Jewish Literacy - Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p. 263
A famous Yiddish proverb asserts, "It is hard to be a
Jew." One reason, of course, is the ferocious antagonism Jews have often
encountered. Another reason is the demanding nature of Jewish law, 613
Mitzvot in the Torah along and thousands more in the Talmud and legal codes.
Jewish tradition holds that non-Jews are bound by seven
laws, presumed to date from the time of that most righteous of gentiles,
Noach. There are six negative laws and one positive one:
Not to deny G-d (for example, idolatry)
Not to blaspheme G-d
Not to murder
Not to engage in incestuous, adulterous, bestial, or
Not to steal
Not to eat a limb torn from a living animal
To set up courts to ensure obedience to the other six
laws (Sanhedrin 56a)
Since each law has extensions and interpretations (see
number 4, for example) there are in fact more than seven laws that gentiles
are command to observe.
Judaism regards any non-Jew who keeps these laws as a
righteous person who is guaranteed a place in the world to come (See Righteous
Non-Jews/Chasidei Ummot ha-Olam). Maimonides believed that a non-Jew
was regarded as righteous only if he observed the laws because he believed
that G-d ordained them (Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Kings," 8:11); however, this
apparently was an innovative view of his, and not a talmudic demand.
The seven Noachide Laws constitute the standard by which
Jews assess the morality of a non-Jewish society: Are there laws against
violence and cruelty? Are there courts to combat anarchy? The main
difference between Noachide and Torah legislation is that the latter commands
hundreds of positive actions. For example, though non-Jews are forbidden to
steal, they are not commanded to give charity to the poor, as are Jews (see
Because Jewish law makes few demands on non-Jews,
historically many rabbis have been hesitant to convert non-Jews to the more
regorous system of the Torah, believing that it is better that a person be a
righteous non-Jew than a nonobservant Jew.
For further readings: Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven
Laws of Noach; David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An
Historical and Constructive Study of the Noachide Laws.