Seven Laws as Categories

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Various rabbinic sources have different positions on the way the seven laws are to be subdivided in categories, but the general consensus is that the seven laws are broad categories containing within them many subdivisions and further divided into specific laws. The comparison is between the 10 commandments and the 613 specific laws, to 7 the Noahide laws and a much larger (not specified) number of specific laws.

Expansion and categorization is not the only way to expand Noahide Law to cover every legislative area, additional laws are also made by "decree". This is discussed further in Imperative of Legal System.

Even so, Maimonides claims there is a relationship between the six laws and the Imperative of Legal System, the latter being used to enforce (define and limit) the former.

Rabbi Yaakov Anatoli (1194-1256)

When the Noahites were enjoined concerning Justice, they were put under obligation to create legal arrangements .... It is incumbent on the judges to draw up rules of equity that shall be appropriate for that particular country, as exemplified by the manner in which this matter is handled currently by the nations, severally. Likewise, it is incumbent upon merchants and upon the members of the trades to establish regulations for themselves... and whatever emerges as the law in this manner is law, as much as that which is written in the Bible. Furthermore, anyone violating this law violates Scripture, because Scripture commands the individual to accept the decisions of the contemporary jurists. The dictum, "The law of the land is the Law," relates to this concept. [1]

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein

In Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein's opinion it is possible to defines all seven laws with the view towards establishing the extent to which they, severally, correspond to the Jewish law directed at Jews. His study seeks to resolve the question raised in the correspondence as to the categorization of the Laws of Noah. He sought to prove that the earliest sources on Noahism, and the writers who deal with these sources conscientiously, view the seven categories as subject heads for a mass of legal dicta. Similarly it weeks to prove that the volume of Noahide Law is greater - when compared to the volume of Israelite Law - than a ratio of 7 to 613 would indicate. The following chapters, then, will demonstrate the breadth of Noahic legislation.[2]

Admonished Generally

The Hinnuch, Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona, in his compendium of the six hundred thirteen commandments, under Commandment 424 (Io titaveh) which grows out of the Deuteronomy 5:18 verse "Do not desire you neighbor's home," writes as follows:

Likewise then, we say that since they are commanded concerning Theft, they are also commanded concerning. The deterrents to its transgression…
Now, it is not my intention to state that the Noahite is admonished against this [desiring] under a distinct imperative - for he is not subject to specific imperatives like the Israelite - but that he is admonished generally concerning the Seven Laws, as if to say, for example: "Let no man approach his close relative, neither his mother, nor his sister, etc." Similarly, concerning Idolatry, he is prohibited in a general sense. And thus too concerning stealing, it is as if he is told: "Do not steal rather avoid stealth completely," and not to covet is part of not stealing. But it is not thus for the Israelite… So it is that even when we are already subject to a command (in a general way] we are also bound by specific positive and negative commandments…

This idea has been re-stated briefly by Elijah Benamozegh in the following words:

Quel que soit le nombre des preceptes noachides, il est certain que chacun d'eux represente non pas un commandement unique, mais tout un groupe d'obligations de meme nature.
Whatever the number of the Noahide precepts, it is certain that each represents not just a single commandment, but a unit of similar obligations.[3]

Many of 613 commandments belong to Noahide Law

The statement of Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona on how a considerable number of the 613 commandments are integrated into the Seven Laws. In view of the sixty-six commandments which have been identified as belonging to Noahide Law, his explanation achieves its full significance:

Make no mistake about the enumeration of the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah - these being well known and recorded in the Talmud - for they are but categories and they contain many particulars. Thus, you find that the prohibitions relative to sexual relations are grouped into one command, which has, however, a number of specifics, such as the prohibition concerning one's mother, or a mother's sister, or a married woman, or a father's wife, or homosexuality, or bestiality. Similarly, in the realm of Idolatry they have but one command which has many parts, for they are like Israelites in this realm

It becomes apparent then that a comparison between just seven Noahide laws and six hundred thirteen Mitzvoth cannot be invoked as a supposed indication of the relative limitedness' of the Noahide system, for the seven Noahide laws refer to seven broad areas of legislation, whereas each of the six hundred thirteen refers to a separate, specific, narrowly-construed statute. That is to say, the word "law" as found in the term "Seven Laws" refers to a broad legislative area; the word "commandment" as found in the term "Six Hundred Thirteen Commandments" refers to a stark legal dictum which qualified as a mere bylaw of the broader area.

