Noahide Halacha 101
Today, I will be meeting someone who is extremely concerned and knowledgeable about halacha, yet doesn’t even keep a kosher home. Neither has he ever observed Shabbos. On the other hand, he is meticulous to observe every detail of Choshen Mishpat.
Who is this individual?
Allow me to introduce you to John Adams who is a practicing Noahide, or, as he prefers to call himself, an Adamite.
Adams asserts that he descends from the two famous presidents, a claim that I have never verified and have no reason to question. Raised in New England and a graduate of Harvard Law School, John rejected the tenets of the major Western religions but retained a very strong sense of G-d’s presence and the difference between right and wrong. Study and introspection led him to believe that G-d probably had detailed instructions for mankind, and sincere questioning led him to discover that of the Western religions, only Judaism does not claim a monopoly on heaven. A non-Jew who observes the Seven Laws taught to Noah and believes that G-d commanded them at Har Sinai has an excellent place reserved for him in olam haba.
John began the practice of these laws. John is quick to point out that, with only one exception, these laws were all commanded originally to Adam. Since John is proud of his family name and lineage, he likes calling himself an Adamite.
What are the basics of Noahide practice?
We all know that a gentile is required to observe seven mitzvos, six of them prohibitions, to avoid: idolatry, incest, murder, blasphemy, theft, and eiver min hachai (which we will soon discuss), and the seventh, the mitzvah of having dinim, whose nature is controversial. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah #416) and others note that these seven mitzvos are actually categories, and a non-Jew is really required to observe several dozen mitzvos.
Kosher, Noah style
I asked John if eating meat presents any religious problems for him.
“Well, you know that Noah was prohibited from eating meat or an organ that was severed before the animal died, a prohibition you call eiver min hachai,” said John, obviously proud that he could pronounce the expression correctly. “So sometimes I come across meat that I may not eat. The following question once came up: Moslem slaughter, called halal, involves killing the animal in a way that many of its internal organs are technically severed from the animal before it is dead. Because of this, we are very careful where we purchase our organ meats.”
May a Noahide Eat Out?
“This problem went even further,” John continued. “Could we eat in a restaurant where forbidden meats may have contaminated their equipment?”
I admit that I had never thought of this question before. Must a gentile be concerned that a restaurant’s equipment absorbed eiver min hachai? Does a Noahide needs to “kasher” a treif restaurant before he can eat there? Oy, the difficulty of being a goy!
“How did you resolve this dilemma?” I timidly asked.
“Well, for a short time our family stopped eating out,” he replied. “You could say that we ate only treif at home. My wife found the situation intolerable – no MacDonald’s or Wendy’s? Although I know that observant Jews do not understand why this is such a serious predicament, but please bear in mind that we made a conscious decision not to become Jewish. One of our reasons was that we enjoy eating out wherever we can.
“So I decided to ask some rabbis I know, but even then the end of the road was not clearly in sight.”
“Why was that?”
“I had difficulty finding a rabbi who could answer the question. From what I understand, a rabbi’s ordination teaches him the basics necessary to answer questions that apply to kosher kitchens. But I don’t have a kosher house – we observe Adamite laws. As one rabbi told me, ‘I don’t know if Noahides need to be concerned about what was previously cooked in their pots.’”
“How did you resolve the predicament?”
How treif is treif?
“Eventually, we found a rabbi who contended that we need not be concerned about how pots and grills were previously used. He explained that we could assume that they had not been used for eiver min hachai in the past 24 hours, which certainly sounds like a viable assumption, and that therefore using them would only involve the possibility of a rabbinic prohibition, and that we gentiles are not required to observe rabbinic restrictions. The last part makes a lot of sense, since there is nothing in the Seven Laws about listening to the rabbis, although I agree that they are smart and sincere people. [Note: I am not certain who it was that John asked. According to Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #19 (at end), there would be no heter to use pots that once absorbed eiver min hachai. There are poskim who disagree with Chasam Sofer (see Darchei Teshuvah 62:5), but many of these hold that there is no prohibition altogether with a gentile using pots absorbed with eiver min hachai.]
“The result is that we now go out to eat frequently, which makes my wife very happy. It was a good decision for our marital bliss, what you call shalom bayis. Although I understand that this is another idea we are not required to observe, it is good, common sense.”
