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A Fascinating Shtikel: Why We Read Rus On Shavuous

By BJLife/R. Samet

Posted on 06/06/19

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
Dr. Shapsy Tajerstein, DPM - Podiatry Care.
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There is a prevalent although not universal minhag to read Rus on Shavuous. Many have suggestions reasons behind the minhag connecting the story of Rus, the birth of דוד המלך, and יום מתן תורתנו.  Perhaps there is another connection. 


One of the central themes in the story of Rus is the concept of יבום. While many have argued that there is no true יבום in the story, many allusions to the concept of יבום are made. On her way back to בית לחם, Naomi tells Rus and Orpah to return to their original homes, and says (Rus 1:11-13)


 ״...למה תלכנה עמי, העוד לי בנים במעי והיו לכם לאנשים. שבנה בנתי לכן, כי זקנתי מהיות לאיש, כי אמרתי יש לי תקוה גם הייתי הלילה לאיש וגם ילדתי בנים. הלהן תשברנה עד אשר יגדלו, הלהן תעגנה לבלתי היות לאיש, אל בנותי כי מר לי מאד מכם...״


'...Why should you go with me? Do I still have children in my womb that will be for you as husbands? Return my daughters, go, for I have become too old to be with a man, for I had said, had there been hope, even if tonight I were to be with a man and bore sons, would you wait for them until they grew older? Would you remain single for them and not marry others? Please do not do this my daughters for it will be too bitter for me...'


The Midrash in Rus Rabbah (2:15) explains that Naomi is eluding to the Halacha of אשת אחיו שלא היה בעולמו -- inferring that יבום does not apply when the dead husband has no living brothers at the time of his death.  Naomi was telling her daughters-in-law that there is no requirement that they remain with her as even if Naomi were pregnant or were to give birth at this time - since their husbands died before Naomi were to give birth - they were absolved of waiting for a potential Yavam. 


Later on, we find that בעז plays the role of a גואל, but seems to give preference to a גואל that is closer to him and suggests that he be required to marry Rus as part of the deal. This too alludes to a Yibum concept. 


Clearly, as we stated before, the story of Rus is not a classical Yibum for several reasons (אחים מן האם, גיורת, אשת אחיו שלא היה בעולמו...) but the Radal on the side of the Midrash (2:15) provides a plausible understanding. He explains that the Yibum referred to in Rus is patterned after the non-traditional Yibum performed in ancient times. He points to a Ramban in Parshas VaYeishev (Bereishis 38:8 by Yehuda and Tamar) which states ״והיו נוהגים לישא אשת המת, האח או האב או הקרוב מן המשפחה. ״  'And they used to marry the widow, either the brother, or the father, or another close relative (of the dead husband).'


Explains the Radal that Yibum was a concept of דרכיה דרכי נעם (Mishlei 3:17) - the ways of the Torah are sweet - (referencing a Tosafos in Yevamos 17b) and it's purpose was to perpetuate the name of the dead childless husband. In fact, the Ramban (ibid.) continues and says chalitza is considered אכזריות - cruelty being that the Yavam chooses to abandon his relative's childless widow. (As we all know the chalitza is in fact a biblically-mandated quite degrading procedure with the woman spitting in the direction of her brother-in-law.)  Hence, Yibum as described both in the story of Rus and in fact by Yehuda and Tamar as explained by the Ramban - is not the traditional form - but rather a form of Chesed which any member of the deceased family can fulfill with the widow. 


To understand the conversation between Naomi and her daughters-in-law a little better, lets digress to learn another story in נ"ך that is extremely perplexing.


In מלכים א׳, chapter 3, we are told that Hashem offers Shlomo HaMelech anything he desires. He chooses חכמה ובינה and we are told that overnight he became the smartest human to have ever lived. Shortly thereafter he is sitting on his throne and the famous case of one live baby being claimed by two women comes before him.  He provides the infamous decision to cut the baby in half. One woman pleads for the baby's life and concedes to give the baby to the other woman, while the other woman agrees to Shlomo's decision. He thereby identifies the true mother as the merciful one, and the entire world hears how Shlomo is in fact infused with חכמת אלקים.


Granted this was a brilliant pesak, but is this really חכמת אלקים?  There is another detail that seems interesting.  The Midrash in Rus Rabbah (2:2) states that there were two women on Shlomo's side when he made this notorious pesak. His mother, בת שבע, and his great great grandmother Rus! לא מתה רות המואביה עד שראתה שלמה בן בנה יושב ודן דינן של זונות. הה"ד וישם כסא" לאם המלך זו בת שבע, ותשב לימינו זו רות המואביה."   What value is there that Rus was sitting next to him?  She has to be well over quite an old lady?  Is it possible that she influenced his decision in any way?    


Let's review the case and make mention of an incredible מאירי in Yevamos 17b that was pointed out to me by R Yitzchok Kinzer Shlita. Both women claimed to have been the only ones in the house, each with their newborn baby. On day 3, one mother catastrophically smothers in her own baby in her sleep. She then, according to the claim of the other woman, exchanges her dead baby for the live one. She herself denies these events and claims the other woman in fact smothered her own child, and the live baby is her own child. Shlomo HaMelech, apparently setting up a bluff, asks for a sword to divide the baby in half for equal distribution. Then, read carefully, the real mother begs for mercy not to kill the child but rather concedes to give the baby to the other woman. Now, what would you have expected the other woman to say at this point??  She should have said, "Great, as I said and claimed this is my baby! I'll take him!!"  But instead she falls into Shlomo's trap and in fact agrees to slaughter the baby.  Why?? How did Shlomo know she would take the bait?


