Two Types of Obligations in the Noahide Code

A translation by Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver of a talk given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe,[1] which is included as Part VIII in the book To Perfect the World: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Call to Teach the Noahide Code to All Mankind (pub. SIE, 20’16, and copyright © by Rabbi Y. Oliver and Ask Noah International).

At the outset of the Laws of the Nazirite,[2] Rambam defines the nazirite vow: “The nazirite vow is one of the types of vows involving prohibitions.”[3] He goes on to explain the details of the obligations involved, the positive and the prohibitive mitzvos, and so on. In the second chapter, he continues, “The nazirite vow does not apply to Gentiles, as it is written about this,[4] ‘Speak to the children of Israel.’ ” A literal reading of this would imply that Gentiles are not obligated at all to fulfill an oath not to partake of products of the grape vine. […]

However, upon further analysis, it is untenable to suggest that Rambam means to instruct a Gentile to profane his word and fail to keep his oath. Rather, his intent is that [although the Gentile must indeed keep his oath], he does not have the status of a nazirite as the Torah defines it, as will be explained below.

By way of preface: certain matters are not included within “the mitzvos that the Children of Noah were commanded,”[5] and yet we must say that Gentiles too must follow them. For instance, the foremost sin for which the people of Sodom were punished was the neglect to give charity, as it is written, “This was the sin of Sodom, … the hand of the poor and the destitute she did not support.”[6] Several Rishonim[7] maintain that this proves that Gentiles too are duty-bound to give charity, although it is not enumerated among their mitzvos.[8]

However, Rambam holds that charity is not one of the Noahide mitzvos.[9] According to his view, how could they have been punished – and with a punishment as severe as annihilation – for violating a precept that they are not obligated to follow?! Hence, we must conclude that certain things, though not explicitly included in the Noahide mitzvos, must be followed by Gentiles as well. This is because they are necessary to civilize the world, which is the underlying purpose of the obligation of the Noahide Code, as it is written, “He formed it [the world] to be settled.”[10]

This applies to the topic under discussion, charity: In order to settle the world, Gentiles should also give charity. Thus, when “the hand of the poor and the destitute she did not support” – and this reached such an extreme that they executed anyone who gave charity, which is the antithesis of civilizing the world – they deserved annihilation.

To explain further, the Talmud asks, “What is the meaning of that which is written: ‘[G-d,] Who makes us more knowing than the beasts of the land, and makes us wiser than the birds of the sky’?[11] … Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘Had the Torah not been given, we would have learnt modesty from a cat, [and not to commit] theft from an ant.’ ” Rashi comments, “He [G-d] imbued them [the animals of the land and the birds of the sky] with wisdom in order to teach us.”[12]

This appears to require explanation. Now that the Torah has been given, what difference does it make what would have occurred “had the Torah not been given”? Rather, this is relevant even after the Torah has been given, in terms of the obligations of Gentiles. For certain matters, although they are not included in the Noahide Code, an obligation exists to derive them from “the animals of the land and the birds of the sky,” because “He imbued them with wisdom in order to teach us.”

An example of this is honoring one’s parents. Although it is not counted as one of the mitzvos of Gentiles, we find that Cham was punished for disgracing his father [Noah].[13] The reason for this is that the prohibition of disgracing one’s father is derived from the nature of “the birds of the sky,” as it is written, “The eye that mocks a father, … the ravens of the valley will gouge it out.”[14] Thus, it is also forbidden for Gentiles to disgrace their parents, although this does not have the status of a mitzvah. From this we may draw an inference concerning all matters dictated by human intellect: Gentiles too must keep them, although they were not commanded to do so.

All aspects of settling the world, i.e., maintaining just and righteous interpersonal conduct in general, are obligatory for Gentiles. Not only is it forbidden to violate the Noahide Commandments that are mentioned explicitly, such as the prohibition of robbery and the duty to maintain a justice system, but even evil behavior that is not explicitly included in the Noahide Commandments, such as deception and lying, is forbidden. However, such rules do not fall into the category of a mitzvah [a Divine command], but rather of a principle necessitated by human intellect. Human intellect is surely no less worthy of learning from than the intellect of the “animals of the earth” and of the “birds of the sky” (from which we are obligated to learn, for “He imbued them with wisdom”). Thus, we ought to learn from human intellect as well, which recognizes the need for just and righteous behavior.

Proof of this may be adduced from the Noahide obligation for justice itself. The duty to have judges who judge does not prescribe specifics of how they must judge. Yet, if they judge like the [sadistic] judges of Sodom, in a way that violates human decency, they are obviously violating the Noahide mitzvah that mandates justice. From this, it follows that matters of human decency, justice and righteousness which are not included in that Noahide mitzvah must also be followed, although Gentiles were not explicitly commanded by G-d to do so, for human intellect necessitates them.

