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Shavuot and The Book of Ruth

Dear Friends,

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, I share with you excerpts of a paper on the Book of Ruth and the holiday of Shavuot that I wrote a few years ago.


A number of questions swirl around the Book of Ruth. We read it every year and yet we are never told explicitly why it was attached to the holiday of Shavuot nor what we are meant to take away from this pastoral tale. What are we to learn from this seemingly simple tale of devotion? Is it merely to establish King David’s lineage?

How does the journey of these two women relate to the holiday of Shavuot? How does the story of Ruth amplify the meaning of this holiday? Actually, if we focus on the Book of Ruth as a way into the holiday, it may have less of an identity crisis. Shavuot has been called the "forgotten holiday," despite its importance, particularly in the liberal Jewish community, where its observance is less than that of Sukkot or Passover.

Shavuot has five names and no mitzvot that are particular to it. However, if we connect each of the names of the holiday to the Book of Ruth, we enrich the entirety of the holiday and create points of entry to this very spiritual day.

The name Shavuot means Feast of Weeks, and it marks the seven weeks following the Exodus from Egypt. This journey is echoed in the Book of Ruth by Naomi and Ruth’s journey from Moab to Judah. Although we are given no details of the journey, we know that it took time. It is also a story of leaving a place of difficulty and loss and going up to the “promised land,” just as the Israelites left Egypt and had difficulty on the journey.

The name that has the most obvious connection to the Book of Ruth is Hag Ha Katsir, the Festival of Reaping. It is just precisely at this time of year that Ruth and Naomi enter the Land.

The season of the Festival of Reaping is the transitional point in their lives. It is because Ruth follows the reapers and is noticed by Boaz, that she and Naomi have enough to sustain them. It is also a real example of leaving the corners of the field for the poor. We learn here just how important that injunction is to those who have no other means of feeding themselves.

Yom ha Bikkurim, Day of the First Fruits: what does this name have to do with Ruth and Naomi? At the end of the story we are left with the picture of Naomi holding Ruth’s first-born son, Obed. He is the first fruit for Ruth, her first born, and she willingly hands him over to Naomi, for which the chorus of women praises her. They tell Naomi that Ruth is better than seven sons. We are never told if Ruth has other children, but it is Ruth who is acknowledged as Obed’s mother, not Naomi.

The fourth name is Azeret,, which literally means assembly. The name is said to refer to the fact that Shavuot concludes a process that began at Passover. However, Azeret is a stand-alone holiday. This is the name found in the Talmud and it can be interpreted to mean, “Remain with me (God) another day.” At first glance, this name is the most difficult to connect to the Book of Ruth. But if we look at this interpretation of Azeret to mean a desire to prolong the connection between God and the people, an interpretation emerges. Naomi and Ruth’s saga does not happen in a vacuum; upon their return, they are part of a community, a gathering of women. It is these women who contextualize and acknowledge God’s role in the birth of Obed. God remains with this community another day.

Zeman Matan Torateinu, the Time of the Giving of our Torah, is the pivotal moment in the life of the Jewish people. We are all at Sinai ready to receive God’s law. We are ready to become a nation bound by law and the midrash tells us that all of us were there. It is a moment of high drama with both sound and light effects. The people heard the lightning and saw the thunder. It is an extravagant moment -- an overwhelming moment.

It is this last name of the holiday that speaks to the spiritual and transcendent quality of the Book of Ruth. The events at Mount Sinai are on an enormous scale, while the events in the Book of Ruth are intimate, like a chamber piece. The events at Mount Sinai can be understood through the prism that is the Book of Ruth. God does not always speak through thunder and lightning. God is present in the every day, in the seemingly ordinary behavior of human beings as they deal with one another. God’s presence is manifest throughout the book, from the famine that starts the story to the deaths of all the men in the family to the final moments of redemption. It is the kindness that the major players show to one another that makes God manifest in the world. Although the grandeur of Mount Sinai is indeed powerful and awe inspiring, it is the small story of two women that has the capacity to instruct us as we face the real obstacles that confront us in our ordinary lives as we seek to feel God’s presence. It is Naomi who teaches us about the faith required to move forward even as we are filled with bitterness and loss, and it is Ruth who gives us the understanding of what real commitment entails, both to one another and to God.

May they continue to inspire us in the days ahead.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Note: For those who have the tradition of lighting Yahrzeit candles in honor of family members who have died, the candles are to be lit Friday evening before sunset.

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781