Ruth the Moavite in the Fields of Bethlehem
By Dr. Yael Ziegler
Shiur #14: Ruth the Moavite in the Fields of Bethlehem
And Ruth the Moavite said to Naomi, I will go to the field,
Ruths words to Naomi may be read either as a request for permission or as a firm declaration of intentions. The word na, often translated as please or by your leave, may indicate a deferential entreaty to Naomi to allow her to go. Naomis response, then, would indicate her assent to Ruths petition.
Alternatively, Ruths usage of the word na may be a means of establishing a logical consequence of the general situation, a resolute determination to find a solution to their wretched circumstances. In this reading, Ruth emerges (once again) as a strong-willed and purposeful young woman, whose unflagging belief in doing the right thing allows her to make decisions with clarity and determination. By contrast, Naomis response seems weak and somewhat muted, marked by brevity and lack of enthusiasm. In fact, Naomis brief utterance echoes her previous attempt to dissuade her daughters-in-law from joining her: Return, my daughters, go (Ruth 1:12). The fact that these are Naomis first words to Ruth since her strenuous bid to convince Ruth to return to her nation may suggest that Naomi is again pushing Ruth away, even as Ruth aspires to draw closer and be of service to her mother-in-law.
In any case, Ruths decision to go and pick in the fields like
a pauper is an indication of her humility and kindness. Naomi does not
offer to accompany Ruth, either because of her apathy, her advanced age, or
perhaps due to the extreme indignity that would attend her public behavior as a
pauper. According to midrashic accounts, Naomi left wealthy, and her miserable
After Him in Whose Eyes I Shall Find Favor
Ruth is uncertain as to the prospects of her success, as
evidenced by her comment that she
possible that Ruths search for someone who will show her favor does not concern
permission to gather leftover grain in the fields. That is her undeniable right.
Ruths mission may be a bit more ambitious. Rashi (Ruth
2:2) maintains that Ruths quest is to find someone who will not admonish her
and will treat her well. Even if this is not the case, Ruths words raise the
question of the manner in which the inhabitants of
Ruths assumption may be another symptom of the social degeneration of the period of the Judges. And as it turns out, Ruths search for a benevolent landowner is necessary. Boazs kindness includes explicit instructions to the men in the field not to touch Ruth (2:9), not to humiliate her (2:15), and not to admonish her (2:16)! In fact, it seems that were it not for Boazs patronage, Ruth would have been subject to degradation and harassment. This confirms that the general population in the book of Ruth behaves no differently than the people in the book of Shoftim, which is characterized by the corruption of society and the collapse of interpersonal relations.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that when Ruth speaks these
words, she is introduced as Ruth the Moavite. Ruths Moavite appellation may
indicate her ignorance in matters of Jewish law (and therefore her unawareness
of her rights to glean in the fields). However, it is more likely that Ruth
speaks as a Moavite, in that she recognizes that her Moavite status precludes
her ability to assume the right to glean as a poor person. The Moavites did not
provide bread and water to the Israelites on their journey out of
And She Went and She Arrived and She Harvested
What actually does happen to Ruth the Moavite on her initial
sojourn in the fields of
We found in Midrash Ruth that by the time she went, she came. As it says, and she came, and afterward, and she picked. But she would mark the paths prior to her entrance to the field and she went and came and returned to the city in order to make markers and indicators so that she would not make a mistake on the paths and would know how to return. (Rashi, Ruth 2:3)
This Hansel and Gretel scene is a response to the unnecessary repetition of the word va-tavo (and she came) after the word va-teilekh (and she went). The midrash suggests that Ruth actually returns to her point of origin after she already arrived at the field in order to leave markers on the path. While the midrash is ostensibly depicting Ruths understandable fear of losing her way on her first day in the fields, it is possible that the primary intention of this midrash is to illustrate Ruths devotion to Naomi. Even when Ruth leaves Naomi, she meticulously creates a path of return to Naomi, thereby indicating that Ruth has created an unbreakable bond with Naomi.
