Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for May 2013

This is the opening sidra of the book of Numbers. The reason why Numbers is so called is that, at the beginning of the book, Moses numbers the multitude of Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai, a census, yielding a result of 603,550. This excludes Levites, women
and children, since the point of the census is to ascertain the numbers of men eligible for military conscription.

Whereas the Greek and Latin names of this book, Arithmoi and Numeri, also refer to the numbers counted, the Hebrew name Bemidbar means ‘In the wilderness.’ The words Bemidbar Sinai, in the wilderness of Sinai, occur in the first sentence, and Numbers does indeed relate the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, their battles and rebellions and Moses’ continuing struggle to control and satisfy the mixed multitude of whom he is the reluctant leader.

Tribe by tribe, the Israelite men are counted, Levites excepted, as their role is to maintain the Tabernacle. A chieftain of each tribe is designated to assist Moses and Aaron in the census.

The Israelites camp in tribes, each tribe under their own banner, like the regiment of an army. The disposition of the tribes as they journey forth from their camp has every appearance of being strategic; essentially they are a fighting force.

Censuses in the bible tend to be discouraged. In Mesopotamian and Israelite cultures, they were considered unlucky, and a verse in Exodus prescribes that, when a census is taken of the people of Israel, each person counted has to pay a half shekel tax to avert plague and, as it happens, the number of half shekels contributed by Israelite men over twenty years of age amounted to 603,550 half shekels.

As you’ll see from the haftarah (1 Samuel 2) David’s unauthorised census resulted in a plague. Why was his census unauthorised? Nachmanides, following a midrashic tradition, said it was because David didn’t count to assess his military force but simply to know the size of the nation he ruled.

When Moses counts the number of potential warriors, he counts them l’gulglotam which means by their heads, or by their skulls, a term used elsewhere in connection with polling, or counting persons, for tax or census purposes.

Our English word polling, used in connection with voting in elections, is similarly based on the original meaning of the word poll, as the top of the head. When it comes to the polling booth, where the anonymous individual casts his vote in secret ballot, we have the same
delicacy about naming the voters as persons. The names are on the electoral register – that is how you get to vote – but the vote has a dynamic life of its own, not traceable to the person who voted.

The Israelite warriors, when counted, also become something other than persons. Their individuality is sunk in the collective noun of the fighting force the zva b’Yisroel, the host of Israel, just as the Israeli Defence Force today is called Zva Haganah L’Yisrael. As the
Israelites cross the wilderness, in danger of attack from many hostile tribes, the counting of the heads seems to be a regrettable necessity. By contrast with Moses, David takes a census, in the security of his kingdom and the plague follows. Numbering the population is adangerous activity, not to be embarked on lightly, perhaps because there is a humanitarian risk when one reduces a person to a number.

Moses and Aaron count the Israelites in units according to their tribe and their fathers’ houses. This creates a record of the relative size of the tribes in the second year after the Exodus. The largest tribe is Judah, being more than twice as populous as the smallest tribe,
Manasseh. In fact the three smallest tribes at that time were Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, all Rachel’s tribes rather than Leah’s. This seems to indicate a lower fertility rate in those tribes, unless, even in the wilderness, they had recourse to what Mark Twain called lies, damned lies and statistics.


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Ruth is set in the time of  the Judges and, in a non Hebrew bible, is found directly after the book of Judges. A family from Bethlehem goes to live in Moab, because of a famine in their land. The husband and wife are Elimelech and Naomi. Elimelech dies in verse 3 and his two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. In verse 5, the two sons die, not surprisingly, because their names, Mahlon and Killion mean sickness and vanishing, which does not bode well for either of them.

So, as is the case with the American TV series Mad Men, it looks as if the story will be about the men, but it’s really about the women.

The survivors, as is well known, are Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law. Learning that the famine has ceased in Judah, Naomi resolves to go home and, speaking affectionately but firmly to Ruth and Orpah, she urges them to return to their families,
where they may, God willing, marry again and have children.

There is a midrashic tradition that Orpah and Ruth were sisters, the daughters of King Eglon of Moab (Ruth Rabbah 2:9) who, in turn (according to the same midrash), was the son of Balak.

The expression ‘the land of Judah’ in verse 7 is not used very often until the division of the kingdom following Solomon’s reign when Judah became the name of a kingdom. Prior to the time of Ruth, this expression occurs only once1and designates the land occupied by the tribe of Judah. It occurs also in David’s narrative, where Judah becomes important, being David’s own tribe and the centre of his eventual kingdom.

Naomi says ‘Turn back’ three times to her daughters-in-law2 corresponding to the discouragement given to prospective converts who present themselves to the Beth Din.3 We can see why Orpah might go, but why does Ruth stay? She is the template for all converts. Why is she so insistent? Is it about Naomi or about the ephemeral Mahlon, or about Torah?

