The Seven Noachide Laws

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




The Seven Noachide Laws


By Rav Michael Hattin





            These are the descendents of Noach – Noach was a righteous man, blameless in his generations, Noach walked with the Lord.  Noach begat three sons: Shem, Cham and Yefet.  The earth was corrupted before the Lord, and the earth was filled with violence.  The Lord saw that the earth had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.  The Lord said to Noach: the end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence on their account, and behold I will destroy them from upon the earth.  Prepare for yourself an ark of cedar (?) wood… (Bereishit 6:9-13).


Just a short week ago, we read of Almighty God's creation of the cosmos ex nihilo, of the awesome potential that attended His fashioning of the first human beings, of the Garden of Eden with its verdant and lush foliage planted by the Deity especially for their pleasure, and of the terrible failure of Adam and Chava to fulfill the Divine prerogative to refrain from the consumption of the fruit of the mysterious Tree of Knowledge.  In the aftermath of their impulsive deed, the two, suddenly cognizant for the first time of the implications of their nakedness, were banished from Eden and prevented from approaching its beckoning but protected gates.  The moral state of humanity continued its destructive downward spiral with the slaying of Hevel by his brother Kayin, with Tuval Kayin's fabrication of the first lethal weapons of bronze and iron, and with the enthusiastic introduction of idolatry into the human lexicon during the days of Enosh.  The parasha wound down with more acts of infamy and excess, with leaders and judges who failed to wield their power wisely, using it instead to advance their own covetous and nefarious plots.  By the parasha's sorry conclusion, God had "regretted" ever having made humanity, and firmly resolved not to suffer much longer their imperious and incorrigible ways.  In the absence of any substantive moral progress by that generation, only one man, his wife and children were to be preserved: righteous Noach. 




Our parasha opens with God bidding Noach to build an ark of fantastic proportions, as He indicates to him that a great flood will soon wash over the face of the earth to cleanse it entirely of man's corruption and violence.  Noach, in utter and complete contrast to his compatriots, "fulfills all that God had commanded him" (6:22).  In the end, God calls upon Noach and his family to board the vessel as they bring into it representatives of all of the other species, while everything else that inhabits the terrestrial plane is summarily swept away.  Only the denizens of the ark, anxiously bobbing upon the foamy deep, are saved. 


A full year passes from the time that the rains begin to fall until Noach and all of those aboard his cavernous vessel can finally disembark.  As the waters begin to subside and the mountain tops are exposed, the ark touches down upon the slopes of Mount Ararat, but it takes additional time for the waters to dissipate entirely and for the surface of the earth to dry.  Expectantly, as the interminable days pass, Noach sends first the raven and then the dove to ascertain the outside conditions, until finally the moment arrives:


God spoke to Noach saying: leave the ark, you, your wife, your sons and their wives with you.  All of the living creatures that are with you from all manner of flesh – birds, animals and creeping things that creep upon the earth – cause them to go out with you, so that they might swarm upon the earth and multiply exceedingly upon it…(8:16-17).




Full of gratitude, Noach disembarks, builds an altar and offers sacrifice, and God resolves never to destroy all of humanity again.  Turning to Noach and to his children, God now blesses them, in a section reminiscent of His optimistic charge to the first human beings at the time of their creation:


God blessed Noach and his children and He said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.  Fear of you and dread will be upon all of the animals of the earth and upon all of the birds of the sky; everything that creeps upon the ground as well as the fish of the sea are given into your hand.   Any creature that lives shall be your food, for I have given you all of them without restraint, as freely as the plant vegetation.  But nevertheless, do not consume the flesh of a creature while it is still alive.  Moreover, I will require of you an accounting of your blood that is your soul, from every beast I will require an accounting; and from humanity, even from a man's own brother, will I require an accounting of the soul of the person.  He that sheds the blood of a person shall have his own blood shed by other people, for man was wrought in God's image.  As for you, be fruitful and multiply, swarm upon the earth and increase" (Bereishit 9:1-8).


But the world, and with it God's corresponding expectations of humanity, are now changed.  No longer is it filled with pristine promise and no more does He anticipate man to necessarily exercise a profound moral sensitivity towards all creatures.  Henceforth, man need no longer to abstain from the consumption of other living things – as had been the case in Eden – but only from the cruel and wanton taking of their lives.  Animals may be eaten, but they may not be eaten alive.  And what had been so obvious in an earlier and more innocent antediluvian age – that bloodshed is wrong and that human life is inviolate – here must be emphatically spelled out. 




