During the holiday of Shavuot, the practice in many synagogues is to read the beautiful biblical book Ruth. Various reasons attempt to explain the practice including that Ruth is said to have converted to Judaism around the time of Shavuot and so did the Israelites when they accepted the Torah; Ruth was an ancestress of King David who died on Shavuot; the harvest in Israel is described in the book, and Shavuot is the time of the Harvest; Jews are encouraged to read the Bible and five books from the Writings were selected to be read on certain holidays just like the Five Books of Moses are read every week, books from the prophets are read after the Torah readings on Shabbat and holidays, and Ruth seems to be the most appropriate book to read on Shavuot.
In my book, “Ruth, Esther, and Judith, I explain the two biblical books Ruth and Esther as well as the apocryphal book Judith, and compared them. Readers will find that a close reading of the three books shows that what they thought the books contain is not so. The following are a few facts from my book.
Ruth is a charming idyll about chesed, “deeds of kindness,” as shown by how Ruth treated Naomi, how Naomi aided Ruth to find a husband, and how Ruth’s future husband Boaz treated her. The term itself is mentioned three times in the book: in 1:8 where Naomi speaks about the behavior
of her two daughters-in-law, in 2:20 where Naomi describes Boaz, and in 3:10 where Boaz speaks about Ruth. The number three is used frequently in the Torah to emphasize or highlight a subject or to indicate that something is moving toward completeness, symbolized by seven (as explained by Abraham ibn Ezra).
The word “love,” rarely used in Scripture, is not explicit in Ruth, but it is a three-fold patina covering the tale: the love of the three daughters-in-law, of Naomi for them, and of Boaz for Ruth. There is only one instance where the Torah states that a woman loved a man: Saul’s daughter Michal is said to have loved David, but there is no indication that David loved his wife, in fact he abandoned his wife when he ran to save his life from the threat of the soldiers of King Saul who wanted to kill him.
No biblical law is mentioned in the book of Ruth. There are several practices that appear to be violations of the biblical law, although it should be recognized that biblical law develops and the seeming violations or differences may be later developments.
The story stresses repeatedly, even at the end, that Ruth is a Moabite. No mention is made that she converted. Indeed, the practice of conversion most likely did not exist at the time. Many biblical figures, including Moses, Joseph, and Judah, married non-Israelites without any indication that the wives needed to convert. The emphasis on Ruth being a Moabite has led rabbis and scholars to the conclusion that the book was composed to show that although King David was a descendant of a Moabite, his ancestress was an unusually kind person, a woman who was accepted by the Judean community. This desire to extol Ruth and emphasize her acceptance into the Judean community led Talmudic rabbis to identify Boaz as the judge Ibzan, who is mentioned in the biblical book Judges, implying that she was even accepted by the religious leader of the time.
However, it is significant that despite the desire of rabbis to say that Ruth converted to Judaism, a careful reading of the text shows this did not occur. Several pages of proofs in my book demonstrate this observation. For example, there is no indication in the book that she converted; there is no ceremony showing her acceptance into Judaism; even during the later days of Ezra and Nehemiah the two leaders undertook a draconian measure of requiring Judeans to send their non-Judean wives away because they were not Jews and the practice of conversion did not exist during their lives in the fourth century BCE to remedy the situation by making them Jewish; and Ruth is continually called a Moabite, even by her husband Boaz and even at the end of the book.
As important as the book of Ruth is, no mention is made of it in the books of Samuel and Kings, and Ruth is never mentioned in these books as an ancestress of King David or that he descended from a Moabite. We do not know why this is so.
Several pages in my book also address the issue whether Ruth and Boaz had sexual intercourse on the threshing floor when she dressed to impress him and came to him at night, a subject that interests many people.