Modest, Ethical, Scholarly, or Inventive Perspectives on Ruth, a Biblical Heroine

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Yaakov Jaffe

Few biblical heroines or heroes rise to the level of Ruth, a Moabite former princess[1] who forsook the conveniences and luxuries of her life as a gentile and elected to convert and join the Jewish people, ultimately becoming the ancestor of King David and the line of Davidic kings. Indeed, Midrash Mishlei (chapter 31) extolls the virtues of nineteen biblical heroines before concluding about Ruth that “you have reached higher than all of them,”[2] cementing her status as one of the major role models for the Jewish people for all of time.

The stories we tell about our heroines and role models reveal as much about ourselves and our own values as they do about the actual biblical figures. We expect that our heroes will conform to our ideas of proper Jewish living, and so we interpret the biblical verses to match our expectations of how a Jew should act. This essay will look at one short story about Ruth found in the book that bears her name,[3] and it will consider how different interpretations of the story reveal different ideas of Jewish heroism and the most important characteristics for one to be considered a laudatory Jewish person. 

The Biblical Verses

After Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem of the South at the start of the barley harvest, Ruth begins to gather grain among the harvesters and finds herself in the field of Boaz. A seemingly wealthy landowner, Boaz could easily have failed to notice a poor gatherer taking leftover grain in between his workers; even if he noticed Ruth, we imagine he would have quickly registered the fact and then moved on, without giving it more than a moment’s thought. Surprisingly, Boaz notices Ruth, and his interest is so piqued that he asks his assistant about her identity, asking: “To whom is this young woman [attached]?” (Ruth 2:5). The assistant replies that Ruth had returned with Naomi, and she was thus connected to Boaz’s distant relative (Ruth 2:1).

The text fails to explain, however, what about Ruth stood out so much that Boaz was motivated to ask about her. Was it her gender at a time that most of the field workers were male? Her foreign clothing (Ibn Ezra 2:5)? Was it her beauty or appearance? The text fails to say, and this inspired Jewish commentaries across generations to supply the missing detail of what indeed gripped Boaz’s attention. This lacuna in the text becomes the entry point to describe the virtues of Ruth and explain why she leads the way as one of the Bible’s chief heroines.


The Talmud is bothered by the aforementioned verses, explicitly asking, “Was Boaz accustomed to ask about a young woman?” (Shabbat 113b). To address the question, the Talmud gives two explanations as to what unique thing Boaz saw in Ruth. A baraita teaches that Boaz saw that Ruth comported herself in a modest fashion, standing while gathering the standing grain and sitting while gathering the grain that had fallen to the floor. Most of those working in the field―even if they dressed modestly―did not gather the grain in the most modest way possible, but Ruth stood out on account of her modesty. This view is also taken by Ruth Rabbah (4:6 [to 2:5]), which expands further how her modest conduct stood out when compared to the other gatherers: how she dressed modestly, and how she talked with the other workers.

Modest action is a general value of Judaism: Makkot 24a lists modesty in the short list of most essential principles of our faith, and Yevamot 79a says that bashfulness is a definitional aspect of being a Jewish person. Modest conduct of many biblical heroes and heroines is highlighted and amplified by the text of Tanakh itself, or the Midrash.[4] Ruth is a model for our conduct as Jews today because she, too, behaved in a noticeably modest way, one that other individuals in the field failed to achieve.[5]

Legal Scholarship

The aforementioned Talmudic section (Shabbat 113b) gives an alternative view of what Boaz noticed, although the position is somewhat cryptic: “Rabbi Elazar said: [Boaz] saw wisdom within her―she gathered two, but she did not gather three.” This view indicates an alternative view of Ruth’s heroism, beyond modesty, and later commentaries debate about what exactly Rabbi Elazar had in mind.

Rashi interprets the Talmud as saying that Ruth had an unusual depth of Jewish legal scholarship, and Boaz noticed her knowledge and erudition. Ruth knew that the law only permitted her to gather two stalks that had been dropped by the harvesters and now lay together, not three. Torah law requires a landowner to leave over fallen stalks for the poor (Leviticus 23:22), but the Torah does not specify at what point the fallen stalks become so numerous that the land owner can collect them and need not leave them. The Mishnah (Peah 6:5) rules that the Torah ordinance only applies to two fallen stalks; three fallen stalks go to the field owner.[6] Most of the other poor gatherers were not learned, though, and so they would often gather beyond what they were legally entitled to (Alshikh 2:5). Ruth understood the law, however, and Boaz noticed the breadth of her knowledge.

Behind this Talmudic explanation is a belief that the role models and heroes of Judaism should possess significant, noteworthy Torah scholarship. Many other midrashim also serve a similar purpose, establishing the Torah scholarship of our biblical figures in general. The Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin alone gives three examples: Joshua is noted as having learned Torah in depth even while at war (44b), David is introduced as always being successful in halakhic arguments (93b), and Hezekiah is said to have ensured that every Jew in Israel mastered even the most arcane laws of Judaism (94b, see also 26a). The heroes of our Tanakh should also reflect the centrality of Torah in the life of a Jew and not just excel in war, politics, business, or modest conduct.

Other texts also extoll Ruth for her knowledge of matters of Judaism. In describing the procedure leading to her conversion, the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) and Midrash (Ruth Rabbah to 1:16-17 [2:22-25]) list a wide variety of areas of law that Ruth was acquainted with as part of her embrace of Judaism: affixing a mezuzah, rejecting gentile culture, the maximum distance one can walk on Shabbat, the different graveyards for the different capital punishments―indeed, all 613 commandments of Judaism. Ruth studied and learned well, and it was this aspect of her persona that stood out to Boaz.

This interpretation of the story highlights the importance of Torah knowledge, scholarship, and mastery for all Jews, including Jewish women. This reading of the Talmud credits Ruth with tremendous learning, and it hopefully inspires Jewish women to this day to study the entirety of Jewish law and tradition, even such arcane or esoteric laws as the laws of harvest gleanings.

Legal Inventiveness and a Good Business Sense

A famous interpretation of this Talmudic passage disagrees with Rashi and gives a significantly different reading of the rule of two and three stalks. In this view, Ruth is singled out for a good instinct for business and for legal inventiveness, values which receive less prominence in traditional Jewish texts but which do find some discussion.[7] It is unclear whether this interpretation emerges from an alternative close reading of the Talmudic text, a reluctance to focus Jewish heroism on legal scholarship generally (as a Hasid might be uncomfortable with a story of a hero of Brisker Judaism), or a reluctance to center the value of Torah learning on memory and recall of a law instead of on insight and inventiveness.[8]

What was Ruth’s novel Torah conclusion? The Torah repeatedly places a variety of poor individuals (poor, foreigner, landless Levite, orphan, and widow) in the same category, and the simple sense one gets from the Torah, the Talmud, and the later decisors is that the laws of gleanings apply equally to all poor people.[9] Yet, the first Gerrer Rebbe, writing in the nineteenth century, argues that Ruth had a different understanding of these verses. She showed brave legal inventiveness to develop a new exception or category within the laws of gathering, enabling her to transcend the earlier legal limitations. In his work Hiddushei Ha-Rim, the Gerrer Rebbe argues that indeed, most poor people are only permitted to gather two fallen stalks, but Ruth was different. Since she was poor, a widow,[10] and also a convert,[11] she―and only she―was permitted to take even three fallen stalks. Thus, the Gerrer Rebbe explains the Talmud as follows: when Ruth first passed through the field, she worked quickly to take pairs of stalks which any poor person could take, leaving the groups of three; two stalks were competitive, and she focused her attention on those first. Afterward, Ruth made a second pass through the field and took the groups of three for which she had no competition, as only she was entitled to them, thereby remarkably increasing her daily take.

The interpretation is remarkable, as Ruth’s hiddush―despite being lauded in the Talmud according to this view―finds no expression in any of the halakhic sources,[12] and it is explicitly raised and rejected by sixteenth-century Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha to Shabbat). Conceptually, it is also hard to understand why being part of multiple disadvantaged categories would have a greater impact on what an individual was able to take than the sheer level of need.[13] The Gerrer Rebbe’s suggestion is also built on the argument given in the Talmud Yerushalmi that the very basis of the rule of two and three stalks comes from the words “to the ger, orphan, and widow.” But many other commentators deny the Yerushalmi’s source for the difference between two and three stalks more generally; it is hard to understand why those three words would impact the number of stalks one can collect.[14]

Whatever the issues with derivation, this view understands Ruth’s heroism in her legal ingenuity and her ability to use the law to create a favorable economic outcome, more than in her knowledge of conventional Jewish law or in her modesty.


A fourth view says that Ruth’s decision to take two and not three stalks was not a business decision but an ethical one. Tevu’ot Shor (Rabbi Alexander Shor, also author of the Simlah Hadashah, 1673-1737) in his Talmudic commentary to Shabbat (known as the Bekhor Shor) explains that Ruth surmised that Boaz allowed the poor to collect three fallen stalks―though this was not legally required―based on logic similar to the Talmudic recommendation in Bava Kama 69a. The Talmud recommends that field owners should renounce their rights to stalks that are rightfully theirs that the poor might overcollect, to prevent the poor from violating theft. Yet, Ruth was concerned that perhaps he gave the permission to do so only later in the day―or perhaps never gave so at all―and therefore, she forwent that option and instead only took two stalks in a group.

This fourth view is the exact opposite of the third one. For Hiddushei Ha-Rim, greater halakhic knowledge creates new business opportunities and new ways to outflank one’s competitors financially. For Tevu’ot Shor, greater halakhic knowledge creates a new recognition that the field owner was acting beyond the call of duty, creating a new drive to take less and allow the field owner to do what was required but not more. In one view, more knowledge begets more assets (to borrow the language of Avot 2:7). But in the other, more Torah begets more worry and causes the poor person to renounce some grain that really might have been theirs.

What makes a Jewish Hero?

This topic may seem like a Rorschach test for the reader more than an analysis of the actual text of the book of Ruth. The text doesn’t even give the faintest clue as to what Boaz noticed about Ruth, or why the two of them were drawn to each other and eventually married. As we read Ruth, however, the text begs us to consider what about Ruth makes her one of our religion’s greatest heroes and thereby to ask ourselves what makes the greatest Jewish woman or Jewish man. Modesty, ethical behavior, business acumen, and Torah scholarship have all been proposed as possibilities. It now behooves us to read the megillah with an answer in mind about what she was and what we ought to be.

[1] The text of Ruth never connects her lineage with Moabite royalty, but the Talmud does consider her a Moabite princess who descended from Eglon. See Nazir 23b, Sotah 47a, Sanhedrin 105b, Horayot 10b, Ruth Rabbah to 1:4 [2:9].

[2] This midrash is based on the observation that both Ruth and the woman of Proverbs 31 are called an “eishet hayil,” a description applied to no other woman in Tanakh.

[3] Who is the main character of the book? The book begins with Naomi (1:2) and ends with Naomi (4:14-17); her name appears a significant 21 times in the short book (Ruth’s name appears only twelve times). Naomi also undergoes a typical heroic arc from fortune, to disaster (1:19-22), to a renewed future (4:17), and so she is a better candidate to be considered the main character than Ruth is. Indeed, many of Ruth’s actions in the book are directed by Naomi, who mentors her and drives most of the action (see 2:22-3:1, 3:18, 4:3, etc.). Finally, Sanhedrin 19b seems to suggest (based on 4:17) that Ruth died in childbirth before seeing her child grow up, further supporting the idea that Naomi is the central character (although the end of Ruth Rabbah 2:2 disagrees). Lekah Tov famously argues that the purpose of the book’s writing was to provide for David’s lineage. In that case, no specific character matters as much as the general narrative of knowing how David’s great-grandparents came together.

[4] For example, see also Sarah (Bava Metzia 87a, Rashi to Genesis 12:11), Tamar (Megillah 10b), or Saul (Samuel I 10:22).

[5] There is a certain irony that it was Ruth’s very modesty that caused her to be noticed. At the very least, she was noticed for her fine character and not for her appearance.

[6] The reason for this law is unclear. Rashi on Sanhedrin (88a) seems to understand leket, generally, as being grounded in the reality that the average owner does not go back for small forgotten stalks; individuals would go back for three stalks, not two. Rabad to Torat Kohanim (Kedoshim 3:2) explains that three stalks have the status of “harvest” and therefore cannot receive the status of “forgotten from the harvest.” See also Rashash to Sanhedrin 88a and the penultimate note to this essay.

[7] One example of Jewish sages taking pride in their legal inventiveness is Shabbat 116b, where Rabban Gamliel and his sister Imma Shalom give two sophisticated arguments on either side of a specific question to reveal the hypocrisy of a Christian philosopher/judge. There are fewer stories of this sort in the Talmud and Midrash, although there are some.

[8] See Berakhot 64, where it is debated whether a “Sinai” or an “oker harim” is preferred.

[9] Thus, though Leviticus 23:22 refers to the poor person and the foreigner or “ger,” and Deuteronomy 24:19-21 refers to the orphan, widow, and foreigner/ger, the laws apply to all poor people equally, whatever their designation.

[10] Were Ruth an orphan, the argument would be stronger. In that case, she would be a member of a fourth group-set entitled to these agricultural gifts (see Deuteronomy 24:19-21).

Was Ruth also an orphan? As mentioned in the first note, some say her father was Eglon, King of Moab, and in that case she was probably an orphan, since Eglon was killed by the judge Ehud. One view in Ruth Rabbah  1:1  says the Ruth story took place during the eighty-year time period of Ehud, supporting the view that the story of Ruth took place shortly after (or slightly before) her father died. This is also the view taken by Seder Olam (chapter 12). In contrast, Tosafot (to Nazir 23b and Yevamot 48b) say she must have lived many generations after her distant ancestor Eglon, given that Eglon was killed by the second of the judges, Ehud, while Ruth lived at the time of the later judges, centuries later.

The debate about the relationship between Eglon and Ruth is the direct result of the problem of the limited number of individuals who live between Nahshon and Jesse, his great-grandson. Nahson did not enter the land of Israel (Ruth 4:20; his death is described in Seder Olam Ibid [and see Vilna Gaon loc. cit.]), but Jesse, his great-grandson, lived more than 400 years later (see Kings I 6:1, Ramban on Genesis 46:15). The midrashic solution is to argue that one or all of the generations of Boaz, Oved, and Jesse had unusually long lifespans; see Bereishit Rabbah 96:4 (note the different versions cited by Radal and Rashi 47:29, however).

[11] The ger is a foreigner who is not a member of the Jewish people through heredity and who has not inherited land and so finds himself or herself destitute. The word “ger” can mean “convert” or “foreigner” more generally (Rashi Exodus 22:20), but in Ruth’s case it is a moot question, as Ruth was a member of both categories.

[12] It does not appear in the Talmud and is never mentioned in Rambam (see Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 4:1, 4:15, 5:14-16, and 5:22) or Rashi (Leviticus 19:9) or Shulhan Arukh.

[13] Rashi (Sanhedrin 88a) explains that the basis of this rule is from the perspective of the field owner and not from the perspective of the poor people at all. The owner typically releases ownership from two fallen stalks, one imagines the effort to retrieve these stalks is not worth the small benefit, and consequently the Torah formalizes this typical sentiment through the laws of these gifts to the poor. Since the typical owner releases ownership of two and not three, the Torah follows suit in that vein. To this view, the nature of the poor person would be irrelevant to the rule.

Rashash disagrees and says the typical owner never releases even two fallen stalks, arguing that it is instead an explicit removal of ownership rights that the Torah applied onto two stalks and not three. To this view as well, the Torah releases certain stalks from the possession of their original owner; it does not give a license localized in the specific poor person to take specific grain.

[14] Rashbam Bava Batra 72b; see also sources in previous note.

Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.