shavuot 2016: my experience in teaching the 7 commandments

Noahide Seven Commandments Torah classes

© 2016 by Rabbi Zvi Aviner

Torah Class/My experience in teaching the Seven Commandments

”Let’s build a city”

A class given in Shavuot 2016 Atlanta Ga

Noah’s Seven Commandments is huge subject.
It takes me 70 classes, each one hour long, to cover them.
I’ve been teaching them on the Virtual Yeshivah ( over 15 years
And it takes me about a year and half to finish one cycle of classes.
Thus the subject is too large to be covered in one presentation.
Today I will focus on my personal experience,
On how I was introduced to the subject, what were my hesitations
And how I have overcome them.

I’ve been introduced to the Noahides 20 years ago in Memphis TN by a gentile named Vendyl Jones. At that time two of his children, with their families, converted to (orthodox) Judaism and they lived in Memphis for several years. During that time my wife and me became very close to the Jones, and they used to attend my weekly Pasha classes. Their father, Vendyl, while visiting his children, attended too my classes and he suggested that I would teach the Noahides the Seven Commandments.
Few words about Vendyl: He was a former Baptist Reverent who arose one day and wrote a pamphlet named: “Would the historical Jesus stand up?” in which he recanted all the basics of Christianity. Soon crosses were burning on his backyard and he had to leave town with his family. He then went to Israel, entered a Yeshiva for two years and became versed in the basics of the Talmud. He was a tall and beautiful man, a genuine Texan, constantly drunk like Noah yet in his full faculties. He became a professional archeologist who led many digging delegations from the USA to Israel. Soon his fame grew and he published articles and pamphlets (The original Indianan Jones.)
Now when he extended his invitation to teach his Noahide group in Dallas, I hesitated at first. My reasons were halachic and historical, as I’ll explain it to you.

