The term “mitzvah” refers to a Divine mandate. There are mitzvos which call upon us to do certain actions which elevate the world, including the world within ourselves, and there are mitzvos which prohibit certain actions or words which can damage the world, including the world within ourselves. In this letter, we will begin to answer the following question: Are there mitzvos which all human beings have a responsibility to fulfill? As we shall discuss, the answer to this question can give us a deeper understanding of the following, universal prophecy:
“For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2L3).
According to the Torah, there are seventy primary nations which are the roots of the diverse national groups and cultures which we have today. This figure is based on the number of the descendants of Noah which are listed in the Book of Genesis, after the story of the great flood. Seventy names are recorded, and at the end of the section it states, “These are the families of Noah’s descendants, according to their generations, by their nations; and from these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32). The Midrash therefore teaches that seventy nations emerged from Noah (Numbers Rabbah 14:12).
As we discussed in a previous letter of this series, our people offered in the Temple seventy offerings during the Festival of Succos on behalf of the 70 nations. The Netziv, a noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator, cites the following tradition about these universal offerings:
During the reign of King Solomon, the sages of the nations of the world recognized the value of these universal offerings, and they therefore came to Jerusalem during the Intermediate Days of the Festival of Succos. Solomon would then proclaim to these sages the words of “Koheles” – the Book of Ecclesiastes. (“He’emek Davar” on Numbers 29:12, in the section, “Herchav Davar”)
In the concluding message of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon states:
“The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Revere God and keep His mitzvos, for this is the whole of the human being.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
The following is another translation of the concluding words of the above verse which is based on the commentary of Rashi:
“The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Revere God and keep His mitzvos, for this is the human being’s whole duty.”
The ancient Aramaic translation and commentary – known as “the Targum” – interprets the concluding words of the above verse in the following manner:
“This is the proper way of all people.”
The Hebrew term for “the human being” in the above verse is, Ha-Adam – a term which also refers to humankind. This may be why the Targum explains that the message to revere God and keep His mitzvos is the proper way for all people. If this concluding message of the Book of Ecclesiastes – “the sum of the matter” – is for all humankind, then we can understand why King Solomon proclaimed the words of this book before the sages of the world’s nations.
In what way, however, are the 70 nations to keep the mitzvos? As we mentioned in the previous letter, the Torah has 613 mitzvos, and the responsibility to fulfill “all” these mitzvos was only given to the Community of Israel. The 70 nations of the world were not given the responsibility to fulfill the 613 mitzvos of the Torah, so why should King Solomon say to the sages of the world’s nations, “Keep His mitzvos”?
The answer to this question can be found in the study of the “Written Torah” – the sacred text of the Divine Teaching, as well as in the study of the “Oral Torah” – the interpretations of the sacred text which were taught to our people by Moshe. For example, within the text of the Book of Genesis we find the story of how God destroyed the earth through a flood because of the sins of humankind. Regarding these sins, the text states:
“And the earth had become corrupt before God; and the earth had become filled with robbery.” (Genesis 6:11 – The translation “robbery” is according to Rashi and most of the commentators.)
The beginning of the verse alludes to other sins by stating that the earth became “corrupt” before God. What is the nature of this corruption? The explanation of this term by the Oral Torah is recorded in the Talmud in the name of a sage from the school of Rabbi Yishmael (Sanhedrin 57a). Through citing various verses, the Talmud points out that the term “corrupt” within the Torah can refer to sexual immorality and/or idolatry. The above verse is therefore revealing that there were three major sins in that era: sexual immorality, idolatry, and robbery. As Rashi explains in his commentary on the Talmud, if they were held accountable by God for these sins, they must have had the responsibility to fulfill mitzvos which required that these sins be avoided.
When, however, God informs the righteous Noah about the approaching destruction, God only mentions the sin of robbery, as it is written:
“God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh comes before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and behold, I am about to destroy them from the earth.’ ”
Why did God only mention the sin of robbery to Noah? According to the Oral Torah, the major sin that finally brought about their destruction was the sin of robbery – a violation of the mitzvah which prohibits stealing. (Sanhedrin 108a – cited in the name of Rabbi Yochanan).
In Part 2 of this letter, we shall begin to discuss additional Torah teachings which reveal that there are various mitzvos which all the people of the earth are to fulfill.
Have a Chodesh Tov – a Good Month,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen