Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 2

2. Noahide Idenity in the Modern Era II

2.2. Defining Noahide Identity II

C)    Making Sense of Maimonides’s §10 and §11

The issues in §10, of forcing acceptance and executions, we will deal with later. The immediate issue, the question of Noahide identity, requires an unraveling of §11:

                  11. [D] All who accept the Seven Mitzvos and are careful to observe them are called MiChasidei Umos HaOlam (of the Pious Peoples of the World) [E] and they have a share in the World to Come. [F] This is provided that one accepts and observes them because they were commanded to him by the Holy One, in his Torah, and [G] reaffirmed by Moses. [H] However, one who observes them based on intellectual reason alone is neither called a Ger Toshav nor MiChasidei Umos HaOlam (of the Pious Peoples of the World). [I] He is, rather, “of the wise ones” of the gentiles.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, notes that there is no apparent textual source for this paragraph, writing: “it appears to me that our master made this statement as a result of his own deduction…10  ” Despite this lack, Rabbi Karo agrees with Maimonides’s conclusions.11

Without a textual source,12 scholars have been left to speculate as to Maimonides’s reasoning.13   However, the Sefer Toldos Adam14  records a curious story about Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Volozhin (brother of the famed Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin). A visiting Sephardic Rabbi asked Rabbi Zalman to explain several difficult sections from Maimonides’s writings. When asked about the source of our §11, the author tells us that Rabbi Zalman offered up the following Midrash:

Rabbi Chisda Said: I have heard that the pious of the nations of the world have a share in the world to come. However, we have not been taught so with regard to the wise men of the nations of the world. Who is a pious man from among the nations of the world? He who accepts the seven commandments because they are written in the Torah. A wise man from among the nations of the world, however, is one who observes them based upon his own reason.

Sefer Toldos Adam, however, does not identify this midrash. In fact, since his quotation of it, no one has ever succeeded again in locating it.

In the 20th century, however, the manuscript of a lost midrash, the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer, was discovered and published.15 The Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer16 includes the following  passage:

The Chasidei Umos HaOlam [the Pious of the gentile nations] are only called pious when they when they fulfill the seven mitzvos commanded unto the children of Noah in all of their details. This is provided that they do so saying “we fulfill them because our father Noah commanded us by the mouth of the Mighty One.” If they do so, then they merit the World to Come just as does a Jew. This is so even though they do no keep the Shabbos and Festivals for, after all, they were not commanded in them. But, if they observe them [the seven mitzvos] saying “we heard them from so-and-so” or if they observe them in accordance with their own reason… then they receive their reward only in this world. [Emphasis added.]

This text is the closest parallel in any ancient rabbinic text to our Maimonidean §10. Viewed against the midrash quoted in Sefer Toldos Adam, it appears that the Sefer Toldos Adam’s midrash is either a corrupted or poorly recalled version of this Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer.

Is the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer Maimonides’s source for his §10? It is certainly possible. After all we know that Maimonides was familiar with it.17 However, there are two obvious differences between the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer and that of Maimonides’s §10. The first is that the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer requires acceptance of the Noahide laws because of Noahic revelation, not Sinaitic. The second is that the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer mentions reward in this world for those who keep the Noahide laws according to their own reason.  Maimonides makes no such statement.

Whether or not the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer was relied upon by Maimonides, it nevertheless attests to a tradition validating Maimonides’s concepts.

However, it is also possible that Maimonides’s reasoning is entirely based upon a famous Talmudic passage in Bava Kamma 38a.

According to the Talmud, God altered the reward that Noahides may earn for their mitzvos. Quoting Habakkuk 3:6, Talmud Bava Kama 38a offers the following interpretation:

“He [G-d] arose and judged the land; He saw and released the nations.”18  

[Talmud:] He [G-d] saw the seven commandments that the descendants of Noah had accepted upon themselves. Since they did not observe them, he released them.

