Shabbat and the Noahide, part VI-B: Devarim Rabbah acc. to Yedey Moshe

In the last installment, we examined a midrashic passage in Devarim Rabbah, in light of the commentary of Maharzu. In this installment, we will review that midrash through the lense of a commentary called Yedey Moshe, and see what light that sheds on our topic

For previous installments, follow these links:

  1. SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE: AN HONEST REVIEWDiscusses Genesis 8:22 as a Scriptural source for the prohibition against a gentile observing the Sabbath.
  2. SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART II: THE TALMUD — Discusses the Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin 58B regarding the above verse and its ramifications.
  3. SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART III: RASHI — The analysis of the classic commentator Rashi of the above Talmudic passage.
  4. SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART IV: THE MAHARSHA — The analysis of Rabbi Shmuel Eidels of the above Talmudic passage, based on a Midrashic exerpt
  5. 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
  6. SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART V: MIDRASH RABBAH — analysis of the Midrash quoted by the Maharsha in PART IV.
  7. SHABBAT AND THE NOAHIDE, PART VI: DEVARIM RABBAH— analysis of another midrashic passage relevant to the subject at hand.

And now, let’s continue. The midrash again — Devarim Rabbah 1:21:

‘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).

Yedey Mosheh cites another commentary, Yefeh Toar, to explain the midrash in the following manner:

The way of the world is that the Almighty set up forces of nature that guide worldly events. This is true on both a physical and spiritual level, meaning that there are “natural” spiritual forces that act upon the physical world, which in turn cause physical events to occur. These forces are known as mazalot, or “constellations.” As human beings are part of the physical world, their lives are impacted by the spiritual energies filtering into the physical world through the constellations. However, the nation of Israel is privileged to have been made transcendent over the energy of the mazalot, such that the constellations do not affect them, so long as they observe the commandments of the Torah, which link them directly to the Almighty. In this way, Israel’s welfare, on both a national and individual level, depends upon the Almighty’s direct providence, and not that of any other influence, such as that of the mazalot.

The commandment which embodies Israel’s transcendent status over the forces of nature is Shabbat. The “way of the world” is to labor in order to provide for one’s welfare. This is the process of nature — reap and sow, reap and sow, and so on. However, Israel is commanded a day of rest, to bear witness that all of Creation derives not from “natural forces,” but from a single all-powerful Creator that created and sustains it. As such, we remove ourselves from the natural processes of life; we cease our work and declare that it is only the Almighty who is the true source of our welfare. This commandment only applies to those who exist “outside” the influence of the mazalot. However, the nations of the world, who exist beneath the influence of the mazalot, must not break from their routine of laboring every day of the week. To do so is once again to intrude upon the unique relationship between the Almighty and Israel, which the above midrash (along with other sources we have examined) indicates is a trespass upon the intimacy between the Almighty and Israel.

But what does this explanation have to do with Deut. 2:31 which is quoted in the midrash? Deut. 2:31 says, “Behold, I have begun to deliver up Sihon and his land before thee…” While I have used the JPS translation, a more accurate translation of the word רְאֵה (re’eh) here is not “behold,” but, “see.” “See, I have begun to deliver up…”

The Almighty commands Moshe to “see” that he has “begun” to deliver up Sihon and his land before Israel. As we mentioned earlier, Israel had actually not yet begun to conquer Sihon and his land, so what did the Almighty mean by this? In what way had the conquest begun, and how could Moshe “see” this now?

This can be understood in light of the next passage in the midrash (1:22):

“The Holy One Blessed is He does not exact retribution upon a nation until He first exacts retribution upon its ministering angel… Even regarding Sihon and Og, when those nations attempted to wage war with Israel, the Holy One Blessed is He said to Moses, ‘See that I have cast down their ministering angel,’ as it says, ‘See, I have begun to deliver…'”

Just as there are spiritual forces that impact the events of the physical realm, the same is true regarding individual nations. Each nation has a spiritual force unique to it that guides its destiny. The spiritual force appointed over each nation is referred to in the midrash as a שַׂר (sar), meaning a “minister.” In order to render a physical defeat upon a nation, its spiritual minister must first be defeated. So the Almighty subdues this spiritual force before Israel wages war with that nation.

Therefore, at this point, yet before the war against Sihon has actually taken place, the Almighty can already show Moshe that the ministering angel of Sihon has been cast down. In this way, the Almighty has “begun to deliver up Sihon and his land” to the Israelites.

This subservience of the nations of the world to particular “ministering angels” demonstrates that they are underneath the influence of natural forces such as mazalot and do not have the transcendent relationship with the Almighty that Israel has. As such, they are forbidden from the observance of the Sabbath, and cannot merit Divine favor by their observance thereof, nor does their voluntary observance of any of the Torah’s commandments (that are unique to Israel) transcend their subservience to the influence of the ministering angel appointed over them.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series as we continue to explore sources on the subject of Shabbat and the Noahide.

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