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📄 שֶׁבַע מִצְוֺת בְּנֵי נֹחַ | the 7 Noaḥide Commands, or those prohibitions mandated upon all of humanity according to early Rabbinic sources

https://opensiddur.org/?p=44362 📄 שֶׁבַע מִצְוֺת בְּנֵי נֹחַ | the 7 Noaḥide Commands, or those prohibitions mandated upon all of humanity according to early Rabbinic sources 2022-05-12 21:07:09 A comprehensive list of the Noaḥide laws recorded in early rabbinic traditions. Text the Open Siddur Project Aharon N. Varady Aharon N. Varady https://opensiddur.org/copyright-policy/ Aharon N. Varady https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/ Midrash Halakhah Yom haMabul (Day of the Flood, 17 Iyyar, Lev ba-Omer) Mussar (Ethical Teachings) Sefirat haOmer Readings Yom haḲeshet (27 Iyyar) Readings National Brotherhood Week Rosh haShanah la-Behemah Readings Addenda universalist pre-rabbinic judaism שבע מצות בני נח Seven Noaḥide Commandments fundamental principles of rabbinic judaism Tannaitic declarations
Early rabbinic sources relate a tradition of seven mitsvot, prohibitions forbidding profound transgressions of consent, mandated upon “bnei Noaḥ” — the descendants of Noaḥ — a mytho-historical term referring not only to all of humanity, but more specifically to the remnant of the dor ha-Mabul, the depraved generation of primæval humanity destroyed by the Deluge in the cultural memory recorded in the Torah and other ancient texts.[1] ”Bnei Noaḥ” is also a self-referential term for describing those who abide by these 7 mitsvot, especially in contradistinction to “Bnei Yisrael” who abide by the 613 mitsvot. This understanding provides the basis for groups and individuals either identifying or being described as Noaḥides vis-à-vis the practices of Jews observing rabbinic Judaism. In other words, a nuanced term for those who might otherwise be called “gentiles” but who are living in accord with norms acceptable to rabbinic Judaism. Even as the terms Bnei Noaḥ and Noaḥide describe group identities, outside of the mitsvot themselves, details and specifics of Noaḥide observance remain fairly open to a diversity of expressions. Since the majority of the mitsvot describe categories of commonly held taboos, many communities not identifying as Noaḥide might also be described as such. (For example, Ben Abrahamson suggests that the Qur’an 17:22-36 presents a parallel tradition of the 7 mitsvot.) This listing of the Noaḥide mitsvot is not intended and should not be used to determine or promulgate any specified orthodoxy of practice.  The parabiblical mythos of the Generation of the Flood, (found in early deuterocanonical works such as Jubilees, Ⅰ Enoch, as well as in works of midrash aggadah such as Ⅲ Enoch and the midrash of Shemḥazai and Azael), deeply inform many of these mitsvot, essentially summaries of the transgressions taking place in accounts stressing the horror of humanity’s violent potential. The remaining mitsvot refer to verses found in the early chapters of Genesis or seem to be implied in the language of other statements elsewhere in the Tanakh. I think that for many, the mitsvot against kilayim (forcing together different creatures) or ever min hê-ḥai (predatory eating) are thought of as extreme, even fantastical acts of depravity. For me, this constellation of strictures describes a lowest common denominator for what it means to be a human among other creatures — a conception of humanity to preserve lest our precious civilization come to mirror the horrors we promulgate in our conquest of each other and the non-human world.

I arranged the mitsvot below for daily recitation, following in the tradition of reciting the Decalogue as an addendum to the Shaḥarit service along with other moral declarations and exhortations such as the zekhirot. While reading through these, I want to ask myself: in what ways do these taboos persist in the status quo of the society in which I live today? Am I in any way taking part in their persistence, in tolerating them, or in not speaking and acting in opposition to them? What do others in my society consider depraved and upon what principles do they base their activism and intolerance? What are the principles that I uphold that put me in alignment or in opposition to their position? And what does my society consider acceptable that I, as a Jew and a considerate person consider depraved, but which does not appear to be listed here? –Aharon Varady


TABLE HELP

Source (Hebrew)Translation (English)
סנהדרין נ״ו ב
Sanhedrin 56b.23
רַבִּי יְהוּדָה [בַּר אִלְעָאי] אוֹמֵר
אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן לֹא נִצְטַוָּה
אֶלָּא עַל עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה בִּלְבַד
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וַיְצַו ה׳ אֱלֹהִים עַל־הָאָדָם
לֵאמֹר מִכֹּל עֵץ־הַגָּן
אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל׃
וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע
לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ (בראשית ב:טז-יז)
Rabbi Yehudah [bar Ilai] says:
Primæval Adam was commanded
only concerning avodah zarah[2] lit. strange/inappropriate worship. As a corollary to birkat hashem, we might understand this expansively as the improper attribution/invocation of divine power. From this we might generalize avodah zarah to mean something like, “misdirected/mistaken devotion.” However, I am inclined to understand avodah zarah per an explanation shared with me by a fellow, Shmuel, in the Nitzotzot group led by Rabbi Baruch Thaler, that avodah zarah is essentially allowing oneself to believe (or act in accord with a belief) that one is ultimately, existentially and spiritually, alone. A corollary to this might be that any feeling of interconnection is simply delusional and that disconnection is a recognition of a cold and uncomfortable truth. By defining such resignation to alienation or estrangement as “avodah zarah” we can critique other modes of spiritual expression on the basis of their encouraging such feelings passively or actively through sub-optimal praxes. We can also reflect on the state of our own worship by observing our appreciation for interconnection, in our own lives, as part of complex ecosystems, and as an active variable in this vast cosmos. We can also avoid the obnoxious hubris inherent in self-congratulatory modes of worship focused narrowly on procedural correctness or dogmatic conformity. 
