May 26, 2023 / 6 Sivan 5783 Shavuot

Introduction to The Book of Ruth


The Book of Ruth is one of five megillahs, five scrolls, that are part of Ketuvim, or Writings, the last third of the Hebrew Bible. It recounts the story of how Ruth, a Moabite, became a member of the Israelite nation and, eventually, the great-grandmother of King David. It is traditionally read in synagogue on Shavuot

Why the Book of Ruth?

The book really does seem pedestrian. There are no fun miracles, no battles or even divine calls for repentance. It’s literally a rags to riches tale, with some interesting seduction going on, a marriage, and a genealogy that leads to King David, and by association the future Messiah of the Jewish people.

  • Here are some of the classical answers:

(1) Like the other Jewish pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot and Passover, overlaid with both agricultural and religious significance, we commemorate a time when Jews traveled to The Holy Temple in Jerusalem, to offer what they had reaped from their seasonal harvest.  Shavuot brought in the barley harvest and the first fruits.  The background of the story of Ruth is the barley harvest.

(2) On this holiday when we turn to Torah, the mission statement of our people, we reflect on its value by reading about Ruth, who wasn’t born into our people, but perceived the tremendous value of our mission, and chose to join the Jewish people.

(3) There is a parallel between Ruth and Abraham.  They both chose Judaism.  Abraham and Ruth are also both known for their kindness and loyalty to their people.  Ruth reigns supreme here as her loyalty for her mother in law, Naomi, was never compromised, whereas Abraham’s loyalty to his wife, Sarah, is questionable at times.

(4) It’s a book about what it means to be a stranger in a foreign land and how we need to treat the stranger.  In the Book of Ruth, Naomi, the Jew, is a stranger in the land of Moab, where she fled from famine and found nurture, until family tragedy struck.  Ruth, the Moabite, is a stranger in Jewish Bethlehem, where she find food, nurture, and a future.  The Torah mentions the idea of ‘Welcoming the Stranger’ no less than 36 times and reinforces this idea by reminding the Children of Israel that they were once Strangers in a Strange Land, in Egypt. Eventually, each of us experiences a moment in our lives when we as well are the stranger.  Ruth and Naomi are women from two entirely different backgrounds, but succeed in forming close emotional and spiritual bonds.

(5) The book of Ruth is about the decisions we make at the crossroads in our lives, the result of circumstances, obligations, and/or our own free choosings.  Ruth ventured out of her comfort zone to follow and support her mother-in-law and companion is the sorrow of losing their beloved husband and son.

  • The Book of Ruth is also my favorite book of the Bible, because it conjures up a precious memory for me. In June of 2001, I spent a week horseback-riding in Capitol Reef National Park in southeast Utah with a dear friend, a nun of the Sisters of St. Joseph who happens to be a full professor of religion at a Rochester liberal arts college where Alan and I have been adjunct instructors over the years.  It always astounds how much we can find in common with others.  The hours on horseback ended each day with food over a campfire and storytelling with our group of five women.  As it turns out, the holiday of Shavuot fell during that week, and so I read to my non-Jewish companions, in the dark, sitting on a log, huddled close to the fire in unexpected (at least by me) freezing June weather, with our horses winnying in the background, the Book of Ruth.  The Talmud teaches: “A person can learn only from a place that their heart desires.”  It was for me.
  • The Book of Ruth is only four chapters long, but it’s a fast-paced story. Tonight, we read a summary of the four chapters with an opportunity to briefly share contemporary and relevant takeaways afterwards. What engages you about this narrative?  As a reminder, note the meta-themes as you listen to the story:  immigration, conversion, kindness, loyalty, friendship, hospitality, poverty, Jewish heroes, female empowerment, and Jewish continuity, especially when a foreigner becomes the ancestral mother of the Jewish Messiah. 

We will read a summary of Ruth, but please do consider going straight to the source and reading the 4 chapters in their entirety.