Ruth and Food

She ate her fill and had some left over.
— Ruth 2:13

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.


Working Hard or Hardly Working?

She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.
— Ruth 2:7.

Last week I saw a middle-aged man wearing a popular T-shirt: “Hard work never killed anyone, but why risk it?” I’m used to seeing this kind of thing on teenagers but never on someone his age. Did he buy it for himself, or worse, did his boss purchase it for him? We’ll never know, and I wasn’t about to ask. The slogan feeds into a certain attitude about work that sanctifies laziness and makes it into an art form. Even Anne Frank admitted the attraction of laziness but believed that only work could bring a true sense of satisfaction.

In Genesis, God works and then rests and demands that we do the same. God also had a six-day work week, embedding in creation the notion of purpose that comes through industry. Perhaps in no biblical character is this work ethic more apparent than in Ruth. One might argue that Jacob worked very hard and under poor, exploitative conditions, for his father-in-law Laban, but he did this out of love. Ruth works simply to sustain herself and her mother-in-law. She was also a woman in a man’s world, as testified by the verse where Boaz makes sure that no men harass her in the fields while she is gleaning.

Ruth asked special permission to work, understanding that gleaning in the fields as pauper, widow and convert would have been degrading to her mother-in-law, who left Bethlehem as a woman of means and returned empty: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.’ Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter.’”[Ruth 2:2] At this point, there was little either could do but rely on the kindness of strangers.

But the fact that Ruth was prepared to work does not indicate that she worked hard. Our proof comes from a third-party observer. Boaz had an overseer who spent his days supervising the activity in the fields. When Boaz spots a new young woman gleaning, he notices her hard work and asks the overseer about her. “The overseer replied, ‘She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. She said, ‘Let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.’”[Ruth 2:6-7]

Nothing like a little workplace gossip. People of the town knew that a Moabite woman had come back with their old neighbor Naomi. Her conversion did not seem to register. As far as they were concerned, she was still a foreigner, but she won the admiration of this supervisor because she worked all day with nary a break in the hot Middle Eastern sun.

The Talmud states that a father is obligated to teach his child a trade. [BT Kiddushin 29-30]. Failure to do so may result in thievery because the child who becomes an adult with no dignified way to make a living may resort to crime. People need money to live. Yet later on in the same tractate, sages weighed in on preferred trades. Don’t be a donkey or camel driver, a pot maker, a sailor a shepherd or a store-keeper. Some of these professions were associated with deceit or long absences. One sage naturally believes that Torah is the perfect trade, as it “preserves one from all evil and in his youth it provides one with a future and a hope in his old age.” 

The Talmud also makes a general observation about work. “Rabbi Meir says, ‘A person should always teach his son a clean and easy trade and pray to the One to Whom wealth and property belong, as there is no trade that does not include both poverty and wealth. Poverty does not come from a particular trade, rather all is in accordance with a person’s merit.’” Work goes in cycles of success. Be righteous and you may find more success in what you do. 

In any event, no matter what your work, Ruth teaches us not only the value of kindness but the importance of hard work. And if you don’t learn it from Ruth, then try Babe Ruth: “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”

Shabbat Shalom