My halachic hesitations
The truth is that my knowledge of Noah’s Seven Commandments was vague. I had learned about them in the Talmud but in very general terms, never bothering to enter their meaning in depth. Having grown in Israel my encounter with non Jews was very limited.
So when Vendyl offered me his invitation I looked up the RamBaM in the Laws of Kings, where he presents the Commandments in a very orderly fashion.
According to the RaMBaM, Adam received in Eden the basic Six Commandments: (I) IDOLATRY (II) BLASPHEMY (III) BLOODSHED (IV) ADULTERY (V) THEFT (VI) JUSTICE, Dinim.
Then, he says, Noah received (after the Flood) the Seventh Commandment (VII) that prohibits the consumption of a limb torn from a living animal (and drinking blood.)
Then Abraham received the Eighth Commandment (VIII) Circumcision.
Then Jacob received the Ninth Commandment (IX) which is the prohibition to consume the Sciatic Nerve.
Then on Sinai Israel received the entire Torah (Ten Commandments) with its 613 ones.
Hence according to the RaMBaM, both Abraham and Jacob were special kinds of Noahides, obligated by more than the Seven Commandments. Even the Children of Israel in Egypt were conceptually Noahides. It was only on Sinai, when Israel received the Torah with its Ten Commandments (613 in fact) that they became Israel, or the Jewish People. But even Israel can be regarded as a special kind of Noahides, obligated with more than Seven Commandments.
Then the RaMBaM adds that “Moses our teacher commanded on Israel to ENFORCE on the nations the Seven Commandments, and whoever won’t comply would be killed. (Obviously, this is because no decent human society can live without them, as Ibn Ezra says. It is also obvious that this paragraph is applicable only when Israel has the “upper hands” like in the time of the Messiah.)
Then the RaMBaM defines the concept of “Ger Toshav” (a Resident Ger) as a Gentile who has pledged before three ordained rabbis (when the Temple still stood) to observe the Seven Commandments. Today of course the title is only symbolic. I have set on several such Courts but we emphasized to those who came before us that this sermon is only symbolic.
Then, the RaMBaM adds that a gentile who keeps the Seven Commandments, even without a formal pledge before a Rabbinical Court, is considered a Righteous Gentile, who shares with us the world to come. And that is on condition that the gentile has accepted the Seven Commandments not only because they are logical, but because they were given to us by Moses. I think that the late Vendyl Jones did certainly qualify to be called a Righteous Gentile.
But as I read the RaMBaM, one thing struck my mind: In no place does the RaMBaM say that there is a Mitzvah to teach the non Jews the Seven Commandments! Yes, there is a Mitzvah to enforce them, when it is possible, but not to teach them!
So I looked at other Poskim, Rishonim and Achronim, and in no place I found any allusion to the Seven Commandments beside very faint and vague ones, certainly without reference to any Mitzvah to teach them!
Yes, we pray every day that “One day the whole Earth would know HaSheM”, but that is only a hope for the future. In my Bar Mitzvah Maftir from Jeremiah it says “HaSheM is my rock and my stronghold, to you the nation will come from the edges of Earth and say it we’ve inherited only a lie from our fathers, something that is false and without merit.” It is a great hope for the future, but not something that obliges me (us) to do now, to teach them at the present time.
Moreover, I realized that there is a danger in teaching the gentiles the Seven Commandments. After all, why is the rabbinic literature so meager in regard to these Commandments? Why no one discuss them in detail? The answer is obvious: for centuries, a Jewish person who tried to teach the gentiles was risking his life, literally. Trying to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism was punishable by death. So why should I (we) risk our life today, when there isn’t a specific Mitzvah to do so?
I want to emphasize: yes, of course, there is a great Mitzvah on a Jew to teach another Jews the Commandments, not just the Seven ones but rather the entire 613. But in no place it is written that a Jew must teach the gentiles the Noahide Commandments!
With these thoughts on my mind I declined Vendyl offer.
But then he persuaded me to visit them at least once. And when I went to Dallas to meet the Noahides the first time, I found them to be sincere people, smart and educated, people with open mind that had rejected Christianity and had paid dearly about that, in both personal life and at work.
Moreover, the Noahides showed me a copy of the USA Congress declaration from 1991 that recognizes the Seven Commandments of Noah as the moral fabric of this great nation. It is signed by President Bush. Wow! This showed me that the USA is the first country ever to officially state and recognize the Seven Commandments as its moral base!
Later I have learned that this historical declaration was passed by the US Congress in the honor of the later Lubavitz Rabbi for his birthday. It was accompanied by erecting the famous Menorah at the While House backyard, still seen. And I understood that henceforth I would be able to present the Noah’s Seven Commandments as the moral base of this wonderful and special nation, the USA. It was a license to me to teach them. I could henceforth tell my American students that I am not here to convert them to Judaism( which indeed I am not) but rather that I am here to teach them the moral base of every decent human society, recognized by the wisdom of the USA Congress.
So this has calmed my down and dissipated my first fears. I am not running after the non Jews to convert them, but rather answer their quest to be familiar with the Seven Commandments. During the next few years I have also detected an awakening in the general population where people wish to know more about the Old Testament; this without forsaking Christianity.

But after my first hesitation eased a bit, other fears came on. I would refer to them as historical fears that are based on what has happened in history.
Tradition says that in the long Jewish history of 3500 years there were only two major attempts to teach the gentiles the Seven Commandments, and both of these attempts have ended with a failure and horrific consequences to our people.

One such catastrophe occurred when Paul from Tarsus was dispatched by the nascent Jerusalem Church to teach the gentiles the Seven Commandments, plus the news about Jesus. The result was the birth of Christianity, with the terrible repercussions to our people.
The point is that at the time of Paul’s mission (first century BC) there were Jewish communities in many cities of the Raman Empire. Around these communities evolved circles of sympathetic gentiles called “G-d Fearers,” Yirei HaShem. They were familiar with the stories of the Torah and the Seven Commandments. When Paul came to them, they were the first to comprehend his message and accept it. Other gentiles joined too.

The second major attempt to teach the gentiles the Sven Commandments took place in the Seventh Century’s Arab Peninsula. Two powerful Jewish tribes in the city of Yathrib (about 50 miles north of Mecca) did something that no other Jewish community has ever done: they opened the doors of their Torah Academies for the local pagan Arabs to teach them the Seven Commandments. We talk about learned Jewish communities who knew the Talmud and kept in touch with the Geonim of Babylonian Diaspora. Among their Arab students was a nine years old boy who would later appear on the stage of history as the Prophet Muhammad. The Jewish scholars also preaches that the Messiah would come from the South, as it is said (In Shavuot’s Haftarah) “HaShem will come from the South”
So when Muhammad first presented himself as a prophet to the inhabitants of Mecca he was fiercely rejected and chased away in shame. He then went to the city of Yathrib where he was welcomed by the local Arab population. They were familiar with the Torah stories and understood his mission well. Some rabbis even supported him, as long he addressed the pagans and ‘convert’ them to the Seven Commandments. It is only later when he turned against the Jews and demanded from them to recognize him as their God’s Messenger that the clash erupted. The result was the first holocaust recorded in history: the Jewish males forced to dig their own graves and then beheaded, their wives and daughters taken as sex slaves.
Remembering these two major historical failures to teach the gentiles the Seven Commandments made me worry. I realized that we have in our hands a powerful message, perhaps the most powerful in existence, one that has already has changed the world. This message has already given birth to the two Monotheistic religions that cover Earth. But at the same time, would we open up by our teaching the door for a new religion, G-d forbid?
And when I pondered about that I realized that there is a major obstacle that the gentiles can’t overcome: they would not agree to play the second violin. They would not agree to see themselves as ‘second citizen’ who observe ‘only’ Seven Commandments, while the Jews see themselves as closer to G-d, being abided by 613 ones!
For that reason, I realized, it was easy for the gentiles to accept Paul. He promised them, after all, that they, not the Jews, are the preferred Children of G-d. In fact, he said, they have become the new Israel, superseding the ancient Israel. The New Testament, rather than the Old one, is now the new Covenant. This message was tasteful for them. They could accept Paul and reject Judaism.
The same idea worked in the case of Islam. It is one thing to play the role of second citizen abided by only Seven Commandments, inferior to the Jews who are abided by 613 ones; as opposed to accepting the new Message of Muhammad saying that Islam is the real Israel. The proud Arabs accepted easily the notion that they, not the Jews, are G-d’s favorite children. They loved the idea that the Jewish Torah is false, a lie promulgated by Ezra the Scribe. The truth is, Muhammad preached, that all the patriarchs were genuine Muslims, including Abraham, Yishmael, Moses, David and Solomon. Hence the Muslims, rather than the Jews, should play the first violin.

If so, I thought, what could we achieve today by teaching the Gentiles the Seven Commandments? Would they ever accept the ‘superiority’ of Israel? Isn’t our attempt a lost cause from its start?

