The Command to Establish Just Laws and Courts

The commandment to establish judicial courtsThe Foundation of a Peaceful and Just Society

The Meaning

If society is to function successfully, it must be able to impose on itself a legal structure to ensure adherence to core values. Peace and success among the members of a society can only be fostered if a righteous moral code is used to establish enforceable boundaries of behavior. Every nation, state or province, and municipality is obligated to have a system of courts to uphold the Noahide Commandments. Beyond this, all societies must also establish civil laws according to righteous principles, with civil courts ruling on civil matters, since these inevitably arise in daily life.

For the good of the society, courts or governments may place necessary legal limits on activities that G-d’s Torah leaves up to personal choice, as long as the restrictions are acceptable to the population in general. Then by the Noahide “Law of Courts,” citizens are required to observe the secular law, and the courts can apply any non-capital punishment that the public in general accepts, as long as it is not cruel and unusual. This is called “going beyond the letter” of the Torah Law. For example, a court system has the right to limit male citizens to only one legally contracted wife at a time (including both formally registered marriages and common-law marriages), if this is judged to be a benefit for the society.

Furthermore, G-d’s known standards for moral human behavior are also part of His desire for “yishuv olom” (literally, “settling the world,” which is a Biblical term that refers to people making societies that are peaceful and proper in G-d’s eyes). Therefore, establishing righteous law and courts also falls under the Noahide obligation to promote “yishuv olom” – people should be encouraged to act in ways that are morally proper according to G-d, or at least refrain from acting in ways that are known from the Hebrew Scriptures (which are authentic Divine revelation) to be abhorrent to G-d. This applies whether or not the undesirable actions are actually liable to punishment according to the Torah’s Noahide Code.

Even if there are no courts which expressly follow the Noahide Commandments, as in our day and age, every Gentile is still obligated to constrain himself or herself to believe in and follow the Seven Noahide Commandments. It is praiseworthy to encourage others to do so as well, and to support laws in your own society which move toward the letter and spirit of the Noahide Commandments.

Scriptural Sources

G-d commanded Noah regarding the trial and punishment of a murderer, as it says in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, among man, his blood shall be shed…” This refers to a Noahide commandment to judge and penalize a murderer.

This is explained as follows by the Talmudic Sages: “Whoever sheds the blood of man” (referring to the murderer), “among man” (i.e., he is to be prosecuted in a court by a man who is qualified to testify as a witness), “his blood shall be shed” (if convicted, he is liable to capital punishment by the court). The Noahide Code commanded through Moses at Mount Sinai specifies that Gentiles are similarly obligated to bring transgressors of the other Noahide commandments to justice in a court of law.

Some Details and Related Principles

  • The ruling power must institute oversight over the courts to be sure that only proper and expert judges are appointed, and that the judges do not act corruptly or unrighteously. The ruling power also has the authority to institute a structure of “appeals” or “referral” courts.
  • Every individual must abide by a properly rendered legal decision he has received. It is forbidden for an individual to carry out judgments and punishments against others (vigilante justice). One must pursue a legal case within the legal system that has jurisdiction over the matter.
  • Standard types of evidence are admissible in Noahide courts.
  • Anyone who is known to transgress any of the 7 Noahide Commandments is not to be considered as a reliable witness in capital cases.
  • All judges must deliver righteous judgments, and opposing claimants must be treated equally in all ways.
  • Bribing a judge is forbidden, and judges may not take bribes.
  • In civil cases, one should seek arbitration, mediation or other means of finding an amicable settlement or compromise.
  • If the majority of the society is not G-d fearing and does not observe all of the Seven Noahide Commandments, a court may only use capital punishment as a decree of the government to protect the society from very dangerous criminals, such as murderers.

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