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Weekly Parsha Questions

The Connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuos

Yechiel Shaffer

based on the teachings of Rabbi Dr M.Z. Gruzman – Bar Ilan University, Israel

There are many reasons given for the reading of the Book of Ruth on the festval of Shavuos. We will attempt to present a few suggestions here while creating new meaning within the

  Sefer Abudirham   Click on the image above for more info on Rabbi David Abudirham

Sefer Abudirham
Click on the image above for more info on Rabbi David Abudirham

The insightful Rabbi David Abudirham suggests that the connection between Shavuos and the Book of Ruth is the centrality of the harvest season. There are quite a few proofs to this suggestion:

1) The most obvious proof to this opinion is that Shavuos is frequently referred to asChag Hakatzir – the harvest festival.

2) The timing of the story of Ruth happens between the barley harvest (connected to the Omer sacrifice) (Ruth 1:22) and the wheat harvest (Ruth 2:23).

3) There are numerous mention of ‘harvesters’ within the story (Chapter 2).

4) The main interaction between Ruth and Boaz takes place in a granary (Chapter 3).

The harvest theme is common throughout the book of Ruth and makes it a very logical story for the holiday of Shavuos.

The Abudirham suggests another connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuos. The story of Ruth focuses on her conversion and acceptance amongst the Jewish nation. This is linked to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai which we commemorate on Shavuos. When the Jews received the Torah, preparations were made which included immersion in the mikveh/ritual bath (Shemos 19:10) and sprinkling of blood towards the nation (Shemos 24:8). The Talmud (Yevamot46b) establishes that there is no sprinkling of blood without a prior tevila (immersion) in the mikveh. In order to commemorate the ‘festival of conversion’, no other book was more fitting to be read on Shavuos than the Book of Ruth with its subtle themes of conversion as recorded by the actions of Ruth.

Another reason for the reading of the Book of Ruth is its focus onchessed/kindness which is evident throughout this story. Ruth shows kindness to Naomi, Boaz is kind to Ruth, Boaz is kind to Naomi etc. This theme is the underpinning of the entire book.

In Chapter 8 of the Book of Shoftim, the Jews are accused of not doing chessed with Gidon’s family after he died. We can suggest that the Book of Ruth is the antidote to this terrible indictment and we learn about chessed from a convert who is sincere in all her actions (to listen to a lecture on Chapter 8 of Shoftim click here). Ruth becomes the tikkun/repair for the society of that time. This value is intrinsic to Shavuos, celebrating the receiving of the Torah. Our Rabbis describe the Torah as being book-ended with acts of great chessed both at the beginning with the creation and at the conclusion with the burial of Moshe and the subsequent communal mourning. This makes the story of Ruth completely relevant to the festival celebrating the giving of Torah which extols the virtues of chessed to the whole world. In Ruth Rabba Chapter2, Rabbi Zeirah comments that “this book has no laws of ritual purity or impurity,and no laws of ‘issur veheter’(such as kashrut questions) and the only reason it was written is to teach us the great reward for those who perform acts of chessed.’

This brings us to another theme found in the book of Ruth that is in great contrast with our prior message, the idea of of yisurim/suffering.

Our Rabbis tell us that Torah knowledge is acquired only through hardships. In Pirkei Avot there are 48 attributes required for the ‘acquisition’ of Torah and the “method to Torah knowledge is by consuming only bread and water and sleeping on the ground” (Avot 6:4). Ruth represents an ideal person who wished to acquire a Torah oriented life-style and the hardships she endures to become Jewish and lead a life of a Torah Jew are quite remarkable. The Yalkut Shimoni(Ruth, Remez 596) states that the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuos to remind us that Torah can only be acquired by leading a life which includes suffering and sacrifice for the sake of Torah. This ideal is very foreign to the comforts of our modern society and we have carefully to consider the impact of Yisurim within our lives today.

