First Covenant Religion
Worship Service, holidays and rituals
by Michael Dallen
Reaching out to God
In one of the great source-texts on the Noahide Law, Maimonides (known as Rambam, from the first letters of his name, RAbbi Moshe Ben Maimon, c. 1135-1204 CE) declared in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim u'Milchamoteihem - Laws of Kings and their Wars (that is, the laws pertaining to the leaders of the people of Israel, in the land of Israel, in the Messianic age) - his views on several critically important points of Torah. Some of the most important propositions follow:
Section Number Nine:
Paragraph One: An idolator [an akkum, or someone who worships created things, rather than or along with the One Creator] who studies Torah is liable to the death penalty [at the hands of Heaven, not by an earthly court]. Such people should be involved in the study of their Seven Commandments [the Noahide Law] only. Similarly, an idolator who rests, even on a weekday, observing that day as the Sabbath, is liable to the death penalty. Needless to say, [he is liable for that punishment at the hands of Heaven, not by an earthly court] if he creates a [religious] festival for himself.
Paragraph Two: The general principle governing these matters is: they are not to be allowed to originate a new religion or create commandments for themselves based on their own decisions. They may become either righteous sojourners [geyr-tzedek, geyr meaning sojourner, wayfarer or stranger, the two words together connoting "righteous stranger," a non-Jew who takes on the Torah's ways of righteousness. This term usually refers to proselytes or converts to Judaism] and accept all the [Torah's 613] commandments or retain their [own] statutes without adding to or detracting from them.
Paragraph Three: If [an idolator] studies Torah [except for the Noahide Law], makes a Sabbath, or creates a [religious] practice, a [Jewish court] should sentence him to corporal punishment, other punishment, and tell him that he is liable to the death penalty. However, he is not to be executed. [End of section nine]
Section Number Ten:
Paragraph One: We should not prevent a gentile [a noahide, a ben no'ach] who desires to perform one of the Torah's commandments [commandments = mitzvot, singular mitzvah (as in bar mitzvah, son of the commandment), from a root meaning "connect" or "connection." To perform a mitzvah, a divine commandment, is to make a connection with HaShem] in order to receive merit [or reward], from doing so, [provided] he performs it as required.
Paragraph Two: If he brings [an animal] as a burnt offering [at the reconstituted Temple in Jerusalem] we should receive it.
Paragraph Three: If he [the noahide] gives charity we should accept it from him. . . By contrast, if an idolator [an akkum] gives charity, we should accept it from him and give it to the foreign [the akkum, non-Jewish] poor. [End of Section Ten]
Scholars have puzzled over these passages for centuries. We should keep in mind these things:
1) The author is speaking of non-Israelites or non-Jews living in the land of Israel as foreign permanent or long-time residents in Messianic times. When speaking of akkum, the author may have meant any non-Jew who wasn't already observing the Seven Commandments of the First Covenant. That he didn't intend the latter - observant noahides - in his initial remarks is evident from Section Ten, where he distinguishes between the akkum and the observant noahide.
2) The author gives us a law which, while it's part of Torah from Sinai, forbids something that had already happened, to some extent, before the author's time. This was the creation of different syncretizing religions - religions which deliberately borrowed and incorporated aspects of the Torah, of the statutes, ordinances, narratives or practices of Israel, while mixing (syncretizing) them with foreign practices, beliefs and customs.
3) Clearly, the author is not saying that b'nai noah, people who love and fear God, HaShem, who want to keep His Law or Way as He wants them to keep it, should not take up Torah practices. That would be ridiculous. They should take up Torah practices - they need to, to some extent at least. The meaning of his comments in section nine becomes clear in the context of section ten, where he specifically declares that b'nai noah should take up Torah practices if they want to earn merit and reward. (When he speaks of merit and reward the rewards are both Divine and earthly)
4) The author is not saying that b'nai noah only earn reward and merit for themselves by taking up Torah practices. Certainly, b'nai can and should take up these practices simply because they are right - righteous practices, the right thing to do. Certainly, b'nai can and should take up these practices in order to also bring good to their families, their cities, their countries and the world.
5) Clearly, the author is not saying that an akkum, an idolator, should keep only the Seven Commandments and otherwise keep worshipping gods other than God. That is not the human ideal.
