What does God expect from each of us?
Each religion has laws and expectations for its adherents. Many religions expect non-adherents to accept their precepts through conversion.
Judaism has a different approach. God has chosen the Jews to observe a rigorous set of 613 commandments or mitzvot. Non-Jews must lead moral lives, but are not obligated with all of the commandments. Non-Jews are obligated in the seven Noahide laws: the prohibitions on idolatry, cursing God’s name, illicit relationships, murder, theft, and eating live animals, as well as the injunction to set up a court system.
At one level, Jews and non-Jews alike might be content with such a distinction. Jews are happy to be selected to a higher level of obligation. Non-Jews that I know seem pretty content not to be obligated in the strict Jewish laws of family purity, severe limits of Sabbath observance, kosher food restrictions, and the like.
In today’s egalitarian society, however, it seems odd. And that gap seems so large: 613 v seven! Why are we obligated to do so much? Does God really want everyone else to do so little?
If you want to understand Judaism’s views about the 613 mitzvot, it is not hard to find many sources. The entire Torah (Five Books of Moses), Talmud, thousands of years of Jewish scholarship, and many many books are all devoted to this topic.
It is harder to find Judaism’s views about the seven Noahide laws. There are isolated references in the Talmud, Maimonides, etc., but this was never a central concern for either Jews or non-Jews.
I recently studied the topic of God’s messages for humanity in the Jewish tradition and wrote a book Genesis: A Torah for All Nations (Gefen Publishing House) to analyze this topic in greater detail. In forty two chapters I outline these messages.
In this new blog series I want to highlight some of the major themes of my book. In this inaugural post, I will focus on the question asked above: Why are Jews obligated to do so much (613 mitzvot), and why are non-Jews obligated to do so little (seven mitzvot)? To analyze that we need to back up a bit and explain what a mitzvah is and analyze the seven Noahide laws at their source – the first eleven chapters of Genesis. These initial chapters of the Torah’s first book are full of messages and instructions to all of mankind.
What Is a mitzvah? In the English vernacular, mitzvah is generally understood to mean a “good deed.” This is a reasonable approximation of what it means in Hebrew, “a commandment of God.” But it is not exact or complete. A positive mitzvah (e.g., “honor your parents”) is something that God wants you to do. A negative mitzvah (e.g., “do not murder”) is something that God forbids you to do. The vernacular definition is not precise – there could be mitzvot that are not good deeds per se, and there could be good deeds that are not in the list of commandments from God.
Seeing that the word mitzvah is specialized helps understand the gap between 613 and seven mitzvot, the perceived gulf is somewhat overblown. The meaning of the word mitzvah in the context of the 613 mitzvot given to the Jews is different from the meaning of the word mitzvah in the context of the seven Noahide laws given to non-Jews.
When the Torah provides eleven chapters in Genesis to instruct mankind, it addresses many expectations for all of mankind but some do not map exactly to the seven Noahide laws. Why is that? The reason relates to the usage of the word mitzvah for the Noahide laws.
What are some of the differences between what is called a mitzvah as it relates to the 613 mitzvot for Jews and what is called a mitzvah as it relates to the seven Noahide laws for non-Jews?
- In some cases, one of the seven general Noahide laws corresponds to a number of specific laws among the 613. For example, one of the Noahide laws is the prohibition against adultery. However, Maimonides in his tabulation of the 613 mitzvot lists six illicit relationships (all separate negative mitzvot among the 613) that are included in this prohibition. We see that the counting of the Noahide laws is much more sparse.
- Non-capital offenses. Each of the seven Noahide laws is a capital offense, in that there are times when the violation of the law results in the death penalty. There are numerous mitzvot (of the 613) that do not carry the death penalty.
- All people are required to fulfill all of the Noahide laws. By contrast, not all of the 613 mitzvot are universal, even for Jews. Many mitzvot – notably those that are assigned to kohanim (the priestly class) –are not obligations on all Jews.
- Torts. The seven Noahide laws, when violated, are sins against God. These laws do not get into civil law, adjudicating the economic life of a people (with the exception of the law to set up a court system). By contrast, many of the 613 mitzvot for Jews deal with civil law and economic transactions including charity, loans, damages, sabbatical years, etc. There are several mitzvot that provide detailed minutiae of a tort system.
- Undesirable mitzvot. God wants all humans to abide by the Noahide laws all of the time. They are all desirable. There are however, mitzvot among the 613 that it is hard to imagine God actually wants humans to do. They are to repair bad situations. For example, there is a mitzvah that a thief must return what he stole. But it is hard to accept that God would ever want this mitzvah to become available to anyone.
While Jews have more mitzvot than non-Jews, the reality is closer than a 613:7 ratio. The 613 number is bloated because items are included that are not incumbent on everyone. And the seven number is minimized because it specifies seven categories of capital crimes. But there are many positive actions that God expects from non-Jews and many individual actions that are discouraged, beyond the seven categories that are actual prohibitions.
Further, the Talmud says that the Noahide laws are all prohibitions (the commandment to set up courts is included in this category since its purpose is to enforce those prohibitions). Positive actions are not included as Noahide laws. This observation explains that there is substantial room for elaboration of the positive actions that God expects from everyone.
In subsequent blog posts we will elaborate how the teachings of Genesis provide a substantial overview of God’s expectations for all of humanity. In particular, we point out that these chapters outline expectations that are not included in the Noahide laws. These imperatives are not counted in the seven laws for technical reasons, but that does not mean they should be ignored. The existence of these imperatives, then, helps further explain the gap between 613 and seven, there are indeed greater than seven expectations that are taught in Genesis.