With these hesitations and inhibitions I accepted Vendyl invitation and visited the Dallas’ Noahide Community. And like before, it was they who calmed my mind. From them I learned that they truly believed in the role of the Jewish People at the teachers of the Torah. In other words, they did not see themselves as inferior to the Jews, to Israel.
In my experience, there are three models of the relationship between Israel and Noahides that they accept and love:
One model is the Priest and the Congregation. It is based on the verse that we read today before the Ten Commandments. It says “And you shall be to me a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.” Well, when you have a priest and a congregation, can you tell who is more important? The title Priest has no meaning without a Congregation, and vice versa: there is no Congregation without a Priest. The function of the Priest is to set up the model for a higher standard, but not everyone in the Congregation needs to behave like the Priest.
The Second model they love is the story of Moses’ father in law, Yithro. As you know, he was a former pagan who abandoned his idolatry and accepted the Seven Commandments. Many Noahides today name themselves after him. Now when Israel traveled in the Wilderness, they formed four ‘wings’ as described in yesterday’s Parsha, Bamidbar (Numbers.) At the center was the Fifth Camp of the Levites, and in it was the Sixth Camp of the Tabernacle, the Priesthood Camp. Thus Israel traveled in six camps. When Yithro came to visit Moses (Numbers ) he formed, conceptually, the Seventh Camp surrounding Israel’s. Moses asked him to “show Israel the way, meaning to support Israel’s traveling. Yithro did that yet he returned back home, meaning he did not went to Israel. Yithro serves as a metaphor for the Noahides. They too surround Israel and support Israel in everything they can. In Moses time the seventh Camp comprised of one person only, but potentially this camp can spread all over the world. Thus at the Holy Temple itself there was a symbolic wall (hayil) that surrounded the inner courtyard. Gentiles came to offer their petitions and prayer to G-d standing around that ‘wall,’ supporting Israel.

The third model addresses holiness. It is based on the concept of the Heavenly Angelic Choir that chants every morning at dawn. It comprises of seventy Angels, each representing a Family of Noah’s Nations (listed in Genesis.) The day begins nine hours east of Jerusalem, when the sun rises on the nations living at that area. The rabbis did not know that yet, but nine hours east of Jerusalem falls at the eastern border of China, at the Pacific shore, the edge of the Asian Continent. As a family of nations wake up, their representing Angel chants one “holy.” Three Angels in a row would chant three times holy, like “Hoy, Holy, Holy, the World is full of His Glory” (Isaiah) After three such cycles, at the ninth hours of the new day, the Sun rises on Mt. Moriah of Jerusalem. The Choir than pauses and waits for one Nation to step in and chant from earth: the “three times holy.” As a gesture to Jacob, Israel has won the contest and is the only nation that is allowed to chant this from the ground. We do that of course during our Amida prayer when we stand like the Angels and chant “Holy Holy holy.” Then the Sun continues its travel in the sky to the west and the Heavenly Choir continues as before.
This model appeals to the Noahides. It infers that holiness is NOT confined to Jews only. Every nation has a representing Angel in the Heavenly Choir. Israel, as a Priest Nation, chants Three Times Holy, yet every nation chants ‘Holy’ as well.
Imagine a huge Temple, with Seventy Choirs in it, each Family of Nations represented by a Choir. Israel is represented by a Choir at the center. The day is Rosh Hashanah, a holiday that is celebrated by ALL people, since EVERYONE stands in it in JUDGEMENT. It is the only Torah Holiday that applies to Gentiles as well as to Jews. The Choirs begins their harmonic chanting from the east, and after three cycles the hall is quiet and listens to the Israeli Choir that chants alone. Then other Choirs join and the service continues.

Well, so far I have focused on my hesitations to teach the Seven Commandments and how I overcame them. Now let’s discuss what should we teach and what should we teach NOT.
We all knoll the famous debate in the Talmud about that issue: one opinion says that a gentile who learns Torah deserves the death penalty, whereas another opinion says the opposite: that a gentile who has learned Torah can be greater than the High Priest of Israel!
How can one reconcile these two opposing ideas?
The Talmud itself settles the issue: when gentiles learn the Seven commandments that are related to them, they can excel. But if they study Torah issues that are not related to them, the study can turn to their detrimental.
So the parameters of the study are clearly defined: We need to teach only issues that the Gentiles must keep. It means that we should not teach issues that they are NOT expected to abide with. Hence we should not teach them how to kosher ovens for Passover, or how to fast on Yom Kippur. (They should be familiar with these topics, without spending time on the details.)
So by this I have formed the parameters of my classes. I would teach the Book of Genesis, emphasizing the Seven Commandment. As it turned out this was quite natural, since the Book of Genesis DOES represent the Seven Commandments one by one, in a logical, interesting and fascinating way. In fact it continues to presents also the Eighth and the Ninth Commandments Abraham’s Circumcision and Jacob’s Sciatic nerve) as well.
After establishing the parameters of what I should teach, I had to decide what I should teach not.
First, as I have just said, I decided that I would keep away the Torah issues which the Noahides are not obligated to keep.
But then it took me a while to find out some errors that other rabbis have done in their attempts to teach the gentiles.
First you should not teach the gentiles esoteric kabala that are unknown even to a regular rabbi. For instance: I have attended 3 hour class given by a kabalistic teacher from Israel about the secret meaning of each letter in the Four Letters Holy Name (YHVH.) Each letter, he said, represents a series of worlds one inside the other, leading to the final redemption in the future end of times. Well, these are wonderful ideas I am sure, but completely unknown even to regular kabalistic scholar. Why should a gentile be taught such an esoteric wisdom? In fact, the audience set there overwhelmed, with negative feelings towards Judaism.
Another error is to offer the Noahide rituals that make no sense to them. Noahides, like any human beings, are hungry for rituals. It took Judaism 3500 years to develop our own rituals, customs and liturgy. It would be wrong, very wrong, for Noahides to simply copy the Jewish custom and adapt it as his own.
For example: I have attended a whole class given on the internet by a (famous)rabbi before Passover. The speaker taught the Noahides how to conduct a Passover Seder of their own. He discussed at length, for instance, how to place three Matzot on the table and their meanings. The top Matza he said would be against the Universe, the middle Matzah for animals and vegetation and the bottom one for Mankind. And so on. When the Noahides asked my opinion I rejected the entire idea of a Seder. .Passover, I said, is the birthday of the Jewish people. Now you never celebrate another person’s birthday as your own. This would be very offensive and rude. Yes, you can clap your hands and bring presents, but you don’t sit in your friend’s chair and cut the cake instead of him. The only Jewish Holiday that SHOULD be celebrated by Noahides is the Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of CREATION, when the entire world stands before the CREATOR in JUDGMENT.
A similar issue arose in regards to the prayer book. Noahides are hungry for praying rituals and texts. But they should not COPY Israel’s Sidur. On one occasion I attended a convention where people discussed at length whether or not to print Amram Gaon’s Sidur. Again, when I was asked to express my opinion I said: Noahides should certainly pray to G-d. After all, it was Noah who was the first to offer Burnt Offering on Mt. Moriah after the Flood. In these offering he poured out his frustrations and expressed his hopes for the future. So important is his prayer that the rabbis said that his alter shape – a square of stones filled by dirt has become the prototype of all altars after him. Hence Noahides are certainly in the business of prayers. But they should express in the prayers their own issues and frustrations, as Noah did.
I told the Noahides: Have you ever been exiled from Jerusalem? Have your judges been killed and destroyed? Have your city Jerusalem been destroyed? Of course not. So why should you copy Amaram Gaon Sidur that particularly asks for the restoration of the past? You should better express your own frustrations and tribulations in your prayers! It might take time to formulate these petitions to G-d. It took Israel millenniums to formulate our own requests from G-d. Yes, you can PRAISE God using Psalms, but when it comes to petitioning G-d (which is what Jewish Prayer means) you better form your own ones.
