Purpose of the 7 Laws
This article is one I have wanted to write for almost 15 years. Since my first encounters and discussions with Noahides I have been thinking of these things. I hope that what I write here will be helpful, but more than that I hope it will inspire those many serious Noahides (and those who desire to be close to the God of the Tenach) to reexamine their actions and motivations for them.
Because of the length I have divided it into two parts. This first one deals with the basic principles involved, while the second expands on them to point out the problems why things did not develop the proper way and some suggestions for Noahides and Rabbis on where to go from here.
One of the biggest problems dealing with Noahides (and more with the Ger people) is that they have no understanding of what the purpose of the 7 laws is. Having spoken and observed Noahides for over 15 years, it seems that the predominant view is that being a Noahide is like Judaism lite. It’s a stage between Christianity, without Jesus and the New Testament, and conversion to full 613 mitzvah observant Judaism. It is seen as a type of Judaism rather than a totally different (and important) way of serving HaShem.
If it is not a streamlined version of Judaism then what is it? In this article I want to examine this issue, not just from the strict halachic perspective but with an eye to give insights on the underlying purpose of the laws.
I believe this is necessary for a few reasons. Primarily is that no Noahide I have discussed with has a clear answer of ‘why’ these 7. If Judaism is the only true religion, then why should there be Noahides at all? This has led to many Noahides feeling they ‘should’ do more, but without being able to give a valid reason why.
What is our purpose in the world?
The most important question we all need to ask is: What does HaShem want of me? What am I, as an individual, here for? Everyone has a specific purpose in their life. HaShem has us here for something. We may not know what it is, but it is there.
For the Jew it is simpler. He has a Torah, a Talmud a Shulchan Aruch, Rabbis and Rebbes. There are many wise and Holy men to go to in order to get advice, and guidance. Every Jew has to consider what path to take. Should I sit and learn my whole life? Should I live in Israel, or somewhere else? A Jew has what he learned at home, at Yeshiva, from his Rabbeiim and Rebbes to guide him in these decisions.
For the non-Jew it is different. There are no ‘Rebbes’ for them. They need to grapple alone with questions like: Does HaShem want him to convert? What is he or she as a non-Jew supposed to do? Why does HaShem have non-Jews anyway?
There are specific goals HaShem has for the individual, there are also general goals for individual nations and mankind as a whole. There is a goal and purpose for the Jewish people, and one for the non-Jews. For the Jewish people it involves keeping 613 mitzvos and for the non-Jew 7. But what is the purpose of these mitzvos? Why this difference?
There have been many seforim written to explain the answer for a Jew. These answers from different perspectives lead to different ways of living within the Torah for Jews. Chassidim, Litvish etc., all have slightly different answers to these questions.
But we remain with this question: What is the fundamental purpose of the 7 commandments? To understand that we need to first examine what is the purpose of the Jewish people as opposed to the rest of the nations of the world. Then use that to see what the purpose of the non-Jew is in HaShem’s plan.
To understand HaShem’s purpose for the Jewish people we need to go all the way back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Before giving the Torah HaShem explains in Exodus 19:5-6 just what the program was to be:
And now if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, you will be for Me a special treasure from among all the peoples because all the world is Mine. You will be for Me a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People. This is what you shall say to the Children of Israel.
There are three terms used for the Jewish people that is to distinguish them from the rest of the nations of the world. Let’s look at each of them in turn to see what they tell us about the role of the Jewish people; to build the contrast to the role of the non-Jewish world.
1. A ‘special treasure.’ Rashi‘s comment here is significant. He describes a treasure as ‘expensive vessels, precious stones that kings hide’. Then he continues and says ‘it does not say you alone are mine and no others… they (Israel) are in my eyes before all others.’ (The Siparno comments similarly to Rashi.)
Here is the classic statement of the ‘chosenness of Israel’. All of creation is important to HaShem, BUT the Jewish people who keep his commandments and uphold his covenant are special above the others. This specialness comes from their acceptance of the Torah in full and keeping it. A non-Jew and even a Jew who does not keep the Torah, does not have this special status.
When we refer to the Jewish people as a light to the gentiles, what does that mean? It means that by keeping the Torah and serving HaShem as he commanded, it becomes revealed to the nations HaShem and the special nature of Israel. This is to attract them to HaShem just as the light attracts those who are in darkness.
2. ‘Kingdom of Priests.’ Rashi says the word ‘priests’ (Kohen) means princes. The Ramban says it means a kingdom of priests ‘to serve me’. The Siparno adds to this: ‘You will be a kingdom of priests to understand and to instruct all the peoples, to all of them in the name of HaShem.’
Here we see that the Jewish people have an exalted state, but the purpose of that is NOT to forcibly rule over others. The Jewish people are the priests in relationship to the rest of the world who are the laity, just as in Israel the Jewish people are divided into the tribe of Levi and the rest of Israel. There are two responsibilities of this position which corresponds to the responsibilities of the priests.
The first is serving HaShem, like the priests did in the temple. The priests would perform daily service to HaShem as representatives of the Jewish people. This would also apply to the whole world, with the Jewish people as a whole performing religious rituals for the rest of the world. (This actually occurred in the times of the Temple when they had a special daily sacrifice specifically for the nations of the world.)
The second refers to another function that was primarily for the priests; that was to learn Torah and to instruct others in Torah.
In ‘payment’ of this the people of Israel would support the priests. They got the tithes. And so the nations are to support the Jewish people who observe HaShem’s Torah.
On the other hand the priests were not given a portion in the land outside of some cities. Similarly we see that Israel as a whole is given the Holy Land for theirs, and the rest of the world is for the non-Jewish nations. But the non-Jewish nations are supposed to help and support Israel because of that.
3. ‘Holy Nation’. The Ramban says on this ‘to attach themselves to the Holy God. As it says “You shall be Holy because I HaShem am Holy. “This is a promise for this world and the next.’
The Ramban is referring to the beginning of the parsha of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) which has the exhortation to Holiness. The Ramban there discusses that ‘holiness’ means separation and refers to the observance of the mitzvos which brings holiness. It is a special burden to keep the commandments, which will bring a special level of holiness to the Jews who keep them. This is not the case with the 7 commandments.
To summarize these two verses we see that HaShem is saying that when the Jewish people will keep His commands in the Torah they will be raised to a special place before Him.
With regards to their relationship to the other nations, they will be separated, by doing the commandments which will bring upon them holiness. They will be charged to be there to teach and instruct in HaShem’s law and provide service to HaShem as an emissary of the nations.
In short, the purpose of the Jewish people is to take care of the ‘spiritual’ needs of this world, and aid the other nations in their relationship with HaShem.
From this we see what the purpose of the non-Jewish nations and peoples is. In the nation of Israel there is a division. The tribe of Levi were involved in the spiritual matters concentrated around the Temple. The rest of the Jewish people worked the land and supported themselves; but also the Levites to allow them to continue in their service of HaShem.
These verses teach us that this division in Israel, corresponds to a similar division in the world as a whole. Both Jew and non-Jew are made in God’s image, but the purpose of the Jew is to serve HaShem in spiritual matters; the job of the non-Jew is to ‘work the land’, i.e. make this world a place where the Jewish people are free to follow HaShem and serve him according to Torah. The non-Jew is supposed to help the Jew to fulfil his purpose in the world, just as the Israelite provides support for the Priest and Levite so they can perform their purpose.
If we look at the 7 laws we see this clearly reflected in them. The first two are dealing with the fundamental rejection of any false gods and beliefs.
1. Not worshipping idols
2. Not cursing HaShem
These two are fundamental to the 7 laws, as they place them firmly in a religious basis: HaShem commanded them to Noach. But these are not religious statutes like the 613. You find no extensive worship commands, as you find in the 613. A recognition of HaShem is implied, but no obligations on the individual. Much like it is with the Jewish people as a whole vis a vis the priesthood.
The other five are also different. They indicate a totally different perspective and purpose for the Noahide as opposed, or better said, in compliment to the Jew. We can see this clearly by looking first at two ways in which we can look at the 613 commandments and see how they relate to the other 5 laws.
The first is a recognition that the 613 laws can be divided into a two classes: those between man and God and those between man and man. The Noahide has a minimal obligation to HaShem. It is basically to not be in defiance of Him by worshipping false gods or cursing Him. It sets up that these laws are from HaShem, but not much more.
The rest are all laws dealing with interrelations. (In this sense not eating from the limb of a living animal is dealing with interrelations with other parts of HaShem’s creation.) The mitzvos between man and man really form the basis for a civil society. Were it not for them, societal order would break down. These 5 laws are 5 general categories necessary for human interrelationships to function properly.
From this we see the primary purpose of a Noahide is to improve his/her actions with regards to other people. Any action which leads to more peace, security, and stability of society is part of the mandate of the 7 commandments to Noach, even if not explicitly one of the 5 or derived from them. This includes their relationship to Jews. Seeking the welfare of the Jewish people as a group and as individuals is a fundamental part of this mandate.
The second way of looking at the mitzvos is by classifying them as either mishpatim’ (laws), ‘eidos’ (witnesses) or ‘chukim’ (decrees).
Mishpatim refers to a set of laws that are obvious and all societies have them in one way or another. The laws against murder and theft are clearly in this class. This is the primary function of the Noahide laws, and the primary purpose of Noahides is to pursue those things that would be called Mishpatim and live accordingly. They are logical and clearly fit in with the important purpose of non-Jews in this world.
Eidos refer to those commandments that are there as witnesses of the things HaShem has done for the Jewish people: The holidays like Passover are a good example. These have no relevance for the Noahide or their purpose, which is why none of the 7 are eidos. However at times there is a logical reason for a non-Jew to do actions that are eidos. For example, giving a prayer of thanksgiving to HaShem for something He did for them, is clearly logical and would be called ‘eidos’. But these are restricted to things HaShem did for the individual Noahide, or possible his nation.
Chukim are decrees that HaShem has decreed for the Jewish people having no rational reason. These also have no relevance for non-Jews. They defy logic and have no purpose but to show full submission to HaShem’s will and commands.
We see that for non-Jews their purpose is to follow the 7 laws and any other ‘laws’ that would further the goal of peace and stability in this world. I will be discussing the issue of ‘adding’ to the 7 mitzvos in another article and will also discuss this idea of what is ‘logical’.
There is another aspect of this. Noahides are expected to be a source of support for the Jewish people. This does not mean financial, (which is allowed) but moral, cultural and ethical. They should try to help Jews to fulfil the commandments given to them. For example, at times it is allowed for a non-Jew to do work for a Jew on Shabbos. (These laws are complex and I will not get into them here.) Doing this for a Noahide, while not part of the 7, is something that brings merit to the Noahide.