So listen to this eye opening Meiri. The Meiri claims that the two women were in fact both recent widows (hence there was no one else in the house with them). Moreover, they were mother-in-law (MIL)  and daughter-in-law (DIL). The DIL by accident smothered her own baby. Then she looks up and sees across the room her own 3 day old brother-in-law who she is now a Yevama to. She realized that she will now have to wait at least a decade for him to perform Yibum - so she is stuck a widow for an excessive period of time. A horrible turn of events - she lost her own son, her husband, her father-in-law and is now stuck a Yevama for a long time. This is not fair. The Torah is not fair!  I want out.  But how?  So she chooses to exchange babies - claim that her brother-in-law is her own baby in which case she is no longer a Yevama and she will marry (unlawfully) rather than wait to marry her brother-in-law. Yet when Shlomo offers to kill the baby - she jumps on the opportunity - as now she can lawfully marry another without any guilt of doing anything wrong.


Before we fully explain the brilliancy of Shlomo, I believe there is an important Tosafos to review.


Tosafos on Yevamos 17b ask why we need a special pasuk to teach us (אשת אחיו שלא היה בעולמו)  that a woman who loses her husband without having any children is not required to remain single until she is certain that her MIL is no longer of child bearing age? Why not just learn this out from the pasuk in Mishlei דרכיה דרכי נעם? The Torah is a kind and sweet way of life and would never be so cruel to require a widow to wait so long to marry another.  Tosafos answer that for the widow to wait when her MIL is not even pregnant - that would be cruel and not consistent with דרכי נעם, however if the MIL is pregnant - then for the widowed DIL to wait (a long but definitive time) is consistent with דרכי נעם. It is specifically when the MIL is pregnant that we require the extra pasuk for even in that case - the widow is absolved of waiting and can marry anyone she wants.   So according to Tosafos when the MIL is not pregnant, דרכיה דרכי נעם teaches us to set the widow free, but when the MIL is pregnant דרכיה דרכי נעם would theoretically dictate to have the widow wait. 


Now lets refocus on the conversation between Naomi and Rus and Oprah. Naomi, whose very name means sweetness, tells her DILs to go home - for the Torah which is sweet dictates that they not wait. Does she even have a child in her womb - which might make it דרכי נעם?  No - so go - you are free. 


Now lets fast forward to Shlomo.  Two women come before him and present their story.  According to the Meiri, Shlomo listens to a MIL and DIL arguing over a live baby. He begins to sense that the DIL is fighting for the baby because (on the chance she is lying and this baby is in fact her brother-in-law) she feels it is unfair to have to wait. With Rus at his side, could it be that Rus shared her experience with her great great grandson and recalled the argument Naomi made to her: The Torah is sweet and is never unfair.   (As Tosafos intimated) Naomi told me to go home because I had no live brother-in-law nor was Naomi pregnant - hence the sweet Torah set me free. But, the case in front of you, has a widow and her live brother-in-law. While it may not be comfortable for her to wait until he grows up, in G-d's infinite wisdom there is great value to Yibum and this would fall in the purview of דרכי נעם. 


Now armed with חכמת אלקים - which refers to the wisdom of the Torah and has at it's very core דרכיה דרכי נעם, Shlomo needs to divulge this DIL's sentiment to the sweet Torah. He recognizes that she feels the Torah is cruel, and unfair. So he comes up with the cruelest decision - slaughter the baby!! The only person in the world that would fall for this pesak is one who already believes the Torah is unfair and cruel.  If in fact they kill the baby she walks away free and unbound, able to marry immediately!  So she plays right into his ploy even after her MIL concedes the baby to her and agrees to Shlomo's vicious pesak. Now that was real חכמת אלקים!  And where did he gets such חכמת אלקים? Well the very Midrash that discusses the conversation between Rus and Naomi regarding Yibum, starts off: יתן ה לכם, אמר רבי יוסי כל אותן הטובות והנחמות שעתיד הקב'ה ליתן לשלמה, דכתיב 'ויתן אלקים חכמה לשלמה,' יהיו מכם.   The wisdom that Shlomo received was in fact from Rus!


To bring it all together, יבום itself is an incredible chesed - a product of דרכיה דרכי נעם (the word יבום in gematria = 58 the gematria of חן and the gematria of the first letters of דרכיה דרכי נעם). The reason we read Rus on Shavuous is because the only thing we truly received on Shavuous were laws.  We did not get the luchos nor the Torah - but only were told the Aseres HaDibros. 7 (or 8) out of 10 are Issurim!


At the time we were zoche to hear Hashem give us commandments, we must always keep in mind - דרכיה דרכי נעם - it is a sweet and kind Torah - every single law in every circumstance. We may not appreciate it at times and we may feel it is unfair to be a Torah observant Jew - but that is due to our own limitations. If we were all understanding of חכמת אלקים, then we would really see the incredible נעימת התורה.  This is the true lesson of Rus, and the true lesson of all of Hashem's Torah: דרכיה דרכי נעם. May we only experience the true sweetness of Hashem's Torah and be zoche to revel in true חכמת אלקים.