Of Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law

  • Dr. Yael Ziegler



By Dr. Yael Ziegler


Shiur #9: Of Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law



And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return, each woman to the house of her mother. God shall do with you kindness as you did with the dead ones and with me. God shall give you and you shall find a resting place, each woman in the house of her husband.” And she kissed them, and they raised their voices and they cried. And they said to her, “For we will return with you to your people.”

And Naomi said, “Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? Do I yet have sons inside of me that they shall be for you as husbands? Return, my daughters. Go. For, I am too old to be with a man. Even if I said, ‘I have hope. Tonight I shall be with a man and I will birth sons.’ Would you wait until they grow up? Will you be anchored and not be with another man? Do not, my daughters. For I am very bitter from you, for the hand of God has gone out against me.” And they lifted up their voices, and they cried again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth cleaved to her. And she said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has returned to her nation and to her gods. Return after your sister-in-law.”

And Ruth said, “Do not harm me by [requiring me] to depart from you, to return from following you, for where you go, I will go, and where you lie, I will lie. Your nation is my nation, and your God is my God. However you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. So shall God do, and so shall he continue to do [i.e. I swear] that only death shall separate between me and you.”

And she [Naomi] saw that she [Ruth] was determined to go with her, and she ceased to speak with her. And the two of them walked until they arrived in Bethlehem. (Ruth 1:8-19)


At the heart of the first chapter lies a dialogue between Naomi and her Moavite daughters-in-law. Naomi urges them to return to Moav, but they insist upon accompanying her, in spite of her logical and persuasive arguments. Eventually, Orpah relents and agrees to return to Moav, while Ruth perseveres and remains with her mother-in-law.


Two initial questions arise from this story. First, what prompts Ruth and Orpah to accompany their mother-in-law? Second, why does Naomi dissuade them from doing so? A third question, in regard to what eventually distinguishes Ruth from Orpah will be the topic of our next shiur.


The Intentions of Ruth and Orpah


Why do Ruth and Orpah accompany Naomi? This question is compounded by Naomi’s apparently logical exhortation that they should each return to the house of their mother; Naomi assumes that it is better for the girls to be with their mothers and not with their mother-in-law.[1]


One possible answer may be discerned from Naomi’s words: “Why should you go with me? Do I yet have sons inside of me that they shall be for you as husbands?” Naomi assumes self-interest on the part of her daughters-in-law. Similar to the Torah’s laws of yibbum,[2] ancient societies made legal provisions for a childless widow to marry a member of her dead husband’s family.[3] Evidently, the vulnerability of these women, left adrift without anyone to provide for them, necessitated these provisions. It is likely that Orpah and Ruth naturally (and justifiably) assumed that they would accompany Naomi back to her hometown, where she would provide each of them with a husband from her family.


In her speech, Naomi declares firmly that this will not occur. Naomi cannot guarantee her daughters-in-law a husband in Bethlehem. She herself has no more sons, and no more hope of providing sons, certainly not in a timely fashion. We can only speculate as to the reason Naomi does not consider other relatives, such as Boaz or the go’el, as potential husbands for her daughters-in-law. Perhaps it is because Jewish law does not stipulate this as a formal legal obligation. Moreover, Naomi may be uncertain whether these relatives are alive. And even if they are, would they be prepared to marry a Moavite, especially one connected to Elimelekh, who deserted them in their time of need? Finally, it is possible that Naomi simply does not want to be accompanied by her Moavite daughters-in-law, and she uses this as a pretext to send them away.


However, the text may indicate that Ruth and Orpah have no specific intention in mind when they set out to accompany Naomi. In fact, the first four verbs which describe Naomi’s return journey are singular (Ruth 1:6-7), modifying only Naomi. The daughters-in-law are presented twice as appendages (“and her two daughters-in-law with her”), who follow Naomi’s acts but lack any volition of their own. It is only at the end of this description that the verb appears in plural form, modifying all of the women who walk on the road (“and they walked on the road to return to the land of Yehuda”).


Based on this, the Malbim offers a unique reading of the events:


All of them agreed to depart from this place, for they thought that the fate of the place caused [their unfortunate situation]... but only Naomi herself decided to depart from the fields of Moav… It was only after they went on the road and came to the end of the land of Moav where the path goes only to the land of Yehuda that they [Ruth and Orpah] also decided to return to the land of Yehuda. (Malbim, Ruth 1:6-7)


The Malbim suggests that Ruth and Orpah did not originally plan to accompany Naomi out of Moav. Their goal was merely to leave the particular city in which they had experienced such terrible misfortune. This may be supported by Naomi’s gentle words of farewell and thanks in 1:8-9: “Go, return, each woman to the house of her mother. God shall do with you kindness as you did with the dead ones and with me. God shall give you and you shall find a resting place, each woman in the house of her husband.” Initially, it appears that Naomi assumes that the women will be amenable to her suggestion. She does not exert great effort to persuade them, tenderly expressing appreciation for their kindness[4] and offering them a blessing. However, Ruth and Orpah decide, perhaps spontaneously, to accompany Naomi to Bethlehem, thereby precipitating Naomi’s attempt to dissuade them.


Spontaneous or not, we are still not certain why Ruth and Orpah would choose to remain with Naomi at all. Does this, in fact, stem from self-interest? Or perhaps it is a genuine display of compassion or affection for Naomi? It may simply be an act of sentimentality, testifying to the difficulty of tearing themselves away from their dead husbands’ mother. It is further noteworthy that Ruth and Orpah cite their desire to return with Naomi to her nation (1:10), perhaps suggesting that they are interested in being part of the Jewish people.[5]


While we may never know the intentions behind the initial actions of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, one thing appears certain – these two women eventually diverge, in their purpose and decisions. Orpah’s initial motivations notwithstanding, she eventually changes her mind. Ruth, however, displays unwavering allegiance and a determined intention to remain with Naomi. It is Ruth’s selfless act that determines the course of this story. It is Ruth who enables Naomi to rebuild her family and produce the Davidic dynasty. We will continue to examine Ruth’s motivations in the next shiur.


Why Does Naomi Send Away Her Daughters-in-Law?


Why does Naomi exert so much effort to convince her daughters-in-law not to accompany her back to Bethlehem? In examining the question of Naomi’s motivation, three distinct approaches emerge in rabbinic sources: Naomi’s compassion for her daughters-in-law, Naomi’s genuine desire that they not accompany her, and Naomi’s contrived scenario, concocted to prepare the women for potential conversion.




One approach regards Naomi’s actions as altruistic, stemming from her affection and concern for her daughters-in-law. Indeed, the content of her speech indicates this, as she bestows multiple blessings upon them, wishing them all the best in their anticipated new homes. Naomi’s tone likewise conveys fondness, as may be evidenced by her threefold use of the word, “benotai” (or venotai), “my daughters,” to refer to her daughters-in-law. Indeed, it is possible that Naomi treats her daughters-in-law as though they are her own beloved children, sending them home to find husbands out of concern for their future.


A midrash displays this approach, assuming that Naomi sends them away for altruistic reasons:


“Do not my daughters (al benotai).” [This means:] Woe to my daughters (alelai benotai). “For I am very bitter for you (mikem),” meaning, on your behalf. “For [the hand of God] has gone out against me,” and [against my] sons and my husband. (Ruth Rabba 2:17)


            The Targum (1:13) adopts a similar approach, although it translates the word mikem not as “for you,” but rather as “more than you”:


Please my daughters, do not embitter my soul, for it is more bitter for me than for you, for the blow has gone out against me from before the Lord.


            In explaining why Naomi eventually accedes to Ruth’s desire to remain with her, another midrash likewise portrays Naomi’s compassion toward Ruth:


When Naomi saw that [Ruth] had accepted [Naomi’s provisions] and burdened herself with great crying, her compassion was aroused and [Naomi] burdened herself and accepted her. (Ruth Zuta 1)




Nevertheless, as noted previously, Naomi’s assumption that her daughters-in-law are acting in a self-serving manner could be an indication that the relationship is not altogether amicable. This may be supported by a careful reading of Naomi’s final words, those that precipitate Orpah’s acquiescence to return to Moav:


For I am very bitter from you (mikem), for the hand of God has gone out against me. (Ruth 1:13)


These two statements appear to be connected. Naomi may be claiming that her bitterness has been caused by her daughters-in-law, who are somehow responsible for the divine punishment.


