I have of late encountered a great amount of interest on social media, particularly among former Christians, regarding the concept of the “Noahide” in Judaism, sometimes referred as “Ben Noach,” “Ger Toshav” or “Righteous Gentile.” I see a lot of misconception, as well as misinformation, circulating on these platforms between Jews and non-Jews alike, and I would like to offer an informed review of the subject. Particularly, the subject of whether a Noahide may observe Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, continues to stir up great debate and emotion.
My aim, in this intended series of articles, is to flesh out the source material on this subject in a clear and analytical manner. In each (hopefully) brief segment, we will analyze one source at a time, slowly building toward a fuller picture. So don’t draw any conclusions too quickly.
I this first segment, my goal is to look at one particular Scriptural passage classically understood as a source for the prohibition against a gentile observing Shabbat. In following segments, God willing, we will move on to the Talmud and Midrashim (the earliest rabbinic sources on the subject), discovering more Scriptural passages referenced along the way and analyzing them in turn. We will then view how medieval Jewish scholarship understood and applied the earlier material to matters of halachah (practical legislation). We may then analyze contemporary viewpoints on the subject in the light of this source material. Hopefully, we will then possess the tools to determine which contemporary approach most faithfully reflects a genuine expression of authentic Jewish sources.
Okay, so let’s start at the beginning. When Noah and his sons emerge from the Ark, we find the following passage in Genesis 8 (v. 21-22):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃ עֹ֖ד כָּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ זֶ֡רַע וְ֠קָצִיר וְקֹ֨ר וָחֹ֜ם וְקַ֧יִץ וָחֹ֛רֶף וְי֥וֹם וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃
“And the LORD said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease.”
(I have used the translation found on Sefaria.org, which, I believe, is from the Hebrew Scriptures published by the Jewish Publication Society. I do not endorse this translation, but merely use it for our current purposes out of convenience. In a moment, we will examine alternative understandings of the Hebrew.)
The above translation has rendered the words לא ישבתו — ‘lo yishbotu’ — as “shall not cease,” referring to the nouns immediately preceding it, “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.” According to this translation, these transitioning time periods shall never again cease (as they did during the Flood).
Indeed, many of the classic commentators understand the verse this way, including the foremost commentator on the Torah, Rashi (1040-1105):
לא ישבתו לֹא יִפְסְקוּ כָּל אֵלֶה מִלְּהִתְנַהֵג כְּסִדְרָן:
לא ישבתו SHALL NOT CEASE — None of these shall cease to take their natural course.
However, the words לא ישבתו literally mean “they shall not cease” (the pronoun “they” is implied by the conjugal form of the verb here). Also, the root of the verb “to cease” here is שבת, the same as the word “Shabbat,” which literally means “cessation,” as in Genesis 2:2-3 (emphasis added):
וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃ וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃
On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.
Therefore, while the words “they shall not cease” in Gen. 8:22 could refer to the time periods mentioned in that verse, there is an alternative understanding.
For example, in the commentary Haamek Davar by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (aka “the Netziv,” 1816-1893), we find:
עוד כל ימי הארץ וגו׳. דזנות בא מבטלה הבא משפע ברכה ורוב בריאת הגוף אבל מעתה יהי כל ימי הארץ זרע וקציר וגו׳ וכ״ז מביא לידי עבודה ולידי חולאים ע״י שינוי אוירים. ובזה יגיע אשר יום ולילה לא ישבותו. וממילא לא יחטא כל האדם
‘So long as the earth endures…’ — Immorality comes from lack of activity that results from abundant blessing and good bodily health. But from this time forward, all the days of the earth will be seedtime and harvest, etc. All this will necessitate labor and cause sickness due to the change in weather. This will bring about that — ‘day and night they will not cease’ — and thereby all mankind will not sin.
According to this understanding, לא ישבתו — “they shall not cease” — refers not to the time periods, but to mankind. The changes wrought upon the earth as a result of the flood will cause mankind not to cease their work. They will always be toiling to plant and harvest in order to survive, as well as to maintain their bodily health. God caused this necessity in order to keep men from becoming idle, under which conditions they had previously descended to such depths of sin as to necessitate their destruction.
We find a similar understanding of the verse in the commentary of Rabbi Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michel (aka Malbim, 1809-1879):
יום ולילה לא ישבתו. שהארץ לא תתן פירותיה בנקל כמו קודם המבול, ויהיו בני האדם מוכרחים לעבוד את האדמה תמיד להוציא לחמם לא ישבתו ממלאכה, ועי”כ לא יתגברו עליהם ציורי התאוות אשר הם זונים אחריהם
‘Day and night they shall not cease’ — The earth will no longer give forth its fruit easily as it had prior to the Flood, and mankind will be forced to work the earth constantly to bring forth their bread. ‘They will not cease’ their work. Thereby, their desires and fantasies, after which they would go astray, will not overpower them.
Now, pay careful attention to the Malbim’s closing words on this verse (parentheses contain my comments):
ומזה אמרו חז”ל דב”נ אסור לו לשבות, כי רק לבני ישראל התיר וצוה לשבות בשבת אבל ב”נ נשאר באיסורו כמקדם
And based on this, our Sages of blessed memory said that it is forbidden for a Noahide to observe a sabbath (לשבות, literally, ‘to cease’), for [God] only permitted and commanded the Children of Israel to ‘cease’ on the Sabbath, but a Noahide remains forbidden as before.
Since the verb ‘to cease’ is the same as the word for Sabbath, the words “lo yishbotu” (“they shall not cease”) also mean, “they shall not make a sabbath.”
Despite the fact that the Malbim (and the Netziv) wrote in the 19th-century, he points out that this reading of the verse is not at all novel — after all, “our Sages of blessed memory” understood the verse this way.
Okay, so who are these Sages? For the newcomer to Judaism, you must know that “the Sages of blessed memory” (usual abbreviated חז״ל — “Chazal” — in Hebrew) typically refers to the sages of the Talmudic period, which included sages who lived during the centuries beginning from the early 2nd Temple period (4th century BCE) until around the 6th century CE. So, the Malbim and Netziv have based their understanding of verse 22 on extremely ancient sources (which we will soon examine).
What we must also focus on (because it will become relevant later) is that the Malbim uses the term בן נח — “Ben Noach” — which I have translated as “Noahide.” Notice that Malbim does not use another word for gentile, as we will find in some other sources, such as נכרי — “nochri” — meaning “foreigner,” i.e. non-Israelite, or עכו״ם — “akum” — an abbreviation for עובד כוכבים ומזלות — “oved kochavim umazalot” — “one who worships stars and constellations,” i.e. an idolater. A Ben Noach could broadly refer to any human being, as all humanity are descended from Noah, or more narrowly it could mean a righteous gentile who observes the Seven Laws of Noah. (That topic for another discussion.)
Okay, so “the Sages” understood this verse, like the Netziv and the Malbim, to mean that they — mankind — should not observe a Sabbath, i.e. cease working for a day. This is because idleness brought mankind to sin, so now mankind should not be idle for an entire day. They must work! And so the earth was altered during the Flood to necessitate this. Beautiful.
But where do we find this teaching in the literature of the Sages of blessed memory? We will (God willing) explore these sources in the next installment in this series.