Shabbat and the Noahide, Part VI: Devarim Rabbah

In the last installment, we examined a Midrashic passage in Shemot Rabbah, the section of Midrash Rabbah that forms a commentary to the book of Exodus. In this installment, we will examine a passage from Devarim Rabbah, the section of Midrash Rabbah that forms a commentary to the book of Deuteronomy. This passage is commenting on Deuteronomy 2:31. First, let’s look at the Biblical verse:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֵלַ֔י רְאֵ֗ה הַֽחִלֹּ֙תִי֙ תֵּ֣ת לְפָנֶ֔יךָ אֶת־סִיחֹ֖ן וְאֶת־אַרְצ֑וֹ הָחֵ֣ל רָ֔שׁ לָרֶ֖שֶׁת אֶת־אַרְצֽוֹ׃

And the LORD said unto me: ‘Behold, I have begun to deliver up Sihon and his land before thee; begin to possess his land.’ (JPS translation)

In this section of the Torah, Moshe (Moses), in his address to the Children of Israel before his death, rebukes the Children of Israel for their wrongdoings during their sojourn in the desert despite the Almighty’s many kindnesses to them. Moshe’s intent is for the people to repent of any remaining shortcoming and not repeat the mistakes of the past so that they succeed in possessing the Land of Israel. The above verse occurs during Moshe’s recounting of the recent war against Sihon, King of Cheshbon.

Upon this verse, Devarim Rabbah (1:21) comments:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה רְאֵה הַחִלֹתִי וגו’ (דברים ב, לא), הֲלָכָה אָדָם מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ עֶרֶב שַׁבָּת וְחָשְׁכָה לוֹ, וְהָיוּ בְּיָדָיו מָעוֹת אוֹ דָּבָר אַחֵר, הֵיאַךְ צָרִיךְ לַעֲשׂוֹת, כָּךְ שָׁנוּ חֲכָמִים, מִי שֶׁהֶחְשִׁיךְ לוֹ בַּדֶּרֶךְ נוֹתֵן כִּיסוֹ לְנָכְרִי, וְלָמָּה מֻתָּר לוֹ שֶׁיִּתֵּן אוֹתוֹ לְנָכְרִי, אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי כְּשֶׁנִּצְטַוּוּ בְּנֵי נֹחַ לֹא נִצְטַוּוּ אֶלָּא עַל שִׁבְעָה דְבָרִים וְאֵין הַשַּׁבָּת מֵהֶן, לְפִיכָךְ הִתִּירוּ שֶׁיִּתֵּן אוֹתוֹ לְנָכְרִי. וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר חֲנִינָא עוֹבֵד כּוֹכָבִים שֶׁשָּׁמַר אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת עַד שֶׁלֹא קִבֵּל עָלָיו אֶת הַמִּילָה חַיָּב מִיתָה, לָמָּה, שֶׁלֹא נִצְטַוּוּ עָלֶיהָ. וּמָה רָאִיתָ לוֹמַר עוֹבֵד כּוֹכָבִים שֶׁשָּׁמַר אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת חַיָּב מִיתָה, אָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בְּנֹהַג שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם מֶלֶךְ וּמַטְרוֹנָה יוֹשְׁבִין וּמְסִיחִין זֶה עִם זֶה, מִי שֶׁבָּא וּמַכְנִיס עַצְמוֹ בֵּינֵיהֶם אֵינוֹ חַיָּב מִיתָה, כָּךְ הַשַּׁבָּת הַזּוֹ בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל וּבֵין הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות לא, יז): בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ כָּל עוֹבֵד כּוֹכָבִים שֶׁבָּא וּמַכְנִיס עַצְמוֹ בֵּינֵיהֶם עַד שֶׁלֹא קִבֵּל עָלָיו לִמּוֹל חַיָּב מִיתָה. רַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי אָמַר משֶׁה לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם לְפִי שֶׁלֹא נִצְטַוּוּ עוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים עַל הַשַּׁבָּת תֹּאמַר אִם הֵם עוֹשִׂים אוֹתָה אַתָּה נוֹשֵׂא לָהֶם פָּנִים. אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מִן הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אַתָּה מִתְיָרֵא, חַיֶּיךָ אֲפִלּוּ הֵם עוֹשִׂים כָּל מִצְווֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה אֲנִי מַפִּילָן בִּפְנֵיכֶם, מִנַּיִן, מִמַּה שֶּׁקָּרֵינַן בָּעִנְיָן רְאֵה הַחִלֹתִי תֵּת לְפָנֶיךָ

