Shabbat and the Noahide, part II: The Talmud

In the previous piece on this subject, we examined one Biblical source for a possible prohibition against any human being observing a sabbath, that is, a day of cessation of work.

Let us examine the early rabbinic sources on this topic, beginning with the Talmud.

For the uninitiated: the Talmud is an encyclopedic record of “the Oral Law,” that is, details surrounding the performance of the Torah’s commandments that are not immediately obvious from the text, but rather emerge from discussion and analysis thereof, as well as from received traditions of how these laws have been observed throughout the ages. The Talmud was compiled over the course of several centuries, and includes teachings from sages as early as the 4th century BCE, shortly after the period of the Biblical prophets, and as late as the 6th century CE.

In tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, page 58B, we find the following passage:

אר”ל עובד כוכבים ששבת חייב מיתה שנא’ (בראשית ח, כב) ויום ולילה לא ישבותו ואמר מר אזהרה שלהן זו היא מיתתן אמר רבינא אפי’ שני בשבת

Resh Lakish said: A gentile that observed a sabbath (lit. ‘that ceased’) is liable to death, as it says, ‘And day and night they shall not cease’ (Gen. 8:22), and the master said: their prohibition is their liability to death.

Ravina said: [This is so] even [if he observed a sabbath] on Monday.

The Talmud cites Genesis 8:22 as a prohibition against a gentile observing a day of cessation of work. Consistent with the explanation of Gen. 8:22 in our previous postany day of cessation would violate this prohibition, on any day of the week, not specifically the Sabbath of the Seventh Day that Israel would later be commanded to observe.

Let’s just clarify a difficult phrase here:

“the master said their prohibition is their liability to death” — Earlier in this tractate, on page 57A, the Talmud discusses what the penalty is for transgression of the Noahide Laws. One view there is that all (intentional) transgressions of Noahide commandments incur a death penalty. This is based on Genesis 9:6, where the Almighty speaks to Noah and his sons and reveals to them that the penalty for murder is death: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed.” Because this is the only penalty mentioned regarding the transgression of a Noahide commandment, it is taken (by some) as an archetype for all (intentional) transgressions of Noahide law. (“The master” referenced here is Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, who posits on page 57A that all Noahide prohibitions carry a death penalty.)

(An important note: When we read Talmud, we must understand that we are not to read it as a practical legal text. For that, we must look to the legal literature written by legal scholars — and we will, God willing. So despite the extremity of the above passage pronouncing a death penalty, we must wait to digest this statement in the light of the legal literature that will follow. As I said in the last post, don’t draw any conclusions just yet.)

That is the straightforward reading of the passage in Sanhedrin 58B. Before looking at some important commentaries on this passage, I would just like to deflect a likely criticism.

I have heard the argument that this Talmudic passage regarding the prohibition to observe a sabbath does not refer to all gentiles, but specifically to idolaters. A true Noahide, that is, a non-Jew who observes the Noahide commandments, is exempted from this prohibition. The evidence for this assertion is that the Talmud uses the phrase “oved kochavim” (“one who worships the stars”), i.e. an idolater.

While the words “oved kochavim” do literally indicate one who serves idolatry, the intent in this Talmudic passage is not to limit the prohibition only to non-Jews who serve idols. The title “oved kochavim” is being used in this context euphemistically to mean all gentiles. How do we know that?

We know this because of context. Since the Talmud cites Genesis 8:22, which refers to all mankind, we know that the prohibition applies to all mankind. Furthermore, since the rationale for the prohibition in 8:22 is that idleness brought mankind to sin (as established in the previous post), and therefore mankind must not be idle in order to prevent them from sin, this rationale applies to all mankind.

Furthermore, since idol worship is already forbidden to a non-Jew, and this prohibition carries the death penalty (see above), it would be superfluous to obligate the idolater in an additional death penalty for observing a sabbath — they are already liable to death for the sin of idolatry! Obviously, this refers to someone who is not already liable to death for other transgressions.

Furthermore, in the previous post, we saw that the Malbim cited “our Sages of blessed memory” as understanding from Genesis 8:22 that a Noahide is prohibited from observing a sabbath. The Malbim specifically used the term Ben Noach and not “oved kochavim.”

For all these reasons, it is obvious that the intent of this Talmudic passage regards all gentiles, including Noahides — that is, non-Jews observing the Noahide laws — and not specifically idolaters.

In summary, according to the above passage in Sanhedrin 58B, Genesis 8:22 prohibits a Noahide from observing a sabbath — a day of cessation of work — on any day of the week, and transgression of this prohibition carries a death penalty.

In the next installment in this series, God willing, we will begin to examine the classic commentaries on this Talmudic passage, beginning with the foremost Jewish commentator, Rashi.

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2 thoughts on “Shabbat and the Noahide, part II: The Talmud

  1. I must protest. Genesis 8:22 says nothing about gentiles, nothing about working, and nothing about sabbaths. It is a clear and simple promise that so long as planet Earth exists, it will revolve around the sun — there will be seasons: Spring (planting season), Summer, Autumn (harvest time), and Winter; and the Earth will rotate on its axis — day and night shall not cease. How this became a death penalty for all gentiles is beyond me. It makes the Talmud sound rather ill-intentioned, in my opinion.

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