Torah for Gentiles?

Torah for Gentiles?

By Jacob Gottlieb*

At the beginning of Moses’ last oration before his death, he proclaims the greatest heritage given the people of Israel for all time:  “Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage [Heb. morashah] of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4).

This verse is interpreted in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a) as the source of the prohibition against gentiles studying Torah, even to the point of imposing the death sentence on them.  According to one interpretation, a gentile who studies Torah is considered a thief, for the Torah is the exclusive heritage of the Jewish people.  According to another interpretation, the same applies to him as to a person who rapes a betrothed maiden, namely the death sentence (reading morashah [= heritage] as me’orasah [= betrothed]). 

The prohibition against gentiles studying Torah joins another prohibition, presented in the previous folio of the Talmud:  “a heathen who keeps a day of rest deserves death, for it is written, ‘And a day and a night they shall not rest.’[1]…Rabina said:  Even if he rested on a Monday” (Sanhedrin 58b).  The prohibition against a gentile resting on the Sabbath finds expression in the Saturday morning service:  “You, our Lord and G‑d, did not give it to the gentiles, and did not bequeath it, O our King, to idolaters.  Neither may the uncircumcised partake in its rest; for You gave it lovingly to Your people Israel, to the seed of Jacob, who are Your chosen.”[2]

Thus the message is:

  1. A gentile may not keep the Sabbath as a day of rest, nor may he set another day of the week as a day of rest.
  2. A gentile is forbidden to study Torah.

The Talmudic prohibition against a gentile studying Torah is set against a saying of Rabbi Meir, “Even a gentile who occupies himself with the Torah is like the High Priest.”  The Talmud resolves the contradiction by making a distinction between studying “the seven Noachian commandments” and the rest of the commandments, study of the latter being forbidden to the gentile.  These two prohibitions are summed up by Maimonides as follows:

A gentile who studies the Torah is obligated to die.  They should only be involved in the study of their seven mitzvot.  Similarly, a gentile who rests, even on a weekday, observing that day as a Sabbath, is obligated to die.  Needless to say, he is obligated for that punishment if he creates a festival for himself.  The general principle governing these matters is:  They are not to be allowed to originate a new religion or create mitzvot for themselves based on their own decisions.  They may either become righteous converts and accept all the mitzvot or retain their statutes without adding or detracting from them.  If a gentile studies the Torah, makes a Sabbath, or creates a religious practice, a Jewish court should beat him, punish him, and inform him that he is obligated to die.  However, he is not to be executed.  (Hilkhot Melakhim 10.9)[3]

In these remarks Maimonides extends the two prohibitions to a general principle:  a gentile is forbidden to observe any commandments other than the seven Noachian precepts.  The halakhah that is presented in Mishneh Torah, however, appears to contradict the general rule, as stated by Maimonides:

We should not prevent a gentile who desires to perform one of the Torah’s mitzvot in order to receive reward for doing so, provided he performs it as required.  If he brings an animal to be sacrificed as a burnt offering, we should receive it.  If he gives charity, we should accept it from him. (ibid. 10.10)

How are these conflicting rules of halakhah to be reconciled?

Radbaz, in his commentary on Mishneh Torah, wrote that one should distinguish between a gentile who performs mitvot as one who is enjoined and hence performs the commandments—which is forbidden—and a gentile who observes the commandments as someone “who is not enjoined yet nevertheless performs the commandment” only for the sake of receiving reward—which is permitted.[4]

According to Radbaz, the status of a gentile regarding the commandments is comparable to the status of a woman regarding “time-bound commandments.”  While a woman is not commanded to perform these mitzvot, if she does choose to do so then her act is of value and she even receives a reward, albeit lesser, since “greater is the reward of those who having been enjoined do good deeds than of those who not having been enjoined [but merely out of free will] do good deeds.”[5]  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein flatly rejects the interpretation of Radbaz.[6]  According to Rabbi Feinstein, those commandments that are particular to the Jewish people have no significance for the gentile, and in any event he derives no benefit or reward from performing them.  The Theophany at Mount Sinai in no way pertains to the gentile, so for him they are not commandments at all.[7]  Rabbi Feinstein maintains that the distinction to be made between rules of halakhah should be between the regular performance of commandments, which is forbidden on the grounds of initiating a new religion, and incidental performance in order to receive a reward.  The latter is not forbidden, although actually the gentile receives no reward for such actions.

Rabbi Israel Schepansky[8] sought to prove from the rules of circumcision that the commandments performed by a gentile are significant, for Maimonides wrote:

It is forbidden for a Jew to circumcise a gentile who is forced to remove his foreskin because of a wound or because of a tumor, since we are instructed neither to save the gentiles from death, nor to cause them to die.  Although a mitzvah is accomplished in the process of administering this medical treatment, the gentile did not intend to fulfill the mitzvah.  If, however, the gentile intends to fulfill the mitzvah of circumcision, it is a mitzvah to circumcise him.[9]

It follows from what Maimonides wrote that it is permissible to circumcise a gentile who asks to be circumcised in order to perform the commandment of circumcision, even though there is medical advantage in the action.  Rabbi Feinstein flatly rejects this argument, calling it empty words.  He is unable to accept this ruling at face value since, according to him, there is no mitzvah in circumcising a gentile.  Rabbi Feinstein takes Maimonides’ ruling to refer to a gentile who wishes to be circumcised in order to convert to Judaism, as also follows from the commentary of Kesef Mishneh, loc. cit. However, it appears that Rabbi Feinstein did not take into account an explicit responsum by Maimonides, stating:

A Jew may circumcise a gentile if the gentile wishes to cut off and remove his foreskin, since every commandment that a gentile performs is given a reward—but he is not like someone who is obligated by the commandments and performs them—provided that he perform the commandment while acknowledging the prophecy of our Teacher Moses, who relayed this commandment from the mouth of the Lord Almighty, and that he believes in this, and that he not be doing it for any other reason or because of some idea he himself has thought up, as explained in the baraitha of Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob and as we ourselves have explained at the end of our magnum opus…and there is no difference in this matter between a Moslem and a Christian.  Whenever such a person comes to us to be circumcised for the sake of the commandment of circumcision, we are permitted to circumcise him even though he remains a gentile.[10]

Maimonides looked with favor on the gentile who performs a commandment out of faith in the Torah, and explicitly asserted that the gentile receives a reward for so doing.  When it came to gentiles studying Torah, we also find a surprising responsum by Maimonides that reduces the prohibition, as follows:

It is permissible to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our faith.  However, this is not permitted with regard to Moslems, for as you know they believe that our Torah is not from Heaven, and when they study something from its Scripture and find that it contradicts what they have invented themselves according to the mélange of narratives and confusion of things that has come to them, then they will not view it as proof that they are in error, but rather will interpret it according to their erroneous preconceptions and will be able to answer us back with their own claims, thereby leading astray any proselyte among the Jews who is not knowledgeable; thus this will become a stumbling block for the Jews who, by their sins, are forcibly in their midst.  But the uncircumcised [= the Christians] believe in our text of the Torah, unchanged, and only discover in it other aspects through their erroneous interpretation, and they interpret it with readings for which they are known; but if the correct reading is made known to them, perhaps they will return to the better, and even if they do not return, when their return is desired, nevertheless no obstacle will come our way from this and they will not find in their Scripture anything different from ours.[11]

Maimonides applies the prohibition against studying the Torah to those gentiles who do not believe in the Torah as it is (i.e., the Moslems), and permits study of the Torah to those gentiles who believe in the Torah (the Christians).  He even hints that it is not only permitted, but even desirable:  “Perhaps they will return to the better.”[12]  It follows from Maimonides’ remarks that a gentile who studies Torah according to its true interpretation, i.e., following the Sages, and who performs its commandments thereby draws close to the Jewish faith, even though he is not a proselyte.  As Maimonides wrote, “It is permissible to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our faith.”

A similar approach to that of Maimonides can be found in remarks of Rabbenu Menahem ha-Meiri in his work, Beit ha-Behirah.  In his commentary on Tractate Sanhedrin (59a) he wrote:

A gentile whom we see assuming a righteous manner and setting himself days of rest on the Sabbath or a festival deserves to be punished, although he is not to be put to death.  This is not the end of the matter, for when he appoints for himself that which is ours, as indicated by the gentile who observes a day of rest, he is to be punished and told either to accept the burden of the commandments or not to initiate for his own ways that which is ours, even if he sets himself other days [of the week], as it is said, even if he sets Monday as a day of rest.  For he is not to be permitted to institute a new religious practice and set himself a holiday on which to rest according to the teachings of the holiday, for this may cause him to appear as one of our people and others might learn from him.  But the rest of the commandments are not to be precluded from him, for it is said that we should accept his sacrificial offerings and charity.  Likewise, if he studies Torah, not with the intention of performing its precepts but because he desires to fathom the depths of the Torah and Talmud, he deserves to be punished, because people will think he is one of us, seeing that he is knowledgeable, and they will be led astray by him. 

In any event, as long as he confines himself to the seven Noachian precepts, all their details and implications, even though most of the gist of the Torah is included in them, he is to be respected even as a High Priest, for there is no danger here of going astray following him, for he is studying what concerns him; all the more so, since he might study it and arrive at an appreciation of the perfection of our Torah, and finding it perfect might return and convert, and all the more so if he studies and performs its principle commandments for their own sake, even in the other parts of the Torah besides the seven Noachian commandments.[13]

Perhaps ha-Meiri was influenced by Maimonides’ approach, as we presented it, and he himself also took a favorable view of gentiles studying the Torah and performing its commandments.  Ha-Meiri reiterated his position in his commentary on Tractate Avodah Zarah, as follows:

Even if a gentile who studies the Torah, fathoms its meaning and performs its commandments for their own sake—even he receives a reward just as does a Jew, for it is written, “by the pursuit of which man shall live” (Lev. 18:5).  It does not say “Priests, Levites and Israelites” but rather, “man.”  Even though Sanhedrin 59a says this refers to studying their own seven laws, we have already explained the ultimate intent.  In any event, greater is the reward of those who having been enjoined perform commandments than of those who not having been enjoined perform commandments, for those who have been enjoined perform the commandment even though it goes contrary to their nature and is difficult for them…

To conclude, a comprehensive investigation of Maimonides’ writings reveals that he viewed with favor gentiles who believed in the Torah given us by Moses, and who out of love for the Torah studied it according to the interpretation of the Sages and performed its commandments.  Maimonides’ approach was followed by Rabbenu Menahem ha-Meiri as well.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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* Rabbi Jacob Gottlieb is a lecturer in Jewish Philosophy at Ashkelon College, and author of “Sechaltanut bi-Levush Hassidi—Demuto shel ha-Rambam be-Hassidut Habad.” Originally published in Hebrew in 2004. This translation has not been reviewed by the author.

[1] Gen. 8:22.  They is here made to apply to men, and shall not is taken to mean may not. [Note from English translation of Talmud. http://halakhah.com/pdf/nezikin/Sanhedrin.pdf]

[2] Siddur Rinat Yisrael, Sefardic edition.

[3] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188355/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-10.htm

[4] Radbaz adds that in his opinion one should be especially strict regarding those commandments that require a state of sanctity and purity, such as writing phylacteries, a Torah scroll, and mezuzah, which a gentile should not be permitted to perform.

[5] http://halakhah.com/pdf/nezikin/Baba_Kama.pdf

[6] Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De`ah Part II, par. 7.  In order not to contradict someone as great as Radbaz, Rabbi Feinstein wrote that “an error must have entered the manuscript, or some disciple must have added this by mistake.”  Further on, Rabbi Feinstein maintains that even according to Radbaz we are dealing with permission to perform mitzvot, but that in truth the gentile receives no reward for this.

[7] Also cf. Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De`ah, Part I, par. 3.

[8] Rabbi Schepansky’s remarks come from a letter that he wrote to Rabbi Feinstein, and are incorporated in Rabbi Feinstein’s response to him (Yoreh De`ah, Part II, par. 7).

[9] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/932330/jewish/Milah-Chapter-Three.htm

[10] Teshuvot Ha-Rambam, par. 148, Yehoshua Blau edition, Reuben Mass Publishers, Jerusalem 1989.

[11] Ibid., par. 149.  Also cf. Iggerot ha-Rambam, Shilat Publishers, Jerusalem 1995; Part I, pp. 215-216, and note 13.  Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg wrote in Resp. Tzitz Eliezer, Part 21, par. 25, that Maimonides’ saying, “It is permissible to teach the commandments to Christians,” refers only to the seven Noachian precepts, but looking closely at the entire responsum it appears, as Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg wrote, that Maimonides’ words refer to all the commandments.  See Seridei Esh, Part II, par. 56.

[12] Rabbi Hayyim David Ha-Levi holds that, according to the reasoning given by Maimonides in his responsum, in our day one should even permit Moslems to study Torah, since we do not live among them and hence the apprehension Maimonides mentioned in his responsum no longer pertains.  See Resp. Aseh lekha Rav (7.48).

[13] Beit ha-Behirah le-Rabbenu Menahem ha-Meiri, Abraham Sofer edition, Kedem Publishers, Jerusalem 1965.  It is quite surprising to see how Rabbi Moses Feinstein stood fast by his approach, and having asserted that there must be a scribal error in the writings of Radbaz, went on to say that there is also a scribal error in the writings of Meiri.

Last modified: 16/10/2017