Question: When did Ruth convert – before or after she married Naomi’s son? Also, what is the earliest reference in Jewish sources to a formal conversion process?
Answer: Megillat Rut (1:3-5) states: “Va’yamat Elimelech ish No’omi va’tisha’er he u’shnei baneha. Va’yis’u lahem nashim mo’aviyyot, shem ha’achat Orpah veshem hashenit Ruth,va’yeshvu sham ke’eser shanim. Vayamutu gam sheneihem Mahlon ve’Kilyon, va’tisha’er ha’isha mi’shenei yeladeha u’me’ishah – Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They took Moabite wives for themselves – the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other was Ruth, and they lived there about 10 years. Then both Mahlon and Kilyon also died, and the woman remained bereft of her two sons and her husband.”
The story continues (1:8): “Vatomer Na’omi li’shetei koloteha, lechna, shovna, isha leveit immah, ya’aseh Hashem imachen chesed ka’asher asiten im hameitim ve’imadi – Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law: Go return each of you to your mother’s house, and may Hashem deal kindly with you as you have dealt kindly with the departed and with me.” She was able to sway Orpah, but Ruth remained with her mother-in-law.
The Talmud (Yevamot 47b) sees the conversation between Naomi and Ruth as the model of the conversation a beth din is required to have with a prospective convert. The Talmud understands Ruth’s response (1:16-17) to Naomi’s entreaties that she follow Orpah as answers to Naomi’s efforts to dissuade her from converting. Thus, when Naomi told Ruth that Israelites are forbidden to walk beyond techum Shabbat (a distance of 2,000 cubits) on Shabbos, Ruth replied, “Ki el asher telchi elech – Wherever you go I will go.” To Naomi’s reminder that a man and a woman are forbidden to be sequestered together unless they are married, Ruth answered, “U’va’asher talini alin – And wherever you lodge, I will lodge.” When Naomi informed her that there are 613 commandments that must be followed, Ruth replied “Amech ami – Your people shall be my people.” Naomi’s warning that we are forbidden to worship idols was countered with, “Ve’Elokayich Elokai – And your G-d [shall be] my G-d.” To Naomi’s cautioning that beth din has the authority to enact four modes of execution for certain offenses, Ruth answered, “Ba’asher tamuti amut – Where you die, I will die.”
Finally, Naomi told her that two graveyard sites are put at the disposal of beth din for the burial of executed offenders (Rashi: one site for those executed for extremely harsh sins and another for those executed for less serve sins), Ruth responded, “Ve’sham ekaver – And there will I be buried.” Thereupon, Naomi ceased protesting (ibid. 1:18): “Va’tere ki mit’ ametzet hi lalechet itah va’techdal ledabber eleha – When she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, she left off speaking to her.”
The Talmud (ibid.) and the Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 14:15) go into more detail regarding the questions asked of a prospective ger. If the queries are answered to the satisfaction of beth din, the prospective convert is forthwith accepted and undergoes mila (if the convert is male) and tevilah (immersion).
If the rules of geirut are based on this dialogue between Naomi and Ruth, Ruth evidently wasn’t Jewish at the time. How, then, does the megillah refer to Ruth as Naomi’s daughter-in-law when le’halacha she wasn’t? We cannot resolve this difficulty by applying the principle of “ein mukdam u’me’uchar ba’Torah” (the Torah is not written in chronological order) because this principle can only be applied when two different matters are involved (see Pesachim 6b), not within the same context.
The Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 2:9) clearly states that Ruth and Orpah were not Jewish when they married Mahlon and Kilyon, which is why their husbands were punished. Yalkut Shimoni (chap. 600) notes that according to one opinion the brothers’ names indicate that they made themselves profane (Mahlon/hullin) and deserved death and destruction (Kilyon/kelayah) because they had taken gentile women as wives.
We talk of them having “married” gentile women even though their marriages were halachically invalid. We find terms used “loosely” in the Talmud as well. For example, the first mishnah in Tractate Yoma states that seven days before the Day of Atonement “another wife would be prepared for [the kohen gadol] in case his wife died, for the Torah states (Vayikra 16:6), ‘And he shall make atonement for himself and for his house’ – ‘his house’ is taken to mean ‘his wife.’” The Gemara proceeds to discuss several hypothetical scenarios; it also discusses how to insure that the kohen gadol not be married to two wives on the Day of Atonement since “his house” denotes one wife, not two. The Gemara considers the wording of various conditional divorces and later discusses a kohen gadol who is an onen (aninut is the first day of mourning, before aveilut takes effect) following the death of his wife. But, asks the Gemara (ibid. 14a), how can he be an onen if he divorced her? It answers that although he is not obligated to mourn, he will surely be distracted and distressed since he still thinks of her as his wife (even if halachically she wasn’t when she died).
There are some indications, though, that Naomi and Orpah had, in fact, undergone conversion before they married Mahlon and Kilyon. Naomi tells her daughters-in-law (Ruth 1:8), “Ya’aseh Hashem imachen chesed ka’asher asiten im hameitim ve’imadi – May Hashem deal kindly with you as you have dealt kindly with the departed and with me.” This reference to dealing kindly with the departed, “chesed shel enmet,” is an illustration of authentic Jewish behavior – minhag Yahadut – that these two women practiced. Midrash Ruth (Zohar Chadash) states explicitly that R. Yosi Ish Socho maintains that Ruth and Orpah were Jewish at the time. If Ruth only became Jewish later, this change in status would’ve been reflected in her name. But the megillah calls her Ruth both before and after her crucial conversation with Naomi.
If both Ruth and Orpah were Jewish, though, why did Naomi try to convince them to return to “their” people? The answer is that they had not converted wholeheartedly. Rather, they had converted like the wives of Samson and Solomon. These women converted for ulterior motives and reverted to their earlier behavior and beliefs in the end (see Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 13:14). Thus, a new commitment – kabbalat ol mizvot – was required of both Ruth and Orpah. Orpah ultimately decided to return to her people and former ways in response to Naomi’s entreaties, whereas Ruth remained steadfast. The commentators note that Naomi kept pleading with Ruth and Orpah because she was convinced that both daughters-in-law would go back to their parents’ homes and former way of life. Incidentally, Yalkut Shimoni cites R. Yochanan who states that Mahlon, who married Ruth (who remained steadfast), was forgiven (mechila) while Kilyon, who married Orpah (from whom Goliath was descended), was destined for destruction (kelaya).
Ruth’s is not the first conversion in Tanach. Exodus 18:1-5 states, “Va’Yishma Yitro kohein midian chotein Moshe…va’yavo – When Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard…he came” The Talmud (Zevachim 116a) states that this “coming” denotes conversion.
However, it is the conversation of Naomi and Ruth, as stated above, which forms the basis for the laws of derishat ha’ger, the interrogation of a prospective convert by a rabbinical court, as stated in Yevamot. Both the Rambam and the Tur rule that this is the accepted halacha. Ruth’s conversion can thus be considered the first explicit example of conversion as we know it today, and she was surely accepted as a convert prior to her marriage to Boaz, a marriage that resulted in no less than the royal house of David.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass