“Beyond the Book of Ruth: The Untold Story”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Beginning this Thursday night, May 16th and continuing through Friday and Shabbat, May 17th and 18th, Jews outside of Israel will celebrate the wonderful festival of Shavuot which marks the giving of the Torah 3,314 years ago at Mount Sinai. In the diaspora, because the second day of Shavuot is Shabbat, the normal Torah portion, Naso, will not be read, and instead appropriate festival readings will be substituted.

On the second day of Shavuot, the Book of Ruth will be chanted. The book tells the beautiful story of how Ruth, the Moabite princess, converts to Judaism and eventually becomes the progenitor of King David. Several reasons are given for the custom of reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, perhaps the primary being that the story of Ruth takes place at the beginning of the “barley harvest,” which coincides with the harvest festival of Shavuot. Also, Shavuot traditionally marks the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of King David as well as his birthday, so the reading of Ruth which tells the origins of King David, is quite timely and appropriate.

In previous years I have discussed some of the fascinating elements of the story of Ruth. I would like to use this opportunity to elaborate on a little-known postscript to the Book of Ruth, based on the works of Eliyahu Kitov, found in his classic work, Sefer Hatoda’ah, The Book of Our Heritage.

Rabbi Kitov was one of the most remarkable scholars of the past century. Although his name is not well known, his works have become quite popular. His felicity with language, his ability to popularize, and his immense scholarship and versatility are quite remarkable, and I urge everyone to obtain and study his writings. In the third volume of The Book of Our Heritage, Kitov expands on the story of Ruth and David, and offers insights that are rather extraordinary.

Fundamental to understanding the Book of Ruth is the verse found in Deuteronomy 23:4, “Lo ya’vo ah’mo’nee oo’mo’ah’vee bik’hal Hashem,” an Ammonite and a Moabite may not enter into the congregation of G-d. This is literally interpreted to mean that a descendant of the Ammonite and Moabite nations may not marry into the Jewish people. If that’s the case, how does Ruth marry the great and pious Boaz?

Apparently there was a long established tradition from Sinai that the prohibited “intermarriage” with Ammonites and Moabites, applied only to men and not to woman. The Torah states that the reason that these nations are excluded from marrying Jews is because they did not greet the Jewish people with bread and water when the Israelites fled from Egypt. The rabbis explain that the modest Moabite and Ammonite women would not have been expected to leave their homes in order to greet the Israelites, and therefore, the prohibition does not apply to women.

With the passing of years, the details of the prohibition had been forgotten and it was generally assumed in Boaz’s times that a Moabite woman, as well, could not marry a Jew. Boaz, however, who served also as the head of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel, knew of the correct ancient tradition and had it confirmed once again in a public court of law. To show how strongly he believed that it was the correct practice, he himself married the Moabite, Ruth. Here’s where the fascinating and challenging story begins again.

According to rabbinic tradition, on the first night of their marriage, Boaz impregnates his wife Ruth, but dies shortly thereafter. Word goes out that Boaz had been punished because he had violated Jewish law by marrying a Moabite woman. Eliyahu Kitov points out that after the birth of Boaz and Ruth’s child, Oved, Ruth’s name no longer appears in the text, and men have absolutely nothing to do with the child. In fact, the Book of Ruth says that the women announce that (Ruth 4:17) “A child has been born to Naomi,” in order to give the child legitimacy.

When Oved grew up and everyone saw him to be righteous, they were encouraged. For had Oved been illegitimate, it would not have been possible for him to be as righteous and as holy as he was. This view was confirmed again when his son Yishai was born. And when Yishai sired his eldest son Eliav, it was now undeniable that there were three righteous generations, and it became clear that the entire house of Yishai was without blemish.

But after giving birth to six sons and two daughters, Yishai started having doubts about his own legitimacy, and separated from his wife, remaining apart from her for many years. And his sons knew.

Eventually Yishai decides to marry one of his Canaanite maidservants. He frees her conditionally and says, “If I am permitted to enter the congregation of G-d, then your liberation is valid, and you will be my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel. But, if I am a Moabite and am prohibited from entering the congregation of G-d, then your liberation is not valid, but as a maidservant, are still permitted to marry me.”

The maidservant saw the anguish of Yishai’s wife, and arranged to do what Rachel had done for her sister Leah. One night, Yishai’s wife came to Yishai in place of the maidservant. Yishai did not know that the women had been switched, and that he had actually slept with his own wife whom he had avoided for years.

Within three months, Yishai noticed that his wife was pregnant, and regarded the child to be conceived by harlotry. Yishai felt terrible anguish, but he would not let his sons harm or shame their mother. Instead he said, “Let her give birth, and do not arouse slander against yourselves. Let the child be abhorred and let him be a servant to you.” Although the brothers kept the newborn child David at a distance, David knew that his brothers’ intentions were noble, and for the sake of Heaven. He felt that his brothers did not abhor him personally, but rather resented sin, or what they thought was sin. However, when the neighbors saw that David was shunned by his brothers, they felt that there must be something terribly wrong with him, and treated David as if he were guilty of some nefarious crime or some dreadful evil.

In order to avoid the pain and resentment, David became a shepherd, and spent most his time in the wilderness where he was free from the hatred of people. There he was able to focus all his attention, his heart and his flesh, on G-d alone. G-d thus became his father, his brother and his friend. David’s response to his loneliness is recorded in Psalms, in which he says (Psalms 119:71), “It is good for me that I was afflicted, in order that I might learn Your (G-d’s) statutes.”

At this point, the prophet Samuel is sent by G-d to anoint one of Yishai’s sons to be the new king, in place of King Saul.

Yishai gathers all his sons, but fails to invite David. The prophet Samuel looks at each of the boys, rejects them, and asks Yishai, (Samuel I,16:11) “Are there no more youths?” Yishai admits that “the little one still remains, and behold he is tending the sheep.” David is brought before Samuel. G-d instructs the prophet to rise and anoint him (Samuel I,16:12) “for this is the one!” The entire family is shocked to see David, whom they considered to be illegitimate, chosen from amongst all the children. While the brothers continue to avoid David, eventually they began to understand that G-d’s salvation of Israel was to come through David, and eventually subjected themselves to his leadership.

Just as David’s birth and childhood were filled with pain, so was his adult life. Although King David emerges as the greatest king of Israel, his life is one of constant pain and travail. He is persecuted by King Saul, and afflicted with great and constant turmoil in his household, conflict and violence abound among his adult children. The Midrash in Yalkut Shim’oni teaches that Torah is acquired only through affliction and suffering. Asks Kitov, “Why do we recall David through the reading in the story of Ruth on Shavuot? To teach that a person can become a tool for the purpose of Heaven on this earth, only through affliction and suffering.”

King David writes in the Hallel psalms (Psalms 113:7): “M’kee’mee may’afar dal, may’ash’pot yar’im ev’yon.” G-d raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to set him with the princes of his people. This verse not only reflects the life of King David, but also the people of David, we, the people of Israel.

We pray that G-d will soon lift up his People Israel from the ash heap of pain, hatred, war and death, and place us among the princes, allowing us to hold our heads up high. As the chapter concludes (Psalms 113:9), “Aim Ha’banim s’maycha,” may the barren woman, and the bereft People Israel, become a “mother of children,” and rejoice with constant and infinite joy. Halleluyah, praise the Lord!

May you be blessed.