The Book of Ruth offers us another lesson that deeply resonates at the time of Shavuos. The Book of Ruth can leave an appreciated of the importance of Torah Shebal Peh (Oral Law) in the transmission of Torah to the Jewish people. Ruth can only become the ‘mother of royalty’ because of the allowance to admit her into the Jewish people in a decision found within the Oral Law. In Talmud Bavli Yevamot (76b) there is a lengthy discussion in which King David’s eligibility to the monarchy is questioned by Doeg. He argues that King David should not even be considered Jewish due to ancestry containing Ruth. Amasa responds with vigor and declares the tradition of accepting female Moabite converts (see: Chidushei Hagriz-R. Velvel Soloveichik on this  topic who illustrates that this law is actually Halacha leMoshe Misinai (a rule taught to Moshe at Mt. Sinai). The Oral law is both paramount in the Megilla and in the transmission of Torah and the link is indicated by reading this story on the festival when the Torah is received.

Another connection between Shavuos and Ruth is in the beautiful conclusion of the Megilla which lists the lineage of King David. Traditionally (Talmud Yerushalmi Chagiga 2:3) we believe that David was born and died on Shavuos, so the story of his yichus/lineage is appropriate to be read on his Yahrzeit which occurs on this holiday.

When examining all the above suggestions one can comment that these reasons each touch on one aspect of the Book of Ruth and link the festival to that topic; one may even suggest that these ideas are afterthoughts and conveniently explain the reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuos. However it does not seem like there is a suggestion that highlights the essence of the story in a more fundamental way, than with the idea of chessed, which is seen within the book in the specific places as explained above. Can we find a link to the essence of the Book of Ruth and find the link to Shavuos to warrant the reading of this beautiful story at this time?

Rabbi Gruzman makes his own suggestion for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuos. If we have so many commemorations of the Exodus from Egypt, why do we not celebrate also the entry into the land of Israel through a festival during the year? This question is perhaps obvious but not asked by many.

Rabbi Gruzman answers by illustrating that Shavuos is also called Chag Habikkurim - festival of First Fruits. This is the moment when we thank God for the harvest of fruits, especially those of the land of Israel (Mishna Bikkurim 1:3).When the Bikkurim are brought to the Temple in Jerusalem a declaration (Devarim Chapter 26) is recited where we invoke the Egyptian exile and our journey into the land of Israel.Bikkurim become our way of celebrating this entry into our Holy Land and Shavuos becomes the commemoration of this major event in our history.

We can now suggest that the Book of Ruth mirros the Jewish journey of exile and redemption. The exile is portrayed in all its difficulties, as a place of hardship and spiritual decline in the following ways:

1) The greatest Jew of his generation goes to exile in Moav and his family is almost entirely lost.

2) His sons marry Moabite women and die young.

3) Even though the return to Israel for Ruth and Naomi is fraught with problems, they overcome these profound challenges.

4) Ruth and Naomi become role models for the process of klita/absorption, which we can proudly say in our day has been experienced by millions of Jews from across the globe.

5) The Book of Ruth also celebrates the Land of Israel from start to finish, especially in contrasting the fate of the Jews of exile and the rebirth that is experienced by living in the land.

This is the essence of the story of Ruth and all the other above suggestions as to why we read it on Shavuos (e.g. increased chessed, awareness of Oral law, Kingship of David) come as a result of the return to the Land of Israel. This becomes our motivation for reading this story on Chag Habikkurim. We demonstrate our love and appreciation for the Land of Israel and the Torah which thrives there.

The Book of Ruth contains story specific messages (the basic story and its outcome, a ‘snapshot’ of the times) and a more global message (the Messianic process and its continuation for the benefit of the whole world). The Torah can be seen in a similar light. The ‘small picture’ is in terms of our unique, personal relationships with God, His Torah and how it impacts every aspect of our lives as Jews. The ‘big picture’ is appreciating that the Torah impacts humanity. At Mt. Sinai a code of morality was given to the entire world. There is no better time to reflect on these ideas than on Shavuos, by reading a sefer in which the same dichotomy exists.

Let us hope that when we read the Book of Ruth again some of these ideas will inspire us to feel closer to the text, closer to the Torah and the Land of Israel and ultimately to the Creator of the World.