as it is stated: “And YHVH Elohim commanded the Earthling
saying: ‘From every [other] tree of the garden
you may eat, yes, eat
but from the Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil—
you are not to eat from it’” (Genesis 2:16-17).[3] What does the transgression of eating from the forbidden tree have to do with avodah zarah? To me, the pshat seems to be that the sacred labor of the primeæval human was to cultivate the Garden and that their neglect of the single instruction of what not to eat, constituted inappropriate labor, i.e. avodah zarah (strange work). I also find the statement of Rebbi Shimon (or alternately Rebbi Yaaqov) in Pirqei Avot 3.7 particularly suggestive: “רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַמְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְשׁוֹנֶה, וּמַפְסִיק מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, מַה נָּאֶה אִילָן זֶה וּמַה נָּאֶה נִיר זֶה, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ: (if one is studying while walking on the road and interrupts their study and says, “how fine is this tree!” [or] “how fine is this newly ploughed field!” scripture accounts it to him as if he was mortally guilty).” An analogy seems to be made between acceptable discourse and acceptable food in the Garden, with distraction having a mortal consequence not unlike eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Without apprehending interconnection, the natural world is only perceived as a resource for exploitation (i.e., the tilled field). The fruit of the tree of knowledge is edible but without the maturity expressed in recognizing its role in the ecology of the Garden, eating from it causes harm. Appreciating unity through interconnection also reveals complexities — and a humility born of awe: the yirah (dread or fear) that is the basis for cosmic and panentheistic wonder — that sense of smallness that evokes both caution and kindness in encountering the lives, experiences, and needs of other organisms. The maturity necessary to eat from the tree without mortal consequences only comes as a result of more fully appreciating the deeply complex interconnectedness manifest in the created world. ¶ Also find Bereshit Rabbah 34.8, Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4, and Sanhedrin 56b.6 where the mitsvah in Exodus 20:3 is understood to apply to all of humanity. 
רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בֶּן בְּתִירָה אוֹמֵר
אַף עַל בִּרְכַּת הַשֵּׁם (בראשית ד:כו)
Rabbi Yehudah ben Betirah says:
also concerning birkat hashem — blessing Hashem,[4] As a corollary to avodah zarah: the proper attribution/invocation of divine power. This mitsvah is traditionally understood conversely as קִלְּלַת הַשֵּׁם (qilelat hashem), not cursing the Creator, a/k/a blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). However, the most obvious reference to me is the mysterious description of the generation of Enosh in Genesis 4:26 — “וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה׃ (and he called his name Enosh: then men began to call out [or summon] with the Tetragrammaton).” This verse is elaborated upon in the tale of Shemḥazai and Istahar (Midrash of Shemḥazai and Azael), a Jewish variation of the Greek tale of Merope, where Istahar utters the Shem haMeforash taught to her by Shemḥazai the former archangel and first of the Nefilim. (Find below, the note on this tale under gilui arayot.) Per Sanhedrin 56b.6, this mitsvah is implied for all humanity in Leviticus 24:16. According to Rava (Sanhedrin 56b.21), the School of the tanna Menasheh replaces birkat hashem and ha-dinim with the prohibitions against forced castration (serus) and forcing together diverse kinds (kilayim). According to Rebbi Yehudah ben Beteira (Sanhedrin 56b.23), this and avodah zarah were the only mitsvot given to Adam haRishon.  (Genesis 4:26)
וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים
אַף עַל הַדִּינִים (בראשית יח:יט-כא)
and some say:
also concerning ha-dinim — adjudication.[5] to justly govern civil society through fair laws and a non-arbitrary system of redress and arbitration. Per Sanhedrin 56b.5, this mitsvah was derived from Genesis 18:19. The impetus for this mitsvah (the only obligatory, or positive commandment) seems closely related to the purpose of presenting the rest of these taboo prohibitions, namely, to imagine that any original and universal justice system did not include penalties that transgressed these prohibitions. History is rife with terrible laws mandating such transgressions, for example, the infamous Droit du Seigneur (law of the thigh). From this perspective, avodah zarah and birkat hashem serve mainly to introduce the prohibitions by underscoring the ultimate authority they lean on — that of the Creator — regardless of how the penalties may have been modified afterward in a myriad other judicial contexts. According to Rava (Sanhedrin 56b.21), the School of the tanna Menasheh replaces birkat hashem and ha-dinim with the prohibitions against forced castration (serus) and forcing together diverse kinds (kilayim). By some opinions (Sanhedrin 56b.23), this along with avodah zarah and birkat hashem were the only mitsvot given to Adam haRishon. The model of the depraved antithetical to this mitsvah is the unjust society of Sədom, Amorah and their surrounding villages of the Plains (find Sanhedrin 109a-109b). ¶ As obligatory commandments appear exceptional in the “7 mitzvot,” it is interesting to wonder whether each of the seven mitsvot had an associated so-called positive mitsvah or positive re-framing of the commandment. In this way, even though there are more than seven commands described throughout the early rabbinic sources, they may still be reconciled as all belonging to seven fundamental requisites for human behavior.  (Genesis 18:19-21)
סנהדרין נ״ו ב
Sanhedrin 56b.22
דְתָנָא דְבֵי מְנַשֶּׁה
שֶׁבַע מִצְוֺת נִצְטַוּוּ בְּנֵי נֹחַ
As the school of [the tanna] Menasheh taught:
Seven mitsvot were commanded to the descendants of Noaḥ, [concerning]:
1. עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה (בראשית ב:טז-יז)
1. avodah zarah,[6] For those only familiar with one’s own sacred devotion, other forms of worship and belief will seem zar — strange, foreign, and inappropriate — to some degree. So, something else must be the noxious element, otherwise this mitsvah would simply justify religious bigotry. All of the bnei Noaḥ prohibitions, in my mind, relate to acts of heinous taking. And this, I think, includes avodah zarah where the improper worship is better described as incorrect attribution of divinity, or divine nature. I see this expressed well in the etiological tale of the genesis of avodah zarah in 3 Enoch — where human beings, lamenting the flight of the shekhinah beyond the sphere of the observable planetary stars, begin to worship those planetary entities. The essential problem here (beyond the tragic ignorance and desperation of humanity) is the misattribution of divinity to other, lesser forces — a form of mis-taking: not giving credit where credit is ultimately due. I am interested in wider implications of this misattribution, practically in the organization of human societies. If you can think of any, please leave a comment or contact us (Genesis 2:16-17)
— estranged devotion[7] Find note above concerning a workable concept for avodah zarah oriented around a familiar human tendency towards disconnection and alienation, and then expressed in actions that prioritize personal needs and disregard those of others. 
2. וְגִלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת (בראשית ו:יב, בראשית ו:ב)
2. and gilui arayot,[8] sexual taboos, e.g., incest, rape, and the corruption of intimate vows). Per Sanhedrin 56b.7, this mitsvah is alluded to in Jeremiah 3:1. Sanhedrin 57a.1 connects avodah zarah together with gilui arayot. This combination may refer to practices of sacred prostitution in the Ancient Near East. There is a danger for this mitsvah being interpreted overly broadly to encompass what particular groups consider morally deviant and others as consensual acts by autonomous individuals. A critique of the power dynamics at play between individuals and more broadly in society should, I hope, help to guide the thinking of those determining the bounds of acceptable sexual relationships and those which are unacceptable acts of imposition and taking. In the mythos of the Dor haMabul (and other biblical tales concerning angels), this relates strongly to the story of the angel Shemḥazai who, granted permission to descend to Earth and prove the worthiness of the Angels over human beings, is immediately overcome by his yetser harah upon coming across the woman Istahar. (Clever human that she is, she negotiates to first learn from Shemḥazai how to pronounce the Shem haMeforash, and upon pronouncing it, promptly is translated from Earth to the Pleiades. For this story in context, find the “Midrash of Shemḥazai and Azael” in Otsar Midrashim.) The literal meaning of gilui arayot is “exposed nudity” — the object of the desire by which the transgressive act is rationalized. From head coverings to the architecture of spaces suitable for tefilah, gilui arayot echoes in traditions that recall the etiological myth of being clothed by the divine after tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the consequential experience of gnosis and mortal vulnerability — the original lev nishbar (shattered complacency) that is the goal of tefillah. In Bavli Berakhot 34b, find the following teaching: ואמר רב כהנא חציף עלי מאן דמפרש חטאיה שנאמר “אשרי נשוי פשע כסוי חטאה” (תהלים לב:א) — “Rav Kahana also said: I consider a man haughty who openly [unashamedly] recounts his transgressions, since it is said, ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose transgression is covered over’ (Psalms 32:1).” In the Zohar’s Alphabet of Creation, the form of the letter פ (peh) signifies the posture of covering oneself, ostensibly a memory of the experience of shame/vulnerability after the transgression in Gan Ayden.  (Genesis 6:2, Genesis 6:12).
— incest, rape, and the corruption of intimate vows
3. וּשְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים (בראשית ד:יא, בראשית ט:ו)
3. and shfikhut damim,[9] lit. shedding blood, bloodshed. Sanhedrin 56b.6 provides Genesis 9:6 for the descendants of Noaḥ. The precedent before the Flood would be the murder of Hevel by his brother Qayin in Genesis 4:11, with the fertile earth soaking in the blood of the children of the primaeval Adam. Also find Bereshit Rabbah 34.8. and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4. In contrast with ever min hê-ḥai and ha-dam min hê-ḥai, Genesis 9:6 orients this mitsvah specifically towards inter-human violence which might narrowly be interpreted simply an injunction against aggravated murder, and more broadly would include bloodsport (think gladiator combat or boxing) or even as labor that through callous neglect or active malice might endanger the mortal safety of other human beings.  (Genesis 4:11, Genesis 9:6)
— bloodshed
4. גֶּזֶל (בראשית ב:טז-יז)
4. gezel,[10] theft. Circumscribing the inclination to see and take — or see and touch — is a major theme in the Torah. Note here that gezel in Sanhedrin 56b.7 has the same prooftext cited as avodah zarah: Genesis 2:16-17. Cf. Bereshit Rabbah 34.8. and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4. In prayers before the U.S. Congress, rabbinic guest chaplains have offered prayers that reference this mitsvah and interpreting it broadly as against cheating and dishonesty. (Find the prayers of Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi David Green.)  (Genesis 2:16-17)
— taking without consent
5. וְאֵבֶר מִן הֶחַי (בראשית ט:ד)
5. and ever min hê-ḥai,[11] literally “[tearing] a limb of a living creature.” In other words: behaving as a predator. Cf. Genesis 9:4. Also find Bereshit Rabbah 34.8. and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4 (duly noting that the Tosefta, the opinion opposite that of the school of Menasheh, offers a lenient voice in an early halakhic application). Rambam in Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 9:1, indicates that while the previous mitsvot were given to Adam haRishon, ever min hê-ḥai was added for the Bnei Noaḥ. This mitsvah is really crucial in my understanding of kashrut as the converse of “treif,” literally, torn [flesh], i.e., torn as by a predator. This mitsvah underscores the deviance of Amaleq (deserving destruction) because as a human society it has modeled itself as a predator — predating on the weak and vulnerable as predators do in identifying prey in herds of animals. In this way, Amaleq is presented as the antithesis of this universal taboo. To a lesser degree, archetypal hunters such as Nimrod are depicted as arrogant fools in the Jewish tradition, and hunting itself is regulated to the point of its practical impossibility in the laws of kashrut and tsaar baalei ḥayyim (avoiding causing living creatures any needless suffering). Indeed, this mitsvah has been interpreted more broadly as an injunction against cruelty to animals. (Find the prayers of Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi David Green.)  (Genesis 9:4)
— devouring in the manner of a predator
6. סֵרוּס (בראשית ט:כד, ישעיה נו:ג-ה)
6. serus,[12] lit. castration. No verse in Sanhedrin 56b.1 is cited, only “רבי חידקא אומר אף על הסירוס (Rabbi Ḥidqa says: They are also commanded concerning castration)” Some think this mitsvah ultimately refers to Genesis 9:1 and Genesis 9:7. In the context of the story of Deluge and the children of Noaḥ, there is already a tradition that castration is obliquely being referenced as the depraved act in Genesis 9:24. (For a discussion of this, find David Fraenkel’s article, “Noah, Ham and the Curse of Canaan: Who Did What to Whom in the Tent?” at thetorah.com.) I believe this mitsvah broadly concerns the conditions by which labor is controlled, castration here explicitly referring to the emasculation of servants in the Ancient Near East. Isaiah 56:3-5 expresses deep sympathy with the trauma and yearning of men made into eunuchs. Narrowly, this mitsvah remains current in the context of animal husbandry. In the context of the over-population of species of non-human animals I wonder how this taboo might better be put into conversation with that of tsaar baalei hayyim — where community spaying and neutering along with fostering policies can greatly help to reduce the suffering of domesticated animals, unhomed or feral dogs and cats. But the sense of serus as depraved feels related to me with the principles of eugenics and genocide being applied to populations around the world occurring within living memory. Cf. Tosefta Avoda Zarah 9:4 where the mitsvah is also given in the name of Rabbi Elazar, but birkat hashem and ha-dinim replace it and kilayim in the seven mitsvot (explained in Sanhedrin 56b.21) Cf. Bereshit Rabbah 34:8 in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroqa.  (Isaiah 56:3-5, Genesis 9:24)
— forced sterilization
7. וְכִּלְאַיִם (ישעיה מב:כב)
7. and kilayim.[13] lit. [forcing together] diverse kinds. What is this referring to? Ultimately, I believe this prohibition is concerned with the conditions of human and non-human animals in captivity. Sanhedrin 56b.3 offers the following: “רבי אלעזר אומר אף על הכלאים מותרין בני נח ללבוש כלאים ולזרוע כלאים ואין אסורין אלא בהרבעת בהמה ובהרכבת האילן (Rabbi Elazar says: The descendants of Noaḥ were also commanded concerning the prohibition of [forcing together] diverse kinds. Nevertheless, it is permitted for the descendants of Noaḥ to wear diverse kinds of wool and linen and to sow diverse kinds of seeds together, and they are prohibited only with regard to breeding together diverse species of animals and grafting diverse species of trees.)” (Cf. Bereshit Rabbbah 34:8 and Tosefta Avoda Zarah 9:4 where the mitsvah is also given in the name of Rabbi Elazar, but birkat hashem and ha-dinim replace it and serus in the seven mitsvot (explained in Sanhedrin 56b.21).) No scriptural verse is cited in any of those sources, but in the context of the other depraved crimes prohibited on this list Isaiah 42:22 appears relevant. The verse concerns being trapped in a pit or imprisoned in beit kilayim (dungeons), a motif first encountered in the story of Joseph and last in the story of Daniel, but there are other stories in the aggadic literature. The mitsvah seems to me to be corollary to gilui arayot where instead of forcing two of a kind together (e.g., two siblings), this mitsvah forbids forcing different kinds together. Following after serus, this mitsvah also seems to me related to the treatment of (human and non-human) creatures in captivity as a cruel form of entertainment, torture, or as death sentence (for example, by forcing creatures in an arena or pit to battle or consume one another). The two senses of the idea of being forcibly brought together (for propagation, torture, or killing) could even be related. Find, for example, Sanhedrin 77a.4. By fettering or otherwise limiting the movement of a captive, they are made vulnerable incidentally or by intent, to being fed upon by other desperate captive creatures, by parasites, or by the larva of creatures in their life cycle. Such tortures and punishments were not unknown in the ancient or medieval world. In our own day, such horrible and inhumane cruelty is a common occurrence in the high density growing operations of industrialized agriculture. The danger of an uncritical approach to kilayim is in how “difference” is defined when types/kinds/species are segregated or brought together. Anti-miscegenation laws on the basis of skin color or other determinations of heredity, historic rationalizations of colonial oppression, and genocides born of eugenic interventions all resulted from efforts to specify difference of kinds and certainly arguments that factor biblical concerns over kilayim are employed to validate oppression, prejudice, and ignorant bigotry. What is too often missing in considering kilayim is the welfare and well-being of prisoners or captive animals (both wild and domesticated) in all of the circumstances in which they might be held. In the Geonic work, Alphabet of Ben Sira, there is a story told of a menagerie under the ocean in which the Leviathan has taken captive specimens of all the living creatures, and this story may be an early example of how Jews regarded imperial zoos in light of this principle.  (Isaiah 42:22)
— engendering unsafe living and working conditions among captives
סנהדרין נ״ו א
Sanhedrin 56a.24
רַבִּי חֲנַנְיָה בֶּן (גְּמָלָא) אוֹמֵר
אַף עַל הַדָּם מִן הֶחָי (בראשית ט:ד)
Rabbi Ḥananyah ben Gemala says:
Also concerning ha-dam min hê-ḥai.[14] lit. “the blood of living creatures.” This is stated separately from ever min hê-hai which it might otherwise be conflated per Genesis 9:4, and so I think it must specifically concern the treatment of the blood of slaughtered animals as treated in Leviticus 17:13 and elsewhere (Deuteronomy 12:16 and Deuteronomy 15:23). For additional context, find Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber’s article “The Mitzvah of Covering the Blood of Wild Animals at thetorah.com. In Bereshit Rabbah 34.8 and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4, this opinion is given by Rabbi Ḥanina ben Gamliel.  (Genesis 9:4)
— the blood of living creatures
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר
אַף עַל הַכִּשּׁוּף (דברים יח:ט-יב)
Rabbi Shimon says:
Also concerning ha-kishuf.[15] in some places referred to as “sorcery” by which is meant, I believe, aggressive, transgressive, and manipulative magical operations. For more on the meaning of kishuf in Rabbinic Jewish thought, find Gideon Bohak’s chapter 1, “Jewish magic: a contradiction in terms?” in Ancient Jewish Magic (2008). Bereshit Rabbah 34.8 provides this opinion in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai elaborated upon by Rabbi Assi — “אָמַר רַבִּי אַסֵּי: עַל כָּל הָאָמוּר בַּפָּרָשָׁה נִצְטַוּוּ בְּנֵי נֹחַ: לֹא־יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ־וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ וגו׳ (דברים יח:י), וּכְתִיב בַּתְרֵיהּ: כִּי־תוֹעֲבַת ה׳ כָּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה (דברים יח:יב) (Rabbi Assi said: The descendants of Noaḥ were commanded concerning everything stated in the section: “There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, etc.” (Deut. 18:10) and afterwards “because it is an abomination for Hashem all that do this.” (Deut. 18:12)”. Deuteronomy 18:9–12 is also cited in Sanhedrin 56a.24 and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4 in the name of Rabbi Yosei. The William Davidson Talmud explains, “Evidently, the K’na’ani were punished for these practices; and since God would not have punished them for an action unless God first prohibited it, these practices are clearly prohibited to gentiles.”  (Deuteronomy 18:9–12)
— aggressive, transgressive, and manipulative magical operations

Depending on the source, the seven mitsvot can be arranged in different ways. Rambam, in Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 9:1,[16] Also find, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 10  lists the seven mitsvot bnei Noaḥ, explaining that the first six were given to Adam ha-Rishon, the first human, and the last (ever min hê-ḥai) was given specifically to the children of Noaḥ following their recovery of the world. In my arrangement of the mitsvot attested in early rabbinic sources (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4, Bereshit Rabbah 34:8, and Sanhedrin 56b-57a) I sort the mitsvot mytho-chronologically and by source (avoiding duplication as much as possible). Those given to the generations preceding Noaḥ are presented before the Noaḥide laws as related by the school of the tanna Menasheh, and then the remaining mitsvot as found in the Tosefta and Midrash Rabbah. This litany includes all divergent or complementary traditions — eleven mitsvot in total, nine or ten of which are prohibitions (ha-dinim being the only explicit obligation/positive mitsvah, and birkat hashem being ambiguous). The base of the text provided comes from Sanhedrin 56b, to which I have added niqqud. Since the meaning of the terms is often complex, I have provided my own succinct translations along with annotations. For several of the mitsvot (birkat hashem, serus, and kilayim), I have added relevant scriptural citations that are not provided in the sources but which seem to me to be undeniably relevant. I decided to leave out some halakhic gloss found in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4 on how, theoretically, these mitsvot might be prosecuted for Israelites and gentiles. Please leave a comment or contact me if you feel I missed something that should be added or corrected here. I hope to improve this list with additional links to the parabiblical deuterocanonical tales expanding upon Genesis 6:1-5.

Given that the mitsvot here are mainly prohibitions, what are we to glean of their overall purpose? My sense is that these categories of prohibition highlight the perversity of legal systems and judicial authorities mandating punishments that are fundamentally unjust. The three initial mitsvot (presented here) serve to underscore the ultimate authority of Hashem as the True Judge beyond that of any earthly judge or petty chieftain. Together, they establish the authority of divine commandment (avodah zarah), the correct invocation of divine authority (birkat hashem), and a divine origin for civil law itself (ha-dinim) regardless of how that law may have been later modified or corrupted. Such corruption will be clear in any criminal penalties mandating: depraved treatment of captives including rape of family members (gilui arayot), violation of bodily autonomy (shfikhut damim), outright mutilation (serus), and forced starvation to the point of predation or cannibalism among fellow captive human or non-human animals (kilayim and ever min hê-ḥai), etc. Certainly, concern regarding these prohibitions should be considered broadly applicable to society outside the operation of justice systems. But upon reflection, in the context of the Talmud’s Masekhet Sanhedrin, the mitsvot Bnei Noaḥ stand out to me as a legal tradition really concerned with what may be regarded as the perversion of justice in non-Jewish legal systems. –Aharon Varady

 

Notes

Notes
1”Bnei Noaḥ” is also a self-referential term for describing those who abide by these 7 mitsvot, especially in contradistinction to “Bnei Yisrael” who abide by the 613 mitsvot. This understanding provides the basis for groups and individuals either identifying or being described as Noaḥides vis-à-vis the practices of Jews observing rabbinic Judaism. In other words, a nuanced term for those who might otherwise be called “gentiles” but who are living in accord with norms acceptable to rabbinic Judaism. Even as the terms Bnei Noaḥ and Noaḥide describe group identities, outside of the mitsvot themselves, details and specifics of Noaḥide observance remain fairly open to a diversity of expressions. Since the majority of the mitsvot describe categories of commonly held taboos, many communities not identifying as Noaḥide might also be described as such. (For example, Ben Abrahamson suggests that the Qur’an 17:22-36 presents a parallel tradition of the 7 mitsvot.) This listing of the Noaḥide mitsvot is not intended and should not be used to determine or promulgate any specified orthodoxy of practice.