Significantly, the ancient Rabbis actually understood that Noach and his children are now given by God seven fundamental principles that are to govern their lives and the lives of all people after them.  These things, known as the "seven Noachide commands," are regarded by our tradition as the basic building blocks of any functioning moral society, and are extended to Noach and to his children as they stand before God on the cusp of a new and hopeful era of human history.  As succinctly enumerated by the Rabbis in Talmud Bavli Tractate Sanhedrin 59a, the seven principles are: (1) the directive to establish a judiciary, (2) the prohibition of blasphemy, (3) the prohibition of idolatry, (4) the prohibition of adultery and incest, (5) the prohibition of murder, (6) the prohibition of theft, and (7) the prohibition of consuming the flesh of a limb torn from a living creature.


But most curiously, these seven laws that are rightly taken to constitute the touchstone of the new world order, are not explicitly enumerated in our above passage!  While the prohibition of consuming a creature alive as well as the proscription of killing a human being are spelled out, the five remaining provisions are glaringly omitted: "…do not consume the flesh of a creature while it is still alive…He that sheds the blood of a person shall have his own blood shed by other people, for man was wrought in God's image.  As for you, be fruitful and multiply, swarm upon the earth and increase" (Bereishit 9:1-8). 




And while Rabbi Yochanan goes on to furnish a source for all of the seven Noachide laws, his attempt seems at first glance to be entirely forced and unsatisfying:


From whence are these seven things derived?  Said Rabbi Yochanan: the text states that "God Lord commanded the earthling saying: you may surely eat from all of the trees of the garden…" (Bereishit 2:16).  The words "(He) commanded" refer to providing for a judiciary, as the verse states: "I know him that he will command his descendents and his household after him to observe the ways of God and to do that which is righteous and just…" (Bereishit 18:19).  The word "God" refers to the prohibition of blasphemy, as the verse states: "He that blasphemes the name of God shall surely be put to death" (Vayikra 24:16).  The word "Lord" ("Elohim") refers to the prohibition of idolatry, as the verse states: "You shall not have other gods ("elohim") before Me…"(Shemot 20:2).  The words "the earthling" ("haAdam") refer to the prohibition of murder, as the verse states: "He that sheds the blood of a person ("haadam") shall have his own blood shed by other people…" (Bereishit 9:7).  The word "saying" refers to the prohibition of adultery and incest, as the verse states: "Saying: behold if a man sends forth his wife and she becomes married to another man, shall she then return to her first husband?  Shall not that land become defiled?" (Yirmiyahu 3:1).  The words "from all of the trees of the garden" imply the prohibition of theft.  The words "you shall surely eat" refer to the prohibition of eating a limb torn from a living creature.


Essentially, Rabbi Yochanan introduces two complementary ideas by ascribing the source of the seven Noachide principals to an earlier verse in last week's parasha.  First of all, in so doing he acknowledges and actually reinforces our earlier query: why is it that our own passage in parashat Noach, in which God addresses Noach and his sons as they exit the ark and stand to repopulate the earth, fails to mention the majority of these other laws?  If these are in fact "Noachide laws" that are to govern human society in the postdiluvial age, then we should have rightly expected them to be mentioned here and now, in this poignant passage of Divine expectation and terrestrial renewal!  Surely, the sort of exegetical acrobatics that Rabbi Yochanan employs to extract the seven principles from that verse in Parashat Bereishit could have been employed equally successfully in our own passage as well in order to yield a similar result!




But second of all, and this is the crux of the matter, Rabbi Yochanan quite deliberately chooses to extract the seven Noachide laws from Bereishit 2:16 and not from our parasha, because it is this earlier verse that constitutes the very first interaction between God and man IN THE REALM OF COMMAND.  The verse in question, it will be recalled, is the one in which God prohibits the first human beings from consuming the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  In its entirety, the passage reads: "God Lord commanded the earthling saying: you may surely eat from all of the trees of the garden.  But from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die" (Bereishit 2:16-17).  The intertwined elements of this decisive interaction between God and man may be described as follows: there is an imperative that is an emphatic statement of God's authority, as well as a proscription that is an emphatic statement of man's self-limitation. 


God pronounces an imperative that, by definition, delineates the boundaries of human autonomy.  While we are given dominion over all other creatures, our power is invested in us from above, and we are therefore subjects in turn of a Higher Sovereign.  At the same time, God's proscription or command imposes a limit upon our conduct.  We cannot act with impunity in the world, refusing to acknowledge any limitations upon our conduct, because to do so is to undermine any possibility of a morally developed life.  The exercise of the moral will is by definition an act of self-limitation, for when a person chooses a moral response in a given situation it is almost always at the expense of his or her own interests.  When I acknowledge and respond to the needs of another or else to the inviolability of their person or their possessions, then I must, in the process, impose a limit upon my own behavior.  Desisting from killing, adultery or theft, refusing to perpetrate wanton cruelty upon lower creatures even while I may consume them, are all expressions (great and small) of self-limitation.  I exercise some degree of self-control whenever I choose the moral path.


