Shavuot: A Celebration of Torah and the Totality of Jewish Tradition

This week begins the holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the day on which we were given the Torah at Mount Sinai. As part of the customs of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth was written by Samuel the prophet, and we will see why he chose to do so in just a moment.

The story of Ruth is a very beautiful narrative of love and dedication, why was it included in the Canon of the Old Testament? There are a number of good books from Biblical times that we read but which are not a formal part of the Canon, such as the book of Judith, the Book of the Maccabees and the Book of Ben Sirah. Furthermore, why do we specifically read the Book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot?

It is explained that one of the primary reasons that the Book of Ruth was written was in order to reassure the world that King David was a legitimate Jew even though he descended from Ruth the Moabite. We learn from here that a Moabite who converts is permitted to marry a Jew.

Make no mistake, Boaz’s marriage to Ruth was controversial, and the debate surrounding it continued for centuries afterwards. This is because the Torah seems to forbid a Moabite from converting or marrying a Jew. As the verse states, “Neither an Ammonite nor a Moabite shall enter the Congregation of the Lord [Deut 23:4].”

Book of Ruth

It is customary to read the Book of Ruth duirng the festival of Shavuot. (Shutterstock)

This statement in the Torah certainly seems to say that Moabites are off limits! The debate, therefore, focused on whether the prohibition against Moabites included female Moabites or just males.

One of the reasons Boaz married Ruth was in order to publicly declare that such marriages are permitted in cases when a Moabite woman properly converts to Judaism. This permissive ruling was based on the “oral law,” which later formed the basis of the Talmud. As the Talmud codifies, “An Ammonite male is forbidden, but not an Ammonite female; a Moabite male is forbidden, but not a Moabite female.”

Samuel the Prophet, who anointed David as King, decided to write the Book of Ruth in order to make it clear, once and for all, that Ruth was a legitimate Jew, and by extension, King David. We are told that even the Messiah will be a descendant of Ruth!

Therefore, one of the reasons the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot is to demonstrate our faith in the legitimacy of the Oral tradition, even when it seemingly contradicts the written Word.

Shavuot allows us to reinforce our belief and commitment to the Oral law. We believe that not only was the written Word given at Mount Sinai, but so was the Oral law – the oral tradition. As such, Shavuot is a celebration of Torah, and just as important, the totality of Jewish tradition.

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin