The Torah of Ruth

Why is the Book of Ruth read on Shavuot? It seems like a simple question. A megillah is read on each one of the three pilgrimage festivals, yet simple questions rarely have simple answers.

One possible explanation is that Ruth is read on Shavuot because the narrative takes place during the time of year when Shavuot falls. The book opens after famine has struck causing Elimelech and his wife Naomi to leave the land with their two sons and move to the fields of Moav where food is plentiful. Their sons later marry Moabite women, but die suddenly along with their father. Rather than be alone, Naomi decides that she must return to Israel, and her daughter in law Ruth declares that she will join her. They arrive in Israel with almost nothing. Naomi is without a husband, and Ruth is a stranger in a stranger land. Their only hope is for Ruth to glean from the fields and collect the leftovers that remain as charity for the poor. They arrive in the spring at the beginning of the barley harvest and the narrative continues through the wheat harvest.[1] The holiday of Pesach, of course, commences the start of the barley harvest and seven weeks later Shavuot begins the wheat harvest. This explanation, though, feels tenuous at best. The holiday of Shavuot is all about experiencing Divine revelation, receiving the Torah, and hearing God’s commandments, whereas in the book of Ruth, God is not an active presence and the main characters spend most of their time working in the fields as opposed to studying Torah.

A second possible explanation connects us more with the Mount Sinai experience. A major theme of the book is Ruth’s conversion to Judaism. She makes the dramatic decision to leave behind all that she knows in order to cast her lot with the Jewish people. Despite Naomi’s repeated attempts to turn her away, Ruth will not be dissuaded. She proudly declares, “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay I will stay. Your people are my people and your God is my God.”[2] This line encapsulates Ruth’s willingness to join fully and wholeheartedly with the Jewish people. While rarely conceived of in this fashion, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was also a moment of conversion. However, instead of individual conversion it represented the mass conversion of the Jewish people as a whole. Before giving of the Torah, they are nothing more than an assortment of families who share a common history. Only afterwards will they be transformed into a new collective religious and national identity. For the rabbis of the Talmud, Mount Sinai becomes the model for all future conversions. Just as the Jewish people entered into the covenant at Mount Sinai through circumcision, ritual immersion, and the offering of a sacrifice, so too all future converts must do the same.[3] Though this approach comes nearer to the deeper meaning of the holiday, it still fails to capture Shavuot’s central theme: the receiving of the Torah.

It is Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter (1847-1905), better known by the name of his classic Chassidic work the Sefat Emet, who offers the most compelling answer. He notes that the book of Ruth does speak about the Torah but it is not the written Torah. It is the oral Torah.[4] Both Torahs were given at Mount Sinai. The written Torah outlines the covenant between God and the Jewish people, however no written document is ever complete and must always be complemented by ongoing interpretation, as beautifully described by former British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jacobovits:

The relations between the Oral and Written Laws may be compared to that between the hard soil of mother earth and the lush vegetation growing from it. The one is rigid and static, in itself lifeless and unchanging; the other is flexible and dynamic, ever fresh and rejuvenated. The Oral Law exemplifies the covenant with Israel for the very reason that it is in a state of constant renewal.[5]

The Oral Torah is just as essential as the Written Torah. It is the bridge that enables the written word of God to enter into the lives of the Jewish people, and in doing so, it transforms the written Torah into a living Torah for every generation. According to the Sefat Emet, the Jewish people must recognize that the Oral Torah is not only a collection or spoken teachings or interpretative traditions. Rather, it is embedded in the actions, behaviors, and customs of the Jewish people. This can be seen in the characters of Ruth and Boaz. Each one demonstrates deep truths that could not have been discerned from a series of commandments or laws. Ruth and Boaz both embody a Torah of chesed, loving kindness. Ruth abandons all that she knows to accompany her mother in law and Boaz is willing to look beyond Ruth’s Moabite background and embraces her as one of his own. True chesed requires tremendous sacrifice. It means transcending our own selfish needs in order put others first. If we did not have Ruth and Boaz as  role models, we might not believe that such sacrifices are possible. Learning about chesed from the actions of others is an incredibly important part of the Oral Torah.

The Sefat Emet further explains that our actions embody the Oral Torah because the Torah is integral to the very being of the Jewish people.[6] The Written Torah may have descended from the heavens, but the Oral Torah ultimately emerges from the souls of the Jewish people.[7] This is acknowledged in the blessing recited after every aliyah: “Blessed are you God, King of the Universe who gave us a Torah of truth and implanted within us eternal life.” The Oral Torah was placed deep within the Jewish people’s collective soul and whether we are aware of it or not, all that we do is in dialogue with the Divine word.

Perhaps the most significant example of Oral Torah that we experience in our lives comes from our parents. They taught us fundamental truths that could not be conveyed through the written word. They taught us how to love, how to care for others, how to be a parent, and how to be a friend, often in moments when they weren’t even aware that we were watching. Sometimes they even taught us what not to do through their mistakes and failings. The Israel poet Pinchas Sadeh captures the experience of Oral Torah in a beautiful essay titled eineha – her eyes. The title is a reference to his mother’s eyes. He writes:

When I think about prayer, I think of my mother’s eyes. She had bright blue eyes, with a color like the sea.  On Friday nights, when she would remove her hands from covering her eyes after she recited the blessing for the candles, there remained a few tears in the corners of her eyes.  This is what I saw when I was a child, and this is what I again saw when, over time, I became distant from her and came to see her every now and again.  These tears in her eyes are the only understanding I have of prayer.[8]

Learning the meaning of prayer from the tears a mother’s eyes is the very definition of Oral Torah, a Torah that can only be fully appreciated by reading the book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot.

[1] See Ruth, 1:22, 2:23.

[2] Ruth 1:16.

[3] Keritut 9a and also see Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s discussion of this his essay Kol Dodi Dofek.

[4] Sefat Emet, Shavuot, 5633.

[5] See Rabbi Immanuel Jacobovits’ forward to “The Oral Law”

[6] Sefat Emet, Shavuot, 5632.

[7] This idea is also expressed by Rav Kook in Orot HaTorah, Chapter 1.

[8] Aneini, Pinchas Sadeh, p. 226.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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