The Seven Noahide Commandments are G-d's instructions for humanity. Their basis is in Torah – the Hebrew Scriptures and the associated interpretations. In fact, the Hebrew word Torah means instruction.
These Seven Commandments are listed in different sequences in the classical sources. This essay compares the scheme of the Tosefta to the scheme of Rabbi Moses Maimonides' Code. The premise here is that we can learn deeper insights even from the seemingly arbitrary listings. (This is a well-established principle in the Talmud.)
The Tosefta was recorded around the year 200 CE. It lists the Seven Commandments in the following order:
Maimonides' Code dates back about 800 years. He orders the commands differently:
It seems that Maimonides presents the commands as ever-increasing G-d-oriented values — theocentrically — whereas the Tosefta lists the commands in a people-oriented order — anthropocentrically.
A people-oriented order focuses on humanity and makes it possible for people to survive. The second order, which puts G-d first, has a telescopic image: it recognizes that humans need to sense the Divine and to improve.
In this second ordering, Maimonides presents the prohibition of idolatry first. This command teaches us that we should not use even religious symbols without trying to understand their Divine purpose. It instructs us to focus on G-d as the purpose of every thought and action. We need to train ourselves to fear, understand, and love G-d, in that order. The comprehension that every human is created in G-d's image with a Divine spark also obliges us to fear, understand, and love everyone. Our task is to bring people together and combine their Divine sparks into a blaze that emits light and warmth to all.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya and Rav's Shulchan Aruch, founder of the Chabad movement, demonstrated the significance of this teaching daily. Once, for example, when he was occupying an apartment above his grown son and infant grandchild, he heard the baby crying. Leaving his studies, Rabbi Schneur Zalman went down to his son's apartment where he saw him absorbed in Torah study oblivious of how his own baby had fallen out of its crib.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman lifted and soothed the baby, and said to his son: "All of our study is of no use as long as we don't hear the cries of a child." This son absorbed his father's lesson and later became his successor, the second leader of Chabad.
The second command prohibits blasphemy. Cursing G-d is a radical negation of the Divine. It is a blind affliction that rejects the importance of G-d and His Providence. This command directs us in a positive way to display the existence and importance of G-d to others.
The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach lived such a life. Once, he sent his disciples to buy him a saddle. They returned overjoyed. They had found a diamond in the saddle after the sale was complete. These students congratulated their rabbi for being blessed by G-d because, under a strict legal reading, the seller had sold him both the saddle and its contents. But Shimon ben Shetach told his students to return the diamond. When the seller retrieved the jewel, he exclaimed: "Blessed is the G-d of Shimon ben Shetach!"
Shimon ben Shetach's behavior is better than any sermon. It prompts praise of G-d and, more important, realization that G-d's ways are beneficial and right.
The third command prohibits bloodshed. The people-oriented view stresses the utilitarian features of this law, how it minimizes strife and preserves civilization. However, the theocentric view requires us to do more — never extinguish or even mar the spark of G-d. We dare not do to humans what we would not do to G-d. We must even be careful of what we say to each other.
The fourth command regulates sexual relations. It forbids incest, adultery, homosexual activity, and bestiality. Maimonides taught us that all life requires control; our habits of action should be according to the Golden Mean, not straying to any extreme. Regulating sexuality activity controls the misdirection of thought and behavior. It encourages us to maximize rationality, and yet strengthen the emotional bonds of kinship that attract Divine sparks. This is the relationship of which King Solomon sang in his Song of Songs.
Everyone thinks that they understand the fifth Noahide command forbidding theft. "Isn't that in the Ten Commandments?" they ask. "And isn't murder there, too?"
Actually, the Seven Noahide Commandments are found in many indirect statements early in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first eleven chapters of Genesis suggest broad, more-inclusive values for everyone. Genesis 2:16 is one source for the Noahide prohibition of theft: "You may eat of every tree of the garden except from the tree of knowledge of good and evil." This verse informs us that everything belongs to G-d; He retains a partnership. We are stealing from G-d if we take anything from anyone else.
Establishing law courts — the commandment that is first in the scheme of the Tosefta — is presented sixth by Maimonides. For the Tosefta's human-centered approach, laws and controls begin the ordering of society. Theocentrically speaking, however, we are taught: Society starts with a value system recognizing G-d. The requirement for laws and courts comes sixth in this system and directs the development of a program that assures the observance of the previous five commandments and the remaining seventh commandment. I also think that Maimonides' order teaches us that we need religious ceremonies and practices as reminders to give us direction, milestones, and goals.
We have seen that Rabbi Moses Maimonides made an orderly presentation of the rules that preserve and improve humanity. The first Noahide command educates us about G-d as the source, foundation, and goal of every thought and action. The second command induces behavior that motivates others to praise G-d. The third helps us see the sparks of G-d in people and makes us realize our responsibilities toward these sparks. The fourth teaches restraint in thought, speech, and action. The fifth reminds us that everything belongs to G-d and encourages us to think about the consequences of this. The sixth establishes a program of reminders to preserve the values and promote proper behavior.
What is so profound about the seventh command? "Surely you shall not eat flesh with its life blood" (from Genesis 9:4). Logically, we expect the final statement to be the highest theocentric principle.
Actually it is. It teaches us the most difficult lesson. We must go beyond relating to the Divine sparks in humanity. The seventh command mandates respect for animals and implies respect even for plants and minerals. We are being taught to treat everything in the world properly in an ever-ascending movement toward G-d. We cannot ascend the ladder of progress unless we descend, as did Rabbi Schneur Zalman, to be sure that nothing, absolutely nothing, is in pain. We must step carefully, making sure that even the pavement does not protest: "How dare you walk on me without observing the wishes of our Creator!"
People-centered laws maintain our existence. They secure peace of mind and protect the status quo. G-d-centered laws do more. They distinguish the desirable from the undesirable, bring real happiness to body and soul, and lead to perfection and certainty. Human laws assure safety, but Divine laws guarantee morality.
It is not surprising that Maimonides' Code presents the Noahide Commandments just before the discussion of the Messianic Age. These Noahide rules articulate the beginning and end of life. Properly understood and fully observed, they are guides into the Messianic Age.
A story highlights the goal of the Noahide Commandments:
A youngster was waiting at the shore for a boat to take him home. An adult stopped by, mocked him, and said that he was standing in the wrong place. He suggested that the boy walk several miles to the passenger dock. The youngster stood his ground.
Shortly after that, a boat came downstream. It turned toward him and released its plank to take him aboard. The adult watched in surprise. "How did you know," he asked, "that the boat would stop to pick you up?"
"Simple," replied the boy. "You see, the captain is my father."
Once we realize that G-d is the parent and captain of all, and act accordingly, life receives greater meaning and direction, and G-d takes us home. This is the ultimate goal of the Seven Noahide Commandments.
About the Author ~ His Publisher
A Letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Recent Books \\
Dr. Israel Drazin is an ordained rabbi, a practicing lawyer, and a former chaplain for the U. S. Army. His first stint as chaplain was after receiving ordination in 1957. In 1981, the Army requested that he return to active duty to handle special constitutional issues. Dr. Drazin was promoted to Brigadier General upon nomination by President Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Drazin is admitted to practice law in Maryland and argue cases before the U. S. Supreme Court. He is associated with the law firm of Drazin and Drazin. Mrs. Drazin is the law firm's office manager and an artist.
Dr. Drazin is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America.
He is the author of:
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 94-44755
One of his publishers is:
Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
900 Jefferson Street
Hoboken, New Jersey 07030-7205 USA
Tel: 1 201-963-9524
Fax: 1 201-963-0102
On August 25, 1986, U. S. Army Brigadier General Israel Drazin was among the thousands who attended the Lubavitcher Rebbe's farbrengen [public address] in memory of the Rebbe's father. The event was televised by satellite and on cable.
During the address, the Rebbe spoke about the responsibility of Jews to promote the observance of the Seven Noahide Commandments. Between segments of the address, the Rebbe called Brigadier General Drazin to come up to speak privately, and reqested that he use his position as Assistant Chief of Chaplains of the U. S. Army to this end. The Rebbe and Brigadier General Drazin exchanged letters, and we are reprinting here one of the Rebbe's letters.
RABBI MENACHEM M. SCHNEERSON
770 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, NY 11213
By the Grace of
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Breishis, 5747 [October 1986]
Chaplain Brig. Gen. Israel Drazin
Dept. of the Army
Office of the Chief of Chaplains
Washington, DC 20310
Greeting and Blessing:
This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 22nd of Oct[ober].
Many thanks for the good news it contained, particularly about your talks and lectures on the Seven Noachide Commandments on a number of occasions, and that these were well received, even enthusiastically. I am certainly gratified that you intend to continue doing so.
There is, of course, no need to emphasize to you the importance of promoting these Seven Noachide Commandments among Gentiles. In our day and age, it does not require much imagination to realize that, by way of example, had these Divine Commandments been observed and adhered to by all the "Children of Noah," namely the nations of the world, individually and collectively, there would not have been any possibility, in the natural order of things, for such a thing as a Holocaust.
I trust that you have your major speeches on this subject on tape, and that you would publicize them in a suitable publication that could serve as a source, as well as an inspiration, for others to disseminate these Seven Commandments.
. . . As I surely mentioned it to you during our conversation, the dissemination of the Seven Noahide Laws among non-Jews is clearly stated in the Rambam [in Maimonides' Code] as a duty and obligation of Jews, wherever and whenever possible (Code, Hil. Melochim, chaps. 9 and 10).
May HaShem grant that the declaration of our sages, "He who has 100, desires 200," etc., be fulfilled also in connection with your said activities, namely that you should continue using your good influence in a manner that would be doubly effective, and then doubly again, from "200 to 400" (and not merely by another increment of 100).
Wishing you again the utmost Hatzlocho [success] in all your good efforts, particularly in the above,
With esteem and blessing,
The contents of this page were originally printed in the journal Wellsprings, Number 17 (Vol. 3, No. 5), June-July 1987
"Exploring the Inner Dimension of Torah and Jewish Life"
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