Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Shevah Mizvot Benei Noah vs. Brit Milah

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56-59) defines the universal obligations and prohibitions that devolve upon all men as "sheva mizvot benei Noah". Non-Jews, who must comply with these norms are designated simply as "benei Noah". An examination of the history of this basic code , however, reveals that only the seventh, ever min ha-chai (Bereshit 9:4), is actually associated with Noah; the first six commandments were addressed to Adam (Bereshit 2:16...Sanhedrin 56a ). The Rambam finds it necessary to formulate this history of religious obligation in Hilkhot Melakhim (9:1).

If six/sevenths of the themes that constitute the foundation for universal conduct predate him, why is the total corpus identified with the personality of Noah? Does the fact that his contribution completes the list, or that his survival ensured the continuity of humankind sufficiently account for this phenomenon? Moreover, one could certainly argue that ever min ha-chai represents a narrower and less fundamental principle relative to the other components-idolatry, murder, theft, etc.- that were initially addressed to Adam. It seems ironic that specifically this norm would link the entire list to Noah.

Upon further reflection, however, it appears that ever min ha-chai and the personality of Noah uniquely characterize the nature of sheva mizvot benei Noah, particularly as contrasted with the ambitious program of Taryag mizvot. The prohibition of Ever min ha-chai emerges in the context of a major transition allowing for the consumption of meat in the aftermath of the mabul. While some mefarshim view this allowance as a natural outgrowth of the changed relationship between man and animal resulting from the tevah experience, others perceive it as a concession to a lower minimum standard of spirituality demanded from man, notwithstanding his continued capacity for occasional greatness. This harsh reassessment of man's spiritual profile reflected in his level of obligation came about not only because of the absolute spiritual breakdown that led to "keitz kol basar ba lefanai", but perhaps also because even the lone deserving survivor, Noah, proved only to be relatively righteous, a "zadik tamim bedorotav".

Elsewhere (TorahWeb.org, Parshat Noah, 5760), we have suggested that Noah was the quintessential survivor, who was able to achieve the transition to a new world, but was incapable of seizing the opportunity to spiritually refashion that world . Even after the remarkable experience of the tevah, Noah remained "mi-ketanei emunah". It took some coaxing to lure him from the safe if uncomfortable environment of the tevah to the challenge of a new world. Finally, it was necessary to command him- "zeh min ha-tevah" (Bereshit 8:16), "hayzeh itakh" (8:17, and Rashi). Even as Hashem accepts his korban-"va-yarach Hashem et rei-ach ha-nichoach"- and resolves never again to destroy mankind, He affirms His reassessment of man's spiritual nature- "ki yezer lev ha-adam ra mi-neurav" (8:21)! It is precisely at this juncture that Hashem permits the eating of meat followed immediately by the prohibition of ever min ha-chai, which notably seems to be formulated as a caveat to the original concession- "akh basar be-nafsho damo lo tokhelu"(9:3,4). Within this framework, the Torah finds it necessary to reiterate the prohibition against murder. The Ramban (9:5 )explains that the implications of this transition to a meat-eating society required a reaffirmation of man's centrality vis-a-vis the animal kingdom, as well as a clear statement about the sanctity of human life as it relates to human interaction. The Torah even feels compelled to reestablish the most basic principle articulated at Adam's creation- "ki be-zelem elokim asah et ha-adam"(9:6).

All seven of the "noahide" commandments are appropriately associated with Noah. In many respects, the mabul destroyed not only the world's population, but the prevailing world-order. The obligations addressed to Adam achieved continuity only because they were also binding upon Noah in the aftermath of the mabul, notwithstanding Hashem's reassessment and reformulation of the world's foundation. Moreover, ever min ha-chai, precisely because it emerges in the context of a clear and dramatic concession to man's propensity for spiritual mediocrity, conveys a basic truth about the scope and nature of "noahide" obligation that applies to all components of that code. The obligations of a ben noah are designed to promote basic spiritual survival and social continuity; they are not an effective prescription for spiritual excellence. Noah, who exemplified these very characteristics, is, indeed, the ideal exemplar of this system. The contrast to Taryag Mizvot, a system in which every aspect of life is suffused with religious meaning and opportunity, is manifest.

Hazal were intrigued about the relationship between Noah and Avraham. It is interesting that Avraham is also associated with a particular mizvah, milah. Rambam continues his history of religious observance in Hilkhot Melakhim (9:1) by noting this fact. Just as ever min ha-chai reflects Noah's contribution to religious life, milah typifies Avraham's and Yahadut's (Judaism's) unique perspective. This ambitious dialectical mizvah which highlights both man's aspiration to perfection, as well as his capacity and desire for self-sacrifice in order to attain spiritual goals (See Shabbat 106a; Sefer Hakhinukh; Moreh Nevukhim etc.), emerges as the appropriate symbol of kedushat yisrael. The midrash (Mishpatim Rabbah 30:9) records that when Akilas was considering converting to Yahadut, the king attempted to dissuade him, arguing that one could achieve the benefits of Yahadut without its burdens simply by studying Jewish texts and teachings. Akilas responded powerfully that one cannot effectively partake of the Jewish experience without a full commitment to the total system, particularly as represented by bris milah. Notwithstanding the critical role of Noah and the central importance of the system of shevah mizvot benei Noah, it is brit milah that is truly the foundation for the spiritual excellence epitomized by Avraham Avinu.

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