Midrash claims that Orpah becomes the grandmother of Goliath, and depicts her in a negative light, as exceedingly promiscuous. There is no basis for this in the book of Ruth, but midrashic literature often takes a binary approach; if one of a pair is the hero, the other must be the villain. This is especially noticeable in midrashic narratives about Esau and Jacob.

On arrival in Bethlehem, they become the centre of attention for the women. Naomi expresses her bitterness at the way God has treated her, taking her husband and sons, and tells the women to call her Marah – bitter – instead of Naomi, which means pleasant.

The barley harvest is around the time of Pesach. The narrator emphasises Ruth’s foreignness, not only calling her Moaviyah, a Moabite woman, but adding, perhaps tautologically, that she comes from Moab.

The second chapter introduces a new character: Boaz, a relation of Naomi’s late husband. Boaz is a name associated with strength, and, as any freemason will know, is the name of one of the pillars upholding the porch of Solomon’s temple.

Gleaning the harvest from the corners of a landowner’s field was the right of the poor, in accordance with Leviticus:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.4

It is Ruth who offers to go and glean corn which will be a means of subsistence for herself and Naomi. Naomi’s reply in verse 2 is Go my daughter, lah lechi. This is the feminine of lech lecha, an expression associated with significant events. Naomi calls Ruth biti, my
daughter, but we have already seen that she called both Ruth and Orpah her daughters.

How does it happen that Ruth gleans in the field of Boaz, the very person who is related to her father-in-law? The Hebrew is vayyiker mikreyah – ‘it so happened’. Furthermore, Boaz singles out Ruth for attention, but instead of asking ‘Who is this young woman?’ he asks ‘Whose young woman is this?’ To whom does she belong? In Ruth’s particular case, there is no male person to whom she belongs. Husband, father, father-in-law are conspicuously absent. So to whom does Ruth belong?5

The servant’s answer is that she is a girl from Moab. Perhaps the servant’s implicit answer to Boaz’s question is ‘Nobody we know.’

Boaz extends his protection to Ruth, telling her to glean only from his field, and when she asks what she has done to deserve this, Boaz reveals that he knows the story of Ruth and Naomi, and how Ruth left her homeland. His next words are the origin of those traditionally spoken to proselytes:

The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel,under whose wings you have come to take refuge.

Ruth thanks Boaz for treating her kindly, even though she is a foreigner; her exact words being ‘You have spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not like one of your maidservants.’

Boaz continues to give her protection and generous opportunities for gleaning. She takes a quantity of barley back to Naomi, who remarks that Boaz is their kinsman and that the situation looks promising.

In the third chapter, Naomi has formulated a plan concerning Ruth and Boaz, who may have obligations to them beyond generosity, namely, the duty of levirate marriage.

The Hebrew for ‘his name should not be blotted out’ is lo yimacheh shemo. The name of Mahlon is interestingly cognate with the verb mem het hé, to blot out.

Naomi’s plan seems rather compromising for Ruth. It involves lying down with Boaz in the middle of the night, an action which seems guaranteed to attract his attention.

So what’s the motivation behind Naomi’s cunning plan? Is it Ruth’s happiness, their future security or the fulfillment of the law?  And what is Ruth’s motivation in following Naomi’s instructions to the letter?

Ruth goes to the threshing floor where Boaz, who has been drinking, is asleep, uncovers his feet and lies down. It is not certain whether she lies next to him, or, perpendicularly, at his feet. When Boaz wakes, startled, asking who is there, Ruth identifies herself and then says ufarashta kenafecha al amatecha, literally ‘Spread your wing over your handmaiden.’

Note that Boaz has already spoken of Ruth the proselyte as seeking refuge under the wings of the Shechinah. Now she seeks refuge under Boaz’s wing – kanaf – translated as ‘skirt’ in the KJV.

Ruth tells Boaz the reason why she has a claim on his protection: ki goel atah, ‘for you are a redeemer’ or ‘a near kinsman’ or ‘close relative’. The term goel is used in Leviticus in this specific sense of redeeming the property of a relative, so that it remains in the family:

If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem (goel) what his brother has sold.7

Are we looking at a romantic episode, prompted by love or desire or at a halakhic issue, complicated by the fact that Boaz is not Ruth’s brother-in-law, that the property of Elimelech is involved and that Ruth is a convert?

Boaz praises Ruth – in fact he calls her an eshet hayil – much as Judah praised Tamar when she alerted him to his duty towards her as the widow of his sons:

She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.8

We will see from the genealogy at the end of Ruth that Boaz is himself a descendant of Judah and Tamar, through their son Perez.

At this point in the narrative, we do not know that there is an inheritance involved, and Ruth’s approach to Boaz seems to be connected with the law of yibbum, or levirate marriage.