We have already seen two different translations of the word mikem, “for you,” and “more than you.” The Zohar suggests a third possibility: “because of you.”[6]


Why does it say mikem? R. Kronia said in the name of R. (Kahana): I am bitter in my heart because of you, for you caused my sons to die. (Zohar Chadash, Ruth 37a)


In the final moments, in a bid to convince her daughters-in-law not to accompany her, Naomi hurls a bitter accusation at them. She blames them for her wretched situation. Had they not married Machlon and Khilyon, God would not have become angry at her sons, killing them and engendering her miserable state.[7]


Another midrash likewise assumes that Naomi genuinely does not want her daughters-in-law to accompany her, albeit for different reasons:


“And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, [‘Go, return’].” Why is she sending them back? So that she should not be embarrassed by them. (Ruth Zuta 1)


This midrash continues by explaining that foreigners were easily recognizable by their dress. Naomi’s return to Bethlehem with two Moavite daughters-in-law in tow certainly could have made her homecoming more difficult. It may be for this reason that Naomi objected so strenuously to the company of her daughters-in-law upon her return to Bethlehem.


The possibility that Naomi genuinely did not want her daughters-in-law to return with her may be supported by Naomi’s reaction to Ruth’s unwavering declaration that she intends to remain with her mother-in-law at all cost. Naomi does not embrace Ruth or utter words of kindness or support. In fact, she remains totally silent in the wake of Ruth’s dramatic pronouncement of loyalty. Instead, the verse states that “she ceased to speak with her.” The word to cease, chadal, suggests a deliberate action on Naomi’s part, a cessation of communication.


The next phrase, “And the two of them walked” (va-teilakhna sheteihem), may further indicate Naomi’s alienation from Ruth. This phrase is reminiscent of the well-known phrase depicting Avraham’s journey with his son in obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son (Bereishit 22:6). Nevertheless, in Bereishit, the phrase continues with a significant word which depicts their unity, “And the two of them walked together” (va-yeilekhu sheneihem yachdav). The evocation of Avraham and Yitzchak’s concord during their difficult journey contrasts with the sense of disunity invoked in this scenario, where Naomi returns to Bethlehem alongside her unwanted daughter-in-law. We can almost picture the scene, in which Naomi and Ruth silently trudge along the dusty path from Moav to Bethlehem, each lost in her own thoughts as Naomi grudgingly accepts the fact of her daughter-in-law’s presence.


One midrash suggests that they do not even walk side by side, further underscoring their alienation:


“And they walked on the road” – The road narrowed for them and they walked separately. (Ruth Rabba 2)


In the final scene of the chapter, it is clear that Ruth’s presence in no way alleviates Naomi’s bitterness, as evidenced by Naomi’s second description of herself as bitter (Ruth 1:20). Strikingly, Naomi describes the emptiness of her return without a single reference to Ruth. In fact, no one pays any attention at all to Ruth: “And the entire city converged upon them and they said, ‘Is that Naomi?’” (Ruth 1:19). It is possible that the townspeople ignore Ruth deliberately, motivated by xenophobia. Alternatively, Ruth simply goes unnoticed in the excitement and confusion of Naomi’s return. Perhaps, however, the townspeople simply pick up on Naomi’s cue, and do not regard Ruth as particularly connected to Naomi, given the manner in which Naomi ignores her companion.


Naomi’s Bid to Convert Ruth


Many midrashim regard the entire scenario in which Naomi dissuades her daughters-in-law from accompanying her as a halakhic formality, a trial to see whether or not the women really intend to join the Jewish nation. This is a prelude to the process of conversion.


