In most communities, the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot during the Shacharit service, usually after Hallel.1 There are several reasons for this custom. According to one explanation, it is read for the many lessons in character refinement that can be learned from the story. Since the primary purpose of the mitzvot of the Torah is to refine our character traits and mold us into caring and compassionate human beings, it is appropriate to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the day the Torah was given.2
Another reason is for us to be inspired by the suffering and hardships that Ruth was willing to endure in order to join the Jewish people and observe the Torah. As Shavuot is the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, it is an especially appropriate time to read the story of Ruth so that we are inspired to strengthen our observance of the Torah as well.3
It is also taught that when the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai, they were comparable to converts. Just as a convert must commit to observing the mitzvot of the Torah, immerse in a mikvah, and be circumcised (for males), the Jewish people did likewise in preparation for the receiving of the Torah.4 It is also noted that before the Jewish people received the Torah they only had the seven mitzvot bnei No’ach to observe. Upon receiving the Torah, however, another 606 mitzvot were added. The word “ruth” in Hebrew has the numerical value of 606 – alluding to these additional mitzvot.5 Others point out that the story of Ruth took place during the Shavuot season, making the holiday an appropriate time to review the story.6
Another reason the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot is to recall King David.7 Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David and Shavuot is his yahrzeit8 and presumed birthday.9 It is also explained that one might be led to believe that King David’s lineage is illegitimate because his great-grandmother was originally a Moabite, and the Torah forbids us to accept Moabite converts.10 Reading the story of Ruth reminds us that the ban against Moabite converts was only placed on male Moabites. Moabite women were not included in the ban and are permitted to convert should they so desire.11 Many authorities allow those who follow the custom of remaining awake all night on Shavuot to read the Book of Ruth immediately after dawn, rather than at its designated place before the Torah reading, to allow the Shacharit service to conclude more quickly.12
Several halachot relating to conversion are derived from the Book of Ruth, which is yet another reason to read it on Shavuot. The Talmud teaches that before Ruth’s conversion, Naomi told her: “We have rules as to where we can and cannot walk on Shabbat, rules regarding our dealings with the opposite sex, we have six hundred and thirteen challenging commandments to uphold, and we are strictly forbidden to worship idols.”13 After hearing these rules, Ruth famously responded: “Where you walk, I shall walk; where you sleep, I shall sleep; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d.”14 From this the Talmud rules: “We inform prospective converts about a few of the less serious commandments and about a few of the more serious commandments. We do not overburden the convert by explaining too many commandments, nor with their fine details.”15
Another halacha derived from the story of Ruth is the practice of greeting one another with the name of G-d, as Boaz himself would do, as it is written: “Boaz came from Bethlehem and he greeted the reapers with ‘May G-d be with you,’ and they responded, ‘May G-d bless you.’”16 We fulfill this teaching today through the greeting “shalom aleichem,” and its response, “aleichem shalom.” Shalom is one of G-d’s names.
Finally, and not widely known, is that the source for bathing in preparation for Shabbat, along with the custom of wearing one’s finest clothing on Shabbat, also derives from the Book of Ruth. As Naomi tells Ruth: “Wash yourself, anoint yourself, and put on your fine clothes.”17 The Talmud comments on this verse, explaining: “These were her Shabbat clothes. Rav Chanina said: A person must have two sets of garments, one for weekdays and one for Shabbat.”18 In fact, the use of fine perfumes in honor of Shabbat was a custom of even the greatest sages, and is certainly a meritorious custom that one should consider emulating.19
Outside Israel, the Book of Ruth is read on the second day of Shavuot.20 According to most customs, a blessing is not recited before reading the Book of Ruth as is done before reading the Book of Esther.21 In Italian communities the Book of Ruth was read at Mincha on Shavuot.22 Although most congregations include Ruth as a formal part of the service, there are a number of communities that don’t, most notably Chassidic ones.23 Even in such communities, however, individuals are encouraged to read the Book of Ruth on their own over the course of the holiday.
- Sofrim 14:16; Machzor Vitri, Shavuot 18; Rema, OC 490:9.
2, Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth 601; Birkei Yosef, OC 494:11; Siddur Beit Yaakov.
- Birkei Yosef, OC 494:11; Ta’amei Haminhagim p.281.
- Abudraham. See also Levush 494:2.
- Shaarei Teshuva 497:7.
- Yerushalmi, Chagiga 2:3.
- Rosh Hashana 11a; Kiddushin 35a.
- Devarim 23:4.
- Yevamot 68a.
- Rivevot Ephraim 7:268.
- Yevamot 47b.
- Ruth 1:18.
- Ibid.; Of course the convert is expected to commit to fully studying and practicing Judaism in its entirety.
- Ruth 2:4.
- Ruth 3:3.
- Shabbat 113b. See also Shabbat 25a.
- Ibn Ezra, Ruth 3:3.
- Mishna Berura 490:17.
- Rema, OC 490:9; Teshuvot Harama 35. But see Sofrim 14:3,4; Magen Avraham 490:9, and Biur Hagra, OC 490:14 for an alternative view.
- Machzor Minhagei Italiano.
- See Mo’adim B’halacha p.327.