Samuel ben Hophni's Noahide Law

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Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein discusses the rediscovery in the Cairo Genizah of a biblical-commentary by Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon. He says that this endows us with yet another significant statement on the Laws of the Sons of Noah.[1]

He writes:[2]

Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon, Father-in-law to the better remembered Hai Gaon, Samuel ben Hophni was head of the academy at Sura, southern Babylonia, in the year 1000. His comment reads as follows for the Genesis 34:12 verse, "Demand of me much bride price and marriage gifts; I shall give whatever you ask of me; but let me have the girl (Dinah) for my wife"

This demonstrates that even prior to the giving of the Torah they made use of bride price and marriage gifts, these constituting one of the imperatives incumbent on all the peoples - quite apart from Father Abraham's progeny. Thus our Rabbis state, "The children of Noah were commanded thirty commandments".[3]


List of Thirty Commands

Samuel ben Hophni goes on to compose a list of these thirty commands. Rashi, explicating the Talmud (Hullin 92), about a hundred years later, remarked that the thirty laws are nowhere identified. It was this gap that the Gaon was undertaking to fill. The Gaon also provided each of his laws with a Pentateuchal proof text and as a result, we are in a better position to fathom the meaning and nature of each. They are, in order:

1 - The singularity of God. (That is, to believe in God.)
2 - No idolatry.
3 - No blasphemy.
4 - To pray.
5 - No false oaths.
6 - No suicide.
7 - No murder.
8 - No adultery.
9 - Formal marriages via bride price and marriage gifts.
10 - No incest with a sister.
11 - No homosexuality.
12 - No bestiality.
13 - No castration.
14 - Not to eat an animal that died naturally.
15 - Not to eat a limb of a living creature.
16 - Not to eat or drink blood.
17 - Not to crossbreed animals.
18 - [justice.]
19 - To offer ritual sacrifices.
20 - No theft.
21 - To respect father and mother.
22 - No Molech worship (Deuteronomy 18:10).
23 - No witchcraft.
24 - No soothsayers.
25 - No conjurers.
26 - No sorcerers.
27 - No ghost meeting.
28 - No consulting devil-spirits.
29 - No wizardry.
30 - No consulting the dead.

Justice, the eighteenth item, does not actually appear in the Genizah manuscripts, but was supplied as likely. That is, each surviving manuscript is defective between the seventeenth and nineteenth positions, but since justice is the only one of the basic seven Laws of Noah which would otherwise be absent from the Gaon's thirty, and since we have every reason to expect that the Gaon recognized the basic seven, justice must have originally featured in the eighteenth position.

Menahem Azariah da Fano (1548 - 1620)

During the course of literary history, one other writer took pains to flesh out the Talmud's allusion to thirty Noahide dicta, as we have discussed above, on page 100. Menahem Azariah da Fano (1548 - 1620), compiled such a list in his Asara Maamaroth, on page 66 of the Amsterdam edition of 1649.[4] Rama MiPano, as he is also called, writes without a hint of awareness that an authoritative Gaon had accomplished the task six centuries earlier. Either the Babylonian Gaon's commentary was unknown in Italy and Europe, or it was relegated to the obscurity of the Genizah before 1600. In any event, Da Fano composed his list apart from Samuel ben Hophni's. How do they compare?

Their methods differ. Da Fano terms the Thirty Laws subdivisions of the Seven Laws. Accordingly, he structures the tabulation with seven headings, assigning the additional twenty-three items appropriately. He gathered the needed twenty-three items from the minority or alternate opinions expressed throughout the Talmud. Samuel ben Hophni, on the other hand, cites not talmudic but biblical texts for identifying each of the thirty dicta, and he confers seeming equality upon them. Further, part of the Gaon's exegesis is original or unknown in the Talmud.

With regard to specifics, Samuel ben Hophni advances six Noahide laws which are absent from Da Fano's scheme. These are: Belief in God; to pray; no false oaths; formal marriage via bride price and marriage gifts; to offer ritual sacrifices; to respect father and mother.

