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Shavuot again!

So. It’s Shavuot, which has become one of my favorite holidays recently, partially because of the cheesecake, of course, but also because of the Book of Ruth, a great interfaith family story.

So, anyway, I’m thinking about Ruth today, and it occurs to me to pose y’all a counterfactual. If you don’t remember the story, it starts with Naomi and her husband and sons (the husband is Elimelech, the sons Mahlion and Chilion) move to Moab. There was a famine in Bethlehem, you see. Anyway, Elimelech dies, the sons marry—Ruth 1:4 And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one [was] Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years. And then Mahlion and Chilion die, too. Moab not very healthy for Bethlehemites, evidently.

At this point, Naomi hears the news that the famine in Bethlehem is over and decides to return. Orpah and Ruth pack up to go back with her, but Naomi dissuades them; eventually, Ruth does go with her but Orpah returns to her people. And then the rest of the plot happens, with Ruth and Naomi and Boaz and all.

So. Here’s my question: what happens if Orpah sticks with them? I mean, here’s a fascinating moment—not only does the Jewish mother of this clan not say kaddish over her intermarried sons, but she gets along so well with her non-Jewish daughters-in-law that they want to make a three-person family unit together. Naomi can’t see it: she’s all Turn again, my daughters, go [your way]; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, [if] I should have an husband also to night, and should also bear sons; Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? Naomi, bless her, can’t get past the idea that they need a paterfamilias, husbands, children, all the old-fashioned stuff that frankly has left them penniless and widowed.

And I want to be clear: things work out very well for Ruth and Naomi. The patriarchy is good to them, in the person of Boaz. The story confirms all that family-equals-marriage stuff, even as it has what came (later, I’m pretty sure) to be a radically positive view of intermarriage. But could it have worked the other way? The household of widows, Ruth and Naomi and Orpah, living harmoniously—or is the system too stacked against them?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Hmm, there's some context here, right? Boaz makes a major contribution in the form of... maybe it's that he has a house that they can live in, but i think it's more subtle than that: Naomi's husband had a house, so they could in principle live in that, but because they're women they can't if any other guy wants to live in it, and some random schmuck shows up who wants just that. So Ruth marrying saves the house, because her husband is appropriately dudely and by dint of being her husband has a better claim on the house than whoever the schmuck is.

Do i have that right at all? Anyway, if so, it would seem like an impediment, though i suppose they could find something else to live in.

When you say that Naomi doesn't say kaddish over her intermarried sons, you mean she doesn't say kaddish when they get married (as if they had died), but she does say kaddish when they actually die (as one should for family). Yes?

I'm not sure what would change significantly if Orpah acts as Ruth does. The lesson does not seem stronger; if anything, Ruth is less praiseworthy if Orpah does the same. Isn't it less of a choice when nobody makes a different choice?

Michael—Actually, the text doesn't mention kaddish at all, and there are differences of opinion even now about whether women are obligated to say kaddish for their sons at all, because it's a time-specific obligation and therefore for some gaonim it's in the category of Things Women Don't Do. I'm not making this up, by the way, really I'm not.

Chaos—When Naomi and Ruth go to Bethlehem, they live on welfare--a system of feeding the poor directly from the fields. They choose the fields belonging to Boaz, who is generous, pius and a kinsman, and also single… I don't know what the arrangements were like for poor widows in Moab. Could they have stayed? My inference from the text is that Naomi is choosing to go back to Bethlehem rather than being run out of Moab. If she was living in Elimelech's house for ten years after his death, could she have stayed after the sons have died? Or did ownership pass to Mahlion, even if the household remained intact?

Anyway, what interests me is that Orpah and Ruth clearly think that a three-widow household is a viable option, or at least are interested in pursuing it.


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