Art­work cropped from the cov­er of Ruth: A Migrant’s Tale by Ilana Pardes

If Ruth’s charm nev­er seems to dimin­ish, it is in part because of the rit­u­als that com­mem­o­rate her tale. The cus­tom of read­ing the Book of Ruth dur­ing the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, first emerged in a late phase of Rab­binic Judaism, in the peri­od of the Geon­im (between 589 and 1038 CE). We have no records of the rab­binic dis­cus­sion regard­ing the deci­sion to add the Book of Ruth to the holiday’s litur­gi­cal cor­pus, but the fact that Ruth’s tale takes place dur­ing the har­vest sea­son must have made it a com­pelling sup­ple­ment to the cel­e­bra­tion of a hol­i­day that is defined in the Bible as a har­vest feast (Exo­dus 34:22). 

With­in the rab­binic world, how­ev­er, Shavuot is not only an agri­cul­tur­al hol­i­day. It acquires addi­tion­al sig­nif­i­cance as a feast that com­mem­o­rates the giv­ing of the Torah, matan Torah, at Mount Sinai. The rab­bis deduced that the num­ber of weeks that passed between the Exo­dus from Egypt and the event at Mount Sinai is equiv­a­lent to the num­ber of weeks between Passover and Shavuot. But how is the Book of Ruth relat­ed to the giv­ing of the Torah at Sinai? We can count on the rab­bis to find sev­er­al inno­v­a­tive con­nec­tions. Two Tal­mud­ists, writ­ing in the eleventh cen­tu­ry, offer intrigu­ing expla­na­tions. In Lekah Tov, Tobi­ah ben Eliez­er calls atten­tion to the cen­tral­i­ty of hesed (lov­ing-kind­ness) in both cas­es: Why is this scroll read dur­ing Shavuot? Because this scroll is whol­ly devot­ed to hesed and the Torah is all about hesed … and was giv­en on the hol­i­day of Shavuot.” Simhah ben Samuel of Vit­ry explores anoth­er tra­jec­to­ry. In Mach­zor Vit­ry, he draws a com­par­i­son between Ruth’s tale and the sto­ry of the chil­dren of Israel at Sinai. Much like her, they under­go a rit­u­al of con­ver­sion, as it were, when they accept God’s com­mand­ments and find shel­ter under divine wings. If the bib­li­cal law calls upon the Israelites to remem­ber their past as ger­im, as strangers in a strange land (Deuteron­o­my 24:18), Simhah ben Samuel of Vit­ry holds a mir­ror to his read­ers and invites them to regard them­selves as Ruth and acknowl­edge the ways in which they too were con­verts of sorts, seek­ing a new begin­ning along an ardu­ous road. 

The rel­e­vance of Ruth’s life to Shavuot has been rein­ter­pret­ed time and again over the cen­turies. Six­teenth-cen­tu­ry kab­bal­ists invent­ed a new rit­u­al Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night vig­il of study. In their eyes, the giv­ing of the Torah is insep­a­ra­ble from the wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny of the Shekhi­nah and her divine con­sort, which is why they feel the urge to pro­vide the bride with the most refined adorn­ments, tikku­nim (the term tikkun in this con­text means adorn­ment) as a present. What bet­ter dec­o­ra­tion could they bestow upon the Shekhi­nah than a neck­lace of scrip­tur­al texts? They sit all night and link diverse vers­es – beads of sorts – from the three divi­sions of the Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writ­ings. Thanks to their efforts, the exil­ic rift in heav­en van­ish­es momen­tar­i­ly as the divine lovers unite. And giv­en that the kab­bal­ists view Ruth as one of the embod­i­ments of the Shekhi­nah, her tale is of utmost impor­tance to the holiday.

What will the next chap­ters of Ruth’s exeget­i­cal his­to­ry look like?

Anoth­er rad­i­cal shift occurred some five hun­dred years lat­er in the con­text of ear­ly Zion­ism. In Shavuot cer­e­monies of the kib­butz­im, the agri­cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance of the hol­i­day was restored and Ruth was set on a pedestal as a pre­cur­sor of the Zion­ist woman pio­neer. In the past two decades, we have wit­nessed anoth­er swerve in Israeli cul­ture. Many cul­tur­al insti­tutes in Israel, both sec­u­lar and reli­gious, hold study vig­ils through­out the evening and night of Shavuot. In this revi­sion­ary adap­ta­tion of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Ruth’s tale has a place of hon­or. There are talks, or even ses­sions, on the Book of Ruth in almost every Tikkun of Shavuot. Many of these talks are devot­ed to ques­tions of gen­der and migra­tion or some kind of mix­ture of the two top­ics. In 2014, ALMA held a Tikkun titled The Ger, the Stranger, and the Oth­er” (ha-ger, ha-zar, ve-ha’aher), using the verse from Ruth 2:11To come to a peo­ple that you did not know in time past” – as a sub­ti­tle. One of the pan­els called atten­tion to the deplorable liv­ing con­di­tions of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan in Tel Aviv while crit­i­ciz­ing the Israeli government’s immi­gra­tion policy.

This cur­rent trend is just as vibrant in the con­text of Ruth’s Amer­i­can recep­tion. In the 1980s, Tikkun Leil Shavuot obser­vances were held by lib­er­al Jew­ish Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties with spe­cial atten­tion to the ques­tion of social jus­tice. In recent years, such Tikku­nim have become more vis­i­ble giv­en that many Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties across the US have adopt­ed the cus­tom. The embrace of Shavuot as a feast for activists is also evi­dent on web­sites of Jew­ish Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions. The web­site of the Hebrew Immi­grant Aid Soci­ety is exem­plary. Found­ed in 1881 to assist Jews flee­ing pogroms in Rus­sia and East­ern Europe, HIAS now seeks to pro­vide aid to all who have fled per­se­cu­tion. Its blog for Shavuot calls for a read­ing of the Book of Ruth, as a tale that can teach us much about wel­com­ing the stranger” in our midst.

What will the next chap­ters of Ruth’s exeget­i­cal his­to­ry look like? We can pre­dict that Ruth’s migra­to­ry dimen­sion will con­tin­ue to be piv­otal in future events of Shavuot. Migra­tion is one of the most press­ing prob­lems of our time, with polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions we must reck­on with dai­ly. In recent decades, we have wit­nessed mil­lions of migrants and refugees seek­ing shel­ter and sus­te­nance in oth­er coun­tries. And dis­putes over immi­gra­tion poli­cies are among today’s most heat­ed debates. But migra­tion con­cerns us not only in the polit­i­cal sphere. It touch­es on our per­son­al lives in pro­found ways. Many of us are either immi­grants our­selves, chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of immi­grants, or some com­bi­na­tion there­of. We can also assume that Ruth’s plight will con­tin­ue to serve as a pri­ma­ry touch­stone through which to explore the speci­fici­ties of the expe­ri­ences of women migrants. Along­side these more fore­see­able adap­ta­tions, we can pre­dict that, soon­er or lat­er, Ruth will emerge in anoth­er garb alto­geth­er, one that we can’t even begin to imag­ine at the moment.

Ilana Pardes is Katharine Cor­nell Pro­fes­sor of Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture and the direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Lit­er­ary Stud­ies at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem. She is the author of Coun­ter­tra­di­tions in the Bible and The Song of Songs: A Biog­ra­phy.