According to Jewish tradition, the Noahide Laws (Hebrew: שבע מצוות בני נח, Sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach), also called the Brit Noah (“Covenant of Noah”) refer to seven religious laws that were given by G-d to Adam and Noah, which are considered to be morally binding on non-Jews. These laws are listed in the Talmud and elucidated by post-Talmudic authorities. Opinions differ on the reach of these commandments and the laws derived from them, but all contemporary Jewish authorities agree that there are seven commandments. These commandments and laws are based on oral traditions as well as scriptural exegesis of Genesis 2:16 and Genesis 9:4-6.
The Noahide Laws are significant because they attempt to extend G-d’s saving grace outside the realm of Judaism so that non-Jews will also have a share in the world to come (in so far as they follow the Noahide Laws).
See also: Noahidism
According to the Biblical narrative, a flood covered the whole world killing every surface-dwelling creature except Noah, his family and the creatures of the ark. After the flood, G-d is said to have made a covenant with Noah, which was sealed by a rainbow. This covenant (see Genesis 9) included the following admonitions about food and murder:
- Food: “Also, flesh with the life—the blood—in it do not eat.” (9:4)
- Murder: “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 G-d was man made.“
The Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 56a/b, quoting Tosefta Sanhedrin 9:4) states that the instruction to not eat “flesh with the life” was given to Noah, and that Adam and Eve had already received six other commandments. The remaining six are exegetically derived from a seemingly superfluous sentence in Genesis 2:16.
The Seven Laws
The seven laws (commonly rendered as Sheva Mitzvot Shel Bnei Noach) are:
- Do not deny G-d.
- Do not blaspheme G-d.
- Do not murder.
- Do not engage in incest, adultery, pederasty, or bestiality, as well as homosexual relations.
- Do not steal.
- Do not eat of a live animal.
- Establish courts/legal system to ensure law and obedience.
The Talmud also states: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a). Any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as one of “the righteous among the gentiles.” Maimonides writes that this refers to those who have acquired knowledge of G-d and act in accordance with the Noahide Laws out of obedience to G-d.
Definition of Noahides
According to the Talmud, the Noahide Laws apply to all humanity through humankind’s descent from one paternal ancestor who in Hebrew tradition is called Noah (the head of the only family to survive during the flood). In Judaism, בני נח B’nei Noah (Hebrew, “Descendants of Noah” or “Children of Noah”) refers to all of mankind.
Judaism holds that gentiles (goyim; “non-Jews,” literally “nations”) are not obligated to adhere to all the laws of the Torah (indeed, they are forbidden to fulfill some laws, such as the keeping of the Sabbath in the exact same manner as Israel). Rabbinic Judaism and its modern-day descendants discourage proselytization. The Noahide Laws are regarded as the way through which non-Jews can have a direct and meaningful relationship with G-d or at least comply with the minimal requisites of civilization and of divine law.
A non-Jew who keeps the Noahide Law in all its details is said to attain the same spiritual and moral level as Israel’s own Kohen Gadol (high priest) (Talmud, Bava Kamma 38a). Maimonides states in his work Mishneh Torah (The laws of kings and their rulership 8:11) that a Ger Toshav (“sojourning alien”) who is precise in the observance of these seven Noahide commandments is considered to be a Righteous Gentile and has earned a place in the world to come. This follows a similar statement in the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 105b). However, according to Maimonides, a gentile is considered righteous only if a person follows the Noahide laws specifically because he or she considers them to be of divine origin (through the Torah) and not if they are merely considered to be intellectually compelling or good rules for living.
The Noahide laws differ radically from the Roman laws for gentiles (Jus Gentium) because the latter was an enforceable judicial policy. Rabbinic Judaism has never adjudicated any cases under Noahide law (Novak 1983, 28 ff.), although scholars disagree about whether the Noahide law is a functional part of Halakha (cf. Bleich).
In recent years, Noahide has come to refer to non-Jews who strive to live in accord with the seven Noahide Laws; the terms “observant Noahide” or “Torah-centered Noahides” would be more precise but are infrequently used. The rainbow, referring to the Noahide or First Covenant (Genesis 9), is the symbol of many organized Noahide groups. A non-Jewish person of any ethnicity or religion is referred to as a bat (“daughter”) or ben (“son”) of Noah, but most organizations that call themselves (בני נח) are composed of gentiles who are keeping the Noahide Laws.
Subdividing the Seven Laws
Various rabbinic sources have different positions on the way the seven laws are to be subdivided in categories. Maimonides (Melakhim 10:6 of the Mishneh Torah) lists one additional Noahide commandment forbidding the coupling of different kinds of animals and the mixing of trees. Maimonides commentator Radbaz expressed surprise that he left out castration and sorcery which were listed in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b).
The tenth-century rabbi Saadia Gaon added tithes and levirate marriage. The eleventh-century Rav Nissim Gaon included “listening to G-d’s Voice,” “knowing G-d” and “serving G-d” besides going on to say that all religious acts that can be understood through human reasoning are obligatory upon Jew and Gentile alike. The fourteenth-century rabbi Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi added the commandment of charity.
The sixteenth-century work Asarah Maamarot by Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano (Rema mi-Fano) enumerates thirty commandments, listing the latter 23 as extensions of the original seven. Another commentator (Kol Hidushei Maharitz Chayess I, ch. 10) suggests these are not related to the first seven, nor based on scripture, but were passed down by oral tradition. The number 30 derives from the statement of the Talmudic sage Ulla in tractate Hullin 92a, though he 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.
The tenth-century Shmuel ben Hophni Gaon lists thirty Noahide commandments 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 Shmuel ben Hophni Gaon, cover:
Prohibition against idolatry
- No idolatry (foreign or strange worship)
- To pray to YHWH
- To offer ritual sacrifices only to YHWH
Prohibition against blasphemy
- To believe in the singularity of G-d (Monotheism)
- No blasphemy
- No witchcraft
- No soothsayers
- No conjurers
- No sorcerers
- No mediums
- No demonology
- No wizardry
- No necromancy
- To respect father and mother
Prohibition against murder
- No murder
- No suicide
- No Moloch worship (infant sacrifice)
Prohibition against theft
- No stealing
Prohibition against sexual immorality
- Formal legal marriages
- No adultery
- No incest
- No sodomy (i.e. homosexuality)
- No bestiality
- Not to crossbreed animals
- No castration
Prohibition against eating the limb of a living animal
- Not to eat a limb of a living creature (whilst it is still alive)
- Not to eat or drink blood
- Not to eat carrion (for those recognized by a Beth Din)
Establish Courts of Justice
- To establish courts and a system of justice
- No false oaths
The contemporary Rabbi 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 murder includes the prohibition against human sacrifice.
Judaism does not usually promote conversion but does, on the other hand, believe that the Jewish people have some duty to help establish the Noahide Laws. Some Jewish groups have been particularly active in promoting the seven laws, notably the Chabad Lubavitch movement as well as groups affiliated with Dor Daim and strict students of Moses Maimonidies. Chabad Lubavitch even succeeded in having a reference to these laws enshrined in public law. Congress noted that “without these ethical values and principles the edifice of civilization stands in serious peril of returning to chaos,” and that “society is profoundly concerned with the recent weakening of these principles that has resulted in crises that beleaguer and threaten the fabric of civilized society.”
Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Orthodox Jews and Noahides have been trying to take the seven laws into the general public and turn them into a broad-based international ideological movement to introduce values of Jewish origin.
In more general Jewish thinking, David Novak, among others, has proposed that the Noahide Laws could serve as the basis for a more universal Jewish ethics and for cross-cultural moral reasoning (at least with Christians and Muslims).
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, then he or she is considered a Ger Toshav (“sojourning alien”) amid the people 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 is generally discouraged by all sects of Judaism and allowed only after much thought and deliberation.
The term ‘Noahide’ is not the name of any specific religion, but rather 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 Islam is a Noahide religion, although the medieval sage Nissim of Gerona disagrees.
In January 2004, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, signed a declaration calling on all non-Jews in Israel to observe the Noahide Laws as laid down in the Bible and expounded upon in Jewish tradition. The mayor of the Galilean city of Shefa-‘Amr (Shfaram)—where Muslim, Christian and Druze communities live side by side—also signed the document. The declaration includes the commitment to make a better, more humane world based on the seven Noachide commandments and the values they represent commanded by the creator to all mankind through Moses on Mount Sinai.
