Sunday, May 17, 2015

Megilat Rut: The night of Boaz and Rut Revisited

Megilat Rut[1]: The night of Boaz and Rut Revisited

 By Chaim Sunitsky

In a well known story of Megilat Rut, Naomi tells Ruth to bathe herself, put on her [best] clothes and go down at night to where Boaz is sleeping. Boaz then will “tell her” what to do. The simple implication of this story is that Ruth would be sent to make a marriage proposal to Boaz who could simply consummate the marriage immediately.[2]

It has been already noted[3] that the story of Boaz and Ruth contains many elements of “yibum” procedure and therefore it was concluded that at that time “yibum” was practiced by other close relatives, not just the brother of the deceased.[4] In theory Boaz could have relations with Ruth and thus do yibum immediately that night, but since there was a closer kin[5] he did not touch Ruth but waited until the morning. When in the presence of the elders Boaz offered the closer relative to redeem the fields left for Ruth, he was willing to do this, but when Boaz stipulated that he would have to marry Ruth as well he refused saying: פֶּן אַשְׁחִית אֶת נַחֲלָתִי (lest I destroy my “inheritance”). Hazal[6] understand him to argue with Boaz’s opinion that a female from Moav is permitted to “enter the congregation of Israel” i.e. marry a regular Jew. The word “inheritance” is thus taken to mean descendants who will not be kosher Jews and won’t be able to marry others in the Jewish nation[7]

Before we go on it’s important to understand a related issue: in the laws of yibum, what is the meaning of (Devarim 25:6): “The first child born shall stand up in memory of the deceased brother.” Hazal understand this not to mean the actual name of the person but rather to be talking about inheritance belonging to the deceased brother. However they explain[8] that this inheritance is transferred to the brother that did the yibum. According to Shadal[9] this explanation was needed in order to encourage[10] the brother to want to do yibum, but the original meaning of the Torah was actually that yibum caused financial loss to the brother doing it as he would not partake of the inheritance[11] as it would all belong to the son born[12].

Another important point we need to discuss before we continue is the issue of “kri” and “ketiv”: “written” and “read” forms of words. It is well known that certain words in Tanach are not read the same way as they are written. The Talmud[13] assumes that this is part of “halacha leMoshe miSinai[14]” – part of oral traditions stemming from Moshe who received them at Mt. Sinai. The difficulty with this is that many of these “kri” and “ketiv” forms are in Neviim and Ketuvim – prophetic works written long after Moshe. R. Reuven Margolies therefore concludes[15]  that the expression “halacha leMoshe miSinai” can mean a decision in some generation by the Great Sanhedrin[16]. Another explanation of “kri” and “ketiv” is offered by Radak[17] and others: the two are preserved in some of the cases when different manuscripts[18] had different version of the word(s). Another possibility[19] is that “kri” can be a kind of correction to the “ketiv” that the “Men of Great Assembly” made for various reasons. Many of the “kri” and “ketiv” cases in fact support this last opinion[20]. Some of the “kri” and “ketiv” differ only in that one of them reads as two words what the other reads as one word. For example, the “ketiv” in “Devarim 39:2 is “Eshadot” but the “kri” is “Esh” “Dat” – fire of religion. Shadal[21] writes that Dat is a Persian word and therefore the original meaning must have been according to the “ketiv[22]”.

Coming back to the story of Ruth, the key verse (4:5) has a “written” and “read” form:

 וַיֹּאמֶר בֹּעַז בְּיוֹם קְנוֹתְךָ הַשָּׂדֶה מִיַּד נָעֳמִי וּמֵאֵת רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה אֵשֶׁת הַמֵּת קָנִיתָה לְהָקִים שֵׁם הַמֵּת עַל נַחֲלָתוֹ

The key word is written קניתי but is read as קָנִיתָה. It has been noted by modern scholarship[23] that according to the ketiv (the written form) an opposite[24] from traditional understanding immerges. According to “ketiv” Boaz did consummate the marriage and when talking to the kinsman he says that Ruth is already his wife. If he will later have a child from Ruth, the child will inherit her husband’s property and the money the other relative paid to redeem the field will go to waste.[25] This then is the meaning of the other relative’s rejection of the offer (4:6):

לֹא אוּכַל <לגאול> לִגְאָל לִי פֶּן אַשְׁחִית אֶת נַחֲלָתִי גְּאַל לְךָ אַתָּה אֶת גְּאֻלָּתִי כִּי לֹא אוּכַל לִגְאֹל:

“I will not redeem lest I harm my inheritance”, literally meaning he would lose the field he would purchase.


[1] Many reasons are offered as to why we read Megilat Ruth on Shavuot, the simplest being that the main action takes place when gathering barley and wheat crop, around the time of Shavuot.
[2] While most commentators try to avoid this obvious interpretation, this is implied by Rut Rabbah 7:4. See also Taz, Yore Deah 192:1 who assumes this and discusses why the gezeira of seven days due to “dam chimud” did not apply.
[3] See for instance Malbim (Ruth 3:4), see also Ramban, Devarim 25:6.
[4] Boaz was a cousin of Ruth’s husband Machlon (Baba Batra 91a).
[5] Referred to as “ploni almoni”, he was Machlon’s uncle.
[6] Ruth Rabbah 7:7.
[7] The simple meaning may be that he did not want to marry Ruth since he already had another wife (see Targum ad loc) or so that his older children won’t have to split the inheritance with his children from her (see similarly Rema, Even Haezer 1:8).
[8] Rashi in the name of Yevamot 40a.
[9] Ad loc.
[10] Similarly later when Ashkenazi Jews encouraged halitzah, a financial incentive was used for this too, see Rema, Even Haezer 163:2.
[11] Maybe this is the reason Yehudah’s son Onan did not want Tamar to have children.
[12] The Ramban hints that this son will have the soul of the deceased thus the inheritance coming back to the original owner.
[13] Nedarim 37b although it might be this is not the only opinion in this sugia, see also Orach Chaim 141:8.
[14] Presumably this implies that both kri and ketiv have meaning. Various propositions have been offered regarding the relationship between the two.
[15] Yesod Hamishna Vearichata, chapter 2 in berurim (page 36).
[16] The Rishonim already noticed that at least some of “halacha leMoshe miSinai” statements should not be taken literally see for instance Rosh in the beginning of Mikvaot, see also Pesachim 110b.
[17] See his introduction to the prophets; see also R. Marc Shapiro, Limits of Orthodox Theology, page 101 who brings other Rishonim that follow the same opinion. In one place in his commentary Radak goes a step further and notices that Targum Yonatan seems to have a reading where a letter is moved from the beginning of the word to the end of previous word (Melachim 1:20:33, see also our next note).
[18] We know that there were variant manuscripts of Tanach in the times of Second Temple and probably before that as well. There are many examples of this, see for instance Tosafot s.v. Maavirim and R. Akiva Eiger, Shabbat 55b. One of the famous examples seems to be the well known drasha in the Agada that criticizes the “wicked” son for excluding himself from other participants: “lachem velo lo”. The obvious difficulty is that the wise son also says: “etchem” (to you). Now we know that in some manuscripts the verse in Devarim 6:20 indeed uses the expression “otanu” (us), see also Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:4 (70b), Mechilta, end of Bo (chapter 18 in some editions, paragraph 125 in others). Note also that many of the variants can be learned by studying the old Torah translations, for instance Septuagint. It seems that some of “deliberate changes” mentioned in Megila 9a-b were actually based on variant manuscripts. In case of “naarei bnei yisrael”, we actually learn from Masechet Sofrim 6:4 and parallel sources that there were variant manuscripts. Additional examples can include “hamor” – “hemed” and “bekirba” – “bekroveah”, where the words are very similar. R. Reuven Margolies in his “Hamikra Vahamesora”, chapter 17 brings some interesting examples of translations that were based on variant manuscripts. Without knowing this we can’t understand some words of Hazal correctly. Just to bring two examples here, the question of how to read “dodecha” in Shir Hashirim 1:2 (see Avoda Zara 29b) can be understood in light of Septuagint translation as “breasts” (from the word “dad”; this also explains why this particular question was asked when discussing the prohibition of non-Jewish cheese; the verses describe that the Jewish nation’s wine, oil, and breasts, i.e. milk are the best, and we should not use any of these products made by non-Jews). In this example the difference with Masoretic text is only in the vowels that are not written in the scrolls (see another example in Mishley 12:28 that has in our Masoretic text “al mavet” – “not death” but according to the Aramaic Targum the verse seems to read “el mavet” – “towards death”). Another example with a real textual difference in consonants is in the verse of Bereshit 26:32. The Bereshit Rabbah (end of 64) seems to at first not be sure whether they found water or not. R. Reuven Margolies claims that the uncertainty was whether the correct reading is “we did NOT find water” (based on Septuagint translation) or “we found water” (as it is in our Masoretic text). The difference is whether the word “Lo” should be with “Vav” (they said to him) or with Aleph (they said: “we didn’t”, see however Rashash ad loc who thinks that even according to the Masoretic text there is a possibility to understand Lo with Vav as “not”).
[19] A similar idea is brought in Abarbanel’s introduction to Yirmiyahu. This may be related to a similar question of what is “tikun sofrim”, see R. Marc Shapiro, Limits of Orthodox Theology, starting with page 98 and R. Saul Lieberman “Hellenism in Jewish Palestine” starting with page 28.  Indeed in Midrash Tanchuma (Beshalach 16) the tradition is brought that tikun sofrim is an actual change made by Anshey Kneset Hagedola.
[20] This might be especially true when the “kri” is a synonym of “ketiv” but the expression used is a softer form, when the “ketiv” is too crude, see Devarim 28:27 and 28:30, see also Talmud Bavli Megilah 25b.
[21] Ad loc.
[22] In general some of the commentators sometimes follow the “ketiv” but most explain the meaning of verses according to the “kri”.
[23] Professor Cyrus Gordon “Forgotten Scripts” 1982, page 171. He additionally writes based on discoveries in Ebla that ומאת is to be understood not as “and from” but rather “but”. For Hazal’s understanding of this “kri” and “ketiv” see Ruth Rabbah 7:10.
[24] It’s actually quite unusual that kri and ketiv would offer the exact opposite understanding.
[25] Apparently this is the field that Ruth was selling. It seems that according to the practice of the time a widow of a person was able to enjoy some of the rights to his property or possibly make decision as to which of the relatives takes possession of it.

1 comment:

Ben Katz said...

The story in megilat Rut cannot be about yibum as described in Devarim because Boaz was not the brother of Rut's husband. As pointed out by Ibn Ezra and many others, what is occurring is geulah - redeeming a field by a kinsman that was sold due to dire economic circumstances, as legislated in Vayikra and carried out by Yirmiyahu. Elimelech presumably sold his field in such circumstances before he left Bet Lechem for Moav. I agree that the ketiv of Rut 4:5 is crucial. What Boaz is saying to the nameless closer relative who has the first right to redeem the field is - if you redeem the field, I will marry (or have married - it doesn't really matter) Rut and then her son will inherit the field that you will spent your money on.
Hag sameach

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