According to Rav Yosef this passage teaches that G-d released the non-Jews from the obligation of the Noahide laws. However, the other sages reject this interpretation because it is illogical. The gentiles should be punished for neglecting their laws, not rewarded by being released from them!

Mar, Son of Ravina, proposes another possibility: that even if the gentiles fulfill all their commandments they will never receive reward for doing so. The implication, of course, is that they will still suffer punishment for not keeping their mitzvos. The Talmud also rejects this interpretation, citing Leviticus 18:5 as proof that non-Jews do receive reward for keeping their commandments:

 “That man shall perform and gain life…”

[Talmud:] The verse does not state Kohen, Levi, or Israel, but “Man,” meaning Jews as well as gentiles.

A third interpretation settles the question. In tractate Kiddushin19 the Talmud explains that the reward of a person who fulfills an obligatory mitzvah is greater than the reward of one who fulfills a voluntary mitzvah.20 The Talmud here, in Bava Kamma 38a, concludes that God altered the nature of the reward that gentiles would receive for keeping their commandments. Although gentiles are still obligated to observe the Noahide laws, the Talmud is telling us that the reward they receive is only the lesser reward of one who fulfills a commandment voluntarily.

It appears from the Talmud that gentiles can only receive the lesser reward (of one who fulfills a voluntary commandment), and have no way to merit the greater reward of one fulfills an obligatory commandment. However, the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer tells us that this is not so. If we compare the Talmud’s conclusions to the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer, we see that the latter grants the Talmud’s lesser reward to those who keep the Noahide laws based upon their own reason. It grants the greater reward to those who keep the Noahide  laws because of Noahic revelation. The Mishnas Rabbi Eliezer also tells us that the Talmud’s lesser reward is the temporary reward of this world and the greater reward is the eternal reward of the world to come.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of authorities on Maimonides – Rabbis Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik,21 Meir Simcha HaKohen,22 and Malkiel Tannenbaum23 – independently advanced virtually identical interpretations of §11 that relate it directly back to Bava Kamma 38a.24 Their understanding not only illuminates Maimonides, but also clarifies our understanding of the Talmud.

They explain that the gentile nations were originally bound in their observance of the Noahide laws by force of a Noahic covenant.25 Iteration of the Noahide laws at Sinai, however, nullified this original Noahic covenant, replacing it with a new Sinaitic obligation to observe the Noahide laws. Therefore, when the Talmud states that God “released” the gentiles, it means that He released them from the binding force of this original covenant. In order to become obligated in this new Sinaitic covenant, a gentile must accept this new covenant. After all, the Jews had to accept their Sinaitic covenant.  Once a gentile does so,  he becomes obligated in the Noahide laws and receives his reward as one who is obligated.

Until a gentile accepts this new, Sinaitic affirmation, are we to say that he has no obligation at all to keep the Noahide laws? The Talmud tells us that this is not so. Though the authority of the Noahic covenant was nullified, gentiles are still punished for transgressing the Noahide laws. Were this not the case, gentiles would be profiting from having long neglected the Noahide laws.

The punishment meted for not observing the laws is, therefore, a legal technicality so that the non-Jews should not profit by their transgression. The force of the original covenant, however, is no longer binding. Therefore, there is no covenantal imperative for any gentile to observe the Noahide laws until he accepts the Sinaitic reaffirmation of these laws. Until a gentile makes such an acceptance, any observance of the Noahide laws is voluntary, and his reward (the temporary reward of this world) is commensurate with this fact. Once  a gentile accepts the Noahide laws as per the Sinaitic reaffirmation, he becomes bound by them and receives the higher reward of one who fulfills obligatory commandments.

This interpretation outlines for us a timeline of Noahide obligation:

      1. Sixth day of creation – The original Adamic/Noahic covenant. God gives the seven laws to Adam (according to Tosafos). According to Maimonides, the original Adamic/Noahic covenant consisted of six commandments only.

      2. Cessation of the great flood – The Adamic/Noahic covenant is transmitted via Noah to the new world (according to Tosafos). According to Maimonides, the seventh commandment (prohibiting flesh torn from a living animal) is given at this time.

      3. The Torah is given at Sinai – The Noahic covenant, largely ignored by man, was nullified by the new Sinaitic covenant. Since the original, obligatory force of the Noahic covenant no longer applied, any who observed the Noahide laws were essentially doing so voluntarily. Nevertheless, non-Jews were still held liable for transgressions of the Noahide laws. This is so that they should not be rewarded for having neglected the original covenant. It was also, apparently, to give incentive to accept the new covenant.

     4. Whenever a gentile accepts the Sinaitic covenant – at this point he becomes fully obligated in the new Sinaitic covenant of the Noahide laws. Therefore, he receives the reward of one who is obligated in his commandments.

Maimonides could have derived §11 from this understanding of the Talmud Bava Kamma 38a. All that remains then is to explain the equating of the Talmud’s greater reward with that of the World to Come. The Mishnas Rabbi Eliezer may serve as a source for just that.

But what about Maimonides’s requirement that gentiles accept their laws based on Sinaitic reaffirmation rather than Noahic covenant? Maimonides’s disagreement with the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer on this point is not surprising. The Talmud and its commentaries discuss the nullification of the original Noahic covenant and reaffirmation of the Noahide laws in Sanhedrin 59a. This is necessary to explain the repetition of the Noahide laws at Sinai. Maimonides states his view clearly in his Commentary on the Mishnah:26

All that we do or do not do is solely because of the command of the Holy One, blessed is He, through our teacher Moses, may peace be upon him, and not because the Hole One, blessed is He, stated it to any prophet who came before him. For example, we do not eat limbs torn from living animals because God forbade it to Noah, but rather because Moses forbade it to us at Sinai by affirming that [it] remains in effect. Similarly, we do not circumcise because our forefather Abraham, may peace be upon him, circumcised himself and his household, but rather because the Holy One, blessed is He, commanded us through Moses, may peace be upon him. So too with the sciatic nerve; we do not obey this prohibition because of our forefather Jacob, but because of the command of our teacher Moses, may he rest in peace.

We see here that Maimonides acknowledges that the Noahide laws were binding before Sinai. However, Maimonides is telling us that their covenantal status changed from Noahic to Sinaitic at the giving of the Torah. While this paragraph speaks of the Jewish obligation to keep the original Noahide laws based on Sinaitic revelation, §11 clarifies that this is also true of the Noahide obligation.

On this interpretation of Maimonides’s, and the requirement that Noahides accept their obligations based upon the Sinaitic reaffirmation, there is very little disagreement among later authorities.27

Lastly, how do we explain Maimonides’s omission of reward for one who observes these commandments based on reason? The sources we have cited thus far agree that the “wise people of the nations” receive reward for their observance of the Noahide laws (it is, though, only the lesser temporary reward of this world). They explain that Maimonides’s omission does not imply his rejection of the concept. It is likely, given that §11 is  discussing an obligation upon the gentiles to accept the Noahide laws based on Sinaitic revelation, that it was not the place to discuss any reward for non-acceptance of these laws.

Additionally, since the Talmud has already drawn clear conclusions regarding the lower reward, Maimonides is coming only to explain the mechanism by which non-Jews may merit the eternal reward of the World to Come.


10 Kesef Mishnah ad loc.

11 The inability to locate sources for Maimonides’s rulings does not automatically disqualify them. See the responsa of the Rivash, Maharalbach, and Rosh who discuss many examples.

12 Maimonides, in his Teshuvos HaRambam I:148 (ed. Blau 1957) references our §10 and §11, alluding to a Braisa shel Rebbi Eliezer ben Yaakov as his source. However, Maimonides seems to tie this source only to the idea of forcing acceptance of the Noahide laws (§10). Additionally, no one has every located this Braisa shel Rebbi Eliezer ben Yaakov. See note 16, below.

13 See, for example, the letter from Rabbi Yaakov Emden in Moses Mendelssohn’s Gesammelte Schriften, No. 16 (Berlin, 1929). Rabbi Emden exchanged correspondence on the interpretation of §10 with Moses Mendelssohn, the intellectual father of Reform Judaism. Mendelssohn was deeply unsettled by this paragraph and wrote to Emden seeking assistance. Rabbi Emden proposed three possible derivations; however, these are difficult to understand and poorly supported.

14 By Rabbi Yechezkel Feivel. VI 35a. The Sefer Toldos Adam is a biography of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Volozhin.

15 Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer oh Midrash Sheloshim VeShtayim Middos. Ed. H. G. Enelow. Bloch Publishing New  York, 1933. As mentioned in note 12, Maimonides mentions a Braisa shel Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov in connection with §10. However, this Braisa shel Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov cannot be the same text as the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer. For one, the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer contains no material similar to that of §10. Additionally, the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer is attributed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosi HaGlili, not ben Yaakov. Furthermore, Maimonides was aware of the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer as a text independent of the Braisa shel Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov. We know this because Maimonides quotes it explicitly as the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer ben Yosi HaGlili in his Sefer HaMitzvos, Mitzvos Aseh 5. There is an extant manuscript of a Braisa shel Rebbi Eliezer (MS Vatican). However, this text appears to be part of the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer (of ben Yosi HaGlili) and not the Braisa shel Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov. Michael Higger, writing in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jul., 1936), pp. 63-67, identifies the rediscovered Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer as a comingling of two earlier texts: the Midrash Agur and this Braisa Shel Rabbi Eliezer. Admittedly, there is some confusion as to the title of the Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer, it being referred to by a number of names in the literature. See, Encyclopedia Talmudit, VI, 290, 11 on the identification of the Braisa shel Rebbi Eliezer, Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer, and other texts.

16 Enelow, p. 121.

17 Maimonides quotes from it in his Sefer HaMitzvos, Mitzvos Aseh 5.

18 The Talmud understands the word va-yatir, “tremble,” also meaning “he released.”

19 31a.

20 The rationale is that someone who voluntarily performs a mitzvah receives less reward because he did not satisfy any specific will of God. However, one who performs an obligatory commandment has satisfied God’s specific will and is rewarded commensurately (see Tosafos HaRosh and Chiddushei HaRitva to Kiddushin 31a; see also Tosafos Tokh). Another explanation is that the yetzer hora – the evil inclination – opposes the performance of an obligatory commandment more than it opposes a non-obligatory commandment. Accordingly, one must pay more attention and expend more effort in the proper fulfillment of an obligatory mitzvah (see Tosafos to Avodah Zarah 3a, d.h. gadol and Tosafos HaRosh to Kiddushin 31a).

21 Chiddushei Riz HaLevi, Mikhtavim, last letter.

22 Chiddushei Ohr Somayach to Hilkhos Issuei Biah 14:7.

23 Published posthumously in Torah SheBaal Peh XV (1973). Rabbi Tannenbaum (1847 – 1910) was the Rabbi of Lomze, Poland, and a famed posek, decisor of Torah law.

24 A near identical understanding of Bava Kama 38a, predating these scholars by about 600 years, is also proposed by Rabbi Yom Tov Asevilli in his Chiddushei HaRitva to Makkos 9a.

25 See note 6 above.

26 To Chullin 7:6.

27 See Chazon Ish Sheviis 24:2 and to Hilkhos Avodas Kokhavim 65:2. Ritva and Ramban to Makkos 9b;  Teshuvos HaRashbash 543; Zvi Hirsch Chajes in Toras HaNeviim 11; Zekhusa D’Avraham 21; VeShav HaKohen 38.