Who is a “child of Noah?”
A bit of a basic question, who is a “child of Noah” or a “descendent of Noah”? This is the translation of a Hebrew term that sounds like “ben Noah.” As I’m not a Jew or even pretending to be one, I’ll just stick to the English, “child of Noah” or “descendent of Noah.”
Now to be extra clear, so that as many places of misunderstanding can be eradicated, I am not talking about the English term “noahide.” That’s a mess in and of itself. No, I’m only talking about the term “child of Noah.”
What I’ll do here is compile a number of quotes from Jewish sources that have shaped the way I understand the term. Some will be clear definitions. Some will just be implied. But I’ll give what I can.
The Schottenstein edition of the Babylonian Talmud translates the Hebrew term for “children of Noah” as “Noahites”. When it discusses the prohibition against cursing God’s name in tractate Sanhedrin 56a, it comments on the statement, “For any execution stated in connection with noahites is only by the sword …” its footnote on this statement informs me on its understanding of “noahite” or “child of Noah.”
The Gemara below will discuss the various laws that were given to Adam and his descendants. They are called “Noahide” laws because of all of humanity descended from Noah after the Flood. Indeed, many Scriptural references to these laws are found in God’s communication to Noah after the Flood … (footnote 31, Babylonian Talmuud, tractate Sanhedrin 56a, Schottenstein edition, digital edition)
It continues in footnote 33,
That is, a gentile is liable to execution under the Noahide laws for blasphemy … (footnote 33, ibid)
It becomes clear that the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud view “noahide” or “noahite” as a Gentile, just a non-Jew, not a special class of person who gets the status of “child of Noah” granted to him. As it states, the seven laws are called “noahide laws” because of “all of humanity descended from Noah.”
The Talmud itself, regardless of language, shows that the seven laws are obligated on all of non-Jewish humanity when it says states that the person from the nations (“goy”) or idolator (“akum”) is not guilty of breaking the seven laws for the children of Noah if that person makes an idol but doesn’t worship it. The Talmud bases this distinctly on the reasoning that a “child of Noah” is only guilty of breaking the law of idolatry if he does an idolatrous act that is a capital offence for a Jew (see Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 56b, available in English at sefaria.org or halakhah.com). This means that the person from the nations and the idolator is included in the class “children of Noah!” I’ll repeat this point later in the article.
In another edition of the Talmud, it says the following.
The descendants of Noah, i.e., all of humanity, were commanded to observe seven mitzvot. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, folio 56a, as translated in the William Davidson Talmud to be found at https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.56a?lang=bi)
When the Soncino edition of the Talmud commented on that statement in Sanhedrin 56a, it said:
These commandments may be regarded as the foundations of all human and moral progress. Judaism has both a national and a universal outlook in life. In the former sense it is particularistic, setting up a people distinct and separate from others by its peculiar religious law. But in the latter, it recognises that moral progress and its concomitant Divine love and approval are the privilege and obligation of all mankind. And hence the Talmud lays down the seven Noachian precepts, by the observance of which all mankind may attain spiritual perfection, and without which moral death must inevitably ensue. That perhaps is the idea underlying the assertion (passim) that a heathen is liable to death for the neglect of any of these. The last mentioned is particularly instructive as showing the great importance attached to the humane treatment of animals; so much so, that it is declared to be fundamental to human righteousness. (folio 56a, footnote 34, available at http://halakhah.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_56.html)
The 13th century book, Sefer haChinnuch, also shows that all of humanity is the children or descendants of Noah to whom the seven laws apply.
The far removal of robbery from among people is of benefit to all; and the human intelligence is a trustworthy witness to this. There is no great length of laws about it, as all its content is clarified in the Writ. It is in force everywhere, at every time, for both man and woman. All humankind too is duty-bound by it, since it is a branch of the precept about robbery, which is one of the seven precepts that all in the world were commanded to keep … now, make no mistake, my son, in this reckoning of the seven precepts for the descendants of Noah, which is known and is mentioned in the Talmud. For in truth, those seven are in the nature of main categories, and they contain many details.” (Sefer haChinuch, volume 4, 247-49, quoted on page 433 of Secular by Design, by Alan Cecil, and also available in audio at http://englishtorahtapes.com/sefer_hachinuch.htm)
To all the rest of the human race He also gave a pathway to separate them from the animal level. This way comprises the seven precepts which all the people in the world were together commanded.” (Séfer haHinnuch, Vol. I, 65, quoted on page 434, footnote 3, of Secular by Design, by Alan Cecil, and also available in audio at http://englishtorahtapes.com/sefer_hachinuch.htm
Rabbi Tobias Goodman from the 19th Century stated the following.
