Shabbat and the Noahide: Midrash Rabbah

For the previous installments in this series, please follow these links:

SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE: AN HONEST REVIEWDiscusses Genesis 8:22 as a Scriptural source for the prohibition against a gentile observing the Sabbath.

SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART II: THE TALMUD — Discusses the Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin 58B regarding the above verse and its ramifications.

SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART III: RASHI — The analysis of the classic commentator Rashi of the above Talmudic passage.

SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART IV: THE MAHARSHA — The analysis of Rabbi Shmuel Eidels of the above Talmudic passage, based on a Midrashic exerpt

SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART IV-B: THE MAHARSHA, CONT’D — Continuation of Rabbi Shmuel Eidels’ analysis of the Talmud, based on a word study

In this installment, we will analyze the Midrash quoted by the Maharsha in PART IV.

First, let us define, in brief, for the uninitiated, what “Midrash” is. The word “Midrash” (מדרש) comes from the Hebrew root דרש (D-R-Sh) which indicates seeking, searching or investigating. Midrash refers to a style of Biblical analysis employed by the ancient Jewish Sages, which “searched” the text for deeper meaning, distinct from the verse’s “plain meaning.” The teachings yielded by these analyses’ became part of the Oral Tradition (“Torah sheb’Al Peh”) and were eventually recorded in several Midrashic collections. There are different types of Midrashim (plural of “Midrash”), some legal in nature, some homiletic in nature.

Now, some introduction to the particular passage in question. This Midrashic passage analyzes Exodus 16:29. In context, this verse refers to the phenomena of the double-portion of manna that the Israelites gathered on the Sixth Day, since no manna would fall on the Sabbath. Therefore, the Israelites were enjoined not go out to gather manna on the Sabbath:

רְא֗וּ כִּֽי־יְהוָה֮ נָתַ֣ן לָכֶ֣ם הַשַּׁבָּת֒ עַל־כֵּ֠ן ה֣וּא נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶ֛ם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֖י לֶ֣חֶם יוֹמָ֑יִם שְׁב֣וּ ׀ אִ֣ישׁ תַּחְתָּ֗יו אַל־יֵ֥צֵא אִ֛ישׁ מִמְּקֹמ֖וֹ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִֽי׃

See that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; let every man abide in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’

The Maharsha cited the Midrashic comments of Shemot Rabbah, B’Shalach 25:11 on this verse. However, there is some discrepancy between the way the Midrash is quoted by Maharsha versus how it appears in our present printed editions. Let us first read it as presented by Maharsha:


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

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.

As mentioned in PART IV, the main point of this Midrash is the emphasis of the words, “The Lord has given you the Sabbath.” The Midrash infers from here that the Sabbath is a gift to Israel, and therefore belongs to no other nation. Likewise, the Midrash cites the verse in Ex. 31:17 that the Sabbath is a sign between the Almighty and Israel, and forms a bond between them as that of King and Queen. A trespasser into this relationship is liable to death. The Midrash also cites Gen. 8:23, which, as we discussed in PART II, the Talmud identifies as the prohibition against a non-Israelite observing the Sabbath.

Here is how this passage appears in our present printed editions:

מַהוּ נָתַן לָכֶם, לָכֶם נִתְּנָה וְלֹא לְעוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים, מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ, אִם יָבוֹאוּ מֵעוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים וְיִשְׁמְרוּ אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת, לֹא דַּיָּם שֶׁאֵין מְקַבְּלִים שָׂכָר וכו’, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ח, כב): וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ, וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר (שמות לא, יז): בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וגו’, מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁב וּמַטְרוֹנָא יוֹשֶׁבֶת כְּנֶגְדוֹ, הָעוֹבֵר בֵּינֵיהֶם חַיָּב

What is the meaning of, ‘[The Lord] has given you [the Sabbath]’? To you it is given, but not to gentiles (lit. ‘worshippers of stars’). From here [the Sages] said: If gentiles (עובדי כוכבים, lit. ‘worshippers of stars’) will come and observe the Sabbath, not only do they not receive reward, etc., as it says, ‘And day and night they shall not cease’ (Gen. 8:22). 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 betwen them is liable.

I have highlighted the segments of the text that are significantly different from that of the Maharsha. Let us examine these differences.

Firstly while Maharsha’s text reads: “If sons of Noah will come…” (The Hebrew is בני נח B’nei Noach), our text reads: “If worshippers of stars will come…” (The Hebrew is עובדי כוכבים ovedei kochavim, a common euphemism for both idolaters and non-Jews generally.) The point, however, is that these two terms — B’nei Noach and Ovedei Kochavim — in this context, are used interchangeably, and the prohibition is not specific to idolatrous gentiles. (I have heard some posit, based on the wording of ‘ovedei kochavim‘ in some sources, that the prohibition against observing the Sabbath only applies to idolatrous gentiles and not to Noahides. This is clearly not so.) Not only is this clear from the Maharsha’s usage of the term B’nei Noach (‘sons of Noah’), but it is evident within the text of the Maharsha itself that the Midrash uses these two terms interchangeably:

“[To you it was given], but not to gentiles (ovedei kochavim — ‘worshippers of stars’). From here [the Sages] said: If sons of Noah (b’nei Noach) will come…”

The reason ‘idolater’ is used even for non-idolatrous gentiles is that since idolatry was so commonplace among non-Jews, the terms ‘idolater’ and ‘non-Jew’ become synonymous in the Jewish lexicon. But let’s be clear — regarding the prohibition of a non-Jew observing Shabbat, there is no distinction between a “Noahide” (i.e. a non-Jew that observes the Noahide Laws) and a non-Noahide.

Notable as well is the truncation of the passage in our current editions versus the expanded form quoted by Maharsha. All references to a death penalty for a non-Jew observing Shabbat have been expunged from our current editions. Where Maharsha’s text reads: “not only do they not receive reward, but they are liable to death,” our text reads, “not only do they not receive reward, etc. (וכו׳),” the “etc.” having replaced the original wording. Likewise, at the end of the passage, “liable to death,” has been rendered, “liable.” Clearly, the current standard edition of the Midrash is the victim of non-Jewish censors. In other words, the original text upon which our present editions are based was censored to remove offending passages in order to be published. Therefore, the more reliable, uncensored text is that presented by the Maharsha, which actually says that B’nei Noach are categorically forbidden from observing the Sabbath.

In summary, the analysis of the midrashic passage cited by Maharsha sheds light on the variants between the two and establishes several points:

  • Maharsha’s text is more reliable than that appearing in standard editions today.
  • Maharsha’s text uses the term “B’nei Noach” (Sons of Noah / Noahides) in context of the prohibition against a non-Jew observing the Sabbath.
  • Regarding the prohibition against a gentile observing the Sabbath, the terms “B’nei Noach” (Sons of Noah / Noahides) and “Ovedei Kochavim” (“worshippers of stars” / idolaters) are interchangeable.
  • This Midrashic passage clearly states that all non-Israelites, whether idolatrous or not, are forbidden from observing the Sabbath

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series as we examine more relevant sources.


2 thoughts on “Shabbat and the Noahide: Midrash Rabbah

  1. It is known that many modern translations — and even the original Hebrew text of some prayers — were modified in order not to give the Gentiles any rationale for greater oppression of (or even violence against) the Jewish communities in Exile. Clearly, substituting “worshipers of stars” instead of “descendants of Noah” is such an instance, as the substituted words could be taken by Christians to exclude them from liability for observing their “lord’s day”. Expunging the explicit death-penalty at the end of the paragraph is obviously for the same reason. Tampering with our texts is a very serious matter, but so is saving lives. Of course, the text of the Tanach can never be altered — even by an improperly formed letter — under any circumstances.

    1. You make an excellent point. In other words, by deliberately using the term, “worshippers of stars,” the Jews had an alibi regarding anything pejorative in the text to say to their overlords, “This isn’t talking about you.”

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