Modesty in Rus

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Modesty is an attitude and a way of conduct. While it includes appropriate dress, it reaches well beyond. The book of Rus overs important lessons on the significance of modesty and also in its moderation. We see in this sacred tale a middle path.

In Rus 2:5, Boaz asks his workers the identity of Rus, at the time collecting grain in the fields along with other poor people. On this inquiry, Rashi raises a paradox of modesty. He asks why Boaz, a righteous man, was commenting on a random woman collecting in the field and answers that Boaz noticed how modestly she was acting. In other words, Rus stuck out due to her modesty. But modest behavior is supposed to avoid sticking out!

Tzeni’us, modesty, is not primarily about how you dress but about how you act. It is about acting dignified and maintaining privacy. Despite the importance of maintaining a low profile, there is no license for improper behavior. The clear message is that in an immodest environment, we must still act modestly even if that means we will ironically be immodestly sticking out. 

The contradictory description of Rus’ associates in collecting grain tells another story of modesty. In Rus (2:8), Boaz tells Rus to collect with the other poor women. However, Rus tells Naomi that Boaz had told her to collect with the men (v. 21). Naomi corrects her and tells her that she should collect with the women (v. 22). Malbim explains that the Jewish practice was for men and women to collect separately out of modesty. Due to her Moabite background, Rus was unfamiliar with this modest practice and assumed Boaz had merely intended her to collect with the other people. Naomi corrected this misunderstanding.

Of particular interest is the respect shown to Rus when she mistakenly collected with the men. They allowed her to continue uninterrupted and were so careful to avoid offending her that she did not even notice her mistake. The response to immodest behavior, particularly when inadvertent, is patient tolerance.

While men and women were publicly separated, this separation was not complete. We see this with the seating practices at the meal. Boaz asked Rus to sit next to him at the head of the table (2:14). Rus was shy and therefore sat with the other harvesters, farther down the table. However, she did not sit mingled among the men but rather after the last one, as the Gemara (Shabbos 113b) points out—“next to the harvesters but not among the harvesters.” Even though men and women sat at the same table, the commingling was still modestly restrained. Boaz’s table describes a delicate balance of modesty and practicality.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

32 comments

  1. Who is Rus? Come on. Stop feeling obliged to sound frum. You can write Ruth and you aren’t any less a proper Jew. Even Rut is OK.

  2. Get over it

  3. I’m long over it, but I still hear this in my head when I see “Rus” in print: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXr0m7SaGvs

  4. can i make the obligatory comment about how modest it is/not to lie down next to a man in the middle of the night?

  5. In Beit Lechem, Rus lies down next to YOU!

  6. In normal marriage, you approach the woman. In yibum, Rus approaches you!

    I am obviously drawing on
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakov_Smirnoff#Russian_reversal

    But more seriously, R’ Yaakov Medan (and others?) has a great point that yibum is the only situation in Tanach where the woman rather than the man takes the lead in sexual matters and it is perfectly acceptable and praiseworthy. This is true not only in “true” cases of yibum, but also with other family members, as with Boaz and Yehudah/Tamar.

  7. “in an immodest environment we must still act modestly even if this means immodestly sticking out”
    How far does this go? In our neighborhood some women have taken to wearing shawls over their clothes even in hot weather, trying for a higher level of tzniyut. But the fact is that people openly stare at them. A woman wearing a woolen shawl in Israel in the summer looks out of place and attracts attention. IMHO this is NOT tzniusdik !!!

  8. Shalom Rosenfeld

    The Malbim on ne’arim ne’aros — R’ Gil I’m pretty sure it’s “naarosai” meaning Boaz’s employed men/women, not the other poor ones who were coming by to collect.

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  10. “Who is Rus? Come on. Stop feeling obliged to sound frum. You can write Ruth and you aren’t any less a proper Jew. Even Rut is OK.”

    I see a lot of the Ruth advocates are stuck in a Rut. Sure, that sounds a lot better…whatever….

  11. I think it’s only a paradox to those that think a modest person (both in dress and attitude) will not stick out nor needs to stick out. Modesty is PERSONAL mida irrelevant of how others will perceive you afterwards

    BTW, I agree with anonymous. I don’t know what is worse; it being pronounced Rus, or it being spelled that way.

