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Megilat Ruth

To Perpetuate the Name of the Dead

Naomi was certain that Boaz would not allow himself to participate in an act of prostitution. She knew that once he understood their motives and grasped his own responsibility as a redeemer, he would surely take Ruth for his wife.
Dedicated to the memory of
Amram son of Sultana

1. "Come and uncover his feet"
2. "Let it not be known that a woman came to the threshing floor."
3. "My daughter, shall I not seek for you secure rest…"
4. "All that you say to me I will do."
5. To Perpetuate the Name of the Dead
6. Kindness and Truth Meet

"Come and Uncover His Feet"
The wedding of Ruth and Boaz constitutes, on the face of things, the climax of the Book of Ruth. Here, our story's two benevolent souls come together in matrimony. Their marriage receives the blessing of the populace and the elders alike. This blessing, which rises from the very depths of the peoples' hearts, accompanies the couple from its very outset. That the true objective of this union - "to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance" - has yet to become a reality, is due to the fact that, at this early stage, such matters must be left in the hands of the Almighty.
This marriage ceremony, performed at the gates of the city in the presence of the entire population, community elders, and competent witnesses, has its origins in that mysterious and shrouded threshing floor rendezvous. That meeting was the result of Naomi's own initiative, and her intention in arranging it appears to be clear from her words (Ruth 3:1): "My daughter, shall I not seek for you secure rest that it may be well with you?" This expression alludes to marriage, and it recalls the words of Naomi to her daughters-in-law at the beginning of the story (ibid. 1:9): "God grant that you will find rest, each in the house of her husband." Yet the means which Naomi employs do not appear to fitting for the desired goal. While her initial instruction - "Therefore bathe, and anoint yourself, and put your raiment upon you…" - may well be understood as a kind of preparation for marriage, what follows - "…and go down to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. And it shall be when he lies down, that you will know the place where he lies. Then come and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what you are to do." (ibid. 3:3-4) - is in no sense perceived by us as a proper precursor to marriage - certainly not as marriage in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel. The Rambam himself writes (Yad, Hilkhot Ishut 1:1): "Before the Torah was given, if a man met a woman in the marketplace and they desired each other, he would bring her into his house and have sexual relations there with her, just the two of them, and she would henceforth be his wife. With the giving of the Torah, the Jews were commanded that if a man wishes to marry a woman, he must first purchase her before witnesses. Only then would she become his wife…"
It is very unlikely that Naomi anticipated the strange behavior of Boaz. To the contrary, a plain reading of the Scriptures would even lead one to the conclusion that she was preparing her for an act of prostitution. Naomi assumed - and she was to a large degree justified in her assumption - that Boaz, considering his state after having eaten and drunk, would not be capable of controlling his baser instincts upon discovering a woman lying at his feet and knowing that there was nobody present to witness his actions.
It turns out that the Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 6:4), in comparing the plight of Boaz to that of Joseph, indeed saw things in such a light: Rabbi Yossi used to say that there were three individuals who, when tempted by their evil inclination, hurried to take an oath against it: Joseph, David, and Boaz...; Concerning Joseph it is written (Genesis 39:9): "How could I do such a great wrong?" Rabbi Hunya in the name of Rabbi Idi said, "It would be a sin before God…" - He swore to his evil inclination and said to God "I will not sin." …Where do we find this to be the case with Boaz? As it is written, "As the Lord lives! Lie until the morning" (Ruth 3:13). Rabbi Yehudah said: Throughout that entire night his evil inclination tried to entice him saying, "You are unmarried, and she is unmarried, go have relations with her, and she will become your wife," but Boaz swore to his evil inclination that he would not approach her.
This act is reminiscent of that performed by the daughters of Lot: "Come, let's get our father drunk with wine, and sleep with him. We will then survive through children from our father" (Genesis 19:32). All the same, there are a number of details which make these two episodes different from one another. Naomi's mildness prevents her from stating her true intentions outright. Hence, she stops short with the words "... and lie down," refraining from uttering, "with him." What's more, Naomi does not initiate intoxicating Boaz and does not so much as assume that Boaz will reach the level of intoxication of Lot, i.e., the point of ignorance of one's own actions. This is evidenced by the fact that Naomi says to Ruth that Boaz "will tell you what you are to do" (Ruth 3:4). These differences are an outer expression of a more essential dissimilarity between the two events - a dissimilarity bound up with an understanding of the ultimate goal of the act. Certainly the daughters of Lot wished only to preserve the seed of their father and never considered betrothal with him. We are unable to claim, though, that Naomi harbored similar intentions for Ruth; were this the case, where is the secure rest she promised her daughter-in-law? We must assume that Naomi believed that the cohabitation at the threshing floor would lead to matrimony. According to what she knew of Boaz, as becomes clear from what she says later on - "For the man will not rest unless he settles the matter today" (ibid. 3:18) - Naomi was certain that Boaz would not allow himself to participate in an act of prostitution. She knew that once he understood their motives and grasped his own responsibility as a redeemer, he would surely take Ruth for his wife.

"Let it not be known that a woman came to the threshing floor"
The above explanation brings us to the unavoidable question: Do the Scriptures justify Naomi's behavior? Is it permissible to arrive at a desirable end by way of an invalid means? Is raising an individual's awareness of his responsibility by tempting his evil inclination an acceptable path?
This issue reminds one of a similar question tied to the actions of a different woman in the Scriptures - actions not unlike those of Naomi in our story. I am referring to Rebecca's commanding Jacob to steal the blessings that were meant to be bestowed by upon Esau by Isaac. There too, because Rebecca was convinced that Jacob was entitled to the blessings (partly because of Esau's unworthy behavior, but primarily because of God's words to her, "And the older shall serve the younger"), she ordered Jacob to take the blessings for himself, even at the price of deceiving his father. In both cases the women were totally convinced that their plan would succeed despite the great dangers involved. The Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 6:1) directs our attention to the similarity between these two episodes: "The fear of man brings a snare" (Proverbs 29:25) - Jacob caused Isaac to fear, as the verse states, "And Jacob was filled with fear," and it would have been fitting for Isaac to have cursed him. Yet, "He who puts his trust in the Lord shall be set on high." - You influenced Isaac's heart so that he bless him, as the verse states, "He will also be blessed." Ruth caused Boaz to fear, as the verse states, "[And it came to pass at midnight that] the man was struck with fear and turned about [and behold, a woman was lying at his feet]," and it would have been fitting for Boaz to have cursed her. Yet, "He who puts his trust in the Lord shall be set on high." - You influenced Boaz's heart so that he bless her, as the verse states, "You are blessed to God my daughter."
It is doubtful that this comparison to Rivka suffices in justifying the actions of Naomi. For one, the commentators tell us that Jacob's actions were the direct cause (on both an earthly and spiritual plane) leading to his exile. What's more, they point to the unflattering similarities between Lavan and Jacob, notably, the parallel between the swapping of Leah for Rachel by Lavan and the stealing of the blessings by Jacob, as the Midrash itself tells us (BeReshit Rabbah 70:19): All night long he called to her Rachel and she answered him. In the morning she turned out to be Leah. He said, "You are the deceiving daughter of a deceiver!" She said, "Did not your father call you Esau, and did you not respond? In the same manner, you called me, and I responded."
This Midrash views what has happened to Jacob as a measure for measure punishment for his own actions.
In our episode as well, the Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 7:1) points out the desecration of God's name that might possibly have come about as a result of Ruth's visit: Rabbi Chunyah and Rabbi Yirmiyah said in the name of Rabbi Shemuel bar Rabbi Yitzchak: "That entire night, Boaz lay prostrated on his face In prayer, saying: 'Master of the universe! It is revealed and known to You that I did not touch her. Let it then not become known that the woman came to the threshing floor, and let not the name of Heaven be desecrated through me.

"My daughter, shall I not seek for you secure rest…"
As a rule, any an action which could possibly result in the desecration of God's name must, by its very nature, contain some negative element. Despite what appears to us the problematic nature of Ruth's going to the threshing floor, we would do well to understand Naomi's motives. The primary motive, as we have stated, is Naomi's desire to provide Ruth with "secure rest." In other words, Naomi is concerned not with her own welfare but with that of Ruth. Yet, if Naomi is truly concerned with the good of her daughter-in-law, why is she so insistent upon Ruth's marriage to Boaz, an ordeal which involves the possibility not only of desecrating God's name, but of besmirching Ruth's reputation and bringing upon her a curse rather than a blessing? It is impossible to argue that due to the fear of lost inheritance, there was no other Israelite at that time willing to marry a Moabitess, for, Boaz says to Ruth (Ruth 3:10): "Blessed are you to the Lord, my daughter! Your last kindness is greater than the first, by not going after the young men, whether poor or rich." From here we learn that even after her "first kindness," i.e., following Naomi back to the Land of Israel, she could have pursued the young men. Ruth's not searching out a young groom is understood by Boaz as being an act of kindness toward Naomi - a kindness even "greater than the first."
It appears that these two acts of kindness share a common cause. The reason for the first act of kindness is to be found in the words of Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17): "Entreat me not to leave you, to return from following after you. Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God. Where you die, I will die; and there I will be buried. Thus may God do to me, and more, for death will separate me from you."
Note that the idea of joining the Jewish people and taking on the Jewish faith is not the central motif in Ruth's words. The main point is her desire to stay with Naomi wherever she goes. What is truly profound here is the lofty kindness displayed by Ruth which goes unaffected by any outer factor, even religious. Had Naomi requested, for example, to join some other people, Ruth would still have followed her. Hence, Ruth's refusal to go after the young men mounted to a direct continuation of the first act of kindness. Her marriage to one of these men would attached her to his family and to his hereditary portion of land, and would necessarily have separated her from Naomi, a step that she had sworn not to take.
These considerations of Ruth were well known to Naomi. Naomi knew that the only way for her to find secure rest for her daughter-in-law would be to have her marry one of the redeemers of the family. Not only would such a betrothal not separate Ruth from Naomi, it would reestablish the broken home of Naomi in as much as it would "perpetuate the name of the dead upon his inheritance." Naomi considered it a sign from heaven that immediately upon their return to the Land of Israel providence brought Ruth to the field of Boaz. This is clear by her statement (Ruth 2:20): "Blessed is he of the Lord, who has not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead...The man is related to us; he is one of our redeemers." Seeing that a number of months have passed and Boaz has not yet risen to fulfill his obligation, Naomi decides to take things into her own hands. Once again, Naomi's main consideration is not to perpetuate the name of the dead upon his inheritance and to reestablish her own house, but to assure the secure rest of her daughter-in-law, that it be well with her.