Support for the spread of the seven Noahide commandments by the Druze leaders reflects the Biblical narrative itself. The Druze community reveres the non-Jewish father-in-law of Moses, Jethro, whom Muslim Arabs call Shuˤayb. According to the Biblical narrative, Jethro joined and assisted the Jewish people in the desert during the exodus, accepted monotheism, but ultimately rejoined his own people. In fact, the tomb of Jethro in Tiberias is the most important religious site for the Druze community.
Within Judaism it is a matter of debate whether all Christians should be considered Noahides. The strict view is that Christian theology is considered avodah zarah (loosely translated as “idolatry”), as it subscribes to the Trinity. Therefore most Christians could not be considered Noahides. However, Unitarian Christians and other followers of Jesus who do not believe that Jesus is a deity would still be considered Noahides.
The liberal orthodox view is that Christian theology is only considered avodah zarah for Jews, but it is permissible for gentiles. The Tosafist (early Talmud commentators) Rabbi 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 echoed by Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet (Rivash, responsa 119) and accepted by Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema, Orah Hayyim 156:1). However, no Jewish source allows the worship through any form of shittuf; rather, all worship must be directed to the one and only creator.
Harvey Falk, in his book Jesus the Pharisee proposes that the spread of the Noahide laws may have been an important part of Jesus’ intentions, as well as those of his early followers.
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 effectively 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 governments to force Jewish beliefs on non-Jews; in contrast, some non-Jewish faiths have carried out such actions in practice. In addition, with their minimal threshold of morality, the Noahide laws may be compared to Catholic social teachings, especially natural law theory.
The major Christian bodies (e.g. the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and the Protestant Churches) believe the Ten Commandments to be binding on them and would regard 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 Ten Commandments). By contrast, most Jewish thinkers consider the seven Noahide Laws a parallel system of general categories of commandments, each containing many components and details. Some Jewish thinkers regard the determination of the details of the Noahide Laws as something to be 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 modern opposition to the notion of a Noahide legal system. The Jewish community responds by noting that Jews today no longer carry out the death penalty, even within the Jewish community. Jewish law, in contemporary practice, sees the death penalty as an indicator of the seriousness of an offense; violators are not actually put to death.
Some Jewish thinkers believe that penalties are a detail of the Noahide Laws and that Noahides themselves must determine the details of their own laws for themselves. According to this school of thought, the Noahide Laws offer mankind a set of absolute values and a framework for righteousness and justice, while the detailed laws that are currently on the books of the world’s states and nations are presumptively valid.
Some Christian writers, particularly those affiliated with primitive apostolic Christianity, see the verses in Acts 15:19-21 as a directive from the first Council of Jerusalem to observe the basic understanding of the Noahide Laws in order to be considered righteous Gentiles, and not be required to live completely as Jews. According to Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem determined that circumcision was not required of new converts, only avoidance of “pollution of idols, fornication, things strangled, and blood” (Acts 15:20). The basis for these prohibitions as found in Acts 15:21 states only: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” The evidence of these Noachian inclusions to primitive Christian observance were in addition to the moral Ten Commandments given to Moses at Sinai, which covers the most essential requirements of the Noachian covenant. The additions of the four cited above were to complete the requirements of the new Gentile converts to primitive Christianity.
Several Christian congregations have abandoned traditional Christianity (rejecting the Nicene Creed) and adopted the First Covenant or Noahism in recent years. In the United States, a few organized movements of non-Jews (primarily of Christian origin) have either chosen to reject mainstream religious affiliation and live by the Apostolic Decree, which they view as the original Christian observance of Noahide Laws, or, under the influence of Orthodox Judaism, adhere to the Talmud’s listing of the Laws (without converting to Judaism).
The Book of Jubilees, part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible, generally considered to be a second-century B.C.E. Jewish apocrypha, chapter 7, verses 20-33 states:
And in the twenty-eighth jubilee [1324-1372 A.M.] Noah began to enjoin upon his sons’ sons the ordinances and commandments, and all the judgments that he knew, and he exhorted his sons to observe righteousness, and to cover the shame of their flesh, and to bless their Creator, and honour father and mother, and love their neighbour, and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity. For owing to these three things came the flood upon the earth … For whoso sheddeth man’s blood, and whoso eateth the blood of any flesh, shall all be destroyed from the earth.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia