Why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot


Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Mia Amran, Special To The Jewish Light

The Book of Ruth, read on the festival of Shavuot, documents the story of a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her journey of faith and devotion. The book is set during the time of the Shoftim (judges), a period of instability and moral decline in ancient Israel.

The story begins with Naomi, an Israelite woman, and her husband Elimelech leaving their home in Bethlehem due to famine, and settling in the land of Moab. There, their two sons, Machlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. However, tragedy strikes when Elimelech and both of his sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and find new husbands.

Orpah agrees, but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, asserting her loyalty by famously declaring, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your G-d, my G-d.”

Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, Ruth goes to work in a field to provide for Naomi and herself. There, she catches the eye of Boaz, the wealthy landowner and Israelite, and Boaz shows kindness to Ruth, providing her with extra food and protection. Naomi recognizes the spark between Ruth and Boaz, and encourages Ruth to make her intentions known to him. Following Naomi’s advice, Ruth approaches Boaz and sets a feminist precedent by proposing marriage to him! Boaz agrees to marry her and look after both Ruth and Naomi, and a little while later the couple gives birth to a son named Oved, who unbeknownst to them will become the grandfather of King David.

The Book of Ruth is a beautiful and inspiring story of loyalty, faith, and the strength of women. It teaches us about the power of redemption and kindness, and how even in the darkest of times, G-d’s plan can unfold in ways we could never have imagined. That being said, it is incredibly unclear why this story is read on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot is a festive Jewish holiday that occurs 50 days after Pesach (Passover). It is a dual celebration to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and also the spring harvest season in Israel. This gives way to a number of traditions: participating in all-night Torah study sessions to mark the giving of the Torah, eating dairy foods like the ancient Israelites did in the desert in the days leading up to the giving of the Torah, feasting on seasonal and exotic fruits to mark the annual yield, and decorating synagogues with flowers to symbolize the harvest. In synagogue, processions take place as community members dance and sing while parading with their Torah scrolls, while children brandish fruits on sticks and eat sweets. As Jews mark the giving of the Torah and the end of the harvest season, these traditions make sense and fit in perfectly with the symbolism of the day.

What doesn’t make sense is how the Book of Ruth relates to this festival at all! But as it happens, the answer lies just beneath the surface.

One simple link between the festival of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth is that the story actually takes place around the time of Shavuot. We learn that – out of desperation – Naomi traveled to Bethlehem on Pesach despite the prohibition of traveling during the festival, and from this we can calculate that her reunion with Boaz took place on or around the time of Shavuot. This is further backed up by the fact that when Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem, they work in the field harvesting grain. This points us to the fact that the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season. Shavuot celebrates the end of the wheat and barley harvest (the bikkurim), so this holiday is an appropriate time to read from a story that took place on Shavuot, centuries ago.

In the Torah portion of Vayikra (23:16-21) the verses deal with the laws of harvest, and explain that one corner of every field should not be gathered, so that the needy may take from those crops. Because the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season, Boaz was actively practicing this Jewish law, and the Book of Ruth actually recalls his performance of the mitzvah as he leaves a corner of his field for the needy women, Naomi and Ruth, as well as instructing the other workers to treat these poor women kindly. Thus, during the harvest season of Shavuot, we read this story to be reminded of this charitable act that must be completed while gathering crops.

Another possible connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot is that both have central themes of kindness. The purpose of the Torah is to guide Jews to become better people and through the Book of Ruth we are introduced to two role models: Naomi, who is compassionate, charitable and brave, and Ruth, who is loyal and a woman of faith. Therefore, reading a story which helps Jews hone these skills on the very day that the Torah was given is suitably apt. The people of Moab were actually ostracized from Israel due to their bad character traits according to the biblical narrative, but Ruth is a perfect example of how there is always room for growth and that no matter one’s background, there is always an opportunity to become an exemplary person, which is also a central message in the Torah.

There is possibly no other Jewish story which so adeptly demonstrates the power of compassion and generosity as Ruth, in which we see characters breaking all expectations and going above and beyond the expected norm with their kindness: Ruth herself is so virtuous that she not only has an entire book in the Bible named after her, but also brings redemption to her nation of Moab and is merited with being the great-grandmother of King David. Naomi is also one such praise-worthy woman, who suffered immense shame and disgrace, yet picked herself back up, stood with pride even when she knew that she would be shunned by her community, and took control of a difficult situation in order to look after her family. She is the ultimate example of self-sacrifice and a strong female character. And finally Boaz, who is described (Ruth, 3:9) as a “redeeming kinsman” – a charitable and honorable man who protects even those who are below his own stature.

