"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

Introduction to the Universal Moral Code – Seven Moral Precepts

May 7, 2011

in Judaism vs. Christianity,Noahide - The Ancient Path,Rachav

From Rachav’s Page with permission

Dear Friends,

The breakdown of traditional moral values has become a major issue of discussion and debate in contemporary western society. If we are to discuss this issue from the perspective of Jewish tradition, we need to be aware that, according to the Torah, there is a universal moral code which is the legacy of all the peoples of the earth. This moral code has seven basic precepts which are known as the “Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) states that these precepts were first taught to humanity at the very dawn of human history, beginning with Adam and Eve; however, this code was reaffirmed during the generation of Noah, after the flood, and it  therefore became known as the “Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah.” The Seven Mitzvos are the following:

1. the mandate to establish courts of justice

2. the prohibition against cursing the Divine Name

3. the prohibition against idolatry – the deification of any object, being, or power other than the One God

4. the prohibition against murder

5. the prohibition against incest and adultery

6. the prohibition against theft

7. the prohibition against eating a limb severed from a living animal

Each of these seven precepts actually contain many of the 613 mitzvos which are incumbent upon Jews. For example, in the classical compendium of the 613 mitzvos known as “Sefer Ha-Chinuch,” we find the following comments regarding the 416th mitzva – the prohibition, “You shall not covet”

(Deuteronomy 5:18): “This prohibition applies at all times, in all places, to both men and women, and to all human beings. This is so because it is part of the prohibition against stealing, which is one of the Seven Mitzvos that all human beings are to observe. Make no mistake concerning the enumeration of the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah – these being well-known and recorded in the Talmud – for they are but categories, and they contain many particulars.”

According to Jewish tradition, a human being who fulfills the teachings and precepts of the universal code has achieved a high spiritual level, and Maimonides writes: “Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these Seven Mitzvos and is precise in their observance is considered one of the chassidei umos ha’olam – the righteous among the nations – and will merit a share in the World to Come” ( The Laws of Kings 8:11). Maimonides adds that humanity must also recognize that the Seven Mitzvos were reaffirmed with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The Talmud teaches that a Gentile who studies the Torah in order to understand and fulfill this universal path “is like a Kohen Gadol – a High Priest” (Sanhedrin 59a). The noted commentator on the Talmud, known as “the Meiri,”  explains that the Talmud is calling on us to honor such a person as we would honor a Kohen Gadol. In this spirit, we find the following teaching regarding a Gentile who is diligent in his fulfillment of the laws and principles of the Seven Mitzvos: “Honor him more than you would a Jew who is not involved in the study of Torah” (Sefer Chassidim, 358).

The Meiri, in his commentary cited above, adds that most of the principles of the Torah are contained within the Seven Mitzvos. The Meiri does not elaborate, but if we examine any of the Seven Mitzvos, we can discover basic Torah principles. For example, within the prohibition of idolatry, we can find not only the concept of the Unity of the Creator, but also the related concept of the unity of creation. For the deification of any fragment of creation – whether it be an aspect of nature, a human being, a nation, or humanity itself – can cause human beings to lose their consciousness of the unity and common origin of all creation. Rabbi Abraham Yaffen, a noted teacher of Jewish ethics in the early 20th century, elaborates on this idea in an essay that he wrote about our father, Abraham, and his love for humanity:

“It is precisely he (Abraham), who dedicated his life to acts of lovingkindness, who was also the great zealot who dedicated his life to the negation of idolatry in his generation. The reason for this can be understood: Idolatry is based on the assumption that the various forces within the world are separate one from the other; therefore, each human being is also considered to be separate from his neighbor. Thus, our father, Abraham, found no better strategy to remove this mistaken assumption from their hearts than through acts of lovingkindness. Through this, he strengthened the spiritual bond which connects human beings.” (Mishel Avos – An anthology of Commentary on Pirkei Avos, p. 144)

Rabbi Yaffen adds that when Abraham would see the people of his generation fighting with each other, and how each would offer sacrifices to his own god in order to try to gain support in his struggle against his neighbor, Abraham would teach them that, on the contrary, “each should help his neighbor, for one God created them and desires the honor of all of them.”

If we examine the prohibition against eating a limb severed from a living animal, we can find other basic Torah principles. The Torah teaches that the human being is not the owner of the earth and its creatures; he is only the custodian, and he has no right to cruelly exploit other living creatures for his immediate gratification. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 19th century, writes: “There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man, have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relationship to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows and beating as man. Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul, which has been subjected to him only for the fulfilment of humane and wise purposes…” (Horeb, chap. 60) We therefore find a number of mitzvos of the Torah that mandate concern and consideration for the feelings andinstincts of animals.

What Torah principles are contained within the prohibition against cursing the Divine Name? I would like to suggest that this prohibition reminds thehuman being to revere and respect the Source of all life and wisdom, and it may also include the Torah principle of reverence and respect for parents, elders, and teachers, as they are to serve as sources of life and wisdom in God’s world. Another, related principle is Kavod Ha-Briyos – respect for human beings, as each human being is created in the Divine image. The human soul is a “spark” of the Divine essence; thus, our reverence for the Infinite One is to lead to a sense of reverence and respect for the spark of the Infinite One which is found in all human beings.

This letter is meant to serve as a brief introduction to the universal code of the Torah, and I hope that it will lead to further study and discussion. I would therefore welcome your own ideas and insights on these themes.

Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

 

 

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