Each of the three Pilgrimage Festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – has a dual aspect: Each of them celebrates both a seminal event in our national history, and a pivotal point in the natural harvest-cycle in the Land of Israel.
Pesach celebrates our Exodus from Egypt, and the beginning of the barley-harvest (which is why the Counting of the Omer, preparing for the Barley-Offering, begins on the second day of Pesach).
Shavuot celebrates the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and also the end of the wheat-harvest; which is why one of the names for Shavuot in the Torah is חַג הַקָּצִיר, the Festival of Reaping (Exodus 23:16), referring to the reaping of the wheat, which is the last grain of the year to ripen; hence the reaping of the wheat marks the end of the reaping season for the year.
Shavuot is also the season of the first fruits, which is why another name the Torah gives for Shavuot is יוֹם הַבִּכּוּרִים, the Day of the First-Fruits (Numbers 28:26): Shavuot is the season when the five species of fruit for which the Torah specifically praises Israel – grapes, figs pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8) – begin to ripen.
Hence the custom of studying the Mishnaic Tractate בִּכּוּרִים, Bikkurim, “First-Fruits”, during Shavuot.
Sukkot celebrates both the tabernacles in which we dwelt for forty years during our desert-trek, and also the end of the harvest of the fruits which began with Shavuot.
Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot are the three times in the year that every adult Jewish man was required to come up to Jerusalem, as a pilgrim to the Holy Temple (Exodus 23:17, 34:23).
We have an ancient and nigh-universal custom of reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot (see Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth 596 and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 490:9). Why is this? What is the connexion between the two?
A few answers are given.
One is that Ruth’s great-grandson, King David, whose birth is the climax of the Book of Ruth, who founded the eternal Royal Dynasty of Israel, died on Shavuot (Yerushalmi Beitzah 2:4 and Chagigah 2:3).
Another is that just as the Giving of the Torah was Israel’s national conversion to Judaism, before which they had the status of non-Jews (see for example the Ohr ha-Chayim on Leviticus 25:1);
and just as our national experience at Mount Sinai was the paradigm of the process that all prospective converts who wish to join the nation have to undergo (Keritot 8b-9a), which the Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah/Laws of Forbidden Relationships Chapter 13) cites as practical halachah –
– so too Ruth was the primordial convert, the outsider who joined the Jewish nation, whose conversion to Judaism serves until today as the paradigm for the process of conversion that all subsequent converts have to undergo (Yevamot 47b and Ruth Rabbah 2:16 ).
And all this emphasises the importance and the centrality of the Land of Israel.
The Book of Ruth opens with the words, “It happened in the days of the judging of the Judges …”, which is ambiguous. The words בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים could mean “in the days when the judges were judging”, and could equally mean “in the days when the judges were being judged”.
The inference is that while the Judges were judging the people in Israel, the people in Israel were judging the Judges, challenging their decisions. This reflects the state of anarchy and lawlessness at the time: “in those days there was no king in Israel, every man doing whatever was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25).
The Midrash expounds on this: “Woe unto the generation which judges its Judges! And woe unto the generation whose Judges need judging!” (Ruth Rabbah 1:1).
The Ibn Ezra, however, gives this an interesting twist: “There are those who say that Hashem was judging the Judges, because it was their fault that the famine came to the Land of Israel”.
By not sufficiently enforcing their authority, the Judges allowed anarchy, they did not keep the nation loyal to Torah, and the consequence was famine.
It was in this milieu that the Book of Ruth opens. It continues:
“It happened in the days of the judging of the Judges, when there was a famine in the Land, that a man went from Beit Lehem [Bethlehem] of Judea to dwell in the Fields of Moab – he and his wife and his two sons; the man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife’s name was Naomi, and his two sons’ names were Mahlon and Chilion, Ephratites from Beit Lehem of Judea. And they came to the Fields of Moab, and they were there”.
