Introduction to the Universal Moral Code - Seven Moral Precepts
 
Dear Friends,

The breakdown of traditional moral values has become a major issue of
discussion and debate in contemporary western society. If we are to discuss
this issue from the perspective of Jewish tradition, we need to be aware
that, according to the Torah, there is a universal moral code which is the
legacy of all the peoples of the earth. This moral code has seven basic
precepts which are known as the "Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah." The
Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) states that these precepts were first taught to
humanity at the very dawn of human history, beginning with Adam and Eve;
however, this code was reaffirmed during the generation of Noah, after the
flood, and it  therefore became known as the "Seven Mitzvos of the Children
of Noah." The Seven Mitzvos are the following:

1. the mandate to establish courts of justice
2. the prohibition against cursing the Divine Name
3. the prohibition against idolatry - the deification of any object, being,
    or power other than the One God
4. the prohibition against murder
5. the prohibition against incest and adultery
6. the prohibition against theft
7. the prohibition against eating a limb severed from a living animal

Each of these seven precepts actually contain many of the 613 mitzvos which
are incumbent upon Jews. For example, in the classical compendium of the 613
mitzvos known as "Sefer Ha-Chinuch," we find the following comments
regarding the 416th mitzva - the prohibition, "You shall not covet"
(Deuteronomy 5:18):
"This prohibition applies at all times, in all places, to both men and
women, and to all human beings. This is so because it is part of the
prohibition against stealing, which is one of the Seven Mitzvos that all
human beings are to observe. Make no mistake concerning the enumeration of
the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah - these being well-known and
recorded in the Talmud - for they are but categories, and they contain many
particulars."

According to Jewish tradition, a human being who fulfills the teachings and
precepts of the universal code has achieved a high spiritual level, and
Maimonides writes: "Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these
Seven Mitzvos and is precise in their observance is considered one of the
chassidei umos ha'olam - the righteous among the nations - and will merit a
share in the World to Come" ( The Laws of Kings 8:11). Maimonides adds that
humanity must also recognize that the Seven Mitzvos were reaffirmed with the
giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The Talmud teaches that a Gentile who studies the Torah in order to
understand and fulfill this universal path "is like a Kohen Gadol - a High
Priest" (Sanhedrin 59a). The noted commentator on the Talmud, known as "the
Meiri,"  explains that the Talmud is calling on us to honor such a person as
we would honor a Kohen Gadol. In this spirit, we find the following teaching
regarding a Gentile who is diligent in his fulfillment of the laws and
principles of the Seven Mitzvos: "Honor him more than you would a Jew who is
not involved in the study of Torah" (Sefer Chassidim, 358).

The Meiri, in his commentary cited above, adds that most of the principles
of the Torah are contained within the Seven Mitzvos. The Meiri does not
elaborate, but if we examine any of the Seven Mitzvos, we can discover basic
Torah principles. For example, within the prohibition of idolatry, we can
find not only the concept of the Unity of the Creator, but also the related
concept of the unity of creation. For the deification of any fragment of
creation - whether it be an aspect of nature, a human being, a nation, or
humanity itself - can cause human beings to lose their consciousness of the
unity and common origin of all creation. Rabbi Abraham Yaffen, a noted
teacher of Jewish ethics in the early 20th century, elaborates on this idea
in an essay that he wrote about our father, Abraham, and his love for
humanity:

"It is precisely he (Abraham), who dedicated his life to acts of
lovingkindness, who was also the great zealot who dedicated his life to the
negation of idolatry in his generation. The reason for this can be
understood: Idolatry is based on the assumption that the various forces
within the world are separate one from the other; therefore, each human
being is also considered to be separate from his neighbor. Thus, our father,
Abraham, found no better strategy to remove this mistaken assumption from
their hearts than through acts of lovingkindness. Through this, he
strengthened the spiritual bond which connects human beings." (Mishel Avos -
An anthology of Commentary on Pirkei Avos, p. 144)

Rabbi Yaffen adds that when Abraham would see the people of his generation
fighting with each other, and how each would offer sacrifices to his own god
in order to try to gain support in his struggle against his neighbor,
Abraham would teach them that, on the contrary, "each should help  his
neighbor, for one God created them and desires the honor of all of them."

If we examine the prohibition against eating a limb severed from a living
animal, we can find other basic Torah principles. The Torah teaches that the
human being is not the owner of the earth and its creatures; he is only the
custodian, and he has no right to cruelly exploit other living creatures for
his immediate gratification. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage
and biblical commentator of the 19th century, writes: "There are probably no
creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the
presumption of man than the animals, which like man, have sensations and
instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In
relationship to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle
twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal
sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to
cuts, blows and beating as man. Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal
soul, which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and
wise purposes..." (Horeb, chap. 60) We therefore find a number of mitzvos of
the Torah that mandate concern and consideration for the feelings and
instincts of animals.

What Torah principles are contained within the prohibition against cursing
the Divine Name? I would like to suggest that this prohibition reminds the
human being to revere and respect the Source of all life and wisdom, and it
may also include the Torah principle of reverence and respect for parents,
elders, and teachers, as they are to serve as sources of life and wisdom in
God's world. Another, related principle is Kavod Ha-Briyos - respect for
human beings, as each human being is created in the Divine image. The human
soul is a "spark" of the Divine essence; thus, our reverence for the
Infinite One is to lead to a sense of reverence and respect for the spark of
the Infinite One which is found in all human beings.

This letter is meant to serve as a brief introduction to the universal code
of the Torah, and I hope that it will lead to further study and discussion.
I would therefore welcome your own ideas and insights on these themes.

Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

P.S. In addition to the "Seven Precepts" and their many components, there
are some other mitzvos of the Torah which are binding on all the peoples of
the earth. We discussed one of these universal mitzvos in our lesson on
"Tzedakah" - the Torah's mandate to share our resources with those in need.
A copy of this essay is available upon request.
 ___________________________________

"Hazon - Our Universal Vision" is an e-mail study-program which explores the
universal vision of the Torah for Jews, humanity, and all creation. Our
website address is: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/

This article is published with the permission of the author - Yosef ben Shlomo HaKohen.


 
 

Return Home

1