Furthermore, and of primary importance: Rambam writes, “Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these seven mitzvos and is precise in their observance is considered one of the ‘pious among the Gentiles” and will merit a share in the World to Come.”[15] Obviously, a Gentile who is careful to adhere only to the Noahide Commandments themselves, but who in all other areas ignores standards of common decency, cannot possibly merit a portion in the World to Come. The World to Come is eternal, and it is impossible for that which is undesirable and violates standards of decent human behavior to exist eternally, G-d forbid, for this would contradict the prophecy: “I will remove the spirit of impurity from the earth.”[16]

It emerges that there are two types of duties for Gentiles:

  • Commandments that Gentiles were commanded, which should be followed “because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them,” and not “out of intellectual conviction.”[17]
  • Obligations that arise “out of intellectual conviction,” where human intellect requires one to behave in a fashion conducive to civilizing society, although this behavior lacks the status of an actual Divine commandment.

There is another category: observances that Gentiles undertook collectively that were intended to become obligatory. For example, it is said, “The peoples [of the world] guarded themselves from forbidden relations” – that is, by forbidding additional relations [e.g.] between certain [near] relatives that were not strictly forbidden [by the letter of the Seven Noahide Commandments] – “as a result of the Flood.”[18]

An example of this is honoring one’s parents. Besides the prohibition of disgracing one’s father, which is derived even from ravens, one’s father should be honored. This is evident from the way that the Torah refers to Avram: [The verse first says that Terach passed away in Charan, and then says that Avram left Charan, although it is known that Terach did not die until many years later. The Torah worded it in this way] “so that the matter should not become known to everyone, and they would say, ‘Avram did not fulfill the honoring of his father.’ ”[19] […]

Thus, it follows that Gentiles too must fulfill their oaths, for human intellect dictates so, even though it does not have the status of a commandment for them. Concerning this, the famous expression may be used, “Why do I need a verse [as proof], if it is logical?”[20]

Thus, if they undertake a prohibitory oath for the sake of Heaven to forbid permitted things to themselves – in this case, not to eat from the grape of the vine – they must surely “guard what emerges from their mouths,” and keep their oaths. Thus, when Rambam writes, “The nazirite vow does not apply to Gentiles, as it is written, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel,’” we must conclude that he means that Gentiles lack the status of the nazirite vow as defined by the Torah, but, nevertheless, they must surely honor their vows.

As for the statement of the Sifri, “Gentiles do not violate ‘he shall not profane [his word]’ ” (and likewise, in the Torah books that discuss this issue), this means to exclude Gentiles from the unique prohibition for Jews of “he shall not profane [his word].” It obviously does not mean to exempt Gentiles from fulfilling a duty that human intellect necessitates. To explain:

In Mishneh Torah, Rambam gives the definition of a nazirite within Torah Law.[21] […] This Torah-law status of the nazirite – all the obligations, the positive and the prohibitive mitzvos, the punishment by lashes [if a Jew violates certain of those mitzvos], and the like – do not apply to Gentiles, “as it is written [of the nazirite vow], ‘Speak to the Children of Israel.’ ”

Nevertheless, consider a Gentile who “takes a nazirite vow to set [himself] apart to G-d,”[22] or “to separate himself from wine for the sake of Heaven,”[23] or to grow the hair of his head “for the sake of Heaven,” or to offer sacrifices to G-d – for “Gentiles may offer vows and gifts [to the Holy Temple] like Jews.”[24] However, “[they may] only [offer] burnt-offerings,[25] and even if “he brought [an animal to the Holy Temple with the intention for] a peace offering,[26] we offer it as a burnt-offering, for the heart of the Gentile is to Heaven.”[27]

In any of these cases, the Gentile would certainly be required to guard what goes out of his mouth and keep his vow – not because of the Torah’s obligation [for Jews]: “You shall observe and carry out that which emerges from your lips, just as you vowed”[28] – but because human intellect dictates that one ought to carry out that which goes out of one’s mouth and not profane one’s word, and especially when one takes an oath to Heaven [i.e., to G-d].

Note* that also at stake here is the sanctification of the Name of Heaven [i.e., the Name of G-d], or the opposite. As the Talmud states, “The Name of Heaven should become beloved through you.”[29] When a Gentile comes and states that he has taken an oath to Heaven to separate himself from wine and offer a sacrifice, etc., it would be the opposite of a sanctification of the name of Heaven to tell him that he need not keep his vow to Heaven,[30] and because of that, we won’t accept [i.e., bring] his sacrifice (although [in general], we do accept vows [i.e. vowed sacrifices] and donations from Gentiles).

