The Torah’s Instructions to Non-Jews—The Laws of Bnei Noach
This article is dedicated to the memory of my much beloved and missed brother-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Azar, a very exceptional and popular teacher at various seminaries, who lost his protracted battle with cancer this past week. Rav Yosef leaves behind a widow, my sister Yocheved, and ten children, eight of whom are still living at home; the youngest is only five years old.
Although it may seem strange for a non-Jew to ask a rav
a shaylah, it should actually be commonplace. After all, there are
hundreds of times more non-Jews than Jews in the world, and each one of them
should be concerned about his or her halachic responsibility. Many
non-Jews are indeed 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. It is tragic that
they have been misled into false beliefs and practices.
An entire body of literature discusses the mitzvah
responsibilities of non-Jews. Although it was Adam who was originally commanded
to observe these mitzvos, they are usually referred to as the “Seven Mitzvos
of Bnei Noach,” since all of mankind is descended from Noach.
Furthermore, a Jew should be familiar with the halachos
that apply to a non-Jew, since it is forbidden to cause a non-Jew to transgress
his mitzvos. This is included under the Torah’s violation of lifnei
iver lo sitein michshol, “Do not place a stumbling block before a blind
person.” In this case, this means do not cause someone to sin, if he is blind
to the severity of his violation (Avodah Zarah 6b).
In actuality, a non-Jew must observe more than seven mitzvos.
The “Seven Mitzvos” are really categories; furthermore, there are
additional mitzvos that apply, as we will explain.
The seven cardinal prohibitions that apply to a
1. AVODAH ZARAH
It is forbidden for a non-Jew to worship idols in any
way. Most religions of the world are idolatrous, particularly the major
religions of the East.
Although Christianity constitutes idol worship for a
Jew, there is a dispute whether it is idolatry for a ben Noach. Some poskim
contend that its concepts of G-d do not violate the prohibition against Avodah
Zarah that was commanded to Adam and Noach (Tosafos, Bechoros
2b s.v. Shema; Rama, Orach Chayim 156). However, most later
poskim contend that Christian belief does constitute Avodah Zarah,
even for a non-Jew (Shu’t Noda BiYehudah, Tenina, Yoreh Deah #148; Chazon
Ish, Likutim, Sanhedrin 63b p. 536). In this regard, there is a
widespread misconception among Jews that only Catholicism is Avodah Zarah,
but not Protestantism. This is untrue. Every branch and type of Christianity
includes idolatrous beliefs.
2. GILUY ARAYOS, which prohibits many illicit
3. MURDER, including abortion (Sanhedrin 57b),
suicide, and mercy killing.
4. EIVER MIN HACHAI, eating flesh taken from a
This prohibition includes eating a limb or flesh
removed from an animal while it was alive, even if the animal is now dead.
In the context of this mitzvah, the Rishonim
raise an interesting question. Adam was forbidden to eat meat (see Bereishis
1:29-30), but, after the Flood, Noach was permitted to do so (Bereishis 9:3;
see Rashi in both places). So, why was Adam prohibited from eating flesh
of a living animal, if he was prohibited from eating meat altogether?
Two differing approaches are presented to answer this
question. The Rambam explains that the prohibition to eat meat that was
given to Adam was rescinded after the Flood, and it was then that the
prohibition of Eiver Min HaChai was commanded to Noach for the first
time (Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:1). According to this approach, six of
the present day “Seven Mitzvos” were commanded to Adam, while the
seventh was commanded only at the time of Noach.
Other Rishonim contend that Adam was permitted
to eat the meat of an animal that was already dead, and was prohibited only
from killing animals for food. In addition, he was prohibited to eat
meat that was removed from a living animal, and this prohibition is one of the
“Seven Mitzvos” (Rashi, Sanhedrin 57a s.v. Lemishri and Bereishis
1:29; Tosafos, Sanhedrin 56b s.v. Achal). The first prohibition
was rescinded after the Flood, when mankind was permitted to slaughter animals
for food. Thus, according to the Rambam, Adam was prohibited both from
killing animals and from eating any meat, while according to the other Rishonim,
he was prohibited from killing animals but allowed to eat meat.
Although a non-Jew may not eat the flesh of a living
animal, he may eat blood drawn from a living animal (Rambam, Hilchos
Melachim 9:10; cf. Sanhedrin 56b and 59a, and Rashi, Bereishis
9:3). Some African tribesmen extract blood from their livestock, mix it with
milk, and drink it for a nutritious beverage. Although we may consider this
practice very offensive, it does not in any way violate the mitzvos for
Cursing Hashem. As with his other mitzvos, a
non-Jew may not claim that he was unaware it is forbidden.
This prohibition includes taking even a very small
item that does not belong to him, eating something of the owner’s food on the
job without permission, or not paying his employees or contractors (Rambam,
Hilchos Melachim 9:9). According to some opinions, it includes not paying
his workers or contractors on time (Meiri, Sanhedrin).