When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless, the dead man’s wife shall not be allowed to marry an outsider. Her husband’s brother must cohabit with her, making her his wife, and thus performing a brother-in-law’s duty to her. The first-born son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel.9

The quandary of Henry VIII was in weighing up this verse against Leviticus:

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.10

If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.11

The continuation of the Deuteronomy text shows that there is some disgrace attached to the man who refuses to marry his brother’s childless widow.

And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of  him who had his sandal pulled off.’12

There is a great deal of Talmudic and medieval commentary on yibbum and halitzah, which is the loosening of the shoe.

Now, Boaz tells Ruth that she has a kinsman more closely related than himself. This other kinsman must be given the option of performing his duty and Boaz says he will speak with him in the morning. Meanwhile, he asks Ruth to stay the night. Have they slept together? Will they sleep together? Rashi, in his commentary on Ruth, quotes a midrash thus:

Rabbi Judah said: His evil inclination was contending with him, “You are single, and she is single; be intimate with her” ; and he took an oath to his evil inclination, saying ‘As the Lord lives, I will not touch her.13

For the sake of appearances, she left before daylight, so that nobody else would know she had spent the night there. Before she left, Boaz gave her six seahs of barley, to take back to Naomi. This is a large and heavy quantity, a single seah being currently estimated as 7.33 litres. One thinks of Rebecca performing the demanding task of watering Eliezer’s camels.14

When Ruth returns to Naomi, the first thing Naomi says is ‘Who are you, my daughter?’ Ruth answers by telling Naomi everything that has happened and Naomi wisely tells Ruth to wait patiently, as Boaz will attend to the matter that very day.

In Chapter 4, Boaz goes about the business of sounding out the other possible goel. He sees this man at the gate, which was the public area where men of affairs conducted transactions and exchanged news. Curiously, Boaz does not address this man by name; at least, the narrative withholds his name, as Boaz calls him Ploni Almoni. This is the biblical and Talmudic equivalent of John Doe or Joe Bloggs, the designation for an unnamed person. Translations will vary. ‘Friend’ reflects better on Boaz than the KJV ‘Ho such a one!’

Boaz has Ploni Almoni and the elders seated at the gate and explains the following: Naomi has returned from Moab and is selling a piece of land which she inherited from her husband Elimelech. Ploni Almoni has first refusal, but, if he doesn’t want to buy the land, Boaz will
do so. However, Ploni is willing to buy. Boaz then explains that, if he buys the property, he also acquires Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Elimelech’s son, in order to maintain the name of the dead in connection with his inheritance. Ploni now withdraws from the

What is Ploni’s motivation? The targum suggests that he was already married, which seems a very good reason, but his direct speech is ‘I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance.’ The suggestion is that he considers marriage to a Moabite transgressive, which seems to be the implication of the verse in Deuteronomy which states:

No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD.15

Rashi finds this reasoning faulty, commenting:

He should have interpreted: ‘an Ammonite, but not an Ammonitess; a Moabite, but not a Moabitess.’ Yet he said, ‘lest I mar my heritage.’

In fact Rashi believed this error was the reason why the man’s real name was obliterated from the text.

We saw that, according to Deuteronomy 25, a man who refuses to marry his brother’s widow has his shoe loosed in a ritual called halitzah, the ceremonial release from levirate marriage. Rashi explains that what occurs here, which does not correspond precisely to
halitzah, is an act of acquisition. There are of course other views – Rabbi Louis Jacobs, for example, wrote:

Halitzah appears in the biblical book of Ruth in which Boaz, a close relative of Naomi, agrees to marry Ruth and act as redeemer for Mahlon, her dead husband. He may only do so after a closer relative than Boaz formally relinquishes the right of redemption by removing his sandal and handing it to Boaz.16

Boaz confirms before the witnesses that he has bought the inheritance of Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion from Naomi, including Ruth, whom he will marry to raise the name of the dead on their inheritance.

The witnesses express their blessing, and say ‘May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’ Not only are is there a similarity between the union of Judah and Tamar and that of Boaz and Ruth, but also, Boaz, as we will see, is a descendant of

Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son. One might expect the people to say this is a son for Mahlon, which would be the form in a levirate marriage. In fact the women say ‘There is a son born to Naomi.’ This does not indicate that Naomi was the biological mother of the child.

The nursing17 of the child by Naomi does not mean that Naomi had breast milk, as omenet can mean foster mother.

Most important is that a redeemer has been found for the entire family of Elimelech, the dead and the living.

The child Obed becomes the father of Jesse who was the father of David. Boaz’s descent from Perez is attested in the final verse of the book. Thus David is a descendant of Judah on one side and, on the other, of Moab. This would be extremely controversial if the book of
Ruth was written in the post-exilic time18 of Ezra and Nehemiah who actively opposed the intermarriage19 of Israelites with Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites and all the neighbouring peoples. There is a case for considering that the book of Ruth is a subversive anti-Ezra document, supporting intermarriage and making polemical use of David’s putative descent from Ruth.

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