The Book of Ruth gives no indication of when these events happened, beyond informing us that it was during the time of the Judges; but this is not very precise: after all, the period of the Judges lasted some 395 years.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a), however, narrows down the time-frame by identifying Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman who married Ruth, one of the central characters of the Book of Ruth, with the Judge Ivtzan of Beit Lehem.
The Judge Ivtzan was the tenth Judge (counting from Joshua), and ruled over Israel for seven years (Judges 12:8-10), 285 years after the conquest of the Land under Joshua and 90 years before the end of the period of the Judges and the crowning of King Saul as the first King of Israel.
This suggests that Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion left Israel for Moab in Transjordan during the tenure either of Jair the Gileadite (Judges 10:3-5) or of his successor Jephthah the Gileadite (11:1-12:7).
As soon as they reached Moab, their lives fell apart:
“Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons” (Ruth 1:3).
Why did Elimelech die?
– “Because he agreed to stay outside of Israel he was punished immediately and he died. Why was he punished and not Naomi? – Because he was Naomi’s husband and he made the decisions, so the principle responsibility for the sin was his” (Malbim ad loc.).
And the Book of Ruth continues with the family misfortunes, telling us what happened to the two sons immediately after their father died: “They married Moabite women: one was called Orpah, and the other was called Ruth, and they lived there for about ten years” (Ruth 1:4).
Two nice Jewish boys who married out. As the Targum paraphrases, “They transgressed Hashem’s command by marrying Gentile women of the daughters of Moab”.
And as the Malbim (ad loc.) expresses is, “See how the sons added yet another sin by marrying Moabite women who did not convert”. This an inevitable consequence of living in exile: assimilation and intermarriage.
The family’s misfortunes were about to get far worse: “And both of them, too, Mahlon and Chilion, died – and only the woman remained from both her sons and her husband” (Ruth 1:5).
Again the Targum paraphrases: “Because they transgressed Hashem’s command by marrying with the Gentile nations, their days were cut off and they too died – both of them, Mahlon and Chilion – in an unclean land”.
Again the Malbim chimes in: “‘The woman [Naomi] remained’ – because she had not participated in their sin; and she had always had the intention to return to the Land of Israel”.
So the Book of Ruth begins by depicting two grievous sins, both of which brought immediate punishment: leaving the Land of Israel, and marrying out.
Concerning the sin of leaving Israel:
“The Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden to leave from Israel to outside of the Land unless two se’ahs [of agricultural produce] cost a sela. Rabbi Shimon says: When does this apply? – At a time when he is unable to buy even at that price; however, if he is able to buy, then even if just one se’ah costs a sela he may not leave. As Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion were leaders and sustainers of the generation; and why were they punished? – Because they left Israel” (Bava Batra 91a-b).
Let us put the phrase “two se’ahs [of agricultural produce] cost a sela” into perspective.
The se’ah is a measurement of volume, estimated at 8.3 litres or 17½ U.S. liquid pints (Rabbi Avraham Chaim Na’eh); or 11.8 litres or 25 U.S. liquid pints (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein): or 14.4 litres or 30½ U.S. liquid pints (Chazon Ish).
The sela was a silver coin, which would pay the rent for an apartment for a month (Bava Metzia 5:2); an agricultural labourer’s daily wage would be 1 zuz (= ¼ sela) per day most of the year, 1 sela per day in the harvest season (Bava Batra 86b-87a).
So two se’ahs of agricultural produce means about 24 litres (50 U.S. liquid pints), maybe 30% less or 20% more. That is to say, if a box of agricultural produce, 30 cm (1 foot) on each side, costs as much as one month’s rent for a cheap apartment; or alternatively if such a box costs as much as a manual labourer would earn in four days – then it is justified to leave Israel.
Elimelech and his family were punished so harshly for leaving Israel during the famine, when ostensibly it may have been justified, because he was a leader of his generation; and we expect and demand far higher standards from leaders than we do from ordinary people.
And the rest of the Book of Ruth recounts the events of how Naomi returned to the Land of Israel, of how Ruth tied her future irrevocably with the Nation of Israel, how converting to Judaism inevitably entailed making Aliyah and living the rest of her life in Israel.
