5771 - #17



            There is a general principle that anything forbidden to Non-Jews under the Noachide Code will not then be found to be permitted to Jews under the rules of the Torah.1 While there are, in fact, a number of exceptions to this rule, two that particularly stand out are those that are prohibited to Non-Jews yet are not only permitted to Jews but are actually mitzvot. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 10:9 states that Non-Jews are prohibited from studying Torah2 and from observing a Shabbat,3 two mitzvot, in fact, of fundamental value. Why would the Torah declare these two areas of intense religious significance to be off limits for Non-Jews?

            This rule regarding Shabbat is most baffling.4 While there is a connection between Shabbat and the particular Jewish experience of avdut Mitzrayim, Egyptian slavery, and Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus,5 the main source for Shabbat observance would seem to be the universal concept of Creation. We are to rest on the seventh day for God rested on the seventh day when he created the world.6 If Shabbat reflects a universal concept and reality, why would Non-Jews also not be commanded in observing this day? Strangely, though, we are told that not only are Non-Jews not commanded to rest on Shabbat but that they are even held accountable for such resting. 

            In attempting to explain this law – indeed, in the attempt to explain any case where a Noachide law would seem, contrary to the principle noted above, to impose a greater strictness on Non-Jews than the one imposed by the law of the Torah on Jews – it must first be understood that the difference between the Noachide Code and the Torah Code is not just quantitative but is, in fact, qualitative. It is not just simply that Non-Jews have 7 mitzvot while Jews have 613, i.e. 606 more. The difference is actually qualitative, in the very structure, essence and purpose of both Codes.7 As such, we must conclude that while the observance of Shabbat is an important factor in achieving Hashem’s overall purpose for Torah for the Jewish People, its observance must also be deemed to be contrary to God’s purpose for the Noachide Code for Non-Jews. To solve this difference in law, in regard to Shabbat, between the two Codes, demands of us to uncover the nature of this qualitative distinction between them, at least in this case.

            Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Shemot 20:10 presents a most novel approach to this distinction between the Torah Code for Jews and the Noachide Code that, aside from providing an explanation for the difference in the law regarding Shabbat, provides a powerful insight into the nature of God’s very relationship with Mankind. Building on the view of Rav Nissim Gaon, Introduction to the Talmud who contends that the Noachide Code reflects the moral conclusions of logical analysis, Rav Yaakov maintains that a Noachide is bound solely to the conclusions of logic. As such, given that Aristotle, “the greatest human thinker”, believed in the eternity of the universe, Noachides, following logic, must also believe in this understanding of the world. Knowledge of Creation is only learned from the Torah which was specifically given to the Jewish People. As such, it is only the Jewish People who, because of their knowledge of Torah through the Revelation at Sinai, are commanded to believe in God the Creator from nothingness, yeish m’ayin, and to mark this through their observance of Torah. The Non-Jew, in fact, who observes Shabbat is not acting logically and, as such, is challenging the very system which God has directed them to follow. It is this qualitative distinction in the faith structure of both systems that ultimately explains the distinction between the two systems regarding Shabbat.

            Many questions can be raised in regard to Rav Yaakov’s theory. One that specifically emerges from the Noachide prohibition regarding Shabbat is that the Non-Jew is not specifically prohibited from resting on the seventh day, which would tie this resting to a commemoration of Creation, but is prohibited from resting for a whole day on any day of the week. A review of T.B. Sanhedrin 58b actually does seem to denote that the issue in regard to a Non-Jew is the resting itself not what the resting indicates. For Jews, though, it does seem that it is what the resting signifies that makes the observance of specifically Shabbat, through not violating the halachic rules of work on this seventh day, so significant. Indeed there does seem to be a distinction in focus between the two Codes. The Noachide Code seems to be solely concerned with the behaviour of human beings, resting in itself, while the Torah Code seems to also be concerned with the theological or philosophical message which is being imparted through this behaviour.8

            This distinction between the two Codes may actually offer us another explanation for the conflicting directives regarding Shabbat. While Rav Yaakov developed his answer applying the view of Rav Nissim Gaon, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:11 specifically states that a Non-Jew should accept the Noachide Code as a command of God through the Revelation at Sinai.9 It would thus seem that a Noachide is supposed to recognize God as the Creator. Why, though, would it be improper for a Noachide to, thus, mark this Creation through emulating God’s resting on the seventh day? Why, however, would we even think that the created should consider emulating the Creator; after all there is a major chasm between the created and the Creator? In this light, we may look at the Noachide Code as the directive to created humanity on how to behave simply as part of the Creation. On this level, humanity may not take a day off the same way other aspects of Creation cannot take a day off. The directive of Torah, though, is different. It is the call to a specific segment of humanity, the Jewish People, to rise above the general realm of Creation and strive towards the realm of the Creator. This is the realm of Shabbat. 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 See, T.B. Sanhedrin 58b.

2 The exact parameters of the prohibition, on Non-Jews, of studying Torah are actually an area of intense halachic debate. See, further, Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Volume 2, Chapter 16, Teaching Torah to Non-Jews.

3 It should be specifically noted that the prohibition is not simply in keeping Shabbat but in keeping any day like Shabbat.

4 The focus of this Insight will now be solely on Shabbat. While what we may uncover regarding Shabbat may also be applicable to the question of Torah study, we will leave this discussion, though, to another time.  

5 See for example, Devarim 5:15.   

6 See Shemot 20:9-11.

7 See, for example, Or Sameach, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 3:10 regarding why Non-Jewish courts can execute based on the testimony of only one witness while Jewish courts demand two. His explanation is that the role and function of justice within the Noachide Code is essentially different than its role and function within the Torah Code. The court of the Jewish king, though, can execute based on the testimony of one witness for its role is actually similar to that of the Non-Jewish courts. The difference between the Noachide laws and the Torah laws are actually qualitative. 

8 See Rashi, Chullin 5a, d.h. Ela lav.

9 See, further, Or Sameach, Chapter 10.

Nishma 2011

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