The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because, like the holiday, it takes place during the wheat harvest (first barley, then wheat) and because its heroine, Ruth, also accepts the Torah, Shavuot’s historical theme.
It is one of the most universally beloved of all Bible stories, a romance that culminates in the unlikely joining of an older, prosperous farmer (Boaz) with a young destitute widow (Ruth) who is, moreover, a foreign convert from the despised nation of Moab. The tale, told with an obvious delight in its disregard of the conventions of the day, is presented in the Bible’s inimitable style: The action is compressed, every word counts, the characters come to the fore as recognizable types, very human. Ruth, whose sterling character raises her above all, comes across as a vital person, as when, in an unscripted moment on the threshing floor, she goes beyond her mother-in-law’s instructions, and … well, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
Before we join Ruth and Boaz for lunch, this is the story so far:
Naomi, determined to return to her own people after living in Moab (where her late husband Elimelech has taken the family during a famine in Judea), has successfully discouraged one of her daughters-in-law, Orpah (now also a widow), from following her, but not the other, Ruth (a widow, too). Ruth tells Naomi, in her famous declaration of solidarity, “Wherever you go, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Essentially she has converted (if she has not already done so when she married Naomi’s son). The case settled, they arrive in Bethlehem, according to tradition destitute and in rags.
There the townswomen give Naomi the cold shoulder (Ruth is ignored), causing Ruth to take stock of their desperate situation and ask Naomi’s permission to “go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness” (2:2). At this point the narrator reveals in an aside that Naomi has a kinsman on her husband’s side, a man of substance from the family of Elimelech, whose name is Boaz (Ruth 2:1). Naomi must be aware of this, although she has given no intimation to Ruth. At the very least, this person would have a moral obligation to provide for his poor relations. He might even be obligated to marry Ruth, according to the law of levirate marriage (or an interpretation of it).
Nothing further is said, so we file this information away for now.
Providence guides Ruth to farmer Boaz’s fields, where the barley harvest is in progress. Ruth enters the field to glean the fallen stalks, her right according to law. This is the situation when Boaz returns from town and sees that Ruth “gleaned in a field behind the reapers” (2:3). Surely something is wrong here since it was against all the prevailing mores of modesty that a young, unattended woman would place herself among the company of groups of young male workers in this way, perhaps being jostled here and there for being out of place, perhaps subject to unwanted physical contact, as seems likely in the light of Boaz’s subsequent orders to his men.
Ruth may be unfamiliar with the finer points of leket (gleaning), picking up whatever stalks fell from the reaper’s hands, unaware of the informal system not yet spelled out in the Mishnah: Two [fallen stalks] ears are leket, not three (Mishnah Peah 6:5). It is clear that such laws were intended to allow the poor to earn their daily bread, nothing more. Thoughtless of herself, she is singularly intent in her purpose to feed her hungry mother-in-law, and will not be deterred.
Although Boaz asks his foreman about her — “Whose girl is that?” — it is unbelievable that he does not already know all there is to know about her, having just returned from Bethlehem, the place, we were told earlier, that was all abuzz about Ruth and Naomi (1:19). She is on his mind. Not only does he not chastise her for her actions, he takes steps to protect her, cautioning her to stay in his fields, keep her eyes on the men who are reaping and follow the female workers behind them. Moreover, he tells her that he has ordered his men not to molest her, and as further sign of his concern (he has heard how she has worked without rest), he tells her that when she is thirsty to be sure and “go to the jars and drink some of the water the men have drawn” (2:8-9).
Ruth and Boaz draw together. They have an intimate conversation (she grateful for his kindness, he declaring his admiration for her selflessness), followed by an unprecedented move on his part. He invites the lowly gleaner to lunch with his all-male staff. Presumably Boaz’s presence makes it acceptable for Ruth, the only woman, to sit down next to the reapers, but not follow them in the field. The boss even serves her. We do not question these details. We accept them as a natural part of this delightful story.
“At mealtime, Boaz said to her, “Come over here and partake of the meal, and dip your morsel in the vinegar.” So she sat down beside the reapers. He handed her roasted grain, and she ate her fill and had some left over” (2:14).
There are only three items on the menu (alternative translations are in parenthesis):
1) Morsel (bread)
2) Vinegar (sour wine)
3) Roasted grain (parched grain)
It may sound skimpy but it is perfect refreshment for people who still have at least half a day’s hard work ahead of them in the grain fields, where in the brutal heat of a Bethlehem summer day, sunstroke is a possibility. It is light, but fortifying, served buffet style. It is also a meal we could lay out ourselves with a few adjustments, and use on Shavuot in place of, or as a supplement to, traditional dairy dishes.