Because Shavuot celebrates the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai as well as the end of the wheat-harvest and the beginning of the season of the first fruits in Israel, the Torah-reading for Shavuot is Exodus 19:1-20:23, the narrative of our arrival at Mount Sinai, the Giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments.
When G-d appeared to the entire Jewish nation, in this unique Revelation, He introduced Himself with the words, “I am Hashem your G-d, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the slave-house” (Exodus 20:2), the First Commandment.
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the word הוֹצֵאתִיךָ, “brought you out”, occurs just three times in the entire Tanach: twice in the Ten Commandments (here and when Moshe repeats them in Deuteronomy 5), and when G-d told Abraham, “I am Hashem, Who הוֹצֵאתִיךָ, brought you out from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this Land to inherit it” (Genesis 15:7).
And the Ba’al ha-Turim deduces from this “that He brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees to give his descendants the Torah”.
Now this seems puzzling: G-d clearly told Abraham, “I…brought you out from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this Land to inherit it”. How, then, could the Ba’al ha-Turim say that He brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees to give his descendants the Torah?
To answer this, we return to Bava Batra (quoted above), “it is forbidden to leave from Israel to outside of the Land unless two se’ahs [of agricultural produce] cost a sela”.
Why is it forbidden to leave the Land of Israel?
The Rashbam, a grandson and close student of Rashi, comments simply and sweetly, “It is forbidden to leave Israel – because he thereby breaks himself free of the mitzvot”.
What does the Rashbam mean? How does a Jew who leaves Israel break himself free of the mitzvot?
It was Jeremiah, the Prophet of the Exile, who exhorted his beloved people as they being led into exile in Babylon, “Establish for yourself road-markers (צִיֻּנִים, tziyyunim), place for yourself landmarks, take careful heed of the road that you walk, [so that you will be able to] return, O virgin of Israel! Return to these, your cities!” (Jeremiah 31:20).
These “road-markers” and “landmarks” are the mitzvot:
“Even though I exile you from the Land [of Israel] to the Diaspora, still be distinguished (מְצֻיָּנִים, metzuyyanim) by the mitzvot, so that when you return they will not be new to you… As Jeremiah said: ‘Establish for yourself road-markers, place for yourself landmarks, take careful heed of the road that you walk’” (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Eikev 43).
Rashi cites this Midrash in his commentary to Deuteronomy 11:18: “Place these My words upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them as a sign on your arm, and they will be a sign [טוֹטָפֹת, meaning Tefillin] between your eyes” (instantly familiar of course as it is part of the second paragraph of the Shema).
“Even after being exiled, still be distinguished by the mitzvot, don Tefillin, make Mezuzot, so that they will not be new when you return [to Israel]. As [the Prophet] said, ‘Establish for yourself road-markers’”.
This is the reason for keeping mitzvot outside of Israel: So that when you return to the Land, they won’t be something new and unfamiliar! The Jew outside of Israel really has broken free of the mitzvot! The mitzvot don’t obligate him – but he must nevertheless put on Tefillin, attach Mezuzot to his door-posts, make Kiddush, keep the Chagim…why? So that when he comes back home to Israel, he will know how to do all these, they will all be familiar to him!
So yes, the Jew who leaves the Land of Israel indeed breaks himself free of the mitzvot, and now we can understand why Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion were punished so severely for leaving Israel for the fields of Moab.
Shavuot synthesises the Torah and the Land of Israel perfectly and beautifully. G-d gave us His Torah on this day to keep in the Land of Israel.
The Torah-reading relates our beginning as a holy nation – the Giving of the Torah. And Megillat Rut relates a crucial series events in the history of the Land of Israel – the origins of King David, the origins of the Jewish Royal Dynasty which will culminate with the Mashiach.
The Torah and the Land. The two essential components of being Jewish. The two essential components, each of which is inherently incomplete without the other.