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Noachide Laws


NOACHIDE LAWS , the seven laws considered by rabbinic tradition as the minimal moral duties enjoined by the Bible on all men (Sanh. 56–60; Yad, Melakhim, 8:10, 10:12). Jews are obligated to observe the whole Torah, while every non-Jew is a "son of the covenant of Noah" (see Gen. 9), and he who accepts its obligations is a ger-toshav ("resident-stranger" or even "semi-convert"; see Av. Zar. 64b; Maim. Yad, Melakhim 8:10). Maimonides equates the "righteous man (ḥasid) of the [gentile] nations" who has a share in the world to come even without becoming a Jew with the gentile who keeps these laws. Such a man is entitled to full material support from the Jewish community (see et, 6 (1954), col. 289 s.v.ger toshav) and to the highest earthly honors (Sefer Ḥasidim (1957), 358). The seven Noachide laws as traditionally enumerated are: the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, and eating from a living animal, as well as the injunction to establish a legal system (Tosef., Av. Zar. 8:4; Sanh. 56a). Except for the last, all are negative, and the last itself is usually interpreted as commanding the enforcement of the others (Maim. Yad, Melakhim, 9:1). They are derived exegetically from divine demands addressed to Adam (Gen. 2:16) and Noah (see Gen. R. 34; Sanh. 59b), i.e., the progenitors of all mankind, and are thus regarded as universal. The prohibition of idolatry provides that, to ensure social stability and personal salvation, the non-Jew does not have to "know God" but must abjure false gods (Meg. 13a; Kid. 40a; Maim. Yad, Melakhim, 10:2ff.). This law refers only to actual idolatrous acts, and not to theoretical principles and, unlike Jews, Noachides are not required to suffer martyrdom rather than break this law (Sanh. 74a; tj, Shev. 4:2). They are, however, required to choose martyrdom rather than shed human blood (Pes. 25b and Rashi). In view of the strict monotheism of Islam, Muslims were considered as Noachides (cf. et, loc. cit., col. 291, n. 17), whereas the status of Christians was a matter of debate. Since the later Middle Ages, however, Christianity too has come to be regarded as Noachide, on the ground that shittuf ("associationism" – this was the Jewish interpretation of Trinitarianism) is not forbidden to non-Jews (see yd 151). Under the prohibitions of blasphemy, murder, and theft Noachides are subject to greater legal restrictions than Jews because non-Jewish society is held to be more prone to these sins (Rashi to Sanh. 57a). The prohibition of theft covers many types of acts, e.g., military conquest (ibid., 59a) and dishonesty in economic life (ibid., 57a; Yad, Melakhim, 9:9). A number of other Noachide prescriptions are listed in the sources (see Sanh. 57b; Mid. Ps. 21; Yad, Melakhim, 10:6), e.g., prohibitions of sorcery, castration, mixed seeds, blemished sacrifices, injunctions to practice charity, procreate, and to honor the Torah (Ḥul. 92a). These are best understood as subheadings of "the seven laws." Noachides may also freely choose to practice certain other Jewish commandments (Yad, Melakhim, 10:9–10). Jews are obligated to try to establish the Noachide Code wherever they can (ibid., 8:10). Maimonides held that Noachides must not only accept "the seven laws" on their own merit, but they must accept them as divinely revealed. This follows from the thesis that all ethics are not ultimately "natural," but require a theological framework (see Schwarzschild, in: jqr, 52 (1962), 302; Fauer, in: Tarbiz, 38 (1968), 43–53). The Noachide covenant plays an important part in both Jewish history and historiography. Modern Jewish thinkers like Moses *Mendelssohn and Hermann *Cohen emphasized the Noachide conception as the common rational, ethical ground of Israel and mankind (see H. Cohen, Religion der Vernunft (1929), 135–48, 381–8), and see Noah as the symbol of the unity and perpetuity of mankind (ibid., 293). Views differ as to whether the ultimate stage of humanity will comprise both Judaism and Noachidism, or whether Noachidism is only the penultimate level before the universalization of all of the Torah (see tj, Av. Zar. 2:1). Aimé *Pallière, at the suggestion of his teacher Rabbi E. *Benamozegh, adopted the Noachide Laws and never formally converted to Judaism.