613 from 10 commandments, as 66 (or more) from 7 laws

The structural arrangement by which some sixty-six laws are grouped around seven title laws is a conceptualization that seems basic in Jewish legal thought, for it has an exact parallel in the literature of the Gaonites, the immediate heirs to the talmudic learning. Saadiah Gaon (circa 900) authored a small book in poetry which sets up the Ten Sinaitic Commandments as the ten basic laws of the Torah, around which the six hundred thirteen laws, as offshoots of the former, find their designated spots. In the first stanza of the poem, Saadiah expresses this idea as follows:

A consuming fire
That flashes through every stream,
Such fire His words are
And such His flames,
A profusion- of commands radiating from each command,
For in His wisdom He invested
The ten proclamations with six hundred thirteen commands,
To inform how the words of God
Are words in perfection.

In view of this parallel in the structure of the Noahicle and Israelite systems, it is not surprising to find that they also exhibit parallel qualities in an intrinsic characteristic, that of breadth of scope. What this points to is the perception that the Noahide system is an all encompassing one. Noahic law does not limit itself to just some of the legal areas but it has something to say about every sphere which the Talmudists consider appropriate for legislation. In other words, when the Noahide laws are placed together, side by side, they touch on every legislative realm which is identified as such by the Talmudists. This idea is sustained by a perusal of the sixty-six laws which have been shown to be offshoots of the seven title laws, and in noting how vast a range they achieve collectively.

Noahide Law must cover every legislative area

Several illustrations of the view that Noahide law is expected to touch on every legislative area have been mentioned. One such example is Reuben Margolioth's remark, which begins:

"Justice, Blasphemy, Idolatry..." it is astonishing that there is no mention here of that principal principle, the most fundamental of fundamentals: the belief in the existence of God!

An early source exhibiting this attitude is the statement of Nisim Gaon, as follows:

Whatever is a matter of common sense and native intelligence has been encumbent upon mankind from the very day that God placed man on earth...

A third example of this attitude is apparent in the manner in which the Talmud introduces the question, "Are Noahites obligated to sanctify the Name, or are they not obligated to sanctify the Name?" This question is introduced in the midst of a discussion devoted to martyrdom in Jewish law, and its interjection comes without the slightest hint of concern for the possibility that Noahism may have nothing to say about the subject of martyrdom. Apparently the Talmudists were envisioning the Seven Noahide Laws as an all-embracing sytem, and much more than a combination of seven unrelated statutes.

Not limited to biblical Commandments

At this point it may be useful to explain that the sixty-six Commandments which were cited as having application for Noahide Law are clearly not to be thought of as biblical Commandments, as such, functioning in Noahism. This is not so, for it is only in effect that any Mosaic Commandment can be said to operate under Noahism. The 613 Commandments are singular technical apparati of the Israelitish system, and the Noahide system does not concern itself with them, intrinsically. As early a source as the Midrash Rabbah spells this out:

Rabbi Issi said: Every prohibition which is written in reference to the children of Noah is neither a positive nor a negative command.

It is apparent from the context that Rabbi Issi is reasoning as follows: If Noahic prohibitions were constructed in a fashion paralleling Mosaic Negative Commands, then one should not be able to base the Noahic adultery prohibition on the citation, "He shall cleave to his wife - but not his neighbor's wife," because a negative inference from a positive statement may never constitute the textual basis for a Mosaic Negative Command. However, since the Midrash Rabbah accepts the aforementioned citation, one must conclude that the Mosaic Commandment, as such, plays no role in Noahide legalistics. Thus it is only in effect that specific Commandments have been shown to be operative in Noahism. Simply put this would mean that both the individual who is subject to Israelite law and the individual who is subject to Noahide law might be required to act in essentially the same manner in specific instances.

However, although they act the same in such instances, the Israelite is responding to the demands of one or more of the Six Hundred Thirteen Commandments, whereas the Noahite is responding to the demands of the Seven Laws and their derivatives. Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona undertook to clarify the nature of the role played by the biblical command in the context of the Noahide system. His position is in consonance with that of Rabbi Issi, as a re-reading of The Hinnuch on Imperative 424 will establish:

...Now, it is not my intention to state that the Noahite is admonished against this [desiring] under a distinct imperative - for he is not subject to specific imperatives like the Israelite - but that he is admonished generally concerning the Seven Laws, as if to say, for example: "Let no man approach his close realtive, neither his mother, nor his sister, etc." Similarly, concerning Idolatry, he is prohibited in a general sense. And thus too concerning stealing, it is as if he is told: "Do not steal; rather avoid stealth completely," and not to covet is part of not stealing...

