts." We humans are ordained by our Creator to be caretakers of the earth and its inhabitants. This includes our fellow humans, the animals, plants, groundwater, and so on. According to the Torah, as we properly maintain life on the planet we serve the Eternal One, who entrusted us with this great responsibility. When Noah rescued the animals by bringing them aboard the ark, and thereby secured the future of humanity, he performed a truly great mitzvah. After the waters subsided he properly gave thanks to the Eternal with an offering. As we read:
The greatest wisdom of all is not to be wise at all. The truth is that no- one in the world is wise, for "there is no wisdom and no understanding . before God" (Proverbs 21:30 ) . The main thing God wants is the heart. -- Likutey Moharan II, 44Genesis 8:21 HaShem smelled the sweet aroma, and HaShem said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, since the imaginings of a person's heart are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy all living things, as I have done.The Noahide Covenant allows the dual nature of yetzer tov and yetzer hara to continue operating, thus ensuring free will for humanity, while allowing humanity to eventually achieve redemption in the Olam Haba (the world to come). Having given humanity another chance, HaShem established a visible reminder with the rainbow. This symbol would forever remind humanity of the universal Noahide Covenant (Genesis 9:12). This natural phenomenon continues to serve as a visible reminder of the Eternal's love for His creation.
22 So long as the earth exists, sowing time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night will not cease."
We read:Genesis 9:1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earthNoah was told that the animals would henceforth have a natural "fear" of humankind. Prior to this Torah teaches that no such fear existed. Prior to this point, humans did not consume the flesh of the animals nor skin them for clothing etc. Prior to the flood, there was no need for them to fear us. After the flood however the Eternal granted humans permission to begin eating the animals (under certain conditions). For this reason the animals needed a healthy fear.
2 And your fear and your dread shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the fowl of the heaven; upon everything that creeps upon the ground and upon all the fish of the sea, [for] they have been given into your hand[s].
3 Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything.
4 But, flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.
In the Age to Come this fear will again be removed as humans return to a peaceful, healthful vegetarian diet as taught Isaiah 11:1-10 and elsewhere. While this important Messianic prophecy uses peace between animal predators as a simile for the peace that will exist between the Goyim (non-Jews) and Klal Israel, there is also the literal meaning here. During the Olam Hazeh (the present world system or age) humans are biblically permitted to eat the flesh of most other creatures if we wish; Jews have certain additional limitations established in the laws of Kashrut as discussed elsewhere. Many Jews today choose to be vegetarian or even vegan.
Now the topic turns to maintaining social justice within human society. Considering the undeserved mercy shown to humans by the Eternal One, we are commanded to be merciful to one another. If someone violates the requirements of the Noahide Covenant justice must be done to maintain civilized life and our collective obedience to HaShem (this Law Seven: Dinim). Otherwise the Covenant would have no "teeth" and those who are abused would have no protection. Noah is told that it is our collective responsibility to deal with such cases when they occur.
The rationale given for this is that the Eternal created humanity in His own image (Genesis 9:8). As HaShem's legal and political representatives on earth, humanity must enforce the terms of this Covenant. Humans are God's representatives to the lower creatures (even as Moshe was like "God to Pharaoh" (Exodus 7:1). We are called to defend the weak and to judge justly (Psalm 82). We are to bestow the same mercy on others that HaShem bestows on us.
There is a very important point here. At Genesis 8:21 HaShem states that our hearts are continually evil (or given over to yetzer hara), this is not referencing "original sin". By empowering humanity to handle our own rectification we are forced to collectively take responsibility for our individual and collective choices. Rather than condemn humanity for its weaknesses, Torah empowers humanity to learn and choose yetzer tov (the path of Light) over yetzer hara (the path of Darkness). Human history is the record of this ongoing education and gilgul ha'ne'shamot or rebirth is a prime element of justice and free will.Genesis 9:8 And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, saying:The Noahide Covenant is with Noah and all generations of humans, animals and every living thing on the planet. The Noahide Covenant therefore is a universal contract with global implications. All who observe its terms and conditions are blessed by the Eternal.
