Ruth: Famine, Infertility, Ploni Almoni

RuthWith great pleasure I have been studying the Book of Ruth with Ilana-Davita. Wait, how do we do that? She’s in France, and I’m in New Jersey? Email! The wonders of modern life.

As an introduction, I suggest that you read Ilana-Davita’s post on
Megillat Ruth, which includes reasons why we read Ruth on Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that will start the evening of June 9th this year.

I decided to focus on some of the language and themes of the Megillah. In particular:

1) "there was a famine in the land"       וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ

2) the barreness of Ruth

3) Ploni Almoni

Let’s start with 2) the barreness of Ruth. This is only hinted at in the text, but the fact that Ruth comes back with no children, even though she has been married to Naomi’s son, in a way ties her to other barren women of Tanakh: Sarah and Rachel in Breishit and Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Like these other famous women, she is finally rewarded with a son. At the end of Ruth, 4:11, she is even compared to Rachel and Leah, so she is truly an important female figure.

Next, let’s look at three word phrase:
וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ
In English, this takes up a seven words:
“there was a famine in the land”
Do you see why it is important to learn the text in the original? It’s much more succinct in Hebrew.

When I was a kid, I remember being told to memorize a pasuk, a sentence of the Torah, and choosing this 3 word pasuk. What is its significance? Like barreness, famine also occurs in the book of Breishit. Famine was quite commonplace in those days. It shows up in Abraham’s life in Genesis 12:10 and 26:1. Famine shows up again in Joseph’s story (45:6, 47:4), though wording is a little different. Targum lists 10 famous famines in the Torah. Rashi comments that one of the reasons Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, may have taken his family out of the country was because he was rich, and if he had stayed, he would have been bombarded with poor people looking for food.

My husband pointed out the pun in the text: the family traveled not from Hevron or Shiloh but from Beit Lechem. Lechem means bread. Perhaps the bread was right there, under their noses, but they had to look elsewhere. Maybe the text is alluding to not just the physical famine but a spiritual famine, one from which we in our lifetime may also be suffering. And it was Ruth the convert that ultimately brings the family (or what’s left of it) back to where there was “bread”. Sometimes we need people who have not grown up with Judaism to see the beauty of it. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God”, says Ruth to Naomi as they return.

Finally, let’s look at that curious, rhymy phrase: “Ploni Almoni”. Ploni Almoni is the Hebrew way of saying John Doe. As Mr. Ploni Almoni declined to marry Ruth, the text does not identify him by his real name. Or as Ibn Ezra puts it, Boaz did not know his real name, so he says Ploni Almoni instead of “hey, you.” Rashi explains the word Ploni as coming from hidden, and Almoni as similar to alam, the word for mute. See also Samuel 1 Chapter 21, where Ploni Almoni refers to such-and-such place instead of so-and-so person.

The midrash calls Ploni Almoni ‘Tov’, derived from this phrase in the Book of Ruth:

אִם-יִגְאָלֵךְ טוֹב יִגְאָל
“If he will act as a redeemer, good! Let him redeem”

Second Chances by Levi MeierRabbi Levi Meier in his book Second Chances: Transforming Bitterness to Hope and the Story of Ruth talks about someone who is named Tov:

Tov’s name gives an immediate clue as to his nature, for often when a person is known outwardly as “good” –someone who projects an image of one polished or refined–his or her shadow is even larger than most. Beware of someone named Good. A person named Good might say, “I have all the time in the world for you,” but when you say, “How about next Monday?” he will probably say, “Sorry, I’m busy. Can we make it another time?”

More on Rabbi Levi Meier’s book coming soon.

 Learn about Shavuot from Ilana-Davita.

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