"All that you say to me I will do"
Ruth's response to Naomi's plan was (Ruth 3:5): "All that you say to me I will do." This response tells us that Ruth is not going to the threshing floor in order to find secure rest for herself, but to fulfill the command of her mother-in-law. What did Ruth think of Naomi's approach? Ruth was not familiar with Boaz as Naomi was. True, on their first encounter Boaz was kindly to her, but now she is about to perform an act which runs counter to the accepted rules of ethical conduct; will she not come across as a deceptive figure in his eyes? Will this act not bring a curse upon her? And would Boaz not be justified in cursing her? What guarantee does she have that he will eventually marry her? Who says that, after failing to overcome his impulses, he will not attempt to shake himself free of both her and his sinful act. According to this scenario not only would she be left without secure rest, she would be stripped of her personal pride. She would become "that Moabite woman who had came from the Fields of Moab bringing with her the customs of Moab." Despite all these apprehensions, "she did according to all that her mother-in-law had commanded her" (ibid. 6).
It appears that beyond the fulfillment of the command of her mother-in-law Ruth had another consideration. It is possible to learn about this consideration by viewing her actions in light of what happened between Tamar and Yehudah (Genesis 38). Tamar, too, seduced Yehudah in order to perpetuate the name of the dead. Like Ruth, Tamar endangered her own reputation and life for this purpose. Yet, unlike Ruth, Tamar knew with perfect certainty that her father-and-law could not marry her, for, in providing us with the reasons for Yehudah's actions, Scripture states (ibid. 16): "He turned aside to her on the road, not realizing that she was his own-daughter-in law. 'Hello there,' he said. 'Let me come to you.'" Yet, after he is made aware of this fact, it is written (ibid. 26): "He was not intimate with her anymore." It would appear that Tamar understood that even if her scheme met with failure she would be unable to marry Judah, or, for that matter, anybody at all, and that she was destined to remain a widow until the end of her days. Despite all this she was prepared to go to such extremes in order to perpetuate the name of the dead.
It appears that though with Ruth the possibility of marriage was quite actual, and that it was this actuality that stood at the very foundation of Naomi's scheme, Ruth was prepared for a different scenario. Though she certainly preferred this first possibility - as is clear from what she says to Boaz: "Spread your wing over your handmaiden, for you are a redeemer" - Ruth, like Tamar, was ready to place her future on the line in order to perpetuate the name of the dead and to reestablish the house of Naomi. So we see that just as Naomi's goal was assuring the "secure rest" of her daughter-in-law, the goal of Ruth was the providing a secure rest for her mother-and-law and putting the pieces of Naomi's fallen house back together again.

To Perpetuate the Name of the Dead
Is it really fitting, though, to perpetuate the name of the dead in this manner? In order to answer this question we must consider the Biblical commandment of "Yibum," levirate marriage, as it is described in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-8): "When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless, the dead man's wife shall not be allowed to marry an outsider. Her husband's brother must cohabit with her, making her his wife, and thus performing a brother-in-law's duty to her. The first-born son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel. If the man does not wish to take his brother's wife, the sister-in-law shall go up to the elders in court, and declare, 'My brother-in-law refuses to perpetuate his brother's name in Israel and will not consent to perpetuate his brotherly duty with me.' The elders of the city shall summon him and speak to him. If her remains firm he must say, 'I do not want to take her.'"
The first verse opens with a description of the case: "When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless," and the establishing of the law: "The dead man's wife shall not be allowed to marry an outsider, etc." This law is made up of both a negative pronunciation and a positive one. The structure of the positive statement calls for clarification. The Torah begins with the obligation of cohabitation ("Her husband's brother must cohabit with her..."), proceeds to a description of the marriage ("...making her his wife..."), and closes with a repetition of the duty of sexual relations ("thus performing a brother-in-law's duty to her). It appears that we are dealing here with one of those principles through which the Torah is expounded: "Klal U'Frat," ("Generalization and Detail"). First the Torah lays down the goal: "Her husband's brother must cohabit with her..."; next it provides more detailed instruction as to just how this is to be achieved: "...making her his wife, and thus performing a brother-in-law's duty to her." In this manner the Torah makes it known that though the general goal is the cohabitation and perpetuation of the name of the dead brother, this act is not to be performed without a proper marriage. For this purpose the Torah makes an exception to the prohibition against sexual relations with one's brother's wife (Leviticus 20:11). Even the noble ideal of perpetuating the name of the dead brother cannot justify prostitution. This idea is emphasized in verses 7-8. Here the Torah, in dealing with a case wherein the brother-in-law refuses to fulfill his obligation, makes a clear distinction between the expression "making her his wife," and the expression "cohabit with her." The Torah states that if the man does not wish to take his brother's wife, i.e., to take her in marriage, he will not have fulfilled his duty as brother-in-law, even though it is possible to perpetuate the name of the dead brother without marriage. In order to emphasize this point, the Torah has the man use the word "take" ("I do not want to take her") which, according to tradition, indicates marriage, while having the woman refer to the concept of cohabitation ("...will not perform his brotherly duty with me"). This teaches us that the practical implication of the brother-in-law's refusal to marry his deceased brother's widow, despite the fact that he may not necessarily be opposed to cohabitation with her, is the abrogation of the Torah precept of begetting a kinsman's progeny through his widow, i.e., Yibum, and the non-perpetuation of the name of the dead brother. The Torah, for this reason, opposes retroactively the actions of Tamar, despite her noble intentions and abnegation chasrat pniut to the point of sacrificing her future and endangering her life.

Kindness and Truth Meet
Even Ruth's visiting the threshing floor, had events developed according to Naomi's plan, could not be seen as being in full accordance with the desire of the Torah - despite the fact that we are dealing with two unmarried individuals who are essentially permitted to one another. The Torah insists that marriage precede cohabitation, while here the cohabitation was intended to serve as catalyst for marriage. And even if the final step would be carried out with the desired intention of fulfilling the law of redemption, the advent of this course, from the point of view of Boaz, could be seen as little more than food for his base desires. If things had developed in this manner, the whole episode could not have served to rectify the actions of Yehudah and Tamar, and would certainly not merit being crowned with the attribute of splendor." What makes the Book of Ruth unique is the fact that the deficiency which resulted from Ruth's abounding kindness toward Naomi was compensated for by Boaz's extraordinary valor. Boaz was wise enough to understand that Ruth's kindness, a kindness even "greater than the first," must not be permitted to become dim in the darkness of the threshing floor night. The reasoning he provides - "...there is also a redeemer closer than I" - certainly does not constitute a true obstacle; for, even though the obligation to marry his deceased brother's widow is incumbent upon the oldest brother, if the younger brother came along and married her first, he prevails. This is evidenced by the fact that even though Naomi was aware of the order of preference of Ruth's redeemers, she sent Ruth to Boaz. However Boaz knew that in order for Ruth to receive full recompense from God for her actions they would have to carry out the redemption process in complete accordance with Jewish law, and in the presence of witnesses and elders. Only a flawless redemption would allow Ruth and Boaz to merit the blessing of the people and the elders (Ruth 4:11): "May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house be like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel." The Sages of the Midrash teach us (Ruth Rabbah 6:2) that the two of them recieved children through these blessings from the righteous, as it says: "All the people who were in the gate and the elders said, 'Witness! May the Lord make the woman…"
Now we understand that that moment on the threshing floor, when Boaz conquered his evil inclination, is the true high point of the Book of Ruth. With rare and penetrating insight into the soul of Ruth, Boaz understood her pure motives; though he might justifiably have cursed her, he chose instead to bless her. From this moment onward, seeing that the three central characters of our story have completed their tasks, things begin to magically fall into place. In the words of the Midrash (Ruth Rabba 7:7):
"Meanwhile Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there. And behold! The redeemer was passing by, of whom Boaz had spoken." Was he standing behind the gate? Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman said, "Even had he been at the other end of the world, God would have whisked him over so that the righteous Boaz would not have to wait..." Rabbi Eliezer says, "Boaz did his part, Ruth did her part, and Naomi did hers. God said, 'I, too, will do Mine.'"
Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Sabato
Teaches in the "Har Etzion" Yeshiva, an expert on Tanach interpretation.
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