The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh falls into three parts: Torah, Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (writings) hence the acronym TaNaKh. The Book of Ruth belongs to the third part. The Book of Ruth is part of Ketuvim; it is also one of the five Megillot, the five scrolls, a subcategory of Ketuvim.
Each scroll is associated with a Festival on which it is read.
Thus The Song of Songs (Hebrew: Shir ha-Shirim; שיר השירים) is read on Pesach.
The Book of Lamentations (Hebrew: Eikhah or Kinnot; איכה) is read on the Ninth of Av.
Ecclesiastes (Hebrew: Kohelet; קהלת) is read on Sukkot.
The Book of Esther (Hebrew אסתר) is read on Purim.
As for The Book of Ruth (רות) it is read before the reading of the Torah on the morning of Shavuot.
The Talmud cites Samuel as the author (Baba Batra 14b), but Biblical scholars do not accept this tradition. Mainly because Samuel died before David became king, and the way in which the author writes the genealogy at the very end of the book (Ruth 4:17-22) implies that the lineage is well known and significant for the Jewish people.
It is likely that the author wrote the story after the time of King David, though it is difficult to date it precisely. The most common assertion is that the author’s goal was to promote the inclusion of foreigners, such as Ruth, in the Assembly of Israel in reaction to the condemnation of intermarriage by Ezra and Nehemiah.
There are at least six reasons why we read the Megillah of Ruth on Shavuot:
– The events occurred during the harvest season. Shavuot is the Harvest Festival. Thus we should remember that one of its names is the festival of reaping (Hebrew: Hag ha-Katsir חג הקציר)
– Ruth was a convert to Judaism. Conversion is an individual “Kabbalat HaTorah” and Shavuot is the festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah. The Torah makes clear that « Neither with you only (do I make this covenant), but with him that standeth here with us, and also with him that is not here with us this day » (Devarim 29:13-14). The Talmud understands the latter part of the verse as a clear reference to future generations of Jews, and to the future proselytes who would later accept Judaism (Shevouot 39a).
– The name “Ruth” has the numerical value of 606. At Har Sinai the Jewish People accepted 606 mitzvot, in addition to the seven Noachide Laws. One reason for our reading the Book of Ruth on this festival is because it gives us such an eloquent picture of the ger tzedek, the true proselyte. Shavuot is the “time of the giving of our Torah,” and when we received it, we too, like the ger tzedek, pledged to accept the Torah and fulfill its 613 mitzvot.
– Ruth the Moabite was permitted to marry Boaz despite the verse “A Moabite may not marry into the Congregation of HaShem” (Devarim 23:4). On the contrary based on a ruling of the Oral Law female Moabites and Amonites are excluded from the marriage-exclusion principle, because they had not participated in any way in the anti-Israel crimes, that is to say denying bread and water to the Jewish People when they wanted to travel through their territory on the way to the Land of Israel. One learns that we need both Written and Oral Torah; one cannot have the Written Torah without the Oral Torah or the Oral Torah without the Written Torah.
– King David was born and died on Shavuot. The Megillah of Ruth concludes with David’s lineage.
– To teach the greatness of Gemillut Chassadim, acts of loving-kindness. This is an importance theme throughout the Megillah. Thus our tradition often praises Ruth’s loyalty and devotion to Naomi.
The Book of Ruth is quite short, only four brief chapters. Here is an outline of its storyline:
– 1:1-5 Elimelech’s family leave Beit Lechem for Moav. His two sons marry Moabite women. The three men die.
– 1:5-22 Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, decides to go back to Beit Lechem. Ruth insists on going with her.
– 2:1-23 In accordance with the law of Peah, Ruth gleans in Boaz’s fields.
– 3:1-18 Following Naomi’s advice, Ruth tells Boaz that they are relatives.
– 4:1-12 Boaz convinces his cousin to renounce his right to marry Ruth.
– 4:13-22 Boaz marries Ruth. King David is one of their offspring.
This is only an introduction. For more on the Megillah, I suggest you read Leora’s blog. For the past few weeks we’ve studied the Book of Ruth together via emails. We both focused on the Book of Ruth, of course, and read Second Thoughts by Rabbi Levi Meier. However we decided to focus on different topics and each write two posts on the Megillah. In Leora’s first post, you’ll find insights on phrases and themes found the Megillah.