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Noahide Commandments

Who is a child of Noah?

I may have answered this before. I think it was a number of years ago. So, as a refresher, I’ll answer it again.

Now the term that is normally thrown around by rabbis is the Hebrew one that sounds like “ben Noach” or “bnei Noach.” There are people who refer to themselves as “noahides” or “noachide.” But what does this term refer to?

Now I’m doing this in a slightly weaker position than I had before. Before, I had access to my hard-copy books as well as online resources. Now I only have the online resources with my books being out of reach.

Let’s see if this amounts to failure.

So what does the Hebrew term, “bnei Noach” or “ben Noach,” mean? In English, it means a descendant of Noah or a child of Noah. I will state here that the term that I’m translating as “child” or “descendant” can be understood two ways. The first and main meaning is a literal, biological descendant. The second meaning is a dedicated follower of something or someone. This can be seen in the following screenshot.

A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature  (1903) by Marcus Jastrow

One of the most important usages of this term, descendant of Noah, is found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, folia 56a, where it says the following.

The Sages taught: Seven commandments were enjoined upon the descendants of Noah …

And according to the commentaries and the context, who were/are the descendants of Noah?

Since the halakhot of the descendants of Noah have been mentioned, a full discussion of the Noahide mitzvot is presented. The Sages taught in a baraita: The descendants of Noah, i.e., all of humanity, were commanded to observe seven mitzvot: The mitzva of establishing courts of judgment; and the prohibition against blessing, i.e., cursing, the name of God; and the prohibition of idol worship; and the prohibition against forbidden sexual relations; and the prohibition of bloodshed; and the prohibition of robbery; and the prohibition against eating a limb from a living animal.

The William Davidson Talmud shared by sefaria.org, found at https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.56a.24 (emphasis mine)

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.

The Soncino Edition of the Talmud, commenting on the clause quoted above. Found at https://halakhah.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_56.html (emphasis mine)

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 Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 56a, Schottenstein edition, digital edition)

Nochrim must observe seven Mitzvos: Dinim (to set up courts to enforce civil laws), and Isurim against blasphemy, idolatry, Arayos, murder, theft, and Ever Min ha’Chai (eating a limb of a living animal).

POINT BY POINT OUTLINE OF THE DAF – prepared by Rabbi Pesach Feldman of Kollel Iyun Hadaf, Yerushalayim – https://dafyomi.co.il/sanhedrin/points/sn-ps-056.htm

“Nochrim” means any Gentile or non-Jew outside Israel.

In the same folio, folio 56 of tractate Sanhedrin, the term “child of Noah” is used interchangeably with another term meaning “worshipper of the stars” or “idolator,” a term commonly understood as referring to non-Jews in general. Just as the “child of Noah” is liable to execution for blasphemy, so is this “idolator.” There is no distinction in this passage which focuses on what divine laws the child of Noah is obligated to.

As can be seen by the foundational source, its context and commentaries, a child of Noah is any member of humanity.

But wait! According to the biblical narrative, Noah is the ancestor of all humanity. That would include Israelites or Jews. If the seven laws are for all humanity, then does that mean the Jews are enjoined by those same laws?

Well, the clear biblical narrative also states that the nation of Israel, the Jews, were given a special set of commandment that distinguishes them from the rest of humanity, in a unique pact between God and that nation. Therefore they are bound to their covenantal law, that being the 613 commandments and their oral traditions. So since that time, the phrase, “children of Noah,” refers only to non-Jews, the rest of humanity.

Now in the books I read about the descendants of Noah, the phrase refers to the bog-standard Gentile. But someone stated that it refers to another group.

The term “Noachide” is used in the rabbinic literature to denote anyone who is not Jewish. See generally Rashi, Nedarim 31a and R. Aaron Kirshenbaum “The Covenant with Noachides Compared to the Sinai Covenant” Dinai Israel 6:31-48 (5735). More specifically, as noted by Ritva Makot 9a, “noachide” denotes a gentile who keeps the Noachide commandments, “ger toshav” denotes a gentile who formally accepts the commandments, and “gentile” denotes one who has done neither. An eved kenani is generally not thought to be a Noachide; see Rashi, Sanhedren 58b. See also Rabbenu Gershom, Keritut 9b and Meiri 48a both of whom appear to classify a ger toshav as a partial convert; see also Rabbi Howard Jachter, “Kedushat Yisrael Lechatazin” Beit Yitchak 24:425-428 (5752).

The Obligation of Jews to Seek Observance of Noachide Laws by Gentiles: A Theoretical Review, by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, found at https://www.jlaw.com/Articles/noach2.html

“Noachide” refers to the Hebrew term meaning “child of Noah.”