The Gaon's neglect of three laws

But the more fascinating difference between the two calculations is the Gaon's neglect of three quizzical laws cited in the same talmudic text that tells of thirty - not seven - Noahide commandments. Da Fano naturally counts in the three items from the Talmud's Hullin 92, which reads:

Rav Yehuda says: This verse (Zacharia 11:12) refers to the thirty righteous persons among the nations of the world, whose merit sustains the nations of the world. Ulla said: This verse refers to the thirty commandments which the Noahites have accepted, But they keep only three of them. One, they do not draw up marriage contracts for homosexuals. (Rashi - Although they may countenance homosexual matches, they shrink from recognizing them officially.) Two, they do not merchandize (human) flesh in the marketplace. Three, they do have respect for the Torah (and for Torah scholars).

Why would Samuel ben Hophni dismiss these three contributions of the Talmud?

To begin with, we must consider the possibility that the Gaon's early talmudic text was incomplete, reading only "Ulla said: This refers to the thirty commandments which the Noahites have accepted," but not continuing with "But they keep only these three of them...." If so, we would want to interpret Ulla's second, third, fourth, and fifth sentences as late additions which seek to modify Ulla's idea, possibly in objection to the ramifications of the Noahide thirty laws. For if suddenly there are thirty laws, not a puny seven, then the Noahites have a significant code and they represent a respectable civilization. Indeed, Rav Yehuda's prior remark tended likewise to elevate Noahism to a posture matching Hebraism, which also provides a quota of righteous men for the world's survival, according to lore. Would such a tone not invite a retort to defend the uniqueness of the Hebrew who, after all, is chosen with 613 Mitzvah imperatives – but chosen too with a mere Ten Commandments? So, by way of retort, Noahites are said to keep only three.

Which three? And who ever heard of such strange formulations?

Watered Down versions of Cardinal Sins, those requiring martyrdom?

The answer may be that these Noahide three are meant to correspond, in number and in substance, to the three Cardinal Sins, those requiring martyrdom. They are Murder, Adultery - Illicit Intercourse, and Idolatry. Thus the purpose of the tripartite retort in Hullin 92's late layer may be to put down Noahide culture by saying: Noahite observance is pitiful. For although Ulla has ascribed thirty laws to them, they transgress even the three Cardinal Sins: Murder is rampant, although not to the extent that murdered bodies are marketed for meat. Illicit intercourse is rampant, although not to the extent that homosexual arrangements receive public sanction. Idolatry is rampant, but at least Noahites simultaneously honor the true divinity, His Torah, and teachers of his Torah.

But what if Samuel ben Hophni's Talmud already had the full text, and he interpreted it as above, would he not be correct in omitting what Da Fano considered three new Noahide laws emerging from Hullin 92? Indeed, we have here no new laws, but a description of a mediocre observance of basic Illicit Intercourse, Homicide, and Idolatry.

Our interpretation is especially appealing because it gives the Hullin 92 text a solid cyclical structure, which ultimately returns to its starting point. What begins with an objection to the seeming elevation of the Noahite, culminates in the idea that the Noahite himself esteems the Israelite talmudist as a propounder of the Torah.

The ancient manuscripts have presented us with a Gaon's original list of thirty Noahide Laws, and a bonus too. They also have brought to mind a striking reading of Hullin 92, a reading probably missed by many a student of the Talmud during the thousand years from the time Samuel ben Hophni wrote his commentary until its present recovery from the Genizah.


  1. Aaron Greenbaum, The Biblical Commentary of Rav Samuel Ben Hofni Gaon. Jerusalem: Harav Kook Institute, 197S, pp. 52-56 (Hebrew and Arabic). The Hebrew title page adds: Published according to the Leningrad manuscript, compared and completed with other Genizah manuscripts; with notes, source citations, parallels, glosses, introduction, and index.
  2. Lichtenstein, Aaron. "The Seven Laws of Noah". New York: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press and Z. Berman Books, 2d ed. 1986
  3. I cannot find the talmudic source for Shmuel ben Hophni's precise language. However, the same language isused byR. MevasserHaLevi (circa 925): "Furthermore, they were obligated in the Thirty Commandments that the Children of Noah were commanded" (Olzor HaGeonbn to Tractati, Sanhedrin, editor Chaim Zvi Toibsh, Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, page 379, Hebrew). The near-source in Hullbi 92 reads only, "The Thirty Laws that they have acceptei upon themselves." Even more distant f rom Shmuel ben Hophni's language is the Jerusalem Talmud's version: "The thirty laws that they are destined to accept in the future" (Arodah Zarali 9a; chapter 2:1).
  4. Page 108 in the Lemberg edition of 1858, which has been reissued at Jerusalem in 1970. The first printing was in 1597 at Venice.
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