Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 1

21. The Noahide Laws: Their Meaning and Logic

The 7 Noahide laws were given to mankind many years before the Jewish people received their commandments. These laws are universal, and are intended to allow all mankind to connect to their Creator. They are as follows:

1. Do not eat a limb cut off a live animal

2. Do not curse God’s name

3. Do not worship idols

4. Do not commit adultery

5. Establish courts of law

6. Do not steal

7. Do not murder

At first glance, these seven laws appear very random, but I will attempt to clarify their logic based on the commentary of the Jewish Mystic, The Maharal of Prague (1520-1609); it is my hope that a clearer understanding of their structure will lead to more respect for these laws and more meaning in their observance.

The first distinction to be made is between laws pertaining to interpersonal relationships, and those relating to G-d. It is not enough to have a relationship with G-d and forget about His children- a truly refined person will have respect for all of creation. Conversely, it is not enough to not cause harm to others without having a relationship with G-d- “being a nice person” has no value in a G-dless universe[1].

Laws 2-4, not cursing G-d’s name, believing in powers other than G-d (such as idol worship), and even adultery[2]are all things that do not cause harm to other individuals. Meanwhile, setting up courts, not stealing or murdering establishes the minimum framework for a functioning society.

What about the first and strangest one, not eating the limb off a live animal? The Maharal explains that this comes to teach us self-control. You must control your appetite and wait for the animal to die before eating it. This issue is more prevalent than one might think: meat processing plants may begin to chop up the freshly killed animal before it finishes twitching, the point at which Jewish law defines the animal as fully dead for this purpose.[3]

This law that teaches self-control stands on its own as a sort of “master law”, since this is the trait required to fulfill all the other laws- without learning self-control there is no way you could resist the various temptations that present themselves. For the same reason, the last of the Ten Commandments is “do not covet”, to teach us that a person without the self-mastery to resist coveting what isn’t his can end up transgressing all other sins.

But we can still break things down further. Why three commandments per category? The Maharal explains that these three commandments serve to perfect and restrain the three elements of a person: their physical body, their soul, and the complete human being that results from the combination of body and soul.

In the man-to-G-d realm, adultery applies to a person’s body, as it is an expression of the desires of one’s physical body; meanwhile, believing in alternative powers applies to the soul, since it can be transgressed through thought alone as opposed to most other sins that require action.

Cursing G-d’s name applies to both, because it strikes at the very root of human existence- man was created to worship God and here he does the exact opposite, denying His very existence. Furthermore, it involves speech, which is the meeting point of thought (thinking of what to say) and action (actually moving the mouth); Judaism teaches that speech is the loftiest of human expressions and that which sets humans apart from all other creatures.

Correspondingly, in the man-to-man dimension: stealing corresponds to a person’s body, since it is a result of a physical urge for something that is not yours.

Setting up courts corresponds to the soul, since, the Maharal explains, it is our soul that yearns for justice and truth and serves as a moral compass for our behaviors; disregarding justice then, is a blow to our soul.

Finally, murder is the ultimate expression of disregard for both body and soul, since it involves the removal of a complete human being from the world. Man was created in G-d’s image and put in this world to serve G-d; therefore, striking down a man corresponds to cursing G-d’s name and denying His existence.

As an interesting final note, there is a Jewish tradition that seven key individuals or societies from early history transgressed against each of these seven laws respectively (e.g. the courts in the city of Sodom were routinely guilty of gross injustice, violating law #5). Correspondingly, from Abraham on came seven individuals who corrected this behavior through fastidious observance of each of these laws (e.g. Joseph showed tremendous self-control when tempted by the wife of Potiphar, thus upholding law #4).

[1] Removing God from the equasion sets the stafe for moral relativity, where absolute truth does not exist and where your opiion –or the opinion of society as a whole- is no more valid than mine. At which point anyone can do whatever they want and still call themselves “a nice person” by their own standards.

[2] Adultery causes no tangible damage to anyone else, especially if the one being cheated on doesn’t even know about it.

[3] Eating meat was only permitted from Noah onwards, hence the name Noahid laws; the prohibition against eating limbs fromlive animals didn’t apply until then. Instead, Adam, the first man, was prohibited from eating from the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ for the same purpose, to teach him self control.