Maimonides obviously means that they need to keep at least the First Covenant: the Universal Law or the Seven Universal Commandments: against heedlessly cruel or perverse treatment of the food one eats (the paradigmatic "eating a limb torn from a living animal"), thievery, certain perverse sexual acts, murder, and against anarchy. Further, they must not "bless the Name of God" (or actually, God forbid, curse Him), and they must not engage in "strange worship" - religious rites or practices, or anything invoking the Ultimate Source of all creativity, which discredit Him by being cruel, perverse, lewd, disgusting, oppressive, or otherwise dangerous.
Beyond that, so long as people do adhere to the Seven Noahide Commandments but don't follow HaShem - God - alone, they should keep away from Torah rites and rituals. That is, if they believe in another god with God, or if they believe in no god at all, or if they reject any other core principle of Torah - God's oneness, His goodness, human free will, ultimate reward and punishment, etc. - they have no business plundering the treasure chest of Torah.
Teaching Torah to an unworthy student is a transgression tantamount to worshipping idols. - R' Shimon ben Eleazar, Mishnah Tosefta, Avoda Zorah 6:18
6) Is Maimonides teaching that someone who may be seeking God but hasn't yet accepted every principle of Torah must either keep entirely away from Torah or convert to Judaism, with no opportunity of simply faithfully keeping the Universal Covenant? Of course not! That makes no sense.
Optimally, a Noahide does accept the truth and divine origin of the Torah, including its 613 commandments - the 613 Commandments that are found in the first Five Books of the Bible, this being the Divine legislation, the legal code, that the Bible applies to Israel. The Bible's 613 commandments offer moral and spiritual guidance to noahides without specifically commanding them to keep the 613. So perhaps Maimonides means that Noahides who do accept the full Torah in this way are thereby geyr tzedek - righteous strangers. In this case, that's using the term in a legitimate but unconventional way to refer not to proselytes to the religion of Israel - newly made Jews - but to pious noahides who keep all the Seven Commandments and do so in the name of HaShem.
In other words, these are people who do acknowledge the sovereignty of HaShem. So they worship Him alone. They try to keep the whole Universal Law completely - meaning, in other words, that they try to do the opposite of what the Law forbids: they deliberately give charity, act to sanctify God, try to save endangered human life, treat animals gently, etc. These people are now b'nai noah and, as Maimonides indicates in Section Ten, they should indeed take on Torah practices. (Who doesn't want merit in the eyes of God and earthly and Divine reward?) To do the opposite of what the Universal Law forbids means keeping many of the Torah's positive precepts - in fact, all of its positive moral precepts, the precepts that immediately appeal to human logic. To do this well - to keep these precepts as they should be kept - means that one must learn Torah, to some extent at least. Further, anyone who did so - anyone like this - would indeed qualify in the minds of practically all Israel as literally a righteous gentile, a geyr tzedek.
a) The Torah teaches clearly that the people of Israel have a unique relationship to the Sabbath, shabbot (or shabbos). A noahide should not keep the Sabbath in the exact same way that Israel keeps the Sabbath. The Sabbath, the Seventh Day, has both universalistic and nationalistic, particularistic aspects.
In the first place,
i) it celebrates the Creator, His creation of the universe, and man's exalted place in it, including the fact that God stopped creating better and better beings but left off at mankind; thus He gave us the right of dominion over the earth and put us at the top of the foodchain.
In the second place,
ii) it celebrates Israel's creation as a nation and God's liberation of Israel from slavery and Egypt.
B'nai noah should indeed celebrate the Sabbath in its first aspect. Israel should celebrate the Sabbath in both aspects. In fact, Israel is legally commanded to do so, according to the Law set out in the Torah's 613 commandments. B'nai Noah, while not being legally commanded to keep the Sabbath, need to do so because it's a moral and spiritual imperative. Anyone who refuses to celebrate the Seventh Day Sabbath has a god other than God, HaShem; he or she is, to greater or lesser degree, rejecting the principle of God's creation of the universe, His sovereignty over creation, His creation of mankind "in His image," His election of mankind to the rights and privileges that come with dominion over the Earth, and His election of mankind to serve Him as His stewards over the Earth.
Since a noahide should celebrate the sabbath, to some extent, and the sabbath is connected to all the rest of Israel's Torah holidays, the question arises, how should a pious noahide approach the Hebrew calendar and its holy days? For more on this go to holidays.