Messianic Jewish communities have a lot to celebrate on Shavu’ot—the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, and even the birthday and yahrzeit (anniversary of one’s death) of King David.
But one traditional Shavu’ot custom that has a less obvious connection with the day is the reading of the book of Ruth.
Why is the book of Ruth read on Shavu’ot?
There are a few superficial connections: The story about Ruth and Boaz happened around this time of year, and Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David. But when have we ever been known to sit around every year on our birthdays talking about our great-grandmothers? What’s really going on here?
To ask an even bigger question, why was this book written in the first place, and why was it included in the Bible?
The book of Ruth concludes with a genealogy tracing David’s ancestry back to Ruth. It’s almost as if this is the whole point of the book. Yet Ruth was from Moab; Moab and Israel were usually not on great terms—in fact, Moabites were forbidden to become part of the “assembly of the LORD,” according to Deuteronomy 23:3! Does this mean that David was not really Jewish—and that he shouldn’t have been able to become king?
The purpose of the book of Ruth is to answer that question and record Ruth’s legitimate conversion; she did, in fact, become Jewish. Ruth was the quintessential convert—an ideal candidate for conversion to Judaism. She left her Gentile identity behind.
To convert to Judaism, Ruth had to formally accept all the commandments that apply to a Jewish woman. Maybe that’s the real connection to Shavu’ot—the anniversary of the covenant between God and Israel. At Mount Sinai, on Shavu’ot, the Jewish people were all like new converts. Like Ruth, they all had to formally agree to accept the commandments. They said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7). The Jewish world reads the story of Ruth’s conversion on Shavu’ot to remind themselves of their own commitments.
However, the question remains—why Ruth? What makes her such a great example that she should be the model for the whole nation receiving the Torah?
The answer lies in her character. Rabbi Yosef Blau put it this way:
Her life when they arrive in Bethlehem shows devotion and kindness, but there is no mention of performing the commandments. It is all about Ruth’s character, which so impresses Boaz.
Ruth was not only willing to take on external observances, but she also let the Torah transform her very essence and dictate her every action and decision. This is precisely the attitude Yeshua looked for and did not find in many religious leaders of the Jewish people in his generation:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the [Torah]: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
Far from criticizing their observance of the details of the Torah, he continued, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Yeshua was calling them out for neglecting the values of the Torah, the inner Torah—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He had spoken on these values repeatedly because he knew that without inner transformation, the outward observance of commandments was worthless. Despite the scrupulous observance of his generation, they were hurtling toward exile because their hearts were far from God and love for one another.
Before she ever converted, Ruth had already begun to let the Torah transform her life. After her husband died, she easily could have gone back to a comfortable life as a Moabite princess. Naomi even told her to. Instead, Ruth insisted on accompanying Naomi back to Israel. This is love; this is devotion; this is kindness—the inner dimension of Torah. Boaz recognized this quality in her when he said, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first” (Ruth 3:10).
Ruth also embodied the qualities of justice and faithfulness with her strong sense of duty to her mother-in-law. She made Naomi’s problem her problem and used every resource she had to uphold her. This is justice—advocating for the downtrodden, destitute widow. This is faithfulness—sticking with Naomi and with the God of Israel.
The rabbis teach that the tablets of the Ten Commandments had the words of God inscribed all the way through them, visible from either side. This is like Ruth—the Torah was written not only on the surface in her outward observance but also she had let the Word of God penetrate her very heart. Ruth teaches us to conform our hearts to the will of God on a deep level that transcends our outward obligations and identities as Jews or Gentiles.
Followers of Yeshua know that when Messiah comes, our natures will be transformed, the Torah will be written on our hearts, and our characters will be changed. Nevertheless, we must begin that work. It is our job to begin to build the kingdom of Messiah now, and part of that kingdom is our own inner transformation.
Many people neglect to work on themselves because being a good person seems a little too obvious or maybe because they expect to be suddenly spiritually transformed by God. We might think that we don’t have to study and review and work on internalizing values that seem abundantly clear. As disciples of Yeshua, we are forbidden to forget about the inner transformation that is supposed to characterize our discipleship. Yeshua admonished his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
We are like the servant in Luke 17, who, when he had finished with his duties outside, still had to come inside and prepare supper and serve his master. The duties outside are the externally obvious commandments; the duties inside are the duties of the heart. They are not extra; they are not “above and beyond”; they are the essence of what our Master has asked of us.