2lit. strange/inappropriate worship. As a corollary to birkat hashem, we might understand this expansively as the improper attribution/invocation of divine power. From this we might generalize avodah zarah to mean something like, “misdirected/mistaken devotion.” However, I am inclined to understand avodah zarah per an explanation shared with me by a fellow, Shmuel, in the Nitzotzot group led by Rabbi Baruch Thaler, that avodah zarah is essentially allowing oneself to believe (or act in accord with a belief) that one is ultimately, existentially and spiritually, alone. A corollary to this might be that any feeling of interconnection is simply delusional and that disconnection is a recognition of a cold and uncomfortable truth. By defining such resignation to alienation or estrangement as “avodah zarah” we can critique other modes of spiritual expression on the basis of their encouraging such feelings passively or actively through sub-optimal praxes. We can also reflect on the state of our own worship by observing our appreciation for interconnection, in our own lives, as part of complex ecosystems, and as an active variable in this vast cosmos. We can also avoid the obnoxious hubris inherent in self-congratulatory modes of worship focused narrowly on procedural correctness or dogmatic conformity.
3What does the transgression of eating from the forbidden tree have to do with avodah zarah? To me, the pshat seems to be that the sacred labor of the primeæval human was to cultivate the Garden and that their neglect of the single instruction of what not to eat, constituted inappropriate labor, i.e. avodah zarah (strange work). I also find the statement of Rebbi Shimon (or alternately Rebbi Yaaqov) in Pirqei Avot 3.7 particularly suggestive: “רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַמְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְשׁוֹנֶה, וּמַפְסִיק מִמִּשְׁנָתוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, מַה נָּאֶה אִילָן זֶה וּמַה נָּאֶה נִיר זֶה, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ מִתְחַיֵּב בְּנַפְשׁוֹ: (if one is studying while walking on the road and interrupts their study and says, “how fine is this tree!” [or] “how fine is this newly ploughed field!” scripture accounts it to him as if he was mortally guilty).” An analogy seems to be made between acceptable discourse and acceptable food in the Garden, with distraction having a mortal consequence not unlike eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Without apprehending interconnection, the natural world is only perceived as a resource for exploitation (i.e., the tilled field). The fruit of the tree of knowledge is edible but without the maturity expressed in recognizing its role in the ecology of the Garden, eating from it causes harm. Appreciating unity through interconnection also reveals complexities — and a humility born of awe: the yirah (dread or fear) that is the basis for cosmic and panentheistic wonder — that sense of smallness that evokes both caution and kindness in encountering the lives, experiences, and needs of other organisms. The maturity necessary to eat from the tree without mortal consequences only comes as a result of more fully appreciating the deeply complex interconnectedness manifest in the created world. ¶ Also find Bereshit Rabbah 34.8, Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4, and Sanhedrin 56b.6 where the mitsvah in Exodus 20:3 is understood to apply to all of humanity.
4As a corollary to avodah zarah: the proper attribution/invocation of divine power. This mitsvah is traditionally understood conversely as קִלְּלַת הַשֵּׁם (qilelat hashem), not cursing the Creator, a/k/a blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). However, the most obvious reference to me is the mysterious description of the generation of Enosh in Genesis 4:26 — “וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה׃ (and he called his name Enosh: then men began to call out [or summon] with the Tetragrammaton).” This verse is elaborated upon in the tale of Shemḥazai and Istahar (Midrash of Shemḥazai and Azael), a Jewish variation of the Greek tale of Merope, where Istahar utters the Shem haMeforash taught to her by Shemḥazai the former archangel and first of the Nefilim. (Find below, the note on this tale under gilui arayot.) Per Sanhedrin 56b.6, this mitsvah is implied for all humanity in Leviticus 24:16. According to Rava (Sanhedrin 56b.21), the School of the tanna Menasheh replaces birkat hashem and ha-dinim with the prohibitions against forced castration (serus) and forcing together diverse kinds (kilayim). According to Rebbi Yehudah ben Beteira (Sanhedrin 56b.23), this and avodah zarah were the only mitsvot given to Adam haRishon.
5to justly govern civil society through fair laws and a non-arbitrary system of redress and arbitration. Per Sanhedrin 56b.5, this mitsvah was derived from Genesis 18:19. The impetus for this mitsvah (the only obligatory, or positive commandment) seems closely related to the purpose of presenting the rest of these taboo prohibitions, namely, to imagine that any original and universal justice system did not include penalties that transgressed these prohibitions. History is rife with terrible laws mandating such transgressions, for example, the infamous Droit du Seigneur (law of the thigh). From this perspective, avodah zarah and birkat hashem serve mainly to introduce the prohibitions by underscoring the ultimate authority they lean on — that of the Creator — regardless of how the penalties may have been modified afterward in a myriad other judicial contexts. According to Rava (Sanhedrin 56b.21), the School of the tanna Menasheh replaces birkat hashem and ha-dinim with the prohibitions against forced castration (serus) and forcing together diverse kinds (kilayim). By some opinions (Sanhedrin 56b.23), this along with avodah zarah and birkat hashem were the only mitsvot given to Adam haRishon. The model of the depraved antithetical to this mitsvah is the unjust society of Sədom, Amorah and their surrounding villages of the Plains (find Sanhedrin 109a-109b). ¶ As obligatory commandments appear exceptional in the “7 mitzvot,” it is interesting to wonder whether each of the seven mitsvot had an associated so-called positive mitsvah or positive re-framing of the commandment. In this way, even though there are more than seven commands described throughout the early rabbinic sources, they may still be reconciled as all belonging to seven fundamental requisites for human behavior.
6For those only familiar with one’s own sacred devotion, other forms of worship and belief will seem zar — strange, foreign, and inappropriate — to some degree. So, something else must be the noxious element, otherwise this mitsvah would simply justify religious bigotry. All of the bnei Noaḥ prohibitions, in my mind, relate to acts of heinous taking. And this, I think, includes avodah zarah where the improper worship is better described as incorrect attribution of divinity, or divine nature. I see this expressed well in the etiological tale of the genesis of avodah zarah in 3 Enoch — where human beings, lamenting the flight of the shekhinah beyond the sphere of the observable planetary stars, begin to worship those planetary entities. The essential problem here (beyond the tragic ignorance and desperation of humanity) is the misattribution of divinity to other, lesser forces — a form of mis-taking: not giving credit where credit is ultimately due. I am interested in wider implications of this misattribution, practically in the organization of human societies. If you can think of any, please leave a comment or contact us.
7Find note above concerning a workable concept for avodah zarah oriented around a familiar human tendency towards disconnection and alienation, and then expressed in actions that prioritize personal needs and disregard those of others.
8sexual taboos, e.g., incest, rape, and the corruption of intimate vows). Per Sanhedrin 56b.7, this mitsvah is alluded to in Jeremiah 3:1. Sanhedrin 57a.1 connects avodah zarah together with gilui arayot. This combination may refer to practices of sacred prostitution in the Ancient Near East. There is a danger for this mitsvah being interpreted overly broadly to encompass what particular groups consider morally deviant and others as consensual acts by autonomous individuals. A critique of the power dynamics at play between individuals and more broadly in society should, I hope, help to guide the thinking of those determining the bounds of acceptable sexual relationships and those which are unacceptable acts of imposition and taking. In the mythos of the Dor haMabul (and other biblical tales concerning angels), this relates strongly to the story of the angel Shemḥazai who, granted permission to descend to Earth and prove the worthiness of the Angels over human beings, is immediately overcome by his yetser harah upon coming across the woman Istahar. (Clever human that she is, she negotiates to first learn from Shemḥazai how to pronounce the Shem haMeforash, and upon pronouncing it, promptly is translated from Earth to the Pleiades. For this story in context, find the “Midrash of Shemḥazai and Azael” in Otsar Midrashim.) The literal meaning of gilui arayot is “exposed nudity” — the object of the desire by which the transgressive act is rationalized. From head coverings to the architecture of spaces suitable for tefilah, gilui arayot echoes in traditions that recall the etiological myth of being clothed by the divine after tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the consequential experience of gnosis and mortal vulnerability — the original lev nishbar (shattered complacency) that is the goal of tefillah. In Bavli Berakhot 34b, find the following teaching: ואמר רב כהנא חציף עלי מאן דמפרש חטאיה שנאמר “אשרי נשוי פשע כסוי חטאה” (תהלים לב:א) — “Rav Kahana also said: I consider a man haughty who openly [unashamedly] recounts his transgressions, since it is said, ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose transgression is covered over’ (Psalms 32:1).” In the Zohar’s Alphabet of Creation, the form of the letter פ (peh) signifies the posture of covering oneself, ostensibly a memory of the experience of shame/vulnerability after the transgression in Gan Ayden.
9lit. shedding blood, bloodshed. Sanhedrin 56b.6 provides Genesis 9:6 for the descendants of Noaḥ. The precedent before the Flood would be the murder of Hevel by his brother Qayin in Genesis 4:11, with the fertile earth soaking in the blood of the children of the primaeval Adam. Also find Bereshit Rabbah 34.8. and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4. In contrast with ever min hê-ḥai and ha-dam min hê-ḥai, Genesis 9:6 orients this mitsvah specifically towards inter-human violence which might narrowly be interpreted simply an injunction against aggravated murder, and more broadly would include bloodsport (think gladiator combat or boxing) or even as labor that through callous neglect or active malice might endanger the mortal safety of other human beings.
10theft. Circumscribing the inclination to see and take — or see and touch — is a major theme in the Torah. Note here that gezel in Sanhedrin 56b.7 has the same prooftext cited as avodah zarah: Genesis 2:16-17. Cf. Bereshit Rabbah 34.8. and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4. In prayers before the U.S. Congress, rabbinic guest chaplains have offered prayers that reference this mitsvah and interpreting it broadly as against cheating and dishonesty. (Find the prayers of Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi David Green.)
11literally “[tearing] a limb of a living creature.” In other words: behaving as a predator. Cf. Genesis 9:4. Also find Bereshit Rabbah 34.8. and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4 (duly noting that the Tosefta, the opinion opposite that of the school of Menasheh, offers a lenient voice in an early halakhic application). Rambam in Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 9:1, indicates that while the previous mitsvot were given to Adam haRishon, ever min hê-ḥai was added for the Bnei Noaḥ. This mitsvah is really crucial in my understanding of kashrut as the converse of “treif,” literally, torn [flesh], i.e., torn as by a predator. This mitsvah underscores the deviance of Amaleq (deserving destruction) because as a human society it has modeled itself as a predator — predating on the weak and vulnerable as predators do in identifying prey in herds of animals. In this way, Amaleq is presented as the antithesis of this universal taboo. To a lesser degree, archetypal hunters such as Nimrod are depicted as arrogant fools in the Jewish tradition, and hunting itself is regulated to the point of its practical impossibility in the laws of kashrut and tsaar baalei ḥayyim (avoiding causing living creatures any needless suffering). Indeed, this mitsvah has been interpreted more broadly as an injunction against cruelty to animals. (Find the prayers of Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi David Green.)