Milah in the Adams Family
When John’s son was born, he raised an interesting shaylah. To quote him: “Circumcision as a religious practice originates with G-d’s covenant with Abraham, the first Jew. But my covenant with G-d predates Abraham and does not include circumcision. However, even though there was no religious reason for my son to be circumcised, my wife and I thought it was a good idea for health reasons. On the other hand, I know that many authorities forbid a gentile, which I technically am, from observing any commandments that he is not specifically commanded (see Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 10:9).”
John is a very gregarious type, and loves to explain things fully. “We actually had two concerns about whether we could circ John Jr. The second one was that many authorities contend that the seventh mitzvah of instating ‘Laws,’ which you call ‘Dinim,’ includes a prohibition against injuring someone (Ramban, Genesis, oops, I mean Bereishis 34:13). According to this opinion, someone who hits someone during a street fight may lose his world to come for violating one of our seven tenets. I have come too far to risk losing my share in the world to come, so I try very hard not to violate any of the laws. I called some rabbis I know to ask whether there was any problem with circumcising my son for health reasons. The rabbi I asked felt that since we are doing this for medical reasons, it is similar to donating blood or undergoing surgery. The upshot was that we did what no self-respecting Jew should ever do: We had a pediatrician circumcise John Jr. on the third day after his birth, to emphasize that we were not performing any mitzvah.”
Proud to show off his Hebrew, John finished by saying: “So we had a milah, but no bris. We also decided to skip the bagels and lox. Instead, my wife and I decided it was more appropriate to celebrate with shrimp cocktails, even though primordial Adam didn’t eat shrimp. All types of meat were only permitted to Noah after the Deluge, which you call the mabul. I believe that some authorities rule that Adam was permitted road kill and was only prohibited from slaughtering, while others understand he had to be strictly vegetarian. My wife and I discussed whether to go vegetarian to keep up the Adams tradition, but decided that if meat was ‘kosher’ enough for Noah, it is kosher enough for us. We decided we weren’t keeping any stringent practices even if they become stylish.”
Earning a Living
“Have you experienced any other serious dilemmas due to your being an ‘Adamite?’”
“Oh, yes. I almost had to change my career.”
I found this very curious. As John Adams seemed like an honest individual, it seemed unlikely that he had made his living by stealing or any similar dishonest activity.
Non-Jews are forbidden to perform abortions, which might affect how a Noahide gynecologist earns a living, but John is a lawyer, not a doctor. Even if John used to worship idols or had the bad habit of blaspheming, how would that affect his career?
May a Gentile Practice Law?
John’s research into Noahide law led him to the very interesting conclusion that his job as an assistant district attorney was halachically problematic. Here is what led him to this conclusion.
One of the mitzvos, or probably more accurately, categories of mitzvos, in which a Noahide is commanded in the mitzvah of dinim, literally, laws. The authorities dispute the exact definition and nature of this mitzvah. It definitely includes a requirement that gentile societies establish courts and prosecute those who violate the Noahide laws (Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 9:4; Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:14). Some authorities contend that the mitzvah of dinim prohibits injuring or abusing others or damaging their property (Ramban, Breishis 34:13).
However, this dispute leads to another issue that was more germane to John’s case. There is a major dispute among halachic authorities whether Noahides are governed by the Torah’s rules of property laws, which we refer to as Choshen Mishpat (Shu”t Rama #10), or whether the Torah left it to non-Jews to formulate their own property and other civil laws. If the former is true, a non-Jew may not sue in a civil court that uses any system of law other than the Torah. Instead, he must litigate in a beis din or in a court of non-Jewish judges who follow halachic guidelines. Following this approach, if a gentile accepts money based on civil litigation, he is considered as stealing, just as a Jew is. This approach is accepted by many early poskim (e.g., Tumim 110:3). Some authorities extend this mitzvah further, contending that the mitzvos governing proper functioning of courts and civil laws apply to Noahides (Minchas Chinuch #414; 415). Following this approach, enforcing a criminal code that does not follow the Torah rules violates the mitzvah of dinim.
As John discovered, some authorities extend this idea quite far. For example, one of the mitzvos of the Torah prohibits a beis din from convicting or punishing someone based on circumstantial evidence (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #290; Sefer HaChinuch #82). If the same applies to the laws of dinim, a gentile court has no right to use circumstantial evidence (Minchas Chinuch #82, #409). Thus, John was faced with an interesting predicament. According to these opinions, a gentile who prosecutes because of circumstantial evidence might violate the Seven Mitzvos of Noah even if the accused party appears to be guilty. It is understood that according to these opinions, one may not prosecute for the violation of a crime that the Torah does not consider to be criminal, or to sue for damages for a claim that has no halachic basis.
