Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


'Entreat me not to leave you or return from following you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death part me from you’ (Ruth 1:16-17).


No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the LORD . . .  (Deut. 23:4).

The synthesis between Ruth the Moabite and Naomi the Hebrew:


God is a vivid though shadowy presence in this theologically-oriented love story (1:6,17;4:13).  Ruth's story is a reversal of that of Esther, Joseph and Daniel; they were Israelites who succeeded in a foreign land; Ruth was a foreigner who succeeded in the land of Israel.

   The salient theme of the book is hesed [kindness], and it is an exemplar of the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).  Naomi is a female parallel to Job, who during her sojourn in Moab lost her husband and both of her sons. She says of herself 'Do not call me Naomi [pleasantness] . . .  Call me Mara [bitterness] . . . . I went away full and the Lord brought me back empty' (1:20-21). But while Job's friends are adversarial, Naomi receives hesed from Ruth. And Ruth herself, a stranger’ (gar in Hebrew) from a forbidden people, receives hesed.  As a foreign and a Moabite in the land of Judah she nevertheless benefits from its laws. She has the right to glean in the fields of Judah.  (The Bible specifically requires equality for the stranger who was poor (noted 18 times in Lev. and Deut.).  It does not state that a ‘stranger’ has the right to a levirate marriage, despite the fact that the Canaanite Tamar believed she had such a right from Shelah, the third son of Judah.  Tamar’s right could very well be based on a Mid Eastern custom.  

   When Naomi came home to Bethlehem and Ruth with her, the two lone women were perhaps in need, for Ruth found it necessary to go out into other peoples' fields to glean the barley set aside for the poor. When she told Naomi ‘I am going into the field to glean ears of grain after someone in whose eyes I find grace’ (2:2), did she refer only to gleaning, or perhaps to finding a husband who would provide for them? By chance (?), she goes to a field belonging to Boaz.  Knowing of her hesed to Naomi, he extends hesed to her, with protection and hospitality (2:2-16). Only thereafter does Naomi tell Ruth that Boaz is a kinsman of her late husband Elimelech, and the go'el [redeemer] of the family land.

   Naomi, intent on securing a happy future for Ruth, devised the strategy to make the match with Boaz, an older man but apparently without a wife. It is set at the end of the barley harvest, when master and workers spend the night on the threshing-floor:  

‘Wash and anoint yourself, put on your finest clothes, and go down to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he lies down and go and take your clothes off at the place of his feet (1)  and lie down and he will tell you what to do’ (3:3-4).

   When Boaz awoke in the dark of the night and found her there, he asked, 'Who are you?' She replied, 'I am Ruth your servant.  Then, without waiting for him to tell her what to do, she added, 'Spread your cloak over your servant for you are a redeemer’ (v. 9). Boaz, refraining from taking advantage of her, defined her as a virtuous woman [eshet hayil] (v. 11), the term used in Proverbs 31:10 for a worthy wife.  But Boaz had to deal with another man who was closer kin to Elimelech, her late father-in-law, and Mahlon, her late husband, and who thus had a prior right both to redeem the property and perhaps marry the widow. The very next morning, Boaz waited in the plaza by the city gate for the unnamed go'el to pass by, and in the presence of witnesses asked if he was willing to purchase Elimelech's land and thereby keep it in the family line (see Lev. 25: 27). To that, the go'el agreed to purchase the property. Then Boaz raised the separate issue of levirate marriage to Mahlon's widow as a requirement (see Deut. 25:5-10). To this the go'el demurred, because a child born to Ruth would inherit the property in the name of Mahlon, the elder son of Elimelech (Ruth 4:3-6). This refusal cleared the way for Boaz himself both to be go'el of the land and to marry Ruth.

   The town elders who were witnesses to the discussion and the agreement voiced approval with significant comment. ‘May God grant that the woman who comes into your house be like Rachel and Leah who together built up the house of Israel’ They said further: 'And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, through the offspring the Lord will give you by this young woman' (4:12).  The two women involved here are Ruth and Naomi.  Leah and Rachel were sisters and both were of childbearing age.  Is there some implication that both Ruth and Naomi are both of childbearing age?  Is there some implication that they are like twins, identical or not? Leah was veiled to deceit Jacob in their first night.  Here Boaz deceives the closer redeemer by stating that by deciding to buy the land he is required to marry Ruth.  The mention here of Tamar as the mother of Boaz may be because she herself was a Canaanite (Gen. 38:2). She was a foreign or ‘strange’ woman and thus could be considered a precedent for Ruth the Moabite to marry a Jew. Oved, the son and grandfather of David is never noted as Mahlon’s son as would be appropriate if the levirate marriage were valid; he is noted as Boaz’s son. Ruth was from a specifically forbidden tribe.  Apparently these elders of Bethlehem believed the hesed of Ruth's loyalty to Naomi should be requited with hesed to Ruth, who perhaps had earned her exemption from the very specific ban on Moabites.  