12lit. castration. No verse in Sanhedrin 56b.1 is cited, only “רבי חידקא אומר אף על הסירוס (Rabbi Ḥidqa says: They are also commanded concerning castration)” Some think this mitsvah ultimately refers to Genesis 9:1 and Genesis 9:7. In the context of the story of Deluge and the children of Noaḥ, there is already a tradition that castration is obliquely being referenced as the depraved act in Genesis 9:24. (For a discussion of this, find David Fraenkel’s article, “Noah, Ham and the Curse of Canaan: Who Did What to Whom in the Tent?” at thetorah.com.) I believe this mitsvah broadly concerns the conditions by which labor is controlled, castration here explicitly referring to the emasculation of servants in the Ancient Near East. Isaiah 56:3-5 expresses deep sympathy with the trauma and yearning of men made into eunuchs. Narrowly, this mitsvah remains current in the context of animal husbandry. In the context of the over-population of species of non-human animals I wonder how this taboo might better be put into conversation with that of tsaar baalei hayyim — where community spaying and neutering along with fostering policies can greatly help to reduce the suffering of domesticated animals, unhomed or feral dogs and cats. But the sense of serus as depraved feels related to me with the principles of eugenics and genocide being applied to populations around the world occurring within living memory. Cf. Tosefta Avoda Zarah 9:4 where the mitsvah is also given in the name of Rabbi Elazar, but birkat hashem and ha-dinim replace it and kilayim in the seven mitsvot (explained in Sanhedrin 56b.21) Cf. Bereshit Rabbah 34:8 in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroqa.
13lit. [forcing together] diverse kinds. What is this referring to? Ultimately, I believe this prohibition is concerned with the conditions of human and non-human animals in captivity. Sanhedrin 56b.3 offers the following: “רבי אלעזר אומר אף על הכלאים מותרין בני נח ללבוש כלאים ולזרוע כלאים ואין אסורין אלא בהרבעת בהמה ובהרכבת האילן (Rabbi Elazar says: The descendants of Noaḥ were also commanded concerning the prohibition of [forcing together] diverse kinds. Nevertheless, it is permitted for the descendants of Noaḥ to wear diverse kinds of wool and linen and to sow diverse kinds of seeds together, and they are prohibited only with regard to breeding together diverse species of animals and grafting diverse species of trees.)” (Cf. Bereshit Rabbbah 34:8 and Tosefta Avoda Zarah 9:4 where the mitsvah is also given in the name of Rabbi Elazar, but birkat hashem and ha-dinim replace it and serus in the seven mitsvot (explained in Sanhedrin 56b.21).) No scriptural verse is cited in any of those sources, but in the context of the other depraved crimes prohibited on this list Isaiah 42:22 appears relevant. The verse concerns being trapped in a pit or imprisoned in beit kilayim (dungeons), a motif first encountered in the story of Joseph and last in the story of Daniel, but there are other stories in the aggadic literature. The mitsvah seems to me to be corollary to gilui arayot where instead of forcing two of a kind together (e.g., two siblings), this mitsvah forbids forcing different kinds together. Following after serus, this mitsvah also seems to me related to the treatment of (human and non-human) creatures in captivity as a cruel form of entertainment, torture, or as death sentence (for example, by forcing creatures in an arena or pit to battle or consume one another). The two senses of the idea of being forcibly brought together (for propagation, torture, or killing) could even be related. Find, for example, Sanhedrin 77a.4. By fettering or otherwise limiting the movement of a captive, they are made vulnerable incidentally or by intent, to being fed upon by other desperate captive creatures, by parasites, or by the larva of creatures in their life cycle. Such tortures and punishments were not unknown in the ancient or medieval world. In our own day, such horrible and inhumane cruelty is a common occurrence in the high density growing operations of industrialized agriculture. The danger of an uncritical approach to kilayim is in how “difference” is defined when types/kinds/species are segregated or brought together. Anti-miscegenation laws on the basis of skin color or other determinations of heredity, historic rationalizations of colonial oppression, and genocides born of eugenic interventions all resulted from efforts to specify difference of kinds and certainly arguments that factor biblical concerns over kilayim are employed to validate oppression, prejudice, and ignorant bigotry. What is too often missing in considering kilayim is the welfare and well-being of prisoners or captive animals (both wild and domesticated) in all of the circumstances in which they might be held. In the Geonic work, Alphabet of Ben Sira, there is a story told of a menagerie under the ocean in which the Leviathan has taken captive specimens of all the living creatures, and this story may be an early example of how Jews regarded imperial zoos in light of this principle.
14lit. “the blood of living creatures.” This is stated separately from ever min hê-hai which it might otherwise be conflated per Genesis 9:4, and so I think it must specifically concern the treatment of the blood of slaughtered animals as treated in Leviticus 17:13 and elsewhere (Deuteronomy 12:16 and Deuteronomy 15:23). For additional context, find Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber’s article “The Mitzvah of Covering the Blood of Wild Animals at thetorah.com. In Bereshit Rabbah 34.8 and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4, this opinion is given by Rabbi Ḥanina ben Gamliel.
15in some places referred to as “sorcery” by which is meant, I believe, aggressive, transgressive, and manipulative magical operations. For more on the meaning of kishuf in Rabbinic Jewish thought, find Gideon Bohak’s chapter 1, “Jewish magic: a contradiction in terms?” in Ancient Jewish Magic (2008). Bereshit Rabbah 34.8 provides this opinion in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai elaborated upon by Rabbi Assi — “אָמַר רַבִּי אַסֵּי: עַל כָּל הָאָמוּר בַּפָּרָשָׁה נִצְטַוּוּ בְּנֵי נֹחַ: לֹא־יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ־וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ וגו׳ (דברים יח:י), וּכְתִיב בַּתְרֵיהּ: כִּי־תוֹעֲבַת ה׳ כָּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה (דברים יח:יב) (Rabbi Assi said: The descendants of Noaḥ were commanded concerning everything stated in the section: “There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, etc.” (Deut. 18:10) and afterwards “because it is an abomination for Hashem all that do this.” (Deut. 18:12)”. Deuteronomy 18:9–12 is also cited in Sanhedrin 56a.24 and Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4 in the name of Rabbi Yosei. The William Davidson Talmud explains, “Evidently, the K’na’ani were punished for these practices; and since God would not have punished them for an action unless God first prohibited it, these practices are clearly prohibited to gentiles.”
16Also find, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 10

 

 

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