“Return, my daughters, go.” R. Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yudan Bar Hanina: In three places, it is written here, “return, return, return.”[8] This is parallel to the three times that one pushes away the proselyte. If he persists more than that, one accepts him. (Ruth Rabba 2:16)


Another midrash reverses the meaning of Naomi’s thrice repeated use of the word “return”:


Naomi says, “Return, my daughters.” Return, return in repentance (shuvu, shuvu be-teshuva). (Zohar Chadash, Acharei Mot 78a)


            In this interpretation, the entire scenario is contrived to facilitate the conversion of the daughters-in-law. Indeed, as we shall see in the next shiur, this is the way in which several midrashim regard Naomi’s conversation with Ruth following Orpah’s departure. Rashi views the phrase, “And she ceased to speak with her,” as a legal component of the conversion process. He concludes that there is a point at which Naomi no longer has a right to continue to dissuade Ruth from converting:


“And she ceased to speak to her” – From here they said: You should not be excessive with [the convert] and you should not be too strict with [the convert]. (Rashi, Ruth 1:18)




We have seen three different approaches as to why Naomi attempts to dissuade her daughters-in-law from accompanying her. The first approach suggests that Naomi is motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of Orpah and Ruth. The second approach proposes that Naomi genuinely does not want her daughters-in-law to accompany her, whether because she is angry with them or embarrassed by them. The third approach regards this as a scenario, designed to test the sincerity of Ruth and Orpah in order to facilitate their conversion.


The ambiguities regarding Naomi’s incentive for discouraging her daughters-in-law are as striking as the previously noted ambiguities regarding Naomi’s desire to return to Bethlehem. They present competing perceptions of Naomi’s character, her piety, and her inner world.[9] This complexity exists both in the biblical portrayal of Naomi as well as the rabbinic representation. In fact, these biblical and rabbinic texts depict Naomi as a three-dimensional character, defined by the intricacies and multiple motivations inherent in all people.



This series of shiurim is dedicated to the memory of my mother Naomi Ruth z”l bat Aharon Simcha, a woman defined by Naomi’s unwavering commitment to family and continuity, and Ruth’s selflessness and kindness.


I welcome all comments and questions: [email protected]



[1] There is actually a halakhic assumption that animosity prevails between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law. See, e.g., Rambam, Hilkhot Geirushin 7:3, 12:16.

[2] This commandment, known as a levirate marriage, requires a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother if he dies childless, thereby providing an heir to the brother's name and heritage; see Devarim 25:5-10. In later shiurim we will examine these laws within the context of Megillat Ruth.

[3] Middle Assyrian Law 33, for example, allows the childless widow to marry either her father-in-law or her husband’s brothers, although Jewish law stipulates that she may only marry his brother. See James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (1969) p. 182.

[4] Most exegetes assume that the chessed to the dead to which Naomi refers is that the women attended to the burial of Machlon and Khilyon (Ruth Rabba 2:14). This chessed is classically termed chessed shel emet, or true kindness, because one who does this sort of chessed assumes that there will not be recompense for his actions (see Rashi, Bereishit 47:29). There is some debate as to the nature of the chessed that Ruth and Orpah did for Naomi (chessed with the living). Some have suggested that they relinquished their ketuba for Naomi (Ruth Rabba 2:14), while others maintain that they mourned together with Naomi (anonymous Arabic midrash translated and edited by Y. Kapach, Jerusalem, 1962). In accordance with the Malbim’s reading of this passage, we may suggest that the chessed done with Naomi is the manner in which they accompany Naomi on the initial stage of her journey out of Moav.

[5] There is little doubt that this is the case later with regard to Ruth, who commits herself to embracing Naomi as well as Naomi’s nation and God. We will examine this further in the next shiur.

[6] A similar reading is offered in the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the Bible: “Because I am very bitter on your account.”

[7] Referring to this scenario, the Ramban (Bereishit 37:35) avers that the term “my daughters” does not necessarily connote affection when used to refer to daughters-in-law. Rather, this is simply a common term used to designate one’s daughter-in-law.

[8] Naomi’s threefold use of the word shovna (Ruth 1:8, 11, 12) is in plural form, indicating that she is addressing both Orpah and Ruth. There is little doubt, therefore, that this midrash is indicating that Naomi was interested in Orpah’s conversion as well, and not Ruth’s alone.

[9] By not explicitly stating why Naomi dissuades Ruth and Orpah from accompanying her, the Megilla allows and even encourages multiple explanations, leaving them hovering as possibilities, each of which may enrich our reading of the story. In fact, ambiguity over crucial details is characteristic of the Tanakh, and this feature allows for a complex portrayal of the characters and plots, inviting the readers to become active participants in apprehending the nuances and complexities of the story. For further development of this idea, see, for example, Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (1985), especially pp. 186-229; Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), especially pp. 114-130.