9:9 "And I, behold I am setting up My covenant with you and with your seed after you.
9:10 And with every living creature that is with you, among the fowl, among the cattle, and among all the beasts of the earth with you, of all those who came out of the ark, of all the living creatures of the earth.
As has always been the case, Noahides who seek HaShem and choose to bless the Jewish People are not without hope and direction. Gentiles are invited to draw close to HaShem through the heartfelt observance of the Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach or Seven Noahide Laws. These laws consist of seven essential prohibitions (or "negative commandments") whereas Jews are answerable to 613 Commandments consisting of 365 negative commandments and 248 positive ones. Some of the mitzvot overlap; for example, it is a positive commandment for a Jew to rest on the Sabbath and a negative commandment not to do work on the Sabbath. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov instructs us thusly:"Don't follow excessive stringencies in your practice of the Torah. "God does not rule over His creatures with tyranny" ( Avodah Zarah 3a) - "The Torah was not given to ministering angels" ( Berachot 25b).The Laws of God, whether the 7 or 613, are to be observed not as slaves but as free people who choose to bow the knee before our King. Again:"Our rabbis have taught that it is proper for each person to choose for himself one mitzvah to observe with particular care in all its fine details ( Shabbat 118b ). Yet even with your chosen mitzvah, you should not be excessively strict to the point of folly. Don't let it make you depressed. Simply try to keep the mitzvah carefully in all its finer points, but without excessive punctiliousness. As for the other mitzvot, simply follow the essential laws without adding extra stringencies. If only we could keep all the mitzvot of the Torah according to the simple interpretation of the law without seeking to go beyond it! There is no need to look for extra stringencies: this is foolish and confusing. The essence of serving God is simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah and carry out many good deeds without seeking out or inventing unnecessary restrictions. Simply follow the path of our forefathers. "The Torah was not given to ministering angels." There is nothing that you absolutely must do or else. If you can, you can. But if you cannot: "God exempts a person under duress" ( Bava Kama 28b).
HaShem established the order for how human relations are to be conducted. He delegated the responsibilities of the essential people groups. By divine authority and wisdom, Noah declared the role of his sons and their offspring and announced the delegated authority of earthly life:Shem: Noah's firstborn son was granted the rights of the firstborn. Shem was declared the leader of the B'nei Noach: the children of Noah. The descendants of Shem include Avraham Avinu ("our father Abraham") who received the Avrahamic Covenant of Israel and his descendants. The initial lineage of Shem included the Semitic Jews through Sarah as well as the Semitic Arabs through Hagar, the people living to the east of Babylon and the Persian Gulf, the Assyrians, the Northern Arabs and others.Klal Israel (i.e. the People of Israel) are the Shemites/Semites who passed through Eber's lineage (Genesis 10:21: i.e. the Hebrews) and all who have been added by them across the centuries. Judaism is not a race, a culture, a religion. We are an extended family. Noahides are those of other nations who "pitch their tents" with us. While most of the other ancient people groups have been buried in the sands of time, our people continue to exist as "the Jews" (the whole house of Israel). The House of Judah is ordained by HaShem in the Torah to be the priests of the other nations (Exodus 19:6). The other nations of the human family are advised to establish the earth under their direction as HaShem's emissaries, as Noahides. This will be the case during the theocratic kingdom age of HaMashiach ben Dovid known as the Olam Haba (Zechariah 8), may it be established soon!
Eventually the specific blessings granted to this Semitic lineage was narrowed by HaShem to the descendants of Avraham and Sarah (i.e. the Covenant excluded the line of Ishmael (such as the Arabs) and others as described at Genesis 17:20,21.
The Covenant and its blessings established with Avraham and Sarah passed to Isaac and Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel), and thence to the 12 Houses of Israel. In time the blessing was further narrowed to the Houses of Judah and Benjamin when the 10 northern houses were defeated by the Assyrians and became the divorced "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel." Today the inheritors of the ancient Covenant are known as the Jews. All of Israel is contained with the Jewish people. The rights, blessings and responsibilities of Shem now reside with the Jews alone.