  12. Anti-Ashkenazis!

  13. BTW, I agree with anonymous. I don’t know what is worse; it being pronounced Rus, or it being spelled that way.

    Only in your own mind. This opposition is almost childish. Pronouncing Hebrew a certain because it sounds “funny”. Yikes!

  14. Sorry, should be “Not pronouncing…”

  15. “I see a lot of the Ruth advocates are stuck in a Rut.”

    Thanks for getting to the Root of the problem, Rafael Araujo.

  16. >Anti-Ashkenazis!

    I AM ashkenazi. Doesn’t mean it should stop me from brining up a rather odd spelling of Ruth.

  17. Holy Hyrax, What would you prefer, “Roos”?

  18. Even Artscroll spells it Ruth.

  19. When I first saw it I pronounced it like the first 3 letters in Russia. Gil can do whatever he wants but if he’s being silly it’s okay for people to call him silly. If he wants to make a point not to use sepharadic then he should have used the common transliteration of Ruth — as someone pointed out, even Artscroll uses that. Would that have been so bad? And just think of all the comments it would have eliminated.

  20. I pronounce it ‘Rus’, and would write it that way too.

    Does anyone say ‘Ziz Eliezer’?

  21. He should spell it “Roose.”

  22. As in Russian and rust?

  23. ‘As in Russian and rust?’
    ‘He should spell it “Roose.”’

    Aws an approximation betwwen the long O sound and the the short U sound. It doesn’t rhyme with bus it doesn’t rhyme with loose either. It’s a Hebrew t’nuah

  24. Sorry for the ‘atroshis’ spelling in the last comment. Here’s what I meant to say:

    As a compromise between the long O sound and the short U sound. It doesn’t rhyme with bus, but it doesn’t rhyme with loose either. It’s a Hebrew t’nuah

  25. We’re being unfair. It is “Rus” in a lot of sources online, including http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Ruth

  26. Does anyone say ‘Ziz Eliezer’?

    Speaking of which, I would be interested in others assessment of Tzitz Eliezer, Chelek 17, Siman 42 (available at: http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14516&st=&pgnum=93) as per my query on the parallel Megillat Ruth – Halachic Gleanings thread.

  27. “Parshas Sazria” is a favorite of mine. 🙂

  28. When I was a kid, I loved it when my mother would buy me a Charlotte Rus. Haven’t had one in a long time.

    But poor Gil definitely has a kick coming. He wrote a serious post about a serious issue, and people are just making jokes about a side issue. Too late now to do anything about it.

  29. You’re pointing your finger in the wrong direction.

  30. Like it or not, a susbtantial section of both the MO and Charedi worlds learn and daven in Ashkenazis. I see nothing inherently improper in using a transliteration that reflects the same.

  31. Steve, “Rus” *looks* odd. Find me one other place that writes it like that.

    By the way, I think “Rut” looks odd too.

  32. Um, can we please stop reading Tanach totally out of context? We defintely cannot reteroject modern day tznius in the frum community into Ruth (or even “Rus”).
    Let’s remember that your “Mrs. Modesty” also snuck into Boaz’s bed the next night. Though the text does not state anything sexual, the tone of the narrative, double-entendre language, and the mere fact that they are alone in bed are “scandalous” enough.
    Also, Rashi’s reading of 2:5 is clearly not pshat. See Ibn Ezra, who is not afraid to tell us the true meaning of this pasuk (Boaz was looking to get married).
    Furthermore, your reading of 2:21-2 is incorrect. Naomi wanted Ruth collecting with the women and not the men because Ruth was attracted to the men and Naomi wanted Ruth to marry (or do yibum/geulah thing) with Boaz. In the previous pasuk, 2:20, Naomi even calls Boaz “goalenu.” Also see 3:10, in which Boaz praises Ruth for not following after her attraction to the young men and wanting to do the “right thing” and marry Boaz (who is much older than Ruth).
    Maybe Rashi and Maseches Shabbos are teaching a lesson in modesty, but to argue that the text of Ruth itself gives off these lessons is nearly absurd.

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