As the Jewish belief goes, their collective kindnesses brought together a broken family to create a child whose lineage is prophesied to bring forth the Messiah and end all hatred and evil in the world. Both the Torah and the story of Ruth are based on the Jewish value of chesed (loving-kindness) and thus it is appropriate to read this book on the day on which the Torah was given.

We’ve mentioned King David a few times now, and he really can’t be forgotten in connecting the Book of Ruth with the festival of Shavuot. The Book of Ruth actually ends with a list of King David’s genealogy, with Ruth of course being his great-grandmother. Moreover, King David was both born and died on Shavuot (Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah, 2:3) as the Gemara says that the holiest people die on the same day that they were born (Rosh Hashanah 11a.) Therefore, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot to recall King David and read the story of his ancestry in his honor. Just as we often use the anniversary of one’s death to recount their life story, so to do we do this on Shavuot with King David.

Interestingly, conversion also plays a role in the joining together of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth. Of course, conversion is a strong theme in the Book of Ruth, as Ruth tells Naomi that she wants to become part of the Israelite nation and abandon her own Moabite roots. The Sefat Emet says that Shavuot is an appropriate time to recall Ruth’s conversion to Judaism for a few reasons: Firstly, because it was only upon the Jews receiving the Torah that they became ready to teach it to all those who wanted to be part of the faith, like Ruth; and seeing Naomi accept Ruth should teach us to accept all people who wish to take on the mitzvot for themselves. Secondly, in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the People of Israel were essentially converting to Judaism, as they were deciding to take on the Jewish laws for the first time. Because Ruth chose to convert to Judaism, she merited to become the ancestor of the Messiah, and similarly upon accepting the Torah, the Jewish people merited to become the Children of G-d. Ruth was already 40 years old when she became Jewish (Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 4:4) and this shows us that Judaism is not limited to those of a specific background, and in fact any person of faith can take the Torah laws upon themselves with due dedication.

We are taught that when the Jewish people went to Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, they immersed in the mikve and the males were circumcised, just as any convert to Judaism must do, so of course on the anniversary of this event, we should read about the first ever convert to Judaism!

We actually learn from the Book of Ruth how to conduct a Jewish conversion: The Rambam says that we follow Naomi’s instruction: we tell a potential convert about the basics of the religion, we make sure that they have no undesirable motives for converting, and then warn the convert that Judaism can often be difficult. If they still want to join the religion, we must allow them to do so and then teach them the more intimate laws. This is how Naomi addresses Ruth, and Ruth tells Naomi that she will not be deterred – whatever she is signing up for, she is in! Just as during the original festival of Shavuot on Mount Sinai the Jewish people said – “We will do and then we will listen” – so too did Ruth.

We mentioned previously that the Jewish people took on all the mitzvot at Mount Sinai, but actually they only accepted 606 commandments at that time. Maybe this seems strange considering the fact that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. However, gentiles are also required to observe 7 of the 613 laws (the 7 Noachide Laws,) which the People of Israel were keeping even before receiving the Torah. Thus, only 606 new laws were introduced on the festival of Shavuot. This was comparable to Ruth. Her acceptance of the additional 606 laws of Judaism was analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of these laws, emphasized in the story by the fact that her name רות has the numerical value of 606!

Many of the main tenants of the Torah are also taught in the Book of Ruth. Through her story (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 47B) we learn the laws of the Sabbath, preparation for the Sabbath, laws of family purity, and idol worship, rules of punishment, how to greet one another, and the laws of Jewish burial! As Ruth decides to take on these important tenants of the Jewish faith, so too do Jews reaffirm their commitment to these mitzvot on Shavuot. Moreover, reading a story which includes so many of the fundamental elements of the Torah seems more than appropriate on the festival of receiving the Torah!

Perhaps even more significantly, we are taught the importance of mitzvot in general in the story of Ruth, which, as the essence of Torah, makes it the optimal story to read in order to mark the giving of the Torah. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz was a man of stature within his community. He was 300 years old and had amassed a big family and great wealth in those years (I Chronicles 2:11Rashi, Bava Batra 91a) so he really had no reason to take in the needy Ruth and Naomi. That being said, he was also a man of faith who believed in doing good deeds. His moral actions were rewarded with the prophecy that his offspring would include the Messiah. The Sefat Emet teaches that a holy life is made up not only by observance of religious laws, but also of good deeds, and Boaz was the perfect example of that.

Ruth experienced many hardships in her simple pursuit of observing the Torah. Jews believe that this can inspire them to be more appreciative of the Torah that they were given on the festival of Shavuot, and thus the reading of the Book of Ruth during the morning prayer service on Shavuot is a custom which dates back to the Talmudic era (Soferim 14:16). The connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot hasn’t always seemed clear perhaps, but upon deeper inspection, it is unquestionably no coincidence. This brilliantly crafted story that can’t help but inspire loyalty, faith, and above all, kindness.