Where there different views of David, the prototype Jewish king, having a ‘forbidden’ maternal ancestor?

The Torah states that a Moabite ‘shall not enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation shall never enter the assembly of the Lord’ (Deut. 23:4).


The Book of Ruth clearly stated: "Boaz married Ruth . . . the Lord let her conceive and she bore a son" (4:13) And then several verses later the text recounts that ‘Noami took the child and laid it on her bosom and became her nurse' (4;16) followed by 'there is a son born to Naomi (4:17).

What can we do with these contradictory statements?

There is a subtle debate in the Talmud on the question of David having a Moabite great-grandmother (BT Yebomath 76-78). In 76b the Talmud states as follows:

"Doeg the Edomite then said to him.  'Instead of enquiring whether he is

fit to be king or not, enquire rather whether he is permitted to enter the

assembly or not'! 'What is the reason'?  'Because he is descended from Ruth the Moabitess'. Said Abner to him, 'We learned: an Ammonite, but not an Ammonitess; A Moabite, but not a Moabitess!"

This is a very unusual statement, an almost halakhic statement made in a midrashic mode. Instead of discussing the positions of Talmudic Sages (which we will discuss in a moment) the Gemara creates a story which never took place.  Doeg, the Edomite asks the question whether a child of a Moabitess can be a 'fit to be a king'? Doeg, a member of Saul's command kills 85 priests for helping David (I Sam. 22:18). Abner, during Saul's lifetime is his chief commander and after Saul's death is chief of Saul's remaining son and heir Ishboteth. During the civil war between David and Saul's descendants for the monarchy. Abner decides in David's favor and David makes peace with him and he delivers Ishboteth's forces to David (II Sam. Chapters 2-3).

In this midrashic story the one who questions David's legitimacy is noted as an evil person and the person who states David's legitimacy is one who made peace with David and helped make him king of all Israel.  This story seems to suggest a real issue described mythologically but made to appear as if it were an illegitimate question.

The discussion continues in 77a when Raba exclaimed, 'Whosoever will not obey the following halachah will be stabbed with the sword; I have this tradition from the Beth din of Samuel the Ramathite: An Ammonite but not an Ammonitess; A Moabite, but not a Moabitess'!  Could he, however, be trusted?  Surely R. Abba stated in the name of Rab: Whenever a learned man gives directions  on a point of law, and such a point comes up [for a practical decision], he is obeyed if his statement was made  before the event;  but if it was not so made he is not obeyed! Here the case was different, since Samuel and his Beth din were still living'

There would appear to have been a case brought to a Beth Din headed by Samuel (an interesting name given that Samuel anointed David), a case seemly about the legitimacy of some child or adult. born of a Moabitess or a Ammonitess mother and a Jewish father.  The case was not decided by a single Rabbi which would have been the case if there was no dispute over the halakha, but required a Beth Din presumably of three Rabbis. The halakha was decided in favor of the legitimacy of children born of Moabitess or a Ammonitess. The conflict appears to have been bitter as Raba felt it necessary to note that those who disagree 'will be stabbed with the sword'. The only other statement of this kind the author recalls in the Talmud (that is the death penalty for a halakhic dissenter) was in the end of the bitter conflict between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.

The tradition as stated above is whether a female Ammonite or Moabites are permitted to marry male Jews. Thus Ruth being David’s great approved by the Talmudic sages. However the strange debate between Doeg and Abner and the bitterness of Samuel’s Bet Din’s decision suggest that there may have been an underground debate in the Talmud on Ruth’s appropriateness as David’s ancestor. Underground because some of the Sages perhaps rejected the idea, and preferred that Naomi be the great-grandmother. How Naomi?

There are two strange words used in this book.  When Naomi instructs Ruth to go the threshing floor and lie down near Boaz  she states "va’yeradite" [go down] and "va’shekhbte" [lie down] each ending in the Hebrew text with a "yud" as the last letter. The usual reading of Ruth 3:3-4 is ‘Wash and anoint yourself, put on your finest clothes, and [you Ruth] go down [va’yeradit] to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, mark the place where he lies down and go and uncover the place of his feet and [you Ruth] lie down [va’shechbt] and he will tell you what to do.’  However.the "yud" in Hebrew usually means "I [Naomi] will go down" and "I [Naomi] will lie down".