[Steven S. Schwarzschild]

In Jewish Law

While in the amoraic period the above-mentioned list of seven precepts is clearly accepted as the framework of the Noachide Laws, a variety of tannaitic sources indicate lack of complete agreement as to the number of such laws, as well as to the specific norms to be included. The Tosefta (Av. Zar. 8:6) records four possible additional prohibitions against: (1) drinking the blood of a living animal; (2) emasculation; (3) sorcery; and (4) all magical practices listed in Deuteronomy 18:10–11.

The Talmud records a position which would add prohibitions against crossbreeding of animals of different species, and grafting trees of different kinds (Sanh. 56b). Nonrabbinic sources of the tannaitic period indicate even greater divergence. The Book of Jubilees (7:20ff.) records a substantially different list of six commandments given by Noah to his sons: (1) to observe righteousness; (2) to cover the shame of their flesh; (3) to bless their creator; (4) to honor parents; (5) to love their neighbor; and (6) to guard against fornication, uncleanness, and all iniquity (see L. Finkelstein, bibl.).

Acts (15:20) refers to four commandments addressed to non-Jews, "…that they abstain from pollutions of idols, from fornication, from things strangled, and from blood." This latter list is the only one that bears any systematic relationship to the set of religious laws which the Pentateuch makes obligatory upon resident aliens (the ger ha-gar and ezraḥ).

nature and purpose

There are indications that even during the talmudic period itself there was divergence of opinion as to whether the Noachide Laws constituted a formulation of natural law or were intended solely to govern the behavior of the non-Jewish resident living under Jewish jurisdiction. The natural law position is expressed most clearly by the assertion, as to five of the seven laws, that they would have been made mandatory even had they not been revealed (Yoma 67b; Sifra Aḥarei Mot, 13:10). Similarly, the rabbinic insistence that six of the seven Noachide Laws were actually revealed to Adam partakes of a clearly universalistic thrust (Gen. R. 16:6, 24:5). The seventh law, against the eating of flesh torn from a living animal, could have been revealed at the earliest to Noah, since prior to the flood the eating of flesh was prohibited altogether. The very fact that these laws were denominated as the "seven laws of the sons of Noah" constitutes further indication of this trend since the term "sons of Noah" is, in rabbinic usage, a technical term including all human beings except those whom Jewish law defines as being Jews. Nor was there a lack of technical terminology available specifically to describe the resident alien. On the other hand, the entire context of the talmudic discussion of the Noachide Laws is that of actual enforcement by rabbinic courts. To that end, not only is the punishment for each crime enumerated, but standards of procedure and evidence are discussed as well (Sanh. 56a–59a). This presumption of the jurisdiction of Jewish courts is most comprehensible if the laws themselves are intended to apply to non-Jews resident in areas of Jewish sovereignty. Of a similar nature is the position of Yose that the parameters of the proscription against magical practices by Noachides is the verse in Deuteronomy (18:10) which begins, "There shall not be found among you…" (Sanh. 56b). The attempt of Finkelstein (op. cit.) to date the formulation of the seven Noachide commandments during the Hasmonean era would also suggest a rabbinic concern with the actual legal status of the non-Jew in a sovereign Jewish state. It might even be the case that the substitution by the tanna of the school of Manasseh of emasculation and forbidden mixtures of plants for the establishment of a judicial system and blasphemy (Sanh. 56b) itself reflects a concern with the regulation of the life of the resident alien already under the jurisdiction of Jewish courts. Of course, the seven commandments themselves are subject to either interpretation; e.g., the establishment of courts of justice can mean either an independent non-Jewish judiciary and legal system or can simply bring the non-Jew under the rubric of Jewish civil law and its judicial system.

the basis of authority

A question related to the above is that of the basis of authority of these laws over the non-Jew. Talmudic texts seem constantly to alternate between two terms, reflecting contradictory assumptions as to the basis of authority, namely seven precepts "which were commanded" (she-niẓtavvu) to the Noachides, and seven precepts "which the Noachides accepted upon themselves" (she-kibbelu aleihem; bk 38a; tj, Av. Zar. 2:1; Ḥul. 92ab; Hor. 8b; Sanh. 56b). This disparity between authority based on revelation as opposed to consent reaches a climax when Maimonides asserts that the only proper basis for acceptance of the Noachide laws by a non-Jew is divine authority and revelation to Moses, and that "…if he observed them due to intellectual conviction [i.e., consent] such a one is not a resident alien, nor of the righteous of the nations of the world, nor of their wise men" (Yad, Melakhim 8:11; the possibility that the final "ve-lo" ("nor") is a scribal error for "ella" ("but rather") while very appealing, is not borne out by any manuscript evidence). Of course, this same conflict between revelation and consent as basis of authority appears with regard to the binding authority of Torah over the Jew, in the form of "we will do and obey" (Ex. 24:7) as opposed to "He (God) suspended the mountain upon them like a cask, and said to them, 'If ye accept the Torah, 'tis well; if not, there shall be your burial'" (Shab. 88a).

noachide laws and pre-sinaitic laws

The amoraim, having received a clear tradition of seven Noachide Laws, had difficulty in explaining why other pre-Sinaitic laws were not included, such as procreation, circumcision, and the law of the sinew. They propounded two somewhat strained principles to explain the anomalies. The absence of circumcision and the sinew is explained through the assertion that any pre-Sinaitic law which was not repeated at Sinai was thenceforth applicable solely to Israelites (Sanh. 59a), whence procreation, while indeed obligatory on non-Jews according to Johanan (Yev. 62a) would nevertheless not to be listed (cf. Tos. to Yev. 62a s.v.benei; Tos. to Ḥag. 2b s.v.lo).

liability for violation of the laws

While committed to the principle that "There is nothing permitted to an Israelite yet forbidden to a heathen" (Sanh. 59a), the seven Noachide Laws were not as extensive as the parallel prohibitions applicable to Jews, and there are indeed situations in which a non-Jew would be liable for committing an act for which a Jew would not be liable. As to the latter point, as a general rule, the Noachide is criminally liable for violation of any of his seven laws even though technical definitional limitations would prevent liability by a Jew performing the same act. Thus a non-Jew is liable for blasphemy – even if only with one of the divine attributes; murder – even of a *foetus; robbery – even of less than a perutah; and the eating of flesh torn from a living animal – even of a quantity less than the size of an olive. In all these cases a Jew would not be liable (Sanh. 56a–59b; Yad, Melakhim, ch. 9, 10). One additional element of greater severity is that violation of any one of the seven laws subjects the Noachide to capital punishment by decapitation (Sanh. 57a).

[Saul Berman]

Noachide Laws as Tools for the Interpretation and Development of Jewish Law

the limits of the rule "dina de-malkhuta dina"

Noachide laws, which are seen as reflecting universal law, include the general precept of establishing a legal system (dinim). This in turn leads to the delimitation of boundaries governing the interaction between the Jewish and other legal systems, within the framework of the principle "dina demalkhuta dina " (see *Dina de-Malkhuta Dina). According to Naḥmanides (in his Torah Commentary, at Gen. 34:13), the precept of dinim is not limited to the establishment of courts, but includes an entire system of fundamental laws regulating commerce and social order. "In my opinion… He also commanded them to observe the laws of theft, fraud, oppression, wages, the laws of bailees, rape, seduction, the laws of tort, damages, borrowing and lending, commerce and so forth, similarly to the laws commanded to the Israelites. And they are liable to capital punishment for theft, oppression, rape, seduction, arson, battery and so forth…." To be sure, this list does not include laws of betrothal and divorce. The Talmud (Gittin 9a–b) brings a baraita stating that Jewish law recognizes all documents made in non-Jewish courts with the exception of writs of *divorce. According to Rashi (ad loc.), the general recognition of documents is based on the "dina de-malkhuta dina," which affords competence to non-Jewish legal systems on the assumption that they represent universal legal values. But Jewish marital law is not included in universal law, since there are no Noachide laws pertaining to betrothal and divorce. Therefore, "dina de-malkhuta dina" cannot be applied to Jewish marital law, not even with respect to its evidentiary aspects. According to this approach, the rule of "dina de-malkhuta dina" is identical with the universal law that existed in ancient Hebrew society before the Torah had been given, and which received expression in the seven Noachide laws. Other authorities have taken a rather different approach, stating that the Noachide laws cannot bind the Jewish people, which was separated from the other nations and received its own set of laws (the Torah). For example, the Jewish laws of evidence are not governed by dina de-malkhuta dina, since the laws of evidence originate from the ancient Noachide law: "One – one of the seven precepts of Noachide law is to establish a legal system, and their law is administered by a single judge and one witness. But we, the descendents of Abraham, are no longer included amongst them and we are sanctified by this (our laws), and we require two witnesses for all legal matters. As this is according to their ancient laws – Heaven forbid that we should follow them on the basis of "dina de-malkhuta dina, "since they are [only] Noachide laws" (Responsa Ḥakhmei Provence, Sofer Publications, p. 421)

the substance and scope of the king's law

The king's Law constitutes a system of law, supplementary to the laws of the Torah, to adjudicate and punish in cases where it would not be possible in accordance with settled halakhah (See *Punishment for extensive discussion). Halakhic authorities of the last century noted the similarity between Noachide law and king's law (R. Meir Dan Poltzki, Hemdat Israel, Ner Mizvah 288, 19th century, Poland); R. Meir Simḥah of Dvinsk, Or Same'aḥ, Melakhim 3:10). The king's law resembles Noachide law in that it reflects "natural conduct" as opposed to the Torah law, unique to the Jews, which reflects "Divine conduct." According to the king's law one is permitted to judge on the evidence of a single witness, as in Noachide law, but the scope of the latter is limited to the seven Noachide precepts. The exclusive laws for Jews, which were added to the seven Noachide laws, must be adjudicated only according to the laws of evidence of the Torah – i.e., on the testimony of two witnesses and forewarning (see *Evidence).

Capital Punishment for Violating Noachide Laws – Maximal, Not Mandatory

Even though the Talmud and Maimonides (Sanh. 47a; Yad, Melakhim 9.14) stipulate that a non-Jew who violated the Noachide laws was liable to capital punishment, authorities in recent generations have expressed the view that this is only the maximal punishment. According to this view, there is a difference in this respect between Noachide law and the halakhah. According to the halakhah, where a Jew was liable for capital punishment, it was a mandatory punishment, provided that all conditions had been met, whereas in Noachide law death is the maximal punishment, to be enforced only in exceptional cases such as when the need arises to fight against the proliferation of crime (viz. Or Same'aḥ, ibid.). This is the similarity between Noachide law and the king's law, as stated above. According to some opinions, this approach, in which a differentiation is made between various levels of severity in crimes and sentencing policy in Noachide law, may be corroborated from the works of Maimonides (viz. Bibliography, Enker).

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]


S. Krauss, in: rej, 47 (1903), 32–40; L. Finkelstein, in: jbl, 49 (1930), 21–25; L. Blau, in: Abhandlungen… Chajes (1933), 6–21; P.L. Biberfeld, Das noachidische Urrecht (1937); et, 3 (1951), 348–62; R. Loewe, in: Studies in Memory of Leon Roth (1966), 125–31, 136–44. add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:61, 96, 122, 174f., 208; 3:1562; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:67, 108, 138, 194, 234; 4:1853; ea 3/2/84 Naiman v. Chairman Central Elections Committee, 39 (2) PD 293, 298–302; N. Rakover, The Law and the Noachides, Jewish Law and Legal Theory (1993); J.D. Bleich, "Capital Punishment in the Noachide Code," in: Jubilee Volume in Honor of Rav Soloveitchik, 1 (1984), 193–208; A. Enker, "Onesh Mavet be-Sheva Miẓvot Benei No'aḥ," in: Iyyunim be-Mishpat Ivri u-ve-Halakhah (1998), 85–128; A. Kirshenbaum, "Ha-Kellal Ein Adam Mesim Aẓmo Rasha be-Hilkhot Benei No'aḥ," in: Dinei Yisrael, 2 (1971), 71–82.

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