Lowest Common Denominator in International Law

Essentially then, our use of the Mosaic command in a Noahic framework was limited to providing a lowest common denominator in structuring a method for comparing the Jew's and the non-Jew's obligation under Hebrew law. Thus, it would not be inaccurate to look upon the Mosaic command as an artificial device where Noahic legalistics are concerned.

It may be appropriate at this juncture to give attention to the number "seven" in the term "the seven laws of the sons of Noah", and to discuss to what extent there is agreement that the Noahide dicta are to be conceived of as structured along the lines of seven main divisions. The analysis that follows will center on tanaitic materials. These early sources reveal that there existed among the Tanaim a divergence of opinion on whether or not the number "seven" is basic to the structure of Noahide Law. Nonetheless, an attentive reading of the sources leads to the understanding that, in spite of the objections raised here and there in the literature, the concept of there being seven laws was able to muster such a clear, authentic tradition in its support that it was accepted by the Amoraim and subsequent writers as the only correct view. The Braitha of Sanhedrin 57, and the Tosefta at the end of Abodah Zarah record what are probably the earliest explicit mentions of the Noahide laws as being seven in number. Each of these sources begins with the statement: "Seven precepts were the sons of Noah commanded. The standard seven laws are then enumerated, with the Limb of a Living Creature being cited last. At this point Rabbi Hanania ben Gamaliel is quoted as also prohibiting the consumption of the blood of a living creature. The text does not however state that the blood of a living being constitutes an eighth precept for Rabbi Hanania ben Gamaliel. Furthermore, since the Limb of a Living Creature is recorded just prior to Rabbi Hanania's addition, it is quite possible that for Rabbi Hanania the blood of a living creature is to be regarded as but an integral part of the Limb of a Living Creature restriction. Of course, it is also possible that Rabbi Hanania ben Gamaliel's intent was to compile eight laws. Still, no clear position to this effect was expressed.

The next opinion quoted is that of Rabbi Hidka, who adds the prohibition against castration. Castration has no counterpart in the standard seven laws, and surely Rabbi Hidka was introducing castration as a new and separate item. However, as weighty a phrase as "the Eight Laws of Noah" is still conspicuously missing. The same observation holds true for the ensuing opinions of Rabbi Simeon, who adds sorcery; of Rabbi Jose, who adds all the sorcery-lined restrictions; and of Rabbi Eleazar, who adds crossbreeding. For none of these opinions is a tabulation made, and one can affirm that nowhere in the Braitha and Tosefta is there a contradiction to the view that the number seven is the key to the structure of Noahide Law.

Exactly Seven Noahide Laws

Due scrutiny of yet another tanaitic pronouncement – that of the Tana Debe Menashe - will serve to further illustrate the strength of the tradition which supports the concept of there being exactly seven Noahide laws. The Tana Debe Menashe strikes Blasphemy and justice from the standard seven and replaces these two items with the prohibitions against castration and against crossbreeding. But the total remains at seven.

Accordingly, the opinion of the Tana Debe Menashe began with the phrase, "the sons of Noah were given seven precepts." It is significant that even here, where the composition of the Seven Laws is subject to dispute, the fact of there being seven laws is in agreement. The unmistakable impression results that the tradition which supports the seven law concept is more secure than that of any of the individual laws. The seven law concept emerges as the solid central theme surrounded by a number of variations. As usual in such instances, the variations serve to underscore the theme with definiteness.

Still another tanaitic variation on this theme is to be found in the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis. There, Rabbi Levi introduces the discussion with the remark that Adam was given "six precepts." Six of the standard seven laws are then cited and derived exegetically. The missing seventh is the Limb of a Living Creature law. Rabbi Jacob of Kefar Hanan provides an immediate exegetical derivation for the Limb of a Living Creature as well, aimed at the apparent conclusion that even Adam was the possessor of seven laws. This is not to say that Rabbi Levi was in opposition to the concept of there being seven Noahide commandments. Obviously, he is limiting Adam to six but would attribute the full seven to Noah. Such a view puts Rabbi Levi in harmony with the following position, expressed elsewhere in the Midrash Rabbah:

Adam, who was not permitted to dine on flesh, needed no prohibition concerning a limb severed from an animal, but Noah, who was permitted to dine on flesh, got such a prohibition.

The differing views of Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Jacob of Kefar Hanan emerge as new variations on the theme of seven Noahide commands. They differ in that Rabbi Jacob sees all seven laws as Adamic, whereas Rabbi Levi considers only six of the seven as Adamic in origin. Yet, both corroborate the tradition that the organizational structure of the Noahide system is rooted in seven divisions.

It is no wonder then that the Amoraim, the immediate heirs to the tanaitic learning, accepted the stand which attributed seven laws to Noahism, brushing aside any nebulous, perhaps unarticulated view to the contrary. That the Amoraim did indeed accept as final the "seven" in the Seven Laws of Noah can be proved by noting how amoraic literature continually mentions the number "seven" when reference is being made to the Noahide laws, even in en passant fashion. Several such examples are in order. Four quotations, from four different talmudic discussions will be utilized here to illustrate this point.

The first citation, found in Sanhedrin 57a, reads:

R. Meir used to say, Whence do we know that even a heathen who studies the Torah is as a High Priest? From the verse, -(Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments) which, if man do, he shall live in them." Priests, Levites, and Israelites are not mentioned, but men: hence thou mayest learn that even a heathen who studies the Torah is as a High Priest! - That refers to their own seven laws.

A second such example is found in Sanhedrin 74b, stating:

R. Ami was asked: Are Noahites obligated to sanctify the Name, or are they not obligated to sanctify the Name? Abaia remarked: We were taught, "The children of Noah were given seven laws . ." but if you were to obligate them in this matter, would there not be eight? Rova answered him: Those seven and all their offshoots.

The third illustration is from Baba Kama 37a:

What did He see? He saw how they [the Kaftorim et al] were not observing the seven laws which the sons of Noah were commanded, and so He exiled them from their lands.

Finally, this quotation from A bodah Zarah 2b will exemplify the point in question:

What did He see? He saw how they were not observing the seven laws which the sons of Noah had accepted. Since they were not observing them, He revoked them. Oh, but would He revoke them and thereby let them profit? Would not the sinner be the gainer?!

Thus it is that the Amoraim firmly, unequivocally established the concept of there being a total of seven Noahide categories; and so it is that subsequent writers, both ancient and contemporary, have without hesitation adopted the term the Seven Laws of Noah.

The Thirty Laws of the Noahides

There is one jarring note, amid the amoraic harmony, sounded in tractate Hullin with the mention of "the thirty laws of the Noahites. " Which thirty laws are being referred to goes undisclosed and the phrase "the thirty laws of the Noahites" has no apparent basis in the earlier, tanaitic sources. This problem has been treated by Menahern Azariah da Fano, and his approach was treated briefly in our previous chapter. Essentially, Da Fano set out to demonstrate that the seven law idea is not at variance with the thirty law idea. He began by compiling a list of thirty statutes which have application for Noahites. His listing features numerous laws which originated as the minority opinions of various Tanaim; the list also contains items which were first introduced into the Talmud by Amoraim. Then Da Fano distributed the thirty statutes among the seven major Noahic areas of legislation, thereby indicating that "the thirty laws of the Noahites- constitute specific bylaws which are offshoots of the larger seven. Accordingly, these enigmatic "thirty laws" need not comprise a tradition that opposes the tradition of there being seven laws of the Noahites.

Because Da Fano's approach is similar in some respects to the methodology of our study, it may be useful to state what the difference is. Our study has utilized the Taryag Commandment as the smallest common denominator in effecting a quantitative comparison between Noahide Law and Israelite Law. This comparison yielded the conclusion that the Seven Laws of Noah were envisioned by the Talmudists as constituting an all. embracing system, comparable in scope to the Torah. Da Fano, on the other hand, had no interest in achieving a comparison, between the two systems. Not intending to make a comparison he had no need for a common denominator and consequently did not limit himself strictly to the 613 Commandment In tabulating thirty laws for the Noahites.

That these thirty laws are not to be thought of as strict parallels to any of the 613 Commandments is obvious from the text of the Talmud itself. For the Talmud in Hullin 92b does give three of the thirty, and the first is that Noahites do not draw up marriage contracts in instances of homosexual unions. There is no such commandment among the six- hundred thirteen, of course.


  1. Quoted by Reuben Margolioth, Margolioth Hayarn. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1958, volume 11, page 20. (Sanhedrin 56b, section 9.)
  2. Lichtenstein, Aaron. "The Seven Laws of Noah". New York: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press and Z. Berman Books, 2d ed. 1986
  3. E. Benamozegh, Isrel et L'Humanite, Paris: E. Leroux, 1914, page 622: