Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I wrote this when I was 15; I still like it.

After having just celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, I began to think about the work we read on this holiday, namely, the Book of Ruth. Works such as Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Song of Songs, and Esther, are referred to as megillot, in the singular form, megillah. Hence, whenever one refers to the megillot, we are aware it is one of the five.

We read 'Ruth' on Shavuot for various reasons, most of them referring to certain meanings found in the holiday itself. Yet my interest lies not so much as to why we read 'Ruth' on Shavuot as to the megillah itself, the work. I noticed this past Shavuot something I think is very interesting- there are many comparisons to be made between the book of 'Ruth' and the book of 'Esther.' This is the topic I shall address in this post.

The first similarity lies, of course, in the title. Both of these works are named after maidens, and specifically relatively young women. Secondly, the story seems to be the same, but in reverse. Esther is a young Jewess who has no desire to reach higher on a social scale. She is quite content being either Mordechai's niece or betrothed (dependant upon different readings of the work.) Yet she is snatched from her comfort zone and placed into the strange castle of riches, Achashveirosh's realm. There, she is eventually wed to Achashveirosh, which makes her a queen, a figure of royalty.

Ruth follows this story, but in reverse. Already a member of royalty, a princess or Moav, she decides to become a simple Jewess and follows Na'ami, her mother-in-law, to Israel. There she accepts her lot and seems content.

Now come some specific similarities.

1) The way in which the megillah begins. The megillot do not begin in the same way, sometimes they will start with their titles, "Shir HaShirim" means Song of Songs, and that is how that work begins, "Eicha" means Lamentations, and that is how that megillah begins. Ecclesiastes begins with the words, "Divrei Kohelet," literally, "the words of Kohelet." Interestingly, Ruth and Esther begin with the same words:

Esther: הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, הַמֹּלֵךְ מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד-כּוּשׁ--שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה, מְדִינָה.
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus--this is Ahasuerus who reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces--

Ruth: וַיְהִי, בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים, וַיְהִי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ; וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה, לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב--הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו.
And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem in Judah went to sojourn in the field of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.

Why is this wording important? The reason lies in a Judaic tradition that every time the word "Vayehi," literally, "And it came to pass," appears, it connotes/ foreshadows trouble. Hence we very obviously see that both these megillot will focus in on someone's plight. In Esther, it is the plight of the Jews, as the wicked Haman desires to kill them all. In Ruth, it is also the plight of the Jews, who are suffering from a famine.

2) There is an uncanny similarity between the two heroines and the ways in which they follow their relatives. Ruth was so desirous of remaining close to Na'ami, her mother-in-law, that she said she would follow her/ convert/ do all Na' ami told her to do. Esther also followed all of her relative's, namely Mordechai's, desires and requests. Some verses very obviously point this out.

Esther: אֵין אֶסְתֵּר, מַגֶּדֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ וְאֶת-עַמָּהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ, מָרְדֳּכָי; וְאֶת-מַאֲמַר מָרְדֳּכַי אֶסְתֵּר עֹשָׂה, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה {ס}
20 Esther had not yet made known her kindred nor her people; as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him-- {S}

Ruth: כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין--עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי.
בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת, וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר; כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְהוָה לִי, וְכֹה יוֹסִיף--כִּי הַמָּוֶת, יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ.
16 And Ruth said: 'Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;
17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.'

3) Notice the way in which they are cared for- Esther is taken in by the "keeper of the women," the eunuch of the harem, while Ruth is watched over by a "keeper of the reapers (mostly maidens)" as well.

Esther: וַיְהִי, בְּהִשָּׁמַע דְּבַר-הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ, וּבְהִקָּבֵץ נְעָרוֹת רַבּוֹת אֶל-שׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, אֶל-יַד הֵגָי; וַתִּלָּקַח אֶסְתֵּר אֶל-בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֶל-יַד הֵגַי שֹׁמֵר הַנָּשִׁים.
8 So it came to pass, when the king's commandment and his decree was published, and when many maidens were gathered together unto Shushan the castle, to the custody of Hegai, that Esther was taken into the king's house, to the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women.

Ruth: לְמִי, הַנַּעֲרָה הַזֹּאת.
וַיַּעַן, הַנַּעַר הַנִּצָּב עַל-
נַעֲרָה מוֹאֲבִיָּה הִיא, הַשָּׁבָה עִם-נָעֳמִי מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב.
5 Then said Boaz unto his servant that was set over the reapers: 'Whose damsel is this?'
6 And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and said: 'It is a Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the field of Moab

4) Then both of these young maidens are charged to do something very unseemly by their guardians/ relatives. Interestingly enough, the command itself is the same- they are both charged to go see a man ( a very influential man, in both cases) even though he has not asked for their presence.

Esther: וְאֶת-פַּתְשֶׁגֶן כְּתָב-הַדָּת אֲשֶׁר-נִתַּן בְּשׁוּשָׁן לְהַשְׁמִידָם, נָתַן לוֹ--לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת-אֶסְתֵּר, וּלְהַגִּיד לָהּ; וּלְצַוּוֹת עָלֶיהָ, לָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ לְהִתְחַנֶּן-לוֹ וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מִלְּפָנָיו--עַל-עַמָּהּ.
8 Also he gave him the copy of the writing of the decree that was given out in Shushan to destroy them, to show it unto Esther, and to declare it unto her; and to charge her that she should go in unto the king, to make supplication unto him, and to make request before him, for her people.

Ruth: וְרָחַצְתְּ וָסַכְתְּ, וְשַׂמְתְּ שמלתך (שִׂמְלֹתַיִךְ) עָלַיִךְ--וירדתי (וְיָרַדְתְּ) הַגֹּרֶן; אַל-תִּוָּדְעִי לָאִישׁ, עַד כַּלֹּתוֹ לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת.
וִיהִי בְשָׁכְבוֹ, וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב-שָׁם, וּבָאת וְגִלִּית מַרְגְּלֹתָיו, ושכבתי (וְשָׁכָבְתְּ); וְהוּא יַגִּיד לָךְ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂין.
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the threshing-floor; but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking.
4 And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.'

Now comes the biggest difference, because Ruth accedes to her mother-in-law's request, but Esther is afraid of death, and tells Mordechai she does not desire to do this. Mordechai warns her that if she does not, then she will not be spared, either.

5) However, they both accede in the end. In both cases, the maidens "find favor" in the eyes of the men.

Esther: וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת, וַתַּעֲמֹד בַּחֲצַר בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ הַפְּנִימִית, נֹכַח בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ; וְהַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁבעַל-כִּסֵּא מַלְכוּתוֹ, בְּבֵית הַמַּלְכוּת, נֹכַח, פֶּתַח הַבָּיִת.
1 Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king's house, over against the king's house; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the entrance of the house.

Ruth: וַתֵּרֶד, הַגֹּרֶן; וַתַּעַשׂ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-צִוַּתָּה חֲמוֹתָהּ.
6 And she went down unto the threshing-floor, and did according to all that her mother-in-law bade her.

And interestingly enough, both women succeed in fulfilling a strange destiny- Esther saves her people by unmasking Haman in front of Achashveirosh (then there is some busy work with letters), while Ruth and Boaz become man and wife (after some busy work with fields and redeemers) and from her lineage comes King David.

Those were just some of my thoughts/ comparisons. ;)

1 comment:

Elie said...

Very nice analysis! It can also be added that the relatives in both cases - Naomi and Mordechai - achieved greatness/joy through the actions of the heroine.

One nitpick: You wrote:
Esther... either Mordechai's niece..."

She's his cousin, not his niece, despite the nearly universal misconception to the contrary!