In effect, Rabbi Yochanan provides us with the ultimate axiological source for the Noachide laws, for in that very first prohibition pronounced upon man, the interdiction to consume the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, is contained the essence of the moral choice.  When that choice is activated, God's supremacy is acknowledged, and man's corresponding need to exercise self-control is established.  These are the two fundamental parameters of morality and every transcendent and binding moral system must in the end be founded upon them. Truthfully, Rabbi Yochanan's exegetics in this case are not to be taken literally, as if the seven Noachide principals are actually derived from the words of the verse in question.  What IS derived from the verse is the ESSENCE of the moral system, the axis around which all else revolves.  The seven Noachide laws could no doubt have been textually derived from our own Parasha, but Rabbi Yochanan prefers to see their inception as occurring at the very dawn of the God-man relationship, so as to highlight their self-evident as well as their indispensable nature.  Is it not obvious that these seven principles must form the bedrock of any morally functioning society?  Is it not obvious that killing, adultery, theft and the rest are wrong?




But if there is no explicit mention of most of the seven things in our own Parasha, and Rabbi Yochanan's formal derivation is didactic rather than literal, then where are these seven things actually stated in the Torah?  Surely these laws that our tradition maintains are binding upon all of humanity must somewhere be spelled out in the document that speaks to all of humanity?  The answer, in fact, is to be found in last week's Parasha after all, but not in the specific verse that is cited by Rabbi Yochanan as the textual and technical source.  Recall that Parashat Bereishit began with great promise and potential but quickly degenerated into a sorry tale of human hubris and corruption.  After the unceremonious banishment of Adam and Chava from the garden of Eden, humanity set to work in earnest to destroy the world.  Kayin became jealous of his brother Hevel, and KILLED (#1) him in cold blood (4:8).  In the days of Enosh, a scant two generations after Adam and Chava, "(people) began to desecrate the name of God" (4:26) which can certainly be understood to include both IDOLATRY (#2) as well as BLASPEHMY (#3) (see Rashi's commentary ad loc). 


And as humanity began to multiply and "daughters were born to them, then "Bnei HaElohim" (the powerful? the judges?) saw that the daughters of men were beautiful and they took women from all that they chose.  God said: My spirit shall not be eternally vexed on account of man who is but flesh…" (6:2-3). While the above verses are somewhat cryptic, there is a clear linkage between the "taking of the women" and the Divine disapproval that immediately follows, providing more than circumstantial evidence that some sort of SEXUAL IMMORALITY (#4) was at play.  Did these powerful men perhaps take the women by force?  (See Rashi's commentary ad loc).  Additionally, if the "Bnei HaElohim" were judges (as Rashi in fact explains), then a corruption of the JUDICIARY (#5) would also be implied.  And finally, as the flood loomed and Noach was singled out for preservation, the Torah describes the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back: "The earth was corrupt before the Lord, and the earth as filled with violence" (6:11).  Significantly, this VIOLENCE, indicating the complete breakdown of human societies, was understood by many of the commentaries (as well as by the ancient Rabbis) to refer specifically to ROBBERY and THEFT (#6).


In other words, the narrative of the Torah itself, in its disappointed description of the undoing of human civilization before the flood, clearly tells us what kind of problems and moral failures doomed humanity to near extinction.  The flood was not some sort of capricious storm, an arbitrary tsunami of epic proportions.  The flood was a Divine response to the moral corruption of man, to his predilection for violence, his unwillingness to exercise self-control and his abject refusal to acknowledge the needs and rights of others around him.  The flood was Divinely mandated to cleanse the world of its evil and to wash away the stain of man's inhumanity to man.  It was precisely the abrogation of these six "Noachide" principles that precipitated its purifying downpour. 




All that is missing, in fact, from our list of infamy is the tearing and consumption of a limb from a living animal.  And though we might surmise that if people treated others with disdain then their treatment of the lower creatures was probably no better, the lack of an explicit reference to this infraction in the list of pre-flood moral failures now seems unusual.  Is this perhaps the reason why it is precisely this particular law that IS spelled out to Noach and his children, as if to say that since it had not been mentioned earlier it must therefore be stated now?  "Any creature that lives shall be your food, for I have given you all of them without restraint, as freely as the plant vegetation.  But nevertheless, do not consume the flesh of a creature while it is still alive" (9:3-4).


While the story of the flood is dismissed by many of us as a quaint fairytale for children, its lessons are in fact both crucial and profound.  In its aftermath, our tradition formulates seven foundation ideas that are regarded as the sine qua non of moral human interactions with each other, with the wider community, with the lower creatures, and with God.  In civilizations in which these seven things are consistently abrogated, decay and eventual downfall must follow.  As Noach and his children disembark and prepare to begin rebuilding the world, God reminds them that not only infrastructure, industry and the economy must be revitalized.  There is something even more critical to the survival and success of human civilization and that is the Divinely-mandated moral law.  May humanity merit to build a lasting world founded upon its provisions.


Shabbat Shalom