‘And the LORD said (unto Moshe) [unto me]: ‘Behold, I have begun, etc.’ (Deuteronomy 2:31) — What is the law if an Israelite is traveling on the eve of the Sabbath, and it becomes night, and he is carrying coins or some other item? What should he do? This is what our Sages taught: One for whom it became night [on the eve of the Sabbath] while traveling should give his pouch to a gentile. Why is it permitted to give it to a gentile? Rabbi Levi said: When the Sons of Noah were commanded, they were only commanded regarding seven things, and the Sabbath is not among them, therefore they permitted that he give it to a gentile. And Rabbi Yosei bar Chanina said: A gentile (עובד כוכבים — oved kochavim) that observed the Sabbath prior to accepting upon himself the circumcision [i.e. conversion] is liable to death. Why? Because they were not commanded regarding [the Sabbath]. What reason is there to say that a gentile that observed the Sabbath is liable to death? Rabbi Chiya bar Aba said: Rabbi Yochanan said: It is the way of the world that if a king and matron (i.e. queen) are sitting and conversing with one another, is one that comes and interposes himself between them them not liable to death? So too is the Sabbath between Israel and the Holy One Blessed is He, as it says: ‘Between Me and the Children of Israel [it is an eternal sign]’ (Exodus 31:17). Therefore, any gentile who comes and interposes himself between them prior to accepting upon himself to be circumcised [i.e. conversion] is liable to death. The Sages said: Moshe (Moses) said before the Holy One Blessed is He: ‘Since gentiles were not commanded [to observe] the Sabbath, tell me, if they perform it, will You show them favor?’ The Holy One Blessed is He said to him: ‘Do you indeed fear this? By your life, even if they perform all the commandments of the Torah, I would cause them to fall before you.’ From where [do we know this]? From that which we read regarding the matter: ‘Behold, I have begun to deliver up [Sihon and his land] before thee’ (Deuteronomy 2:31).

A few quick notes before proceeding:

  • The law regarding giving one’s purse to a gentile at the onset of Shabbat is also found in the Mishnah (Shabbat 24:1).
  • Once again, this passage confirms that a gentile is forbidden to observe Shabbat.
  • This passage confirms that a gentile observing Shabbat is liable to death.
  • The terms B’nei Noach (Sons of Noah) and Ovedei Kochavim (‘Worshippers of Stars,’ i.e. idolaters) are used interchangeably here. These are colloquialisms for all gentiles and do not convey whether one literally worships idols or not.
  • The reason given here for the liability to death is identical to that in the passage in Shemot Rabbah, that is, that a gentile observing Shabbat interferes in the relationship between the Almighty and Israel.
  • Unlike Shemot Rabbah and the Talmudic source (Sanhedrin 58B), Gen. 8:22 is not offered as the source for the death liability here.

Let’s return to the text to understand some of the more difficult aspects of this midrash better.

Firstly, what altogether is the relationship between Deuteronomy 2:31 and the teaching contained in this passage? Deuteronomy 2:31 says nothing about the Sabbath! What connection is the Midrash drawing between Deuteronomy 2:31 and this teaching regarding gentiles and the Sabbath?

Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn of Horodna, known by the Hebrew acronym “Maharzu” (מהרז״ו) writes in his classic commentary to the Midrash that this teaching is based on the Torah’s use of the word החלותי (hachiloti), meaning, “I have begun,” in this verse. The phrase, “I have begun to deliver up…,” is completely unique in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and Tanach. In fact, just the word hachiloti appears only one other place in the entire Tanach. So the rareness of this phraseology prompted the Sages to examine more deeply what special message is being conveyed.

Furthermore, the phrase, “I have begun to deliver up,” on its own is baffling. What does it mean that the Almighty has “begun” to deliver up Sihon and his land? The war has not begun, so in what way has the deliverance of the enemy yet begun? One may suggest that in other places, the Almighty speaks of a future deliverance in past tense, indicating that it is “as good as done,” as in Numbers 21:34 regarding Og, King of Bashan:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Fear him not; for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst to Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.’ (JPS translation)

However, even in such cases, the term used is נתתי (natati), “I have delivered.” What then does it mean when the Almighty tells Moshe, “I have begun to deliver?”

Because of this anomalous wording, our Sages of blessed memory probed more deeply to understand the nuance conveyed here. Maharzu suggests that the word הַחִלֹתִי (hachiloti — “I have begun”) is based on the same root as the word חוֹל (chol) meaning “mundane.” Chol in Hebrew is also the word for days of the week other than Shabbat, i.e. mundane days, as opposed to the “holy day.” Desecration of Shabbat is called חילול שבת (chilul Shabbat) in Hebrew, literally meaning, “making Shabbat mundane.” Therefore, the meaning conveyed here of hachiloti is understood by the Midrash that the Almighty is “rendering mundane” any performance of the commandments by the enemies of Israel, including Shabbat, and therefore these will not be counted for them as merits. Thereby, these enemies are delivered into the hands of Moshe and the Children of Israel.

In summary, Devarim Rabbah 1:21 comprises another source that a Noahide may not observe the Sabbath.

Our list of sources for this prohibitions now includes:


  • Genesis 8:22
  • Exodus 16:29
  • Exodus 31:17


  • Sanhedrin 58B


  • Shemot Rabbah 25:11
  • Devarim Rabbah 1:21

In the next installment, we will see how other commentaries understood the above midrash, and what insights we can gain from these additional perspectives.


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