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The Seven Noahide Commandments, and The Additional Three

February 2, 2017

Based on an earlier essay, I would like to offer an answer to two questions that were troubling me for some time.

The first was, how is it that our sages could declare that mankind as a whole was given seven commandments, including six prohibitions, but then proceed to list a number of additional prohibitions? Here are the relevant talmudic passages (starting on Sanhedrin 56a):

Our Rabbis taught: the sons of Noah were charged with seven commandments: [to maintain] civil laws, and the prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry,  close relations, murder, theft, and eating flesh cut from a living animal.

The same is brought by Maimonides in Laws of Kings and their Wars, Chapter 9:1.

R. Hanania b. Gamaliel said: [man was also commanded] not to partake of blood drawn from a living animal.

Maimonides rejects this law.

R. Hidka added the prohibition of castration of animals.

This Halacha was not included by Maimonides, but there were authorities who felt it was binding. (See Even Haezer 5.)

Resh Lakish also said: A heathen who keeps a day of rest, deserves death….R. Simon added sorcery. R. Yose said: The heathens were prohibited everything that is mentioned in the section on sorcery. .. R. Elazar added the forbidden mixture [in plants and animals]: now, they are permitted to wear garments of mixed fabrics [of wool and linen] and sow diverse seeds together; they are forbidden only to hybridize heterogeneous animals and graft trees of different kinds….R. Yohanan said: A gentile who studies the Torah deserves death…Circumcision was originally only commanded  to Abraham only… If so, should it not be incumbent upon the children of Ishmael? …This extends the precept [of circumcision] to the children of Keturah.

The second question was, why does Maimonides include some of these suggestions in his code, but not others? Specifically, Maimonides rules that gentiles should not crossbreed animals or graft plants (Kings and Their Wars 10:6), and they should not keep the Sabbath or study the Torah (ibid. 10:9), but he does rule that the descendants of Keturah are obligated in circumcision. He implicitly rejects all the other suggestions of our sages, like sorcery and castration, etc.

Earlier I wrote this about how, in Maimonidean thought, the prohibition of kilayim is not about creating mixtures which disrupt the order of  creation, but rather, like many other prohibitions, more about repudiating idolatrous practice. Further, there is this wonderful idea brought by the Soncino commentary:

Eisenstein, J. E., V. p. 623. suggests that [the prohibition against gentiles keeping a day of rest] may have been directed against the Christian Jews, who disregarded the Mosaic law yet observed the Sabbath, and quotes Maimonides who advances the following reason: ‘The principle is, one is not permitted to make innovations in religion or to create new commandments. He has the privilege to become a true proselyte by accepting the whole law.’ (ibid.) He also points out that ‘Deserves death’ expresses strong indignation, and is not to be taken literally; [cf. the recurring phrase. ‘He who transgresses the words of the Sages deserves death.’ Ber. 6b.]

That is, the early Christians declared that their religion was open to all, with all the benefits of the Jewish faith without the burden of having to keep the vast majority of the commandments. But they did create a new Sabbath day, Sunday. Before Christianity, gentile religion was its own man-made nonsense, and did not seek to imitate or copy Judaism. Once their religions started to encroach upon ours, the sages sought to stem the tide. This principle then explains the other prohibition brought by Maimonides in the same paragraph. The sages of the second century prohibited gentiles from studying the Torah because the Early Christians also replaced our Torah with their “new” testament.

Taking this further, we can then understand why Maimonides describes all the laws of the seven biblical Noahide commandments in Chapter 9, and then in Chapter 10 brings up the issue of gentiles interbreeding flora and fauna, practicing circumcision, and keeping the Sabbath and studying the Torah. These additional, rabbinic enactments were in response to religious conditions prevalent in the gentile world at the time, and that is the major reason why these prohibitions are not punishable by death. I theorize that Maimonides believed that the sages accepted the prohibition against interbreeding because a prominent gentile cult at the time still practiced interbreeding as a matter of religious practice. He then proceeds to the issue of gentile circumcision because it is one of the major Jewish commandments that is actually practiced in Islam, and we would have expected to the sages or the Geonim to have made an enactment against gentiles practicing religion. However, because certain Abrahamic gentiles are biblically included in the covenant, the sages did not make that enactment. Maimonides then moves on to the commandments adopted by the Christians, and despite the fact that he then rules that gentiles may opt to perform any of the commandments given to the jewish people, the sages ordained that they not observe the Sabbath or study Torah because those were major facets of the new Christianity.




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