Another possible reading of this rapid sequence of verbs
relates to Ruths Moavite status and the unfriendly reception that she
anticipates in the fields of
And Boaz said to his boy who oversees the reapers, To whom is this girl? And the boy who oversees the reapers answered and he said, She is a Moavite girl, who has returned with Naomi from the fields of Moav. And she had said, I shall reap and gather the sheaves behind the reapers. And she came and she stood from the morning until now; she only sat in the house for a little bit. (Ruth 2:5-7)
overseers response to Boazs query may shed further light on Ruths
experiences. There are three parts to his response. He begins by identifying
Ruth, explaining who she is and with whom she is associated in
overseers initial description of Ruth does not appear to be positive. She is
depicted as a Moavite girl, who is, furthermore, associated with Naomi, who
was from the fields of Moav. Each of these descriptions Ruths Moavite status,
her association with Naomi, and the deliberate reminder that Naomi had been in
the fields of Moav, which were presumably full while the fields of
The boys citation of Ruths words also may not be entirely
faithful. In verse 2, Ruth had stated that she intends to go and pick the stalks
(ba-shibolim), as is customary with the mitzva of leket. It may be that
the overseer offers a slight modification of Ruths intentions. He has her
boldly stating that she intends to pick and gather sheaves (omarim), a
bundle of stalks. This depiction
of Ruths greedy and unlawful behavior seems
designed to raise Boazs ire. How dare this
Moavite stranger enter a field in
Whether the overseer accurately cites Ruths words or not, it is unclear whether Ruth has in fact acted upon her stated intentions. The overseers description of Ruths actions is especially intriguing, as it may shed further clarity upon Ruths present situation. He describes two separate actions: that Ruth came and stood from the morning until now, and that Ruth only sat in the house for a little bit. The description of Ruth standing is especially peculiar. Reapers do not stand, they walk up and down the rows of the field as they pick. In fact, this image of Ruth standing is one of inaction, rather than action.
In view of this oddity, I would like to suggest a possible chain of events. Early that first morning, Ruth apprehensively made her way to the fields, aware that she may be rebuffed and prevented access to the area that traditionally is set aside for poor people. This is indeed Ruths initial experience, as she determinedly makes her way from one field to another, entering and immediately exiting, accompanied, perhaps, by the hostile jeers of the townspeople. When she does happen upon Boazs field, the attitude of the people there is not considerably kinder. Nevertheless, the workers hesitate to banish Ruth, knowing full well that their owner is particularly scrupulous about the commandments relating to the poor people in his fields. This does not mean that they allow her to work in the fields; rather, they defer a response to her request, motioning her to the side to wait for the owner to arrive at his field. This accounts for the description of Ruth standing (va-taamod), as she is not permitted to pick until she receives permission from Boaz. By fortunate coincidence, Boaz happens to arrive at his field not long after and immediately notices the young woman, standing by the side in the hot sun, waiting to see if she will be permitted to pick. Boazs query about Ruth is followed by the overseers somewhat defensive explanation justifying his decision not to allow Ruth into the field. This explanation may be an indication that Boazs query contained a note of irritation or anger, as may be evidenced by Boazs total lack of response to the overseers attempts to explain. Instead, ignoring the flustered overseer, Boaz turns directly to Ruth:
Have you not heard, my daughter? Do not go to pick in another field! And also, do not pass by here! And so shall you cleave to my young women [reapers]. Your eyes shall be on [that] field where you shall reap, and you should go after them [the young women]. Have I not commanded the boys that they are not to touch you? And if you shall get thirsty, you may go to the vessels and drink from [the water] that the boys have drawn. (Ruth 2:8-9)
Boazs repetitive and persuasive speech appears designed, first and foremost, to convince Ruth not to depart from his field. If Ruth had already been reaping, why would she need to be persuaded three times to remain? It seems that Ruth has waited long enough, endured enough in Boazs field. The overseer has treated her contemptuously, the boys were touching her inappropriately, and the day has progressed without Ruth accomplishing that which she had set out to do: obtaining food for herself and Naomi. Ruth is ready to leave and try her luck elsewhere. Boazs placating words are meant to appease her, to convince her not to leave, to kindly, but insistently, draw her back to his fields, by ensuring her safety and her ability to obtain food.
And she fell on her face and she prostrated herself to the ground. And she said to him, Why have I found favor in your eyes to recognize me, and I am but a stranger? (Ruth 2:10)
In light of the above scenario, Ruths extreme gratitude for
Boazs kindness is not at all disproportionate. No one has yet been kind to her
Indeed, why is Boaz different? Why is he kind to Ruth, when all of the townspeople treat her so badly? I have already noted Boazs extraordinary character, his generosity, and his ability to recognize the other. We will see, however, in next weeks shiur, that Boaz himself will attribute his actions to Ruths extraordinary character, her generosity, and her willingness to accompany Naomi and join the Jewish nation.
This series of shiurim is dedicated to the memory of my mother Naomi Ruth zl bat Aharon Simcha, a woman defined by Naomis unwavering commitment to family and continuity, and Ruths selflessness and kindness.
I welcome all comments and questions: [email protected]
 In fact, most English translations offer some version of this reading, rendering the word na as a request for permission: please, let me go, if you will, by your leave, and the like.
 See T. O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (1971), p. 170, where he maintains that this is the biblical usage of the word na. See also E. F. Campbell Jr., Ruth, pp. 71-72. Some examples of this usage of the word na include Bereishit 19:8; Shemot 3:3; I Melakhim 1:12.
 While Ruth Zuta 2:2 suggests that until Ruths declaration, Naomi provided for both of them, the text itself preserves no such notion. (This midrash does not specify by name whether it was Naomi or Ruth who provided; however, the context suggests that it is Naomi.) Naomis stated bitterness is accompanied by passivity, suggesting apathy, and perhaps even a desire to die. This apathy is reminiscent of the midrash which identified Yoash as one of Naomis sons who was called thus because of his despair (Bava Batra 91b). In the final analysis, it is only Ruths actions that deliver Naomi from the threat of starvation that hovers over them at the opening of this chapter.
 While we have no knowledge of Ruths background, several midrashic sources portray Ruth as the daughter of the Moavite king, Eglon (e.g. Ruth Rabba 2:9; Tanhuma Ve-Yehi 14). This derives in part from the nobility of character that she displays throughout the story. This midrashic idea also draws attention to Ruths humility.
 This approach seems to be textually supported by Naomis words: I left full and God returned me empty (Ruth 1:21).
 See Vayikra 19:10; 23:22, where certain rights in the field are allotted to the pauper and the stranger. In Devarim 24:19-22 similar privileges are accorded the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
 Perhaps Ruth is suggesting that she is searching for someone who is interested in a relationship with her. I raise this possibility in a footnote rather than in the main body of the shiur because I consider this unlikely, given the circumstances. Ruth has already been told by Naomi that she should not entertain hopes of marriage in Bethlehem. Moreover, Ruth has experienced firsthand the lack of enthusiasm with which Naomi was welcomed back to Bethlehem and the manner in which the townspeople completely ignore her presence alongside Naomi. Most of the usages of the phrase to find favor in someones eyes, refer to the favor of an inferior from his superior, although the following usages may indicate a romantic element in this idiom: Devarim 24:1; Esther 5:8; 7:3. Thus, it seems more likely that Ruth is simply looking to obtain kindness from a wealthy landowner in whose fields she will glean.
 It is possible and even likely (as we shall see) that Ruth was, in fact, subject to unpleasant treatment prior to Boazs arrival in the field.
 See Ruth Rabba 4:4.