Through the intervening thousands of years some Semitic Jews married non-Semites and/or allowed non-Semitic converts to enter the Covenant. Today most Jews are not Semitic and yet all Jews are equally of the Covenant without distinctions. Those wishing to convert to Judaism must enter through a recognized beit din (Jewish religious court) and meet their requirements and conditions. If one is not Jewish as defined by the sages of Israel one is not a member of the Covenant of Avraham. I share more on this topic elsewhere.
Ham: Canaan (Ham's son) and his offspring include the Ethiopians, Egyptians, Africans, Libyans, Phoenicians, Hittites and others. As all Noahidim, the descendants of Ham are advised to embrace the Seven Law Covenant and to seek HaShem.
Japheth: And his descendants will be "enlarged" and blessed if they "dwell in the tents of Shem." In other words, if they bless the Shemites (the Jews) they will be blessed by HaShem as ger tzadikim (righteous Gentiles), but if they choose to curse the Shemites (the Jews) they will be cursed by HaShem (Genesis 12:3). This blessing/cursing applies to the descendants of Ham as well, however it is specifically directed to the descendants of Japheth, who are instructed by HaShem to "live in the tents of Shem" and to assist them.
The descendants of Japheth include the Cimmerians, Cimbri, Celts, Scythians, Russians, Greeks, Anglo-Saxons, Syrians, Thracians, Armenians, peoples of Asia Minor, Sicilians, Cypriots etc.
The earliest complete listing of the Seven Laws are recorded in the Tosefta, a supplement to the Mishnah (Jewish Oral Law), from the late 2nd century. Sanhedrin 56b offers more detail as we will discuss elsewhere. The order of the listing of these laws vary. The following is common.
Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach
The Seven Laws of the Children of Noah
- Avodah Zarah: The prohibition against idolatry.
This includes all forms of idolatry including placing anything before ones service and devotion to HaShem. This includes worshiping images or people as gods. The positive practice includes worshiping the One True God alone.
- Birchat HaShem: The prohibition against blasphemy and cursing the Name of HaShem. The positive aspect of this commandment is to bless the Name of HaShem.
Inherent in this is the prohibition against blasphemy, cursing and dishonoring the Name of God in any way. For this reason we typically say/write HaShem ("The Name") rather than utter or write the Holy Name of four letters. The commandment also references living in a way that brings honor to HaShem and avoiding all acts that dishonor Him. The Sacred Name is the most sacred utterance in existence. It must be carefully honored and guarded by all who would bring honor to the Holy One.
- Shefichat Damim: Prohibition on murder.
"Murder" refers to the unjustified taking of human life (self or other defense, just warfare, killing animals for food, etc. is not murder biblically speaking). There is a righteous taking of life and an unrighteous taking of life.
- Gezel: Prohibition on robbery and theft of any kind.
- Gilui Arayot: Prohibition on immorality and forbidden sexual relations.
- Ever Min HaChay,: Prohibition on removing and eating a limb from a live animal.
This is broadly interpreted and has its origins in practices long since abandoned, but essentially it forbids all cruelties and perversions done to animals. Noahides are commanded to treat all life with respect and to protect it within the confines of Dinim (in other words, taking matters into ones own hands through violence etc. is generally not supported by this law).
- Dinim: The requirement to establish justice systems and courts of law to enforce the other 6 laws.
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We humans have free will and our societies are not static. The Seven Noahide Laws require and empower humanity to organized self-rule harmonious with divine revelations granted by HaShem. Such rulings must be harmonious with Torah and Rabbinic rulings:Zechariah 8:23 So said the Lord of Hosts: In those days, when ten men of all the languages of the nations shall take hold of the skirt of a Jewish man, saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you."
Also see my The Seven Noahide Laws As Religion
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