Forget the cheesecake. If we really wanted to eat a genuine Shavuot menu, we’d pass out the roasted grain and bread dipped in vinegar. I know what you’re thinking. Yum. Where can I get some of that? Answer: I have no idea. Maybe Bethlehem, where the story takes place? These are the foods mentioned in the Book of Ruth. In the Hebrew Bible generally, we have food mentioned very rarely; we have little idea what our heroes and she-roes of old ate and drank. When these details are offered to us, they generally communicate something far beyond the food itself.
Because Elimeleh, Naomi and their two sons leave a place called “House of Bread” to Moab, a tribal nation that denied us food during our wilderness sojourn, we sense that something will go very wrong in the story. What we don’t expect is the death of three family members and the devastating loss and grief that Naomi experienced as a result. In addition to the famine in Canaan that precipitated the move to Moab, this family lived in a time of great political, spiritual and social unrest. We know that simply by a few Hebrew words from the book’s first verse: “And it happened in the days when the judges ruled...” The Book of Judges offers us sordid tales of violence, our first bouts of idolatry, political instability, and faith under fire. It is also a book where food or hospitality are denied. Gideon was denied bread, and the “hospitality” of chapter 19 takes us straight back to Sodom.
Yael Ziegler, in her excellent book Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy does a deep dive into the comparison of these two books, that take place at the same time but offer divergent portraits of society. Along with many contrasts, Ziegler notes the generous giving of food in the Book of Ruth: "Ruth records repeated situations in which characters generously provide food for each other...Food, given generously and unhesitatingly, becomes the symbol of a society in which social cohesiveness and basic decency form the core.” The opposite is also the case in the Book of Judges, as she observes: “During this era, the Nation of Israel has lost all semblance of social cohesiveness, along with a basic decency to offer food to those in need. Food symbolizes the depth of alienation that prevails in this society.”
Here are a few salient examples of the way that food serves as a love language in the book: “At mealtime, Boaz said to her, ‘Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in vinegar.’ When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate her fill and had some left over” [Ruth 2:13]. Boaz had been kind enough in letting Ruth remain in his field and protecting her from the clutches of his workers. He tells her to take water but when she makes her way over, he offers her much more. First water. Then bread. Then roasted grain. Ruth, who harvests in poverty, is actually full from this meal and then she pays the kindness forward. She saves the leftovers and delivers them to her mother-in-law.
Later in the same chapter, we find Ruth harvesting with great zeal and endurance; she offers the gift of her labors to her mother-in-law, coupling kindness with security. Her intake was so great, it delights and tells Naomi that they will be safe this season. They will not go hungry: “So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah. She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough. Her mother-in-law asked her, ‘Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’” Naomi understood immediately that Ruth had landed in the fields of someone good-hearted, pairing her daughter-in-law’s work ethic with someone else’s generosity.
As a close to the humiliating mistake of going to the threshing floor in the middle of the night to seek Boaz in marriage, Boaz gives her a present. The shawl that she threw across him signifying marriage would not be used for this purpose but another: “He also said, ‘Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.’ When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and placed the bundle on her.” [3:5]. She did not go home a bride but did go home “armed” with a gift that would assure her and Naomi that love and security were on the immediate horizon.
On Shavuot, we honor our past not by the kind of cheesecake or blintzes we serve but in how we serve them. The Book of Ruth reminds us that food is a powerful symbol of generosity. Put and extra dollop of love in your meals. And maybe it’s not only the food on our holiday table that matters but who surrounds us at the table. Ruth and Boaz nudge us to give food away to those who are hungry, needy and anxious about their next meal. No one should feel empty on our holidays. Celebrate Shavuot with a gift to a food pantry or volunteer in a food shelter.
The simple act of serving food with love on Shavuot is delicious.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Holidays.