At this dispensation, the [bnei Noach] sons of Noah (a name including all nations) were, by the infinite wisdom of God, provided with [sheva mitzvot] seven precepts … (pg 116, The Faith of Israel, by rabbi Tobias Goodman, written in 1834, available at http://www.seforimonline.org/seforim-database/)
In the Graft-Rand edition of “Ramban – THE TORAH: with Ramban’s commentary translated, annotated and elucidated,” on many pages where the Hebrew phrase meaning “child(ren) of Noah” is used in Ramban’s Hebrew, it states, for example
“Children of Noah” (or “Noahides”) is a rabbinical term used to describe all of mankind (except Israel), who are not bound by the 613 commandments of the Torah, but by the “seven Noahide laws” … (footnote 37, page 223)
Or clearer still,
“Noahides” is a term for all mankind except Israel. Noahides are not bound by the laws of the Torah (“Halacha”), but by “the seven Noahide laws.” (footnote 18, page 231)
In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam shows that the seven laws applied throughout the world, not just for a select group.
Adam, the first, was commanded about six things … The prohibition against eating flesh from a living animal was added for Noah, as Genesis 9:4 states … These matters remained throughout the world until Abraham. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars, Chapter 9, Halacha 1, from http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188354/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-9.htm)
Not one word of Ramban clearly shows that after Moshe the term “child of Noah” was only limited to a certain group among the Gentiles, except in a rare occasion which the following quote will lead into.
Rabbi Michael Broyde seems to make the English word “Noahide” exactly equivalent to the term “child of Noah” in his work, where he states:
“The term “Noahide” is used in the rabbinic literature to denote anyone who is not Jewish. … More specifically, as noted by Ritva, Makkot 9a, “Noahide” denotes a gentile who keeps the Noahide commandments, “ger toshav” denotes a gentile who formally accepts the commandments, and “gentile” denotes one who has done neither.” (footnote 1, The Obligation of Jews to Seek Observance of Noachide Laws by Gentiles: A Theoretical Review, by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, available at https://www.jlaw.com/Articles/noach2.html)
Before anything else is said, what should be observed first is that the main and general meaning of “child of Noah” is “anyone who is not Jewish.” Although rabbi Broyde does mention another idea, his first statement is that of non-Jewishness, not a select group.
But I believe it’s important to show transparency and let you know the term “son of Noah” does have a small variety of meanings in rabbinic literature. This may explain why in the writings of Rambam, when “son of Noah” is used generally, it just means “non-Jew” or “gentile” which is how it is commonly translated, and thus understood, by Jewish translators, but rarely it is used in a different sense when contrasted with the Hebrew term for “a person from non-Jewish nations,” like in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars, Chapter 10, halakhah 10, where it states,
A child of Noah … If he gives charity, we accept it from him and it appears to me that we give it to the poor of Israel … but one from the non-Jewish nations who gives charity, we accept it from him and we give it to the poor of the non-Jewish nations.
It is only with regards to charity in Rambam that there seems to be a clear difference between “a child of Noah” and “one from the nations.” In the two previous chapters, the term “child of Noah” is generally understood to simply mean or refer to the “non-Jew.” Just look at the translation of chapter 9 on sefaria.org (https://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah,_Kings_and_Wars.9?lang=bi) and chabad.org (http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188354/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-9.htm) where the term is simply translated as “non-Jew” or “gentile.” In the Mishneh Torah, in this section, there is no written explanation of the exact difference. But rabbi Michael Broyde’s statement about the different uses of “Noahide” or “child of Noah” helps to inform of the subtle difference, even though both terms, “child of Noah” and “one from the nations” is used in other places and refer to the exact same person.
For example, in the Talmud, in the seven law section of Sanhedrin, the terms “child of Noah” and “one from the nations” (or the term used in censored versions “akum” which still refers to all Gentiles, see ) are used interchangeably; just as the “child of Noah” is commanded to the seven laws, the “person from the nations” (or the “akum”) is liable for breaking or praised as a high priest for studying HIS commandments, namely those same seven. There is no such thing as “the seven laws for children of Noah” referring to some group that has accepted those commandments, and a separate set of laws for the nations or “the people of the nations.” There is no such thing as the world in general having the entire obligation of the seven laws removed or abolished or released with the obligation, and thus the title “child of Noah”, only returning to those non-Jews who purposefully accept it again.
As I’m showing now, generally and mainly, the term “son of Noah” is just another term for Gentile. And I’m just showing the historical backing I have for sticking to that usage, rather than the lesser common meaning of “one who keeps the seven” or the modern version “the one who keeps the seven laws specifically because God commanded them to Moses at Sinai.”
But imagine this. If – and that’s if – “child of Noah” is, as my resources show and as one of the resources clearly states, a rabbinic term for all of mankind except Israel, why is the main modern way of using the word “noahide” limited to those who keep the seven? Why did the usage of the term that was less common become the popular way of understanding the term nowadays? Why are there people coming to my page talking about “noahism”? Or websites or information pages talking about “noahism” or “noahidism?” Why are people nowadays wanting to create “noahide communities” as if it is distinct from Gentile communities that exist worldwide, since the vast majority of the world is Gentile?
Anyway, again, my aim was just to show that “child of Noah” generally means a Gentile, that any Gentile is a child of Noah, and that my view doesn’t just originate in the mind of David but from historical Jewish precedent.
Thanks for reading.