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The Enigmatic Character in the Book of Ruth

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

In the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, there is one enigmatic character; it’s not even clear what is his real name. He is known as Ploni Almoni which is the Jewish version of John Doe - the epitome of the anonymous person. He features in the story as the closest relative to Elimelech1 who has died and left land. In addition, Elimelech’s son, Machlon who has also died, has left a widow, Ruth. As the closest relative, Ploni has the right to redeem the land and marry Ruth and thereby ensure the spiritual continuity of Elimelech’s seed. However, he turns down this opportunity, and the next closest relative, Boaz, redeems the land and marries Ruth.

The reason he refuses to marry Ruth, is because she is a Moabite convert. The Torah forbids a Jew to marry a Moabite convert. However, there was a tradition, that this Mitzva only applied to male converts, whereas it is permitted to marry a female Moabite convert. Yet, there remained people who still claimed that the prohibition also applies to female Moabite converts. Indeed, even at the time of King David, a descendant of Ruth, the powerful Doeg attempted to prove from logic that the prohibition does apply to female Moabites as well. The controversy was only finally abated when Amasa ben Yeter said that he had a tradition from the Prophet, Shmuel that it is a Halacha LeMoshe MiSinai (a law passed down to Moshe that is not mentioned in the Torah) that the prohibition only applies to Moabite men. However, at the time of Ruth’s conversion there was still some controversy, and Ploni did not want to marry her, stating that he feared that his future seed would be ruined if it came from her. Boaz, the next in line to redeem Ruth, had no such fears, and married Ruth, thereby begetting the Davidic dynasty that will ultimately produce the Messiah.

There are a number of questions on Ploni’s actions in this episode. We will first approach the issue on a legal (halachic) level, and then on from a philosophical perspective. The first question is what was the motivation of Ploni? If it was simply that he wanted to be strict, then how could Boaz, who was the leading Sage of the generation, be more lenient? Secondly, the Brisker Rav asks, that the reason that Ploni gives for not marrying Ruth is difficult. He says that the reason is that he fears that that his seed would be damaged because the children borne of a marriage with a person forbidden to marry into the Jewish people would likewise be forbidden to marry Jews. Why did he not simply say that he was fearful that it was forbidden to marry Ruth, because of the potential prohibition to marry a Moabite convert?!

The Brisker Rav answers that it was indeed the accepted halacha that it was permitted to marry a female Moabite convert.2 However, Ploni believed that the halacha was based on the Torah Court’s understanding of the Torah verses. There is a legal principle that if a greater Torah Court arises, it can nullify rulings of previous Court. Thus, he was fearful that a greater Court would maybe reverse the ruling of the present Court and forbid marrying a Moabite convert, and consequently, any children from such a union would be forbidden to marry into the Jewish people. Accordingly, we understand that he was not afraid of sinning as it was permitted at that time to marry a female Moabite at that time. However, if a future Court would reverse this ruling, then any children that Ploni would have had through Ruth, would retroactively be forbidden to marry into the Jewish people, hence is fear of the possible adverse effect for his future offspring.

On a philosophical level, the question arises, of whether Ploni actually did anything wrong – it would seem that he was simply being fearful of damaging his future descendants. However, the Sages do not seem to be so complimentary about him. They say that the word almoni alludes to the fact that he was ‘ilem’ (blind) to the words of Torah in that his fear of marrying Ruth was totally unfounded.3 Accordingly, the question now arises, as to why he is viewed so harshly.

The key to answering this can be found in the words of the Targum Yonatan to explain the meaning of the word, ‘Ploni’. The Targum translates the word ‘Ploni’ to mean that he was a man who was private in his ways.4 The Mishbetsot Zahav explains that he was a selfish person who had no interest in being a leader5. Consequently, he did not sufficiently care about the great kindness he would be doing by redeeming Elimelech’s field and marrying Ruth. This would involve not only kindness to Ruth, but kindness to Elimelech in that it would mean spiritual continuation for his family. The Kabbalists also say that the child that resulted from a union with Ruth was a reincarnation of her first husband, Machlon. Therefore, marrