Gentiles and Torah Study:

Maimonides’ Subtle Lesson


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: I read your posts on gentiles studying Torah. I disagree [that Noachides are prohibited].

Everything I have read regarding restrictions on Torah study only applies to “idolaters”...not Noachides. The Talmud and Rambam refer to Star Worshippers (Ovade Kochavim). I know that this term was a result of the Christian censors, however, I also know that in the Temani manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah the term is “AKuM” (Star Worshipper). These manuscripts are free of the many errors of the Vilna edition. The Rambam makes a point to distinguish between a “Noachide” and an “idolater”. See his Laws of Sabbath 29:25, and Laws of Blessings 9:9 (7), Laws of Forbidden Foods 11:5 (8 in Vilna versions), and Laws of Forbidden Foods 11:2 (4). It is in Laws of Forbidden Foods 11:8 that the Rambam takes special pains to point out that unless he clarifies the term Star Worshipper it is used to refer to an idolater: “And every place that says ‘Star Worshipper’ unqualified, behold, this is a servant of idolatry.”

As far as I can tell this is very clear. Please correct me if I am wrong, but please quote sources so that I can study the issue, and so I can tell others the correct teaching. Thank you for your time.



A Noachide



Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You quote Maimonides Laws of Forbidden Foods 11:8: “And every place that says ‘Star Worshipper’ unqualified, behold, this is a servant of idolatry.” Your intent was to suggest that Maimonides maintains there exists two distinct individuals: a Star Worshipper, and a Noachide. From that first step, you wished to deduce that since Maimonides says (in Laws of Kings) that only a “Star Worshiper” is prohibited in Torah study, this is limited to a Star Worshipper, and thereby permits a Noachide to study. But you did not read the opening words of that law (Forbidden Foods 11:8) where Maimonides makes clear that his definitions are for “that” section of Laws of Forbidden Foods alone. Therefore, you cannot transpose his use of terminology onto other areas, since he openly limits his terms to that section.

Furthermore, if your position is correct that the prohibition of Torah study applies exclusively to idolaters, and not to Noachides, why do we find no laws concerning “Noachide” Torah study? The answer is because the prohibition of Torah study applied to “idolaters” in fact refers to ALL non-Jews, Noachides included. (I explained before that the reason behind this law is to maintain the Jew as the sole authority of Torah. Since the Jew alone is required to practice all of Torah, he is best suited to teach it, as his obligatory practice enforces greater attention to the Torah’s demands. This is not a racist law, but a practical law, which aims at insuring Torah for all people)

Now, a proof for my argument is derived from Talmud Sanhedrin 59a. It states there that an idolater who studies Torah is culpable of death. But that very Talmudic portion then asks, “Why is this prohibition not an eighth ‘Noachide’ law?”  Consider carefully: this Talmudic question cannot be asked, if this portion were not including Noachides in the general term “Star Worshipper”. The Talmud is clearly referring to all Gentiles including Noachides, with its general reference of  “idolater”.

The Talmud continues, “A Star Worshipper who studies Torah is akin to a Jewish High Priest; but this is no contradiction to the former threat of death for his Torah study: this latter praise applies to his study of his 7 Noachide laws.” Thus, the Talmud first condemns the Star Worshipper for Torah study, and then praises him for Torah study. The apparent contradiction is removed: the condemnation applies to one who studies more than his 7 Noachide Laws, and the praise applies to one who studies only his 7 laws. We thereby prove that the Talmud’s use of Star Worshipper is synonymous with Noachide, in this case.

In other areas you mentioned such as Laws of Forbidden Foods, Maimonides uses the terms Star Worshipper and Noachide differently, referring to two exclusive individuals. However, in his Laws of Kings he uses these two terms as referring to one single person; not separate individuals, but two “statuses” within that person! I will explain.


Regarding a Jew benefiting from idolatrous wine outlined in Laws of Forbidden Foods, there is a difference between a Star Worshipper’s wine, and the wine belonging to a Noachide. The Star Worshipper’s wine has greater prohibitions, understandably. Here, Star Worshipper and Noachide refer to two distinct people.


This distinction, you have carried over to all areas, but in error. You feel that the Talmud and Maimonides’ prohibition on Torah study is on Star Worshipers “alone”. I have disproved your position from Maimonides’ opening statement in Forbidden Foods 11:8, and from Talmud Sanhedrin…but there is more to learn here.


While researching your question, I realized an in interesting pattern in Maimonides’ classification. In his Laws of Kings (Chap. 10) Maimonides switches off between referring to a “Noachide” and a “Star Worshipper”. In that section when discussing any of the 7 Noachide Laws, he refers to the Gentile as “Noachide”. And when he discusses laws pertaining to anything other than the Noachide Laws, he uses the term “Star Worshipper”. On the surface, this might seem to support your theory, but I believe he switches his term for another lesson, which is quite insightful, and novel.

The 7 Noachide Laws include murder, stealing, cursing God, and others. When Maimonides outlined these 7 laws, he refers to the Gentile as “Noachide.” But there exists other laws for every Gentile.

A Gentile cannot study most Torah sections, he cannot observe the Sabbath, and he cannot smite a Jew. When Maimonides discusses these laws, which are not subsumed under the 7 Noachide Laws, but are equally binding, Maimonides refers to the Gentile as a “Star Worshipper”. The question is why Maimonides switches his term? Why is he not consistent in his terminology? The fact that he is referring to the same individual is proved from Laws of Kings 10:9: “A Star Worshipper who is engaged in Torah study is culpable of death, and he should only engage in his 7 Laws.”  The words “his 7 laws” proves that in this section, unlike his Laws of Forbidden Foods, Maimonides refers to “one” person as both a Noachide, and a Star Worshipper. He is intent on distinguishing roles within one person.

The reason for this distinction I believe is as follows. Maimonides intends to educate the reader as to what “status” in Gentiles generates certain laws. In as much as one desires a right-to-life, he must observe a minimal set of laws, 7 Noachide Laws. If any one of these laws of broken, the person is punished with death. Even if this Gentile steals a penny, he is killed, whereas a Jew would not be. Why is this so? What is the justice? The reasoning is as we said; these 7 laws are a minimal system, which earns the observer a right to continued existence. If one cannot observe at a minimum, these 7 laws, then he has fallen below the threshold of God’s minimum standard of human life. He must be killed. But if a Jew stole a penny, he has not fallen below the threshold, since he has 612 others to keep him inline. God would be as lenient with this Gentile, if he chose to observe the 613 Commandments. God is equally just to all humans. This explains why Maimonides uses the term Noachide when addressing the 7 laws, since it is with these 7 that a Gentile earns his right-to-life; exactly what the Noachide Laws target.

But when discussing the Gentile’s prohibition of observing the Sabbath, Torah study and smiting the Jew, Maimonides switches his term to “Star Worshipper”. Why is that?

The reasoning is that here, Maimonides is no longer addressing laws regulating a Gentiles “right-to-life”, but other laws; laws that “obscure the boundary of Jew and non-Jew”. If a Gentile observes Sabbath, and studies Torah, he in fact renders himself to an onlooker ostensibly as a Jew: he acts like a Jew resting on the seventh day, and he partakes of the Jew’s unique role as Torah educator with his study of more than his 7 Noachide Laws. This is not a lack in fulfilling his Noachide role, since the Gentile is in fact doing ‘more’ with these two commands. No…the violation committed here with Sabbath observance and Torah study is regarding his role as Star Worshipper. His status as Noachide does not enter the picture, but the other status does: i.e., his status of “non-Jew”, or “Star Worshiper”, which was the original classification that offset the first Jew who was monotheistic.


Maimonides is exact. He uses the term Star Worshipper when addressing a Gentile’s violation in Sabbath observance and Torah study, since with these infractions, the Gentile is not failing in his “Noachide” role, but in his “Star Worshipper” role…a role which is diametrically opposite to the role of Jew. Just as a Star Worshipper opposes monotheism, so too, a Gentile who wishes to dilute the uniqueness of the Jew by copying his Sabbath ad Torah, equally destroys the Jew’s role, and monotheism. Similarly, Maimonides uses the term Star Worshipper when addressing the laws about a Gentile smiting a Jew, for the same reason.

The Jewish “ideology” must be preserved by the Gentile’s refrain from mimicking our primary commands of Sabbath, and Torah study. And the Jewish “body” is preserved by the Gentiles’ refrain from physically assaulting a Jew. And when a Gentile does not take care to preserve the Jew, that Gentile is failing due to his attachment to a “Star Worshipper” inclination. Appropriately, Maimonides calls that person a Star Worshipper, since these three laws address the preservation of the Jew so as to help the world oppose polytheism. Maimonides’ intent is to underscore the capacity in the Gentile that generates this violation. The Gentile who observes Sabbath destroys the Jew by obscuring the Jew’s role. Since this Gentile is not abandoning any of his 7 Noachide Laws, his violation is not in terms of his right-to-life “Noachide” status. Therefore, Maimonides does not address him as a Noachide. That status plays no role.

But when a Gentile fails to uphold all 7 Noachide laws, Maimonides now refers to him as a Noachide, that is, one who should have observed these 7 laws at a minimum. Here, he fails to uphold such a minimal system; he is referred to as a “Noachide who failed.” Failing to observe the law of stealing for example is not due to Star Worship tendencies, but to a Noachide right-to-life issue.


We now realize that Maimonides, in one section, will use the terms Star Worshipper and Noachide as referring to two individuals; and in Laws of Kings, he uses the same terms to refer to two statuses in a “single” person. This explains why there is no discussion about a Noachide studying Torah, since he is the identical person described in the prohibition of Torah study by “Star Worshippers”. Maimonides and the Talmud refer to a Gentile with a few references, thereby teaching the additional insight that certain sins are blameful due to certain roles for which we shirk responsibility. 

When a teen fails to accurately compute geometry basics, we blame him for being a poor “student”, since it is his studies that we address. And when the same person does not visit his father who is sick in bed, the parent would be incorrect to say, “What a poor student you are”.  For in this capacity, the blame addresses his role as a “child”. The appropriate blame would be “you are not a good son”.

So too here, Maimonides teaches us by changing a reference to the same Gentile, indicating his “capacity” or status that is to blame for his infraction.