Moreover – not only when it comes to prohibitory oaths, about which human intellect dictates that one should “uphold what  comes out of one’s mouth,” but also in regard to mitzvos of the Torah – [as Rambam rules[31]] “If a Gentile desires to perform a mitzvah of the other [Jewish] mitzvos of the Torah” (not with the attitude that it is a [spiritual] obligation, for then it would be considered “inventing a new religion,”[32] but rather) “in order to receive benefit,”[33] we do not prevent him from performing it [even] according to its specifications.”

However, in-depth Torah study[34] [in areas unrelated to the Noahide Code] and Sabbath observance[35] are exceptions to this,** for these mitzvos contain a unique aspect that emphasizes their exclusive connection to the Jewish people, who are “betrothed” to G-d through them.[36] Therefore, a Gentile who observes either of these two Jewish commandments “appears like a member of our nation” [which is strictly forbidden by Torah Law].[37]


[1] Hisvaaduyos 5747, Vol. 3, pp. 428-430; 432-434; a record of a talk by the Rebbe on 7 Sivan, 5747.

[2] See Numbers 6:1-27. Ed. Note: In the times of the Holy Temple, a nazirite was a Jew who vowed to undertake a period of abstaining from drinking wine, partaking of other grape products, haircutting, and contracting ritual impurity by being in proximity to, or under the same roof with, a corpse. The period of the vow could only be concluded by offering a special sacrifice in the Temple.

[3] Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Nazirite 1:1.

[4] Numbers 6:2-3. G-d instructs Moses to tell the Jewish people about the Torah laws pertaining to a Nazarite vow.

[5] Tractate Sanhedrin 56a.

[6] Ezekiel 16:49.

[7] Plural of Rishon, in Hebrew. This is the title given to the leading Torah-Law authorities in the period 1000-1500 C.E.

Ed. Note: There were 25 great Rishonim, including: Alfasi, Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam, Ramban and the Baalei Tosafos. See Miraculous Journey, by Rabbi Yosef Eisen (pub. Targum/Feldheim).

[8] Chiddushei HaRan, Sanhedrin 56b. Yad Ramah, Sanhedrin 57b.

[9] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 10:10.

[10] Jeremiah 45:18.

[11] Job 35:11.

[12] Tractate Eruvin 100b.

[13] See Rashi on Genesis 9:23.

[14] Proverbs 30:17.

[15] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:11.

[16] Zechariah 13:2.

[17] Mishneh Torah, ibid.

[18] Rashi on Genesis 34:7. Rampant promiscuity was one of the main reasons for the punishment that G-d administered with the Flood.

Ed. Note: Therefore, in the early generations after the Flood, people established higher standards of forbidden relations for their societies, in order to guard themselves against coming even close to the sins that prompted G-d to bring the Flood.

[19] Rashi’s explanation on Genesis 11:32. Ed. Note: For in fulfilling the Divine directive to leave his homeland, Avram (Abraham) had to depart from his father Terach in Terach’s old age. This is why the verse refers to the death of Terach out of chronological order, even though Terach died many years later.

[20] Tractate Bava Kama 46b.

[21] Mishneh Torah, Laws of a Nazir 1:1-3.

[22] Numbers 6:2.

[23] See Rashi’s explanation, ibid.

[24] Tractate Menachos 73b.

[25] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Making the Sacrfices 3:2. A “burnt-offering” (olah in Hebrew) is the term for an animal sacrifice in which the animal’s entire corpse is burned completely on the altar.

[26] “Peace offerings” (“shelamim” in Hebrew) were animal sacrifices in which parts of the animal were eaten by the owner and by the officiating priests, and parts were burnt on the altar. The Torah specifies that if a Gentile brings a sacrifice to the Holy Temple, the priests must offer it only as a burnt offering, not as a peace offering.

[27] Ibid. 3:3.

[28] Deuteronomy 23:24.

*In these last three paragraphs, slight improvements have been made in  the translation.

[29] Tractate Yoma 86a.

[30] Ed. Note: See The Divine Code, 3rd Ed., Part III, ch. 4.

[31] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 10:10.

[32] Ed. Note: See The Divine Code, 3rd Ed., Part I, ch. 3.

[33] As explained in ibid., this refers to a natural, practical, or logical benefit, as opposed to an (imagined) purely spiritual reward.

[34] Ed. Note: This is defined in ibid., ch. 5.

[35] Tractate Sanhedrin 58b, as explained in Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 15, pp. 49-57. See Emes LeYaakov (Al HaTorah) on Genesis 8:22 and refs. there.

**This apparently means that even though a Gentile might consider that in-depth Torah study (not related to the Noahide Code) or observance of the Jewish Sabbath restrictions could provide him with practical benefits, they are nevertheless forbidden, as the Rebbe goes on to explain.

[36] See commentary by Maharsha, Sanhedrin 58b.

[37] See commentary by Meiri, ibid., and The Divine Code, 3rd Ed., Part I, topics 3:2-3.