Redemption of Land and Name in the Book of Ruth

Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi and Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies educator Rabbi Alex Israel visited Dr. Stuart Halpern’s “New Approaches to the Book of Ruth” class on March 29, to deliver a special guest lecture titled “Redemption of Land, Name and Nation.” The lecture focused on the fourth and final chapter of Megillat Ruth, which sees Boaz buy (or “redeem”) the land of his kinsman Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband, and wed the widow Ruth, Naomi and Elimelech’s daughter-in- law, in a Levirate marriage.

Israel explored the question of how the redemption of land and name (via the birth of a son to uphold the “name” of the deceased) are connected. After all, the text uses the word “redeemer” (go’el) to describe both the economic transaction and the Levirate marriage. Additionally, Boaz enacts both legal agreements - land purchase and his intention to marry Ruth - in the same ceremony. The Elders at the city gate witness Boaz’s pledge to buy Elimelech field, and the subsequent the removal of the shoe of “Ploni Almoni,” the anonymous, closer kinsman who would have bought Elimelech’s field if not for the imperative to marry Ruth as part of the deal.

Israel noted various reasons for why Ploni Almoni remains anonymous, including Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein’s view that he was willing to buy the field when the transaction was purely to his economic benefit, but was uninterested in his familial obligations toward the dead vis a vis marrying Ruth. Israel noted that Levirate marriage, which has not been regularly performed since the time of Chazal (the Talmudic Sages), was a difficult mitzvah. “It’s not in someone’s interest to marry their sister-in- law,” said Israel, raising the issue of complicated family dynamics. “They do it because you have a commitment to your relatives.”

Israel noted that the mitzvah to redeem the land of one’s kinsman originates in Leviticus (25:25-28), which details “situations in which people are forced to sell their fields,” usually out of poverty. In such cases, the person’s kinsmen are expected to step in to help, and the land is not considered to have been sold permanently; it returns to its original owner in the jubilee year. “This is an amazing law of family responsibility,” said Israel. “Whenever it refers to tzedakah (righteousness, or charity), it always refers to the person as “ahikha” (“your brother”).” Similarly, Boaz refers to Elimelech as “our brother” (Ruth 4:3).

According to Israel, a parallel story about redemption, land, and name plays out on a national scale in chapter 32 of the Book of Jeremiah, where Jeremiah the Prophet is instructed by God to redeem a relative’s land even in the face of impending destruction and exile. Israel concluded by connecting message of Jeremiah to that of Levirate marriage and family responsibility: “Hashem says, ‘I have an everlasting commitment to Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), and will bring you back. When you buy this land you’re expressing your commitment to your family, which is a reflection of My commitment to Am Yisrael.’ ”

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