Talmud Sanhedrin 58b discusses the prohibition of Noachides (gentiles) observing the Sabbath. This prohibition is derived from God’s words in Genesis, 8:2: “Furthermore, all the days of the land; planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease.” God stated this after Noah exited the ark and sacrificed to God, having been saved from the flood. God then promises not to destroy the earth again with a Flood, and not to suspend the seasons as was effectuated during the Flood. Both promises are praises of man’s potential to recognize God, witnessed in Noah’s sacrifice.
Rashi explains that the words “shall not cease” are not only a reference to the seasons, but also to man: man may not cease from planting and harvesting. Mankind, in Noah’s generation, was exclusively Noachide – Jews did not yet exist. Thus, that decree that man too must not cease from labor, even for a single day, applies today to Noachides. Noachides may not observe the Sabbath or any holiday, as days of rest. Our first question is why this prohibition from a rest day was necessary.
In the Talmud, Ravina comments that the Noachide may not even celebrate Sabbath on a Monday: not only is the Saturday celebration prohibited, but also any day of the week carries the identical prohibition. What is the dispute between these two views?
I believe the idea behind this prohibition is, by definition, related to the plain reading of the verse, “Seasons shall not cease”. Why won’t God suspend the seasons again, as He did during the Flood? The answer is found in Noah’s perfection: via his sacrifice, Noah demonstrated man’s potential to live in accord with God’s plan, and strive to reach God. Since Noah was able to reach such perfection, others too might, and no future catastrophe would be required. Thus, a suspension of the natural laws so as to eradicate life was no longer required, and all seasons will remain eternally. And, as man’s recognition of, and commitment to such a life worth sustaining, he must endorse God’s maintaining of the seasons, by reacting to each season in kind: in summer time, he plants, in fall, he harvests, etc. But he may never rest; as this would be a denial of God’s mercy in promising to never halt nature. We learn that the prohibition on Noachides to rest is meant to force an appreciation in man for God’s oath to never eradicate mankind.
This is Ravina’s view: any day carries a prohibition to rest, since the act of resting – on any day – denies God maintenance of natural law.
However, the Talmud’s view appears to prohibit a Noachide from resting on Sabbath (Saturday) alone. Any other day is then permissible for his rest. How do we understand this view? I believe the reasoning is that a Noachide cannot mimic a Jew, and by resting on Saturday, he blurs the lines between Noachide and Jew, as both now appear identical via their duplicated behaviors. But one moment: what is wrong with acting as a Jew? Is not Judaism God’s will? Cannot a Noachide convert?
The reason Noachides cannot mimic the Jew, is by doing so, mankind will mistake him for a Torah observant individual, and seek to learn Torah from him. However, not commanded in the 613 laws, a Noachide is not necessarily as well versed in Torah, as is a Jew, who does study diligently, so as to perform his greater number of Torah obligations. Therefore, to help all involved, a Noachide may not observe Sabbath completely as does a Jew, thereby, insulating the Torah system, and maintaining the Jew’s identity as distinct, and protecting his exclusive role as a Torah educator. If however any Noachide chooses, he may convert, and observe identically as a Jew, benefiting equally as Jews. Hence, according to this view, a Noachide may establish a rest on any day other than Saturday, as no one will confuse days, and equate a Noachide with the Jew who rests on God’s biblically-originating day of rest.
At this point, one might ask, “Why is this prohibition to rest reserved for Noachides alone: the Jew as well descends from the saved Noah, so he too ought to display thanks to God by working, should he not? Both Jew and gentile today are alive due to God upholding all natural laws. Hence, Jews as well should demonstrate thanks by continued work. Why does the Jew have permission to rest?
The reason the Jew must rest is in order to set himself apart from others, as Maimonides teaches, and attract the necessary attention so mankind might inquire of the nature of his rest. Thereby, the Jew responds, and teaches mankind of the Sabbath, which reflects Creation, and simultaneously, God’s existence as Creator. A follow-up question might be posed: “Why then doesn’t the Jew rest one day, but he must work six days?”
On this question, I wondered why in both of the Torah’s instances of the Ten Commandments, the command of Sabbath includes the words, “Six days you shall work” before stating that on day seven, one must rest. These introductory words seem superfluous. If the command is simply to abstain on the seventh day, why also state that we shall “work six days”? Although I saw one opinion who says that this means “it is permissible, not commanded, to work six days”, I wonder if there is another view who holds that just as the Noachide, a Jew “must” also work, albeit one day less, an albeit without punishment of he does rest. I could not find a source sharing this view.
This fact, that Jews have no command to work six days as a Noachide must work seven, led me to think that perhaps the Noachide alone must continually work, since his system is one of minimal laws, which earn him his right to life. If he cannot observe these seven, basic Noachide laws that protect society, then he forfeits his life. His system, as a Rabbi explained, is not a system of “perfection”. In contrast, the 613 commands is a system of utmost perfection, wherein over involvement in the physical (constant work) is antithetical to perfection, which is more intellectual and spiritual. The Jew’s role is to be an educator of the world. His energies are to be bound up with continued Torah study, working minimally to sustain himself. Pirkei Avos says, “Minimize your work, and indulge in Torah”. Also, “Make your Torah study primary, and your work peripheral.”
Before Moses and the Torah, there were no Jews: Abraham, the Patriarchs, the Twelve tribes and all mankind were bound to work seven days as this portion of Talmud teaches. This clarifies the statements in Midrash and Rashi which state that “Abraham observed Passover”, or someone else “observed the Torah”…before it was given. In fact, Abraham could not observe Passover before the Exodus took place. It is impossible historically, and from a religious standpoint. What this means, is that Abraham possessed the perfections that Passover offers man. He arrived at the perfections of Passover on his own “as if” he observed it. (Rabbi Reuven Mann)
In conclusion, I will leave you with one question: if Noachides are commanded to work all seven days, why is this law not an “eighth” Noachide command? See the Talmudic source we opened with to locate the answer.