Why Do We Read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot?

Among the observances of Shavu‘oth — the third of the three rëgalim, the Jewish holidays that require pilgrimage to Jerusalem when there is a Temple — is the custom of reading the Book of Ruth.

The ancient custom of reading Ruth on Shavu‘oth goes back to Talmudic times (cf. Sofrëim XIV, 18), at least 1500 years. Ruth was a Moabite princess so utterly devoted to her Jewish mother-in-law Na‘omi that when the latter became destitute upon the deaths of her husband and sons, Ruth forsook everything to follow her home into desperate poverty and an uncertain future in a foreign country. Ruth’s sterling character and selfless devotion to Na‘omi were rewarded when she married Bo‘az, the leader of his generation, and thereby became King David’s great-grandmother.

It is a wonderful story, inspiring, uplifting, and insightful, spotlighting not only Ruth’s kindnesses but also those of the Jewish people towards the stranger in their midst. But what has the story to do with Shavu‘oth?

The great medieval Sephardic commentator on the siddur (the Jewish prayerbook), A Vudarham, finds one connection in Shavuoth’s alter ego, the Chag haBikkurim. Shavu‘oth (literally “Weeks”) is so called because it occurs at the culmination of our counting the seven “weeks” (49 days) of the ‘Omer, beginning on the second day of Passover. On that day, the first of the barley crop (the ‘Omer) would be brought by the farmers of Israel to the Holy Temple. Seven weeks later, on the 50th day, the bikkurim (“first fruits”) of the new wheat harvest would likewise be brought there (Leviticus XXIII, 15ff.; Deuteronomy XVI, 9-12).

Careful reading reveals that most of the story of Ruth occurs between the beginning of the barley harvest (I, 22) and the wheat harvest (II, 23), thus encompassing the entire period under discussion. Shavu‘oth is therefore the story’s anniversary.

Yet another anniversary underlies another connection between Ruth and our holiday. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Chagiga II, 3) tells us that Shavu‘oth is both King David’s birthday and Jahrzeit (the anniversary of his death). How appropriate, then, to read the account of David’s descent, laid out at the end of Ruth, his ancestress, on Shavu‘oth.

However, the greatest and most profound relationship between Ruth and Shavu‘oth lies in the holiday’s primary guise: the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai.

Ruth is in many ways the archetypical Jewish convert, and many of the laws concerning conversion are in fact derived from this account (cf. Béyth Yoséf to Tur Yore Dé‘a 268 for the Talmudic sources). The story of her wholehearted acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven is, in a sense, the story of Israel, for at that assembly at the foot of Sinai we were all “converts” to G-d’s service. The great eighteenth-century Torah giant, the Ga’on of Vilna, finds an allusion to this in Ruth’s very name. The gimatriya (“numerical value”) of the three Hebrew letters that make up Ruth is 606; if we add to that the seven mitzvoth which, in common with all the nations of the world, were already incumbent upon her, we arrive at 613, the total number of mitzvoth in the Torah. She was thus destined for greatness from birth.

There is one more point, more subtle still. The story of Ruth demonstrates the necessary and early existence of the Oral Torah and that category of laws which the written Torah calls mishpatim, “judgments,” because they require the application of rabbinic judgment.

The alert reader will recall that Ruth was a Moabite princess, and in Deuteronomy XXIII, 4 the Torah makes the stark pronouncement: Lo’ yavo’ ‘Ammoni uMo’avi biqhal Ha-Shem (“An Ammonite or Moabite may not enter the community of Ha-Shem”). They are forbidden “forever” (ibid.) from converting to Judaism. At the beginning of the last chapter of Ruth we find ourselves present at the deliberation of the Bethlehem rabbinical court where, the Talmud tells us, precisely this question was one of the topics of discussion. How could any Jew marry the hapless foreigner if she was indeed a Moabite? Was it not forbidden in the Torah?

The answer arrived at by the court and enshrined in the Oral Torah was that she was not forbidden: Mo’avi, reads the verse in Deuteronomy, vëlo Mo’avith; only male Moabites were intended in the prohibition, not females (cf. Këthubboth 7b).

Connected by bikkurim, family ties, and the Torah, written and oral; how could we not read Ruth on Shavu‘oth?