Napoleonic Code and Halacha
On the other hand, other authorities contend that non-Jews are not obligated to observe the laws of Choshen Mishpat; but instead the Torah requires them to create their own legal rules and procedures (HaEmek Shaylah #2:3; Chazon Ish, Bava Kamma 10:1). These authorities rule that gentiles perform a mitzvah when creating a legal system for themselves such as the Napoleonic Code, English Common Law, or any other commercial code. Following this approach, a non-Jew may use secular courts to resolve his litigation and even fulfills a mitzvah by doing so. Thus, John could certainly continue his work as a D.A. and that it would be a mitzvah for him to do so.
It is interesting to note that following the stricter ruling in this case also creates a leniency. According to those who rule that a gentile is not required to observe the laws of Choshen Mishpat, a gentile may not study these laws, since the Torah prohibits a gentile from studying Torah (see Tosafos, Bava Kamma 38a s.v. karu; cf., however, that the Meiri, Sanhedrin 59a, rules that a gentile who decides to observe a certain mitzvah may study the laws of that mitzvah in order to fulfill it correctly.) However, according to those who contend that the mitzvos of dinim follow the laws of Choshen Mishpat, a gentile is required to study these laws in order to observe his mitzvos properly (Shu”t Rama #10)).
The rabbis with whom John consulted felt that a gentile could work as a district attorney. However, John had difficulty with this approach. He found it difficult to imagine that G-d would allow man to make such basic decisions and felt it more likely that mankind was expected to observe the Torah’s civil code. He therefore gravitated to the opinion of those who held that gentiles are required to observe the laws of Choshen Mishpat. As a result, he felt that he should no longer work in the D.A.’s office, since his job is to prosecute based on laws and a criminal justice system that the Torah does not accept.
“What did you do?”
“I decided to ‘switch sides’ and become a defense attorney, which has a practical advantage because I make a lot more money.”
“How do you handle a case where you know that your client is guilty?”
“Firstly, is he guilty according to halachah? Did he perform a crime? Is there halachically acceptable evidence? If there is no halachically acceptable evidence, he is not required to plead guilty. Furthermore, since none of my clients are Noahides or observant Jews, they can’t make it to heaven anyway, so let them enjoy themselves here. Even if my client is guilty, the punishment determined by the court is not halachically acceptable. It is very unclear whether jail terms are halachically acceptable punishment for gentiles. Philosophically, I was always opposed to jail time. I think that there are better ways to teach someone to right their ways than by incarceration, which is a big expense for society.”
Interesting Noahide Laws
“Have you come across any other curious issues?”
“Here is a really unusual question I once raised,” John responded. “Am I permitted to vote in the elections for a local judge? According to some authorities, the Torah’s prohibition against appointing a judge who is halachically incompetent applies equally to gentiles (Minchas Chinuch #414). Thus, one may not appoint a judge to the bench who does not know the appropriate Torah laws, which precludes all the candidates. When I vote for one of those candidates, I am actively choosing a candidate who is halachically unqualified to judge. I therefore decided that although there are authorities who rule this is permitted, and that therefore it is permitted to vote, I wanted to be consistent in my position. As a result, I vote religiously, but not for judgeships.
“John, did you ever consider becoming Jewish?”
“First of all, I know that the rabbis will discourage me from becoming Jewish, particularly since I don’t really want to. I know exactly what I am required to keep and I keep that properly. I have no interest in being restricted where and what I eat, and I have no interest in observing Shabbos, which, at present, I may not observe anyway, and that is fine with me (Gemara Sanhedrin 58b). I am very willing to be a ‘Shabbos goy’— and I understand well what the Jews need — but it is rare that I find myself in this role. Remember, I do not live anywhere near a Jewish community.
Although I have never learned how to read Hebrew – why bother, I am not supposed to study Torah anyway – I ask enough questions from enough rabbis to find out all I need to know.
Although it seems strange for a non-Jew to ask a rav a shaylah, this should actually be commonplace. Indeed, many non-Jews are concerned about their future place in Olam Haba and, had the nations not been deceived by spurious religions, many thousands more would observe the mitzvos that they are commanded. When we meet sincere non-Jews, we should direct them correctly in their quest for truth. Gentiles who observe these mitzvos because Hashem commanded them through Moshe Rabbeinu are called “Chassidei Umos HaOlam” and merit a place in Olam Haba.