7. DINIM, literally, laws.
This mitzvah includes the application of a code of
civil law, including laws of damages, torts, loans, assault, cheating, and
commerce (Ramban, Breishis 34:13; cf. Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:14).
Furthermore, there is a requirement to establish courts in every city and
region, to guarantee that people observe their mitzvos (Sanhedrin
56b; Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:14).
ARE NON-JEWS REQUIRED TO OBSERVE THE COMMERCIAL LAW OF
Does the mitzvah of Dinim require non-Jews to
establish their own system of law, or is the mitzvah to observe and enforce the
Torah’s mitzvos, which we usually refer to as the halachos of Choshen
In a long teshuvah, the Rama (Shu’t #10)
contends that this question is disputed by Amora’im in the Gemara.
He concludes that non-Jews are required to observe the laws of Choshen
Mishpat, just like Jews. Following this approach, a non-Jew may not sue in
a civil court that uses any system of law other than that of the Torah. Instead,
he must litigate in a beis din or in a court of non-Jewish judges who
follow halachic guidelines (see Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 10:11).
Therefore, a non-Jew who accepts money on the basis of civil litigation is
considered stealing, just like a Jew. The Rama’s opinion is accepted by
many early poskim (e.g., Tumim 110:3; Shu’t Chasam Sofer,
Choshen Mishpat #91).
However, the Netziv disagrees with the Rama,
contending that non-Jews are not obligated to observe the laws of Choshen
Mishpat. In his opinion, the Torah requires non-Jews to create their own
legal rules and procedures. Although a Jew is forbidden from using the
non-Jewish court system and laws, according to the Netziv a non-Jew may
use secular courts to resolve his litigation and indeed fulfills a mitzvah when
doing so (HaEmek Shaylah #2:3). Other poskim accept the Netziv’s
position (Chazon Ish, Bava Kama 10:1). Several major poskim
contend that the dispute between the Rama and Netziv is an
earlier dispute between the Rambam and Ramban (Shu’t Maharam
Schick, Orach Chayim #142; Shu’t Maharsham 4:86; Shu’t Avnei
Nezer, Choshen Mishpat #55).
What is a non-Jew to do if he wishes to sue someone?
May he litigate in civil court or must he sue in beis din? Because this
subject is disputed, we would have to decide whether the rule of safek
de’oraysa lechumra (we are strict regarding a doubt concerning a Torah law)
applies to a non-Jew. If the non-Jew asks how to proceed in the most mehadrin
fashion, we would tell him to take his matter to beis din, because this
is permitted (and a mitzvah) according to all opinions.
It should be noted that, according to both opinions, a
non-Jew must observe dina demalchusa dina – laws established by civil
authorities for the common good. Therefore, he must certainly observe tax
codes, traffic laws, building and zoning codes, and regulations against
AN INTERESTING SHAYLAH – BRIBING A DISHONEST JUDGE
The Chasam Sofer (6:14) was asked the following
shaylah: A non-Jew sued a Jew falsely in a dishonest court. The Jew knew
that the non-Jewish judge would rule against him, despite the absence of any
evidence. However, bribing the judge may gain a ruling in the Jew’s favor. May
he bribe the dishonest judge to rule honestly?
rules that it is permitted. The prohibition against bribing a non-Jew is
because he is responsible to have an honest court. However, if the result of
the bribe will be a legitimate ruling, it is permitted. (Of course, the Jewish
litigant must be absolutely certain that he is right.)
In addition to the “Seven Mitzvos,” there are
other activities that are also prohibited to a non-Jew. According to many
opinions, a non-Jew may not graft trees from different species or crossbreed
animals (Sanhedrin 56b; Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 10:6; Meiri
ad loc.; cf. Shach Yoreh Deah 297:3 and Dagul Mei’re’vavah ad
loc.; Chazon Ish, Kelayim 1:1). According to many poskim, a
non-Jew may not even own a grafted fruit tree, and a Jew may not sell him such
a tree, because that would cause a non-Jew to violate his mitzvah (Shu’t
Mahari Asad, Yoreh Deah #350; Shu’t Maharsham 1:179).
Some poskim contend that non-Jews are
prohibited from engaging in sorcery (see Kesef Mishneh, Hilchos Avodah Zarah
11:4). According to this opinion, a non-Jew may not use any type of black
magic, necromancy or fortune telling. However, most opinions disagree (Radbaz,
Hilchos Melachim 10:6).
MAY A NON-JEW OBSERVE MITZVOS?
A non-Jew may not keep Shabbos or a day of rest
(without doing melacha) on any day of the week (Sanhedrin 58b).
The reason for this is subject to dispute. Rashi explains that a non-Jew
is obligated to work every day, because the Torah writes, “Yom Valayla Lo
Yishbosu,” which can be interpreted to mean, “Day and night they (i.e., the
non-Jews) may not rest.” The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 10:9),
however, explains that a gentile is prohibited from making his own holiday or
religious observance, because the Torah is opposed to the creation of man-made
religions. In the words of the Rambam, “A non-Jew is not permitted to
create his own religion or mitzvah. Either he becomes a righteous convert (a ger
tzedek) and accepts the observance of all the mitzvos, or he remains
with the laws that he has, without adding or detracting.” A third reason
mentioned is that a Jew may mistakenly learn from a gentile who keeps a day of
rest, and the Jew may create his own mitzvos (Meiri).
Because of this halacha, a non-Jew studying for
conversion must perform a small act of Shabbos desecration every Shabbos. There
is a dispute among poskim whether this applies to a non-Jew who has
undergone bris milah and is awaiting immersion in a mikvah to
complete his conversion (Shu’t Binyan Tzion #91).
You probably noticed that there are few positive mitzvos
among the non-Jew’s commandments. They are required to believe that the mitzvos
were commanded by Hashem through Moshe Rabbeinu (Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 8:11).
They are also obligated to establish courts. A non-Jew is permitted to observe
the mitzvos of the Torah, with a few exceptions (for example, see Rambam,
Hilchos Melachim 10:10). He is even permitted to offer korbanos (Zevachim
The Gemara states that a non-Jew is not
permitted to study Torah (Sanhedrin 59a). One opinion of the Gemara
explains that the Torah belongs to the Jewish people, and by studying Torah the
gentile is “stealing” Jewish property. However, there are many exceptions to
this ruling. First, a gentile may study all the halachos applicable to
observing his mitzvos (Meiri). Rambam rules that it is a
mitzvah to teach a non-Jew the halachos of offering korbanos, if
he intends to bring them (Rambam, Maasei Hakorbanos 19:16). According to
the Rama’s opinion that a non-Jew must observe the Torah’s civil laws,
the non-Jew may study all the intricate laws of Choshen Mishpat.
Furthermore, since a non-Jew is permitted to observe most mitzvos of the
Torah, some opinions contend that he may learn the laws of those mitzvos
in order to observe them correctly (Meiri, Sanhedrin 58b).
There is a dispute among poskim whether one may
teach a non-Jew Torah if the non-Jew is planning to convert. The Meiri (Sanhedrin
58b) and Maharsha (Shabbos 31a s.v. Amar lei mikra) rule
that it is permitted, whereas Rabbi Akiva Eiger forbids it (Shu’t #41).
Others permit teaching Nevi’im and Kesuvim to non-Jews (Shiltei
HaGibborim, Avodah Zarah 20a, quoting Or Zarua), and other poskim
permit teaching a non-Jew about miracles that the Jews experienced (Shu’t
Melamed Leho’il Yoreh Deah #77).
Incidentally, Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that one is
permitted to teach Torah to Jews while a non-Jew is listening (Shu’t Igros
Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:132). For this reason, he permits conducting a Seder
with a non-Jew in attendance.
OLAM HABA FOR A NON-JEW
A gentile who observes his mitzvos because
Hashem commanded them through Moshe Rabbeinu is called one of the Chassidei
Umos HaOlam and merits a place in Olam Haba. Observing these mitzvos
carefully does not suffice to make a non-Jew into a Chassid. He must observe
his mitzvos as a commandment of Hashem (Rambam, Hilchos Melachim
When I was a congregational rabbi, I often met
non-Jews who were interested in Judaism. I always presented the option of
becoming an observant ben Noach. I vividly recall meeting a woman whose
grandfather was Jewish, but who herself was halachically not Jewish. She
was keeping kosher – no small feat in her town, where there was no Jewish
community. Although she had come to speak about converting, since we do not
encourage conversion I explained the halachos of Bnei Noach to
An even more interesting experience occurred when I
was once making a kashrus inspection at an ice cream plant. A worker
there asked me where I was from, and then informed me that he used to attend a
Reform Temple two blocks from my house! I was surprised, not expecting to find
a Jew in the plant. However, it turned out that he was not Jewish at all, but
had stopped attending church after rejecting its beliefs. Now, he was
concerned, because he had stopped attending the Reform Temple that was far from
his house. I discussed with him the religious beliefs and observances of Bnei
Noach, explaining that they must be meticulously honest in all their
business dealings, just like Jews. I told him that Hashem gave mitzvos
to both Jews and non-Jews, and that Judaism is the only major religion that
does not claim a monopoly on heaven. Non-Jews, too, merit olam haba if
they observe their mitzvos.
Over the years, I have noticed that many churchgoing
non-Jews in the United States have rejected the tenets of Christianity. What
they have accepted is that Hashem appeared to Moshe and the Jewish people at
Sinai and commanded us about His mitzvos. This belief is vital for
non-Jews to qualify as Chassidei Umos HaOlam – they must accept that the
commandments of Bnei Noach were commanded to Moshe (Rambam, Hilchos
As Jews, we do not proselytize to gentiles, nor seek
converts. However, when we meet sincere non-Jews, we should direct them
correctly in their quest for truth by introducing them to the Seven Mitzvos
of Bnei Noach.