Friday, June 07, 2019

  • Friday, June 07, 2019
  • Elder of Ziyon
Ruth in Boaz's Field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

A few years ago, on Shavuot, I attended a talk by Rabbi David Fohrman who put together a theory that the Eishet Chayil poem (Mishlei/Proverbs 31:10-31), sung every Friday night and seemingly about the ideal wife, was really written by King Solomon about his great great grandmother Ruth (whose story is read on Shavuot.)

I couldn't take notes (duh) but it was a very impressive talk, going line by line of Eishet Chayil and showing how they apply far more to Ruth than to regular Jewish women.

 It is a good subject to research if you are looking for topics to study Shavuot night (or day.)

To get the ball rolling, here are some parallels noted separately by Dr. Yael Ziegler at Virtual Beit Midrash:

Over the course of the narrative, Ruth is accorded various appellations, including: Moavite, shifkhaama, woman, and daughter-in-law. Perhaps her most memorable designation is “eshet chayil,” a woman of valor. Ruth is the only character in the Tanakh termed as such, and this accolade seems to be reserved for a truly ideal woman. The term chayil suggests Ruth’s strength, integrity, loyalty, honesty, leadership, and efficiency.[1]
 Although Boaz couches this appellation as the opinion of the people in the gate, it is Boaz who calls Ruth a woman of valor. It is therefore of particular significance that this description mirrors the one used about Boaz himself in Ruth 2:1.[2] This equates Ruth with Boaz, suggesting that her behavior sets her on par with the venerable Judean leader. It also hints at their compatibility, and the possibility of creating a marriage between equals. The description of Ruth as a woman of valor recalls the eshet chayil of Mishlei 31.[3] The description of the ideal wife in that chapter conveys an image of an industrious, kind, noble, dignified woman, whose praise is sung by her husband and children. The image of the eshetchayil in Mishlei 31 coheres well with Ruth’s persona.[4] Ruth’s industriousness, indicated by her willingness to work in the fields from the morning (Ruth 2:7) until the evening (Ruth 2:17), corresponds to the predominant description of the hardworking eshet chayil (Mishlei 31:13-16, 18-19, 27). Ruth’s generosity toward the embittered and impoverished Naomi evokes the eshet chayil’s generosity toward the poor (Mishlei 31:20). Ruth’s chessed generally mirrors the eshet chayil, whose chessed is upon her tongue (Mishlei 31:26). Ruth brings good to both Naomi (Ruth4:15) and Boaz (Ruth 3:10), just as the eshet chayil brings good to her husband (Mishlei 31:12).[5]The poem’s minimization of beauty (“Grace is false and beauty is vain.” Mishlei 31:30) is also intriguing, given our observation that the Megilla never offers any physical description of Ruth herself. The description of the eshet chayil who gets up while it is still night (“va-takom be-od layla,” Mishlei 31:15) recalls Ruth arising (va-takom) before it is light enough to recognize someone (Ruth 3:14). Key words in our narrative (lechemna’arot, and sadeh) appear in the poem in Mishlei as well, thereby creating an associative connection. Boaz’s name is actually hinted to in the poem (“chagera be-oz motneha”), a wordplay which seems to be noted by a midrash.[6] Ruth’s general outward dignity and wise speech likewise evoke the description of the eshet chayil (Mishlei 31:21-22, 25-26). Significantly, the climax of the poem is that this ideal woman will be rewarded and praised for her acts in the gates (Mishlei 31:31), corresponding closely to Boaz’s words about the people of the gate (Ruth 3:11). Moreover, the assembly which gathers in the gate in chapter four blesses and praises Ruth (Ruth 4:11-12). A midrash recognizes the general connection, offering one interpretation of the poem of Mishlei 31 as a reference to Ruth: "Many women have done valor, but you surpass them all." This is Ruth the Moabite, who entered under the wings of God. "Grace is false and beauty is vain." [This refers to Ruth,] who left her mother and father and her wealth and went with her mother-in-law and accepted all of the commandments…Therefore, the poem [concludes], "Extol her for the fruit of her hand and let her works praise her in the gates." (Midrash Mishlei 31:29-30) Indeed, if Ruth is the ultimate eshet chayil, she can anticipate several salient rewards. Apart from the admiring praise of her husband and children (Mishlei 31:28) – which, after all, is the goal of Megillat Ruth –  Ruth will have the honor of a husband who is “known in the gates, as he sits with the elders of the land” (Mishlei 31:32). This description certainly evokes Boaz (Ruth4:1-2), who, in calling Ruth an eshet chayil, offers himself (or his like) to serve as a fitting partner for this woman of exemplary character.

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