Jeff Jaffe
Jeff Jaffe

The Noahide laws and the Sabbath

We have been discussing why the seven Noahide laws do not include all of the themes of the Ten Commandments. After all, if these are the most significant commandments, shouldn’t all people be so obligated?

This is especially puzzling because the second chapter of Genesis talks about God “sanctifying” the seventh day. This happens prior to the existence of the Jewish people. Why is the Sabbath not a universal law? And if it is not a universal law, why is it discussed in Genesis?

To appreciate why this is not a Noahide universal law, it is important to see how the Sages interpreted the appearance of the seventh day in the Genesis narrative. It is not the place where God provides the commandments related to the Sabbath – that comes later in Exodus.

According to traditional Jewish commentaries, the “sanctification” of the seventh day did not occur at creation. The commentator Rashi does not see anything that indicates that God sanctified the Sabbath at the time of creation, on the seventh day. He addresses an unstated question: When did God sanctify the Sabbath? His amazing answer is that it happened when God stopped the manna from falling on the seventh day. Thus the mention of sanctification in Genesis refers to a future event. The sanctification actually took place in chapter 16 of Exodus!

If sanctification took place in Exodus, why do the two words “sanctified it” appear in Genesis? The creation story is about the incredible power of God. God is the Creator. From nothing He fashions the universe. This chapter is the picture of His awesome strength. It is about His power and authority not religious notions of sanctity.

The word va’yekadesh (He sanctified) is also not a common word in Genesis. In Exodus 19:6, the Jewish people are referred to as mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh (a kingdom of priests and a holy [i.e., sanctified] nation). In Leviticus, we are taught about the holiness of priests, sacrifices, etc. But throughout Genesis, sanctity is not a common theme.

There is also a textual indication that the seventh day is not sanctified during the creation week. In our vernacular and in the rest of the Torah, the seventh day of the week is not called “Day 7”; its name is “Sabbath.” But in Genesis chapter 2 it is not referred to by this name. It is not yet the Sabbath. It is not yet the holy day. Genesis calls this day “the seventh day.” It is a secular term.

We see that at creation, God did not establish a Noahide law of “Sabbath”. That leaves us with two questions. Why isn’t the Sabbath – one of the Ten Commandments – included in the Noahide laws? And, if sanctity does not occur in Genesis, why is it there?

For the first question, let’s recall that the Jewish concept of the Sabbath is not a simple matter of taking a day off from work. God sanctified the day as part of building His relationship with the Jewish people – a double portion of manna on Friday and a day of rest on the Sabbath. In exchange, the mitzvah of Sabbath observance involves very tight restrictions on behavior. The Jewish concept of the sanctity of Sabbath includes refraining from all sorts of creative activities – from planting one’s field, to writing, tying knots, or lighting a fire. It is a day dedicated to study and prayer.

That is the reason that the Sabbath day is not included in the Noahide laws. These rigorous restrictions are confined to the Jewish mitzvot.

For the second question about why sanctity is mentioned, let’s deepen that question. Every Torah-observant Jew ushers in the Sabbath with the recitation of the passage at the beginning of chapter 2 of Genesis. The recitation is called Kiddush (the sanctification ceremony), because of those same two words (“VaYekadesh Oto” or “sanctified it”) that don’t seem to belong in Genesis! The term, Kiddush, is so commonplace that no one feels these two words are out of place. Because we recite them outside of the Genesis narrative – as three standalone verses – we have the intuition that their purpose is sanctification. But when we transport these verses back to their source in Genesis, it is clear that sanctification does not belong.

I would suggest a reason for these two words that aligns with the purpose of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. We know that God included the message about sanctity in chapter 2 of Genesis. We know that there is little discussion in Genesis in general about sanctity. There is no mitzvah – not for Jews and not for non-Jews – about sanctity that is derived from these verses. This section of the Torah does not express mitzvot for Jews. It is God providing His worldview to all of mankind.

Putting that together, the explanation that follows is that God wanted all nations of the world to understand the concept of sanctity. It is important that everyone appreciate that some things are sacred and some are profane; added respect must be given to that which is sacred. That’s why it is included here.

What is the practical application? What is expected from non-Jews? There is no formal Noahide law to keep the Sabbath sacred by refraining from a long list of activities. What are non-Jews supposed to do with the information that God has imparted sanctity into the world? After all, isn’t it strange that the concept of sanctity is introduced about the Sabbath – a day whose strict observance is reserved for the Jews?

But as we have argued in earlier blog posts, God’s expectations exceed the limited bounds of the seven laws. The seven Noahide laws are a stripped-down set of laws. God expects humans to be good – even if not explicitly commanded as one of the Noahide laws.  Thus the reference to sanctity is simply that people should be aware that there are things that are sacred. There is an imperative that the sacred be treated with respect.  There is no specific formalism how to do that – hence it is not a mitzvah; rather the Torah is setting out expectations of proper behavior.

About the Author
Jeff Jaffe is the author of "Genesis: A Torah for all Nations", published by Gefen Publishing House. He is also Chief Executive Officer of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at MIT. Previously he served as IBM's Corporate VP of Technology, President of Research and Advanced Technologies at Bell Labs, and EVP/CTO of Novell. Dr. Jaffe holds a doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The posts are his opinions only and are not the opinions of W3C or MIT.
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