Elemental Herb-Crusted Pita Bread
Makes 12 rounds 5-7 inches wide
“Morsel,” also translated as “bread” would be a rough, dense flat bread or cake, probably made from barley, the more reliable, less expensive grain, with or without natural yeast (fermenting flour and water, or grape juice and skins). Alternatively, try my basic pita bread with commercial yeast: simple, delicious and still elemental. It was from Kaldia, from the Bedouin village of Shibli in Israel, that I learned the trick of making little wells with my fingers on top of the dough so the olive oil and herbs would bake into the pita bread crust.
1 tablespoon traditional baking yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon ginger powder
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups water
5-6 cups unbleached white bread flour or part white whole wheat bread flour (this has the same nutrients as regular whole wheat but produces a lighter flour and a less dense bread). You’ll need less white flour if you use this for a part or all of the flour.
Fresh or dry herbs or za’atar
1) In a medium sized mixing bowl, add 1 cup of lukewarm water, sprinkle over it 1 teaspoon sugar and ¼ teaspoon powdered ginger, then add the yeast, sprinkling it over the mixture. Cover and set the bowl in a warm place about 10 minutes. The sugar-ginger helps the yeast to dissolve faster. When the yeast is bubbly, stir well to make sure all the yeast is dissolved. Add the rest of the water (2 cups), stir in salt, sugar and the flour adding only enough to make a dough, stiff but still resilient, not dry. Let the dough rest, covered, for several minutes.
2) To shape: With your hands, roll out pieces ¼ inch thick and round (don’t strive for perfection). Place them on a large ungreased cookie sheet, push your fingers into the top of the rounds to make little wells. Brush the tops of each round with olive oil, sprinkle over this a mixture of crushed sweet marjoram and thyme, oregano and thyme, or za’atar. Bake immediately in a hot oven, 475° F, for about 8 minutes or until the crust begins to brown and the olive oil is bubbling. Leave some rounds plain for dipping. Freeze uneaten pita or store unused dough in the refrigerator for a week.
Also called Haymaker’s Punch, this thirst-quenching drink is based on the same principles as the wine vinegar of the Bible. Rashi, the famous 11th century rabbi, commented on the “vinegar” in the biblical text, “From this we derive it is beneficial for a heatwave.” Wherever we have lived in the countryside, old-time haymakers and woodsmen recall this drink, dating at least to the American Revolution. It is a sweetened mixture of water, vinegar and ginger. Up Mountain Switchel is one of several bottled versions now available. Conceived in Vermont and made in Brooklyn, it uses maple syrup for the sweetener. You can read about it here. Our version comes from a favorite cookbook, “Secrets of New England Cooking” (Bowles and Towle, 1947).
4 cups cold water
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup sugar (maple syrup or molasses can be substituted)
1 tablespoon powdered ginger (or shaved root)
Mix ingredients, boil 10 minutes, cool, and chill.
Several years ago, when I was writing my book “Seeds of Transcendence,” I became curious about the kali in the Ruth story, and when a friend gave me a quart of his home-grown wheat berries (kernels), I decided to give it a try based on a suggestion in “Food at the Time of the Bible”by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh. The book, which I purchased in Israel, was recommended to me by friends at Neot Kedumim, Israel’s Biblical Landscape Reserve (their recipe is similar). This version, I should point out, is not the same as parched wheat, which would be hard to reproduce in the kitchen. Tops of almost mature but still green wheat are actually burned over a fire. The tops burn but the plump kernels, resistant to fire, become scorched or parched.
Wheat berries, the freshest you can buy, a good handful for each guest
1) Heat up a cast iron frying pan until it is hot (I tested this on our kitchen wood-burning range but you can adapt to any heat source). Cover the bottom of the pan with the berries and shake and stir them until the wheat starts to brown. Add a little olive oil and sprinkle a little water over them if they start to burn. Charred is fine.
2) Continue to cook, covered, for about 15 minutes, checking often. The berries should be slightly puffed up and soft on the inside. You’ll need to repeat this process since since kali, similar to popcorn but with more character, becomes addictive.
Be sure to read Ruth to the very end. It’s a wonderful story for Shavuot and for every day.
Jo Ann Gardner lives in the Adirondacks where she and her husband maintain a small farm with extensive gardens. Her latest book is “Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants.” She can be reached via her website www.joanngardnerbooks.com