Now note, this marks a departure from the primary meaning. The text and commentary of Sanhedrin 56a of the Talmud would become nonsensical inserting that meaning into it. The commentaries stated that “children of Noah” refers to all of humanity, not just a subset of it. It would be lunacy to say in one breath the children of Noah, those who actually keep the seven, including the prohibition of idolatry, are the only ones who were enjoined with the seven laws, and, in the next breath, call those who keep the seven, including that prohibition against idolatry, “idolators,” or “worshippers of the stars.”

Anyway, so, in the 13th century, this rabbi specialises the term “noahide” or “child of Noah,” to only those who keeps the laws.

Nowadays it’s even more specific. Now Jews and rabbis are saying that “child of Noah” doesn’t just refer to those who keep the seven laws, but those who keep the laws specifically because God commanded them in the Torah that was given by Noah. I have no source for this idea. Some may link it to Maimonides when he wrote the following.

Anyone who accepts upon himself and carefully observes the Seven Commandments is of the Righteous of the Nations of the World and has a portion in the World to Come. This is as long as he accepts and performs them because it was the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Who commanded them in the Torah, and that is was through Moses our Teacher we were informed that the Sons of Noah had already been commanded to observe them. But if he observes them because he convinced himself logically, then he is not considered a Resident Convert and is not of the Righteous of the Nations of the World, but merely one of their wise.

https://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah,_Kings_and_Wars.8.11

So they may be claiming that a descendant of Noah is this, one who keeps the seven laws carefully because God commanded them in the Torah and Moses related that Noah was commanded them previously to Sinai.

Can you spot the obvious problem with this conclusion? I’ll tell you what I see, or, more properly what I don’t see. Not one word in this statement from Maimonides is defining what a child of Noah or a “noachide” is. As best, he’s only defining what make a Gentile one of “the Righteous/Pious of the Nations of the World” which gives them a place in the afterlife. It says nothing at all about “this is a child of Noah.” Not at all. Not even in the original language.

But who knows? Maybe the same thing happened with the primary use of “child of Noah” and this “Ritva.” Maybe a later rabbi adds a concept to Maimonides that isn’t there. Would people just claim that it’s all oral so it may never have been written down but was always there? [Aside: And again I’m back to a weakness that springs from it being claimed that rabbis can state that something has no written record but was always there. For anyone outside of that tradition, that’s a claim that can’t be verified. I’m supposed to just trust it? Then a rabbi could claim so many things, claim it was only oral, and I’d just have to trust it? I don’t have that trust.]

This path from the simple, biological Gentile child of Noah to this belief-based child of Noah reminds me of the journey from the biblical ethno-nation of Israel, a literal family of tribes with a common ancestor different from other nation, a nation you had to naturalise to become a part of, to the current religion of Judaism. What was once grounded in earthy truths of family and tribe linked to a special divine pact has now become a bunch of beliefs about an ultimate cause that you can convert to. And in this religion-focused world where everyone is in some belief-group, even the atheist, I know people are fine with that, that they can join a group just by belief, not by action. “I’m a noahide!” Why do you say that? “Because I believe x and I try to keep the seven based on that.”

My individualist mind ponders this confusion in meaning. Someone recently informed me that Tovia Singer says that Muslims are “bnei Noah.” What does that mean? I’ll go through the meanings.

Muslims are Gentiles? So there are no Jews that joined Islam? Of course some have and so do.

Muslims are Gentiles who keep the seven laws? The previous problem still exists. But isn’t that definition of child of Noah a statement about action? So because someone is part of that belief-clique of Islam that determines their actions? There’s been no Muslim thieves or murderers? no Muslim adulterers or homos? Again, that’s nonsense.

Muslims are Gentiles who keep the seven laws because God commanded them in the Torah and Moses let us know they were given to Noah beforehand? The first argument still stands (about Jews being Muslims). But Muslims say that all revelations before Muhamed, their highest prophet, where corrupted, and therefore do not believe or trust them. A Muslim would not trust the Talmud. So how could a Muslim be this belief-based child of Noah?

So what is one saying when Muslims are bnei Noah? Almost nothing. Maybe just using sloppy language to appease the audience.

It’s as sloppy as the question, is christianity idolatry? It’s sloppy because there are so many brands and denominations with conflicting beliefs, even about the nature of God, that the question cannot be answered as it is. It would be accurate to specify a certain doctrines of certain sects and deal with that rather than use such an exaggeration of a question.

Or, another sloppy question can a christian be a noahide or ben noah or whatever this label is? With the latter question, the core of the problems of doing this with Muslims remain. I could almost do a copy-paste of what I just did. Think about how redundant the question is when applying the primary meaning of the term: can a christian be a Gentile? The confusion in the label rears its ugly head, and it is, to me, ugly and repugnant.

I think this may be part of the reason why my relationship to the Jews and the seven laws is the following: just give me what’s mine and I’ll go my way; I’ll call you if I need you. None of this, “find yourself a rabbi and stay connected to him.” It reminds me of a complaint that Alan Cecil, author of “Secular by Design: A Philosophy of Noahide Laws and Observances,” had about the rabbis and their relationship with the belief-clique noahides. Let me see if I can find an example of it.

https://academyofshem.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/silly-rabbi-hicks-are-for-yids/

This is one example of many articles that Cecil writes bemoaning the negative impact rabbis have had in teaching the seven laws to the point where there are significant voices amongst them teaching that “noahides” shouldn’t teach “noahides” about the seven laws. I’ll leave it to you to guess which meaning of “child/descendant of Noah” is being applied there. But at the root of it, it’s that a person who is not a Jew isn’t allowed, in the eyes of such rabbis, to teach what they may know.

It reminds me of how it is said that only doctors licensed by the government or some higher cadre (or cabal) of “authorities” can practice medicine, and anyone else that even gives medical advice can be prosecuted legally. That’s the rumour that’s spread about. So they protect their industry whilst making their own wares necessary. Aren’t the rabbis doing a similar thing saying we Gentiles cannot do things ourselves, we need them? And while this is going on, we’re taken further away from the primary meaning of what a child of Noah is, just a Gentile, and us governing our behaviours to avoid immoral acts, something any and many of us can do, to some religious group who must be led by a rabbi who tends to teach the religious sections of “Judaism?” You don’t believe me? How comes when many Jews teach the seven laws, the first one they say is not just a prohibition against idolatry, but a positive command to believe in the one God, against what the Talmud teaches? Even Maimonides doesn’t teach this. How comes the first main section of the popular book for “noahides” (pick your definition), The Divine Code, is not a straight introduction to the first law for Gentiles (either Justice according to the Talmud or Idolatry according to Maimonides) but is called “Fundamentals of the Faith” and includes sections on awareness of God, making new religions, prayers and graces over meals, and sacrificial offerings? Why have “noahides” become akin to a religious denomination where rabbis are telling them their faith is Judaism? Although this can partly be blamed on the ex-christian nature of the Gentiles who still believe that religion is important and thus equate “noahide” to religion, a bulk of the blame must be directed at the Jews and rabbis who keep ignoring the primary teachings about justice to push religion.

Ok, I won’t turn this into a(nother) rant. Let me just conclude.

When it comes to the seven laws, every non-Jew is a descendant of Noah. There is no religious distinction. You could label yourself with any religious title you want. The law still applies.

But there are Jews and rabbis historically who have limited the term to just those Gentiles who keep the seven (how they’d know, nobody knows; just assume it, I guess) and those who keep the seven because God commanded it to Adam and Noah as was related to Moshe at Sinai. People use the word “noahide” or “ben noah” or “bnei noah” to refer to such entities.

This is why I’m so happy to keep things to plain English, just how I like it, without using Hebrew or words derived from the Hebrew. Screw “noahide!” Let “bnei Noah” “ben Noah” be damned! Let the Jewish stuff stay with those to who it belongs, the Jews! Nope, I’m happy to stick with words that are clear to me. “Non-Jew.” “Those of nations of the world.” The Brit! The American! The Arab! I’d try to let national identity or lack thereof stay on one side and let how a person lives, their actual actions, remain on the other side. This is a clarity that is confounded by adding the foreign religious words.

I chuckle at those people whose power of the English language has left them after a personal contact with the rabbis – yes, I have Rod Bryant in mind – and who struggle with the English word “Gentile.” How sad. Even though in many dictionaries, English dictionaries its primary meaning is “one who is not a Jewish,” these people has associated with the negative connotations added the Hebrew word, “goy,” which itself is usually a neutral term meaning “nation” or “a person from the non-Jewish nations.” I’ll use the term “Gentile” freely. My native tongue is English. It would be silly for me to weaken my grasp on it.

So, who is a child of Noah? Pick your definition: Gentile; Gentile who keeps the seven laws; or “the pious/righteous of the nations of the world,” those with the right beliefs. It’s been made messy by its owners unfortunately. Maybe you’ll make it clear with additional words to push past that mess.

Me? I’m trying to make sure I get what I want, what’s supposed to mine: the seven laws for Gentiles. Then, I go my way and leave the Jews to deal with their affairs with those Jews and Gentile followers that will have it. After that, I’ll keep things as clear in my own language as possible.

By hesedyahu

I'm a gentile living in UK, a person who has chosen to take upon himself the responsibility God has given to all gentiles. God is the greatest aspect of my life and He has blessed me with a family.

I used to be a christian, but I learnt the errors of my ways.

I love music. I love to play it on the instruments I can play, I love to close my eyes and feel the groove of it. I could call myself a singer and a songwriter ... And that would be accurate.

What else is there?

4 replies on “Who is a child of Noah?”

To add to the terminological confusion, Righteous Among the Nations additionally refers to Gentiles who saved Jews from the Nazi regime.

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