Another common error in their teaching deserves our attention. It is quite common to say that Abraham was the “father of Monotheism” and that he was the first to worship YHVH, whereas the former generations knew G-d only as ELoKiM, The All Mighty Judge. How wrong! What about Adam, who coined these Names? What about Adam’s grandson Enosh, on whm it is said that in his time they began calling in the Name of YHVH? What about Noah, to whom the Heavenly Court of YHVH and ELoKiM was reveled before and after the Flood? What about ANoah’s Rainbow Covenant that was given to MANKIND in the names of YHVH and ELoKiM?
In fact, the rabbis said that the contribution of Abraham to our faith was the introduction of the Name My Lord, AaDoNai. It mean My Master, or My Owner. Abraham indeed was the first to recognize the CREATOR as the OWNER of everything, as it is said: Blessed is Abraham to the Supreme El Who Possesses (Purchases) the Heavens and the earth. The CREATOR owns everything by the virtue of the artist to own his artwork, so said Abraham. Our body, he said, belongs to our CREATOR. What is circumcision if not the emblem of our CREATOR in our flesh? (Seforno)
Hence it is inaccurate to say that by conversion to Judaism one is elevated from worshipping ELoKiM only to worshipping also the Attribute of Mercy, YHVH. This teaching is wrong. A regular Noahide who accept the Seven Commandments and comprehend them, does worship YHVH ELoKiM in ONENESS. This is why the Talmud says that a Noahide who has studied Torah and knows his obligations can be as great as the Jewish High Priest praying in the Holy of Holies.
A third common error that I would like to address here is about Circumcision. People ask: Since Abraham was a Noahide, according to the RamBaM, can a Noahide man circumcise himself NOT as a part of conversion, but rather as a sympathizer of Abraham? Of course, G-d told Abraham that his children should circumcise, but all Noahides CAN do it not as a Commandment but rather as a token of supporting Abraham? Besides, Abraham had many wives and children, who have been intermingled among the nations! (a legitimate question raised even by the Mishne Lemelech Commentary on the RaMBaM.)
The Talmud in fact addresses that question. The answer is surprising: Indeed, Abraham’s Circumcision COULD have been relevant to ALL Children of Noah. Only that Moses restricted it to Israel.
The rule that the Talmud follows is as follows: Every Commandment given to Noah and later repeated by Moses to Israel, apply to both. This refers to the entire Seven Commandments since they carry the stamps of both Noah and Moses, and therefore oblige both Noahides and Israel.
The rule continues: the Commandments given to Moses only to Israel, apply to Israel only; like fasting on Yom Kippur.
Now comes the crux: the Commanded that were first given to Noahides but Moses did not repeat them to Israel, apply only to Israel. This is contra intuitively. It is as if Moses ‘confiscated’ them from Noahides and restricted them to Israel only. There are two Commandments involved: The Eighth, Circumcision, given to Abraham and NOT repeated to Israel; and the Ninth, the Sciatic Nerve prohibition, which was given to Jacob, also as Noahide, but NOT repeated to Israel. Hence according to our rule these two apply now to Israel only.
The logic behind this rule is, I think, that only Israel is considered a ‘slave of G-d,’ therefore obliged by Circumcision (and the Sciatic nerve prohibition.)
Thus we can conclude that Moses did not include the Children of Noah in the Circumcision Commandment.
Following these guidelines I have conducted many cycles of teaching the Seven Commandments to gentiles. They are to be seen on my site:
There is one more topic I wish to mention here: during my teaching I have come on my own top the conclusion that beside the Seven Commandments, I should also teach the story of the Prophet Bilalam and his prophecy. How delighted I was to find out that the late Lubavitzer Rabbi wrote the same thing.
The reason for including Bilaam is as follows: First, Bilaam was a Noahide prophet who abided by the Seven Commandments. In fact he saw himself and King Balak of Moab as a legitimate heir of Noah. He challenged the status of Israel as a priest for the Noahide Nations.
Secondly, in his prophecy Bilaam foretold the coming of the Messiah as he says: “a star has arisen from Jacob….”
Moreover, Bilaam saw the origin of the Messiah: David, whose origin is Ruth the Moabite, who in turned came from the King Balak himself, the very person who hired the prophet to curse Israel!
And when you realize that Moab came from Sodom and Gomorrah, you realize that the Messiah is a holy spark that originated in Sodom and ended up in Israel despite all odds! Can you find a more fascinating story than this one? It is the most precious story ever told! And this is the story of today’s holiday, the Shavuot, when we read Ruth, and the day that David passed away. Let’s dedicate this article to his memory.