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Rabbi Michael Katz 

I have been asked on what basis we can derive laws from the conversations of people, both Jews and non-Jews, in the Bible.  I felt that it would be appropriate in this regard to make some salient points that will help B’nai No’ach understand the methodology of the Jewish  system of hermeneutics [interpretation].

It is an uncontested principle of Biblical interpretation that there are no superfluous words in the Torah.  Every single word in the Torah is as important and as holy as any other.  Although we do not readily understand why the Torah devotes much space to subjects such as the genealogy of Esau (Genesis 36) we accept that there is a good reason for it.  It might seem unnecessary for the Torah to repeat Eliezer’s words to Rebecca’s family (Genesis 24), but we understand that we must look for a justification rather than use such verbosity as an excuse to claim that the Torah was written by man.

In Genesis 7:8 God instructs Noah to take of the clean animal and of the animal that is not clean.  Of course, it would have been simpler to say “unclean” instead of “that is not clean” and the Talmud explains a reason for the use of seemingly superfluous words [we should always try to avoid coarse, impure speech].

Whenever a superfluous word is found it is pounced upon as a source of law and teaching.  For example, Numbers 20:1 “…Miriam died there and she was buried there.”  The verse could have been written, “Miriam died and was buried there.”  The repetition of the word “there” teaches us a law [which could be the subject of an article in itself].

Of all the words exchanged by Jews and non-Jews in the Torah, very few are chosen to be quoted.  These quoted snippets of conversation are not chosen capriciously but are the source for the unearthing of truth in thought and in deed.  Whenever the deeds or words of non-Jews are recorded in the Torah we must ask why these specific deeds or words were recorded.  What do we learn from them, especially in terms of B’nai No’ach who look for guidance from the actions of their ancestors as recorded in our history?

Genesis 34:12 quotes Shechem attempting to forge a treaty with the family of Dinah whom he had raped but wanted to marry: “Inflate exceedingly upon me the dowry…”  It is from this simple statement that Rav Shmuel ben Chofni HaGaon ruled that B’nai No’ach are obligated to provide their daughters with dowries.  Otherwise, he reasons, why would the Torah choose these specific words out of all that Shechem said, to record for all eternity.

It is based on this line of reasoning that I came to the conclusion that I shared with B’nai No’ach recently:

In fact, the Talmud (Berachos 54a) reveals an astonishing piece of information.  The Mishna had stated that we are obliged to say a blessing of gratitude to God when passing by a place where a miracle had taken place for the Children of Israel.  Rabbi Yochanan gives as the source for this law Exodus 18:10.  Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses and a non-Jew at this time, blesses God for the miracles He performed to save Israel from Egypt.  If this was a voluntary blessing, there would be no proof that such a blessing is required.  Rabbi Yochanan must understand that Yitro was obligated to make this blessing, and he proves from this action on the part of a non-Jew that Jews must also make such blessings."

When Yitro [Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses] arrived at Sinai to reunite the family of Moses, we can be certain that many words were exchanged.  Exodus 18:10 quotes a blessing that Yitro made upon witnessing the survivors of the Egyptian slavery.  Rabbi Yochanan (Babylonian Talmud 54a) uses this blessing made by Yitro as a source for requiring Jews to bless God when witnessing a place at which a miracle had occurred in the past to save Israel from her enemies.

The Talmud could have rejected Rabbi Yochanan’s proof by saying that Yitro was motivated because of his familial connection to the Jews, or for some other reason that would consider his blessing as a voluntary one, not binding on anyone else, but it did not.  It allowed Rabbi Yochanan’s proof to stand.  To me this is an indication that Yitro was bound to say his words of blessing and that is why Rabbi Yochanan could use it as a prooftext for the obligation to make this blessing.

This is why I felt that Yitro’s blessing was a prototype that indicated that blessings are incumbent upon non-Jews as well as Jews.

Why hasn’t anyone else made this point?  This is the problem we face with the development of a resource for laws in a very poorly researched area.  The dots have always been there but no one was motivated to connect them.

Rabbi Shmuel ben Chofni HaGaon, whom I quoted earlier, teaches that Noahide laws have four sources in the Torah.  1. Those that are clearly commanded. 2. Those that are logical. 3. Those that are understood since someone in the Torah was punished and God would not punish someone for an action that was not forbidden to him. 4. Those that are understood from behavior that is recorded in the Torah.

As rabbis look at the narrative portions of the Torah with the mission of finding relevance to B’nai No’ach, more of these dots will become connected.



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