Meir, Elisha, Boaz, Ruth and the White Space

How does the apostate Elisha ben Abuyah end up with the biblical Boaz and Ruth, as they spend the night on the threshing floor? (Chapter 3 of the Book of Ruth). Some explorations on the way to Shavuot and reading Ruth….

Boaz and Ruth, Meir and Elisha

Ruth and Naomi are husband- and childless women with a complicated relationship to the town in which they now reside; at Naomi’s instruction, Ruth has been openly gleaning in the field of their kinsman Boaz and has stealthily followed him to the threshing shelter for the night. When Boaz discovers Ruth at his feet, he praises her loyalty in sticking with Naomi and in foregoing younger and richer men. He promises to marry Ruth if a nearer kinsmen does not choose to do so:

Stay for the night. Then in the morning, if he will act as a redeemer, good! [im-yigalekh tov] Let him redeem. But if he does not want to act as redeemer for you, I will do so myself, as the LORD lives! lie down until morning.
–Ruth 3:11-13 (Jewish Publication Society, 1999)

The phrase “im-yigalekh tov” — rendered above as “…if he will act as a redeemer, good!” — is translated in Midrash Rabbah as though “Tov [good]” were the potential redeemer’s name: “If he, Tov, will redeem you, let him redeem.” With no preamble, this verse launches a commentary beginning with Elisha ben Abuyah riding a horse on Shabbat:

R. Meir was sitting and expounding in a certain beit midrash in Tiberias and Elisha, his master, was passing by in the street, riding on a horse on the Sabbath.
Midrash Rabbah Ruth 6 §4**

What contemporary editors call “a protracted narrative” ensues. Eventually, the midrash returns to Boaz and Ruth in the harvest shelter, but much of the discussion is about Elisha ben Abuyah (AKA “Acher” [Other]) and his student, Rabbi Meir.

Redemption: Ruth and the Real World

The heart of the conversation in Midrash Rabbah 6:4 is if/how Tov (“good”) can redeem a “bad” start. Did the rabbis shift the discussion to Acher because that was somehow more comfortable than the hinky situation of Ruth and Boaz alone in the night? Were they unable to relate directly to a story centering around women’s concerns? Were troubles of scholarship, one of their own apparently gone “bad,” considered more important? Or were those troubles simply more present?

Maybe and.

This story of Acher, inserted here, is an example of the rabbis relating to Ruth’s story in the deepest way they knew. This apparently digressive explication of “Tov, the Redeemer” has a lot to tell us, as we head into the final week of the omer and prepare for reading the Book of Ruth….

Continue reading “Ruth and the White Space,” posted on the omer blog of Fabrangen Havurah.

**Mesorah Publications released a version of this work which offers the complete Hebrew text facing a study page which offers a translation of Midrash Rabbah, footnotes, and some contemporary explanations, in English, interspersed with key phrases in Hebrew. (New York 2011)
RETURN from footnote

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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