 I have followed Ibn Ezras translation of the word shivta as she sat. See also Ibn Ezra (Peirush Ha-Arokh), Shemot 21:19. Other translations slightly change the vocalization to shaveta, meaning to rest (see e.g. Septuagint) or offer a translation which relates the word shivta to the word shuv, to return (e.g. Vulgate), a root used frequently in the previous chapter.
 Many scholars think otherwise, viewing the overseers words as a positive evaluation of Ruth (see e.g. Yair Zakovitch, Ruth, p. 71).
 See Bereishit 41:12, where Joseph is called naar ivri in a similarly disparaging manner. In particular, calling someone a naar when they have previously been referred to as an adult appears to be an attempt to denigrate the person. Ruth has been referred to by Naomi as an isha (Ruth 1:9). For further examples, see Yehoshua 6:23; I Shmuel 31:5-6, 13. This does not mean that a naar is a derogatory word (see, e.g. Shemot 33:11), but rather that it suggests a demotion when used to describe an adult.
 Leket, literally gleanings, refers to the obligation upon the reaper to allow the stalks of grain that fall from his hand or the sickle while the grain is being gathered to belong to the poor people in the field (see, Vayikra 19:9, 23:22; Mishna Peah chapters 4-5).
 Note once again Ruths usage of the word na, which again I would claim is not necessarily a request for permission, but rather the overseers way of illustrating for Boazs sake Ruths presumptuous boldness. It is doubtful that Ruth actually assumed the aggressive tone conveyed by the overseer. I maintain that it is likewise doubtful that this is an accurate quote of Ruths words.
 Sheaves of grain are allowed only when they are forgotten in the field (shikhecha) while the harvest is being brought to the threshing floor (see Devarim 24:19; Mishna Peah 5:7-7:2). The Targum suggests that Ruth is actually asking to glean stalks so that she can gather them into sheaves. Rashi assumes that this citation is accurate and lawful because Ruth is referring to her right to gather the forgotten sheaves (the mitzva of shikhecha). Nevertheless, this does not accurately reflect the scenario described, in which Ruth goes to the field in order to follow after the reapers who may drop some stalks (leket).
 As I noted, this phrase (ze shivta ha-bayit meat) is difficult to translate or to understand in the context. Malbim suggests that Ruth is described here as so hardworking that she only went to rest a bit from the sun in the shade of the hut. Note the Septuagints reading: And she came and stood from morning until evening and rested not even a little in the field. While this depiction of Ruths character is certainly borne out by the long day she works in the field (2:17), the overseers generally negative portrayal of Ruth lends itself to the suggestion that he is pointing out her avaricious behavior in her unceasing gleaning.
 E. F. Campbell, Ruth, p. 96, offers this explanation of the word va-taamod. Like many scholars, his view of the overseer is more positive than the one that I presented above.
 This scenario has the additional advantage of explaining why, in fact, Boaz immediately notices Ruth. We offered several possible explanations in the previous shiur, but this may be the simplest one of all. Boaz notices Ruth because she is not picking, but is instead lingering conspicuously on the side, waiting for the owner to arrive at his field.
 Boazs later words also indicate his rejection of the overseers negative citation of Ruths words. In his later instructions to his reapers, Boaz states that Ruth should also be allow to pick amongst the sheaves. Boaz follows this instruction by commanding the reapers not to shame her. In other words, Boaz seems to be saying that even if Ruth did make an irregular, or even unlawful, request, it should be fulfilled on his personal orders, without indicating to her that it is not the norm.
 I will briefly note here Boazs usage of the word davak as part of his extraordinary kindness to Ruth. This word draws our attention to Ruths previous unique decision to cleave to Naomi, rather than perfunctorily kissing her goodbye like Orpah. Boazs reference to this action is meant to explain that his kindness to Ruth is deserved and not arbitrary. It is also the first instance of an important theme in this book of reward and punishment. We will examine this idea at length in a later shiur.