The letter ‘yud’ has been (although rarely) used as an antiquated (antiquated by the time text was written) form of 2nd person past tense;

Prof. L Cheryl Exum (a world renown biblical historian) translates the verses ‘Wash and anoint yourself, pit on your finest dress, and I will go down [va’yeraditi – with a ‘yud’ at the end] to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, mark the place where he lies down and go and uncover the place of his feet and I will lie down [va’shechbti – with a ‘yud’ at the end] - and he will tell you what to do’ (1)

The unvocalized text as written reads as if Naomi's words "va’yer’aditi" with an extra "yud" are saying that Naomi will go down to Boaz, and when it is written "va’shech’bti" with an extra "yud" it is saying that Naomi will lie down near Boaz.  This, despite the next verse word stating that ‘he will tell you [Ruth] what to do’.  What can it mean that Naomi rather than Ruth will go to Boaz on the threshing floor? It appears as if there is a symbiosis between Naomi and Ruth.

We are aware that for well over a millennium there were several systems of vocalization and cantiliation in the Biblical Hebrew text; the Babylonian system, the Land of Israel system and the Tiberian system. The chosen system used in the masoretic text was the Tiberian system authorized by Maimonides in the twelfth century. During the times of the Saadia Goan – the tenth century – the conflict was very serious. Saadia Gaon accepted the Babylonian system and the text he read and taught his students was a different text than the Maimonides authorized masoretic text which we read today. The vocalization determines how we read the text. Was the “yud” (a vowel) noted above in Saadia’s text? How would the Saadia’s text read regarding this issue? (2) To quote Maimonides’ associate and the scribe who wrote the text authorized by Maimonides Rabbi Babya ben Asher ‘The scroll of the Torah is [written] without vowels, in order to enable man to interpret it however he wishes . . . without vowels man may interpret it [extrapolating from it] several [different] things, many marvelous and sublime’].


Could the inclusion of the two “yuds” be a compromise between two different textual views of David’s foremother?

Perhaps, we do know that the authorized text did on occasion compromise by including both versions. (3)


(1) This reading is from L. Cheryl Exum "Is This Naomi" in Mieke Bal, ed, The Practice of Cultural Analysis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) pp. 200.  Exum is the Chief Editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature and currently the Acting Chief Editor of the Journal of the Study of the Old Testament and has published numerous books on the Tnakh.

(2) The Arabic text of the Saadia’s Tnakh on the Book of Ruth is apparently lost.

 (3) Each of the vocalization systems noted in the text above had a corresponding cantillation system.  While today the canillation signs are used primarily as musical notes for chanting, their original meaning was to define the meter of the word and most importantly to define the grammatical structure of the clause.  Thus when the Babylonian system determined the vowels for each letter and the trope signs for words in the clause they were denoting their best and most accurate interpretation of the words based on their understanding.  Similarly when the Land of Israel system determined its vowels for each letter and its trope signs for words in the clause they were denoting their best and most accurate interpretation of the words based on their understanding.  When the vowels and cantillation signs were different the two groups had a different understanding of the meaning of the text.  The Ten Commandments  (‘aseret  haddibberot’ in Hebrew) is read twice from the Torah scroll (in the Book of Exodus); once on a regular Shabbat and secondly on the Festival of Shavuot. On the Festival of Shavuot the reader chants based on upper trope, the Babylonian system which defines the Ten Commandments into ten grammatical verses.   On the regular Shabbat the reader chants on the lower trope, the Land of Israel system defined the Ten Commandments into twelve grammatical verses.  The number of commandments is of course the same, the question being discussed is the grammatical structure, not the number of the ‘aseret haddibberot’.  The authorized Tiberian system included both tropes, the lower and upper ones, in the scroll text. This created problems as to how to read the text.

Rabbi Benjamin Slonik (17th century posek and rabbinic commentator) complained about incapable and incompetent readers of his day and often read it incorrectly. Are we reading it correctly? He explained the reasoning for the different readings. ‘The custom of Israel is to read the …Decalogue on Shavu'ot…in order to honour the day on which the Decalogue was given, and for this reason it is read with the grander cantillation [i.e., the Upper Trope], which reflects the division into ten Statements.  

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