Shabbat and the Noahide, part IV: the Maharsha

Before going on, I just want to add a personal note here, prompted somewhat by some interactions I’ve had over the previous installments in comments here and on Facebook. I chose to start this series because of discussions that I found myself involved with on Facebook revolving around the topic at hand: Shabbat and the Noahide. At first, I knew very little about the topic, so in order to establish and support a correct position on the issue, I had to become informed. So I started doing research, and as I learned more, I realized how much misinformation on the topic was being circulated, even by people who purported to be Orthodox rabbis. So I decided that this was not about waving a pedigree around, but just about being truthful regarding what the source material says. If I just show the people what the sources say, no one can say I’m making things up or forming my opinion based on my prejudice, or in any other way manipulating the truth, as others have. But this is a journey. It takes a long time to wade through the material and even longer to present it in readable and (hopefully) understandable form. So people have questions and want me to jump to the end. I say, “Let’s go on this journey together.” Honestly, I’m not at the end yet. I’m still learning as I go. But because I realize that to become informed on this topic will take a lot of time and hard work, rather than go on silent until it’s all done and drop the bomb all at once, I feel everyone (myself included) would benefit from doing this step-by-step, with smaller, more frequent payoffs, than a long essay all at once a long time from now. I truly feel I’m being edified by this journey and I hope those who have been reading along feel the same. And now, on with the show.

Here’s a summary of where we stand until now:

  • Genesis 8:22: “Lo yishbotu” — “They shall not cease” — The commentaries dispute the plain meaning of the verse. While classical commentaries like Rashi opine that the verse means that the seasons and times will not cease, others understand this verse to refer plainly to mankind, expressing the Almighty’s will that man not be idle even for one day.
  • Sanhedrin 58B: Derives from the above verse a prohibition against a non-Israelite observing a full day of rest from work on any day of the week.
  • Rashi explains that this prohibition is not based on the plain meaning of Gen. 8:22, but derived via a derash method, expounding a deeper meaning of the verse. However, we saw earlier than some commentaries understand the plain meaning of Gen. 8:22 to refer to mankind, and therefore may understand the Talmud to be deriving this prohibition based on the plain meaning, rather than through derash. We saw a variant of this Talmudic passage that may reflect this alternative understanding of Gen. 8:22.

In this piece, we will:

  • Explore the classic commentary of Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (aka “the Maharsha”) on the above Talmudic passage.
  • Discover several more sources relevant to the question of a Noahide observing Shabbat.

Please refer to our previous piece to review the Talmudic passage under discussion.

And now, the comments of the Maharsha, in Hebrew, truncated for relevance, with a translation, citations and emphasis added by yours truly. (I have colored a portion of the text that is a quote from a midrash. I did this to make clear which words are the Maharsha’s own and which are the quotation.):

וכן מצות שבת נקראת בהרבה מקומות כלה כמ”ש בואי כלה בואי כלה… ולזה כיון שהעובד כוכבים… שומר שבת ה”ל כאילו בא על כלת ישראל… ועל כונה זו אמרו בש”ר פ’ בשלח מהו נתן לכם ולא לעובדי כוכבים מכאן אמרו אם יבאו בני נח לשמור שבת לא דיין שאין מקבלין שכר אלא שחייבין מיתה שנאמר ויום ולילה לא ישבותו ואזהרתן זו היא מיתתן וכה”א ביני ובין בני ישראל וגו’ משל למלך יושב ומטרונא יושבת כנגדו העובר ביניהם חייב מיתה ע”כ

In many places, the Sabbath is called ‘a bride,’ as it says, ‘Come, O Bride; come O Bride’ (Bava Kama 32B)… Therefore, if the gentile… observes the Sabbath, it is as if he became intimate with Israel’s bride… With this intent [our Sages] said in Shemot Rabbah, Parshat B’Shalach (25:11): ‘What is the meaning of, ‘[The Lord] has given you [the Sabbath]’ (Ex. 16:29)? [To you it was given], but not to gentiles. From here [the Sages] said: If sons of Noah will come to observe the Sabbath, not only do they not receive reward, but they are liable to death, as it says, ‘And day and night they shall not cease’ (Gen. 8:22), and their prohibition is their liability to death. Likewise it says, ‘Between Me and the Children of Israel [it is a sign forever]’ (Ex. 31:17). This can be compared to a king sitting with the matron (i.e. queen) sitting opposite him. The one who passes between them is liable to death.’

The Maharsha’s full comments here are very lengthy, and I have selected a small portion that is immediately relevant to our topic. Shortly, G-d willing, I will quote more of the Maharsha’s comments, but first I would like to deal with the above section.

The following relevant points emerge from the Maharsha’s comments:

  • Shabbat is compared to a bride. We will not now go into the sources for this (we could another time, if you’d like), but the point is that since Shabbat is the bride of Israel, it is not appropriate for someone other than an Israelite to observe it, and for a non-Israelite to do so is comparable to adultery, a capital crime.
  •  The Maharsha cites a midrash in Shemot Rabbah, B’Shalach 25:11 (which we will examine closely in an upcoming installment, G-d willing) that offers three verses from which the exclusivity of Shabbat to Israel and prohibition of observance by the gentile can be derived: Exodus 16:29 (upon which Shemot Rabbah is commenting), Gen. 8:22 (which we examined previously), and Ex. 31:17 which calls Shabbat an eternal sign between the Almighty and Israel. As such, the midrash likens Shabbat to the relationship between a king and queen, husband and wife, between which no foreigner should pass.
  • Where I translated (and bolded) the words “sons of Noah,” the Hebrew reads בני נח (B’nei Noach), sometimes translated as “Noahides.” This word usage emphasizes the point that when the Talmud speaks of the prohibition against an oved kochavim (lit. “worshipper of stars”) observing a sabbath, the Talmud means generically to refer to any gentile, not specifically an actual idolater. I made this point in my analysis of the Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin 58B, but I’m demonstrating how the language of the Maharsha here in his citation of Shemot Rabbah supports my earlier assertion of this point.
  • The quote from Shemot Rabbah contains a portion almost identical in its wording to the Talmud in Sanhedrin 58B: “they are liable to death, as it says, ‘And day and night they shall not cease’ (Gen. 8:22), and their prohibition is their liability to death.” (As I wrote above, I intend to examine this midrash more closely in a future installment. Sneak preview: There are some differences between our printed text of this midrash and the version quoted by Maharsha.)
  • The midrash goes further than the Maharsha’s comparison of Shabbat to Israel’s bride by comparing Shabbat to a close communion between King (the Almighty) and Queen (Israel). Any interference between this communion is presented as a capital offense.

There is another immediately relevant section of Maharsha’s comments I would like to examine next, but let’s save that for the next installment.

Shabbat Shalom!



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