Tuesday, May 29, 2018

mitzvos bnei noach vs Torah law

Chazal tell us that before Hashem gave us the Torah, he offered it to the other nations.  "What's in this Torah?" asked the bnei Eisav.  When Hashem told them that it contained a command not to murder, they turned it down.  "Our grandfather was told, 'Al charbecha tichyeh,' so how can we accept a Torah that prohibits murder?" they replied.  Hashem went to Amon and Moav, but they too turned down the Torah because it prohibits arayos, which is part of their culture.  And so each nation had its chance, but in the end, we alone were the only ones willing to accept the Torah.

Question: murder, arayos, etc. are all among the mitzvos bnei Noach.  Eisav, Amon, Moav had to observe these commandments irrespective of whether they accepted the Torah.  What did the nations hope to gain by not accepting the Torah?  Or, to rephrase the same question, how would kabbalas haTorah have changed their obligations?

I want to present two answers I saw and one that I thought of:

1. The scope of mitzvos is different: In the dictionary of an aku"m, murder means killing another person.  Yet, for a ben Torah, murder goes far beyond that.  Someone who embarrasses his friend, malbin pnei chaveiro, is guilty according to Chazal of shefichus damim, murder.  The same expansive scope is true of arayos, theft, and many other mitzvos.  You don't have to walk into a bank and hold it up to be guilty of gezel -- if you just wake someone up too early you have committed gezel sheinah.  This is what the nations of the world were rejecting (see R' Nevenzah's sichos where he quotes this from Kelm mussar).

2. Mitzvos bnei Noach are about the law; Torah is about a relationship with G-d.  The Netziv in the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai offers an analogy: a doctor prescribes a regimen for good health to a patient; he prescribes the same regimen to his son.  However, the doctor does not just tell his son what to do like any other patient and leave it to him -- the doctor in this case wants his son to follow his direction, he wants him to obey and be healthy.  The benefit to the son of following the doctor's advice is not just good health, but it is a stronger relationship with his father who is doing the prescribing.   

Following the mitzvos bnei noach ensures the good health of society.  Following the Torah ensures the good health of our relationship with G-d as well.  It was that relationship that the nations rejected.

3. Torah is a culture, not just a set of laws.  What Eisav and Yishmael and the other nations were telling G-d is that their culture is one of bloodshed, theft, arayos, etc.  The ben Noach laws for them are a brake that forces them to curb their natural instinct, to hold back from being barbarians.  That's not what Torah is all about.  As the Rambam writes in Shmoneh Perakim, the goal of Torah is transform a person into someone who does not desire bloodshed, or theft, or other crimes -- not simply to avoid acting on those base desires.  The goal is to cease being a barbarian, not simply to cease acting out like a barbarian.  The nations could not envision changing in that way.


  1. do we say that Noach freely acquired/purchased the seven laws for himself and his descendants*, or rather say that those laws were Unilaterally imposed (as the one law for adam ha'rishon seems to have been)? or was the supermountainous flood held over his head too, as it was over the heads of everyone else during the period of the ark's construction?

    *et-ha'Elokim hit'halech-Noach (Ber. 6:9)

  2. Sifrei on Devarim 33:2 is an early source for this Midrash. Here's a link on Sefaria for easy access. It's helpful to see the original:

    It's interesting that the Midrash itself references the 7-mitzvot of b'nei noach. Evidently that's part of the whole point. As I read it, the Midrash is basically saying: When God invited the other nations to accept the Torah, the "pitch" he gave to each one specifically mentioned a Torah commandment that they were already obligated in (as b'nei noach) but were failing to fulfill. In response, they refused to accept or obey even the commandment they were already bound by.

    The midrash thus concludes by condemning the nations, comparing them to the dog who refuses to carry even the small load he was assigned by his master. Consequently the master takes the small load away from the dog and gives it to his trusty mule, along with the mule's much heavier load.

    Similarly, in the context of matan torah: The 7 mitzvot themselves (including murder, arayos, stealing) are rejected by the nations, and so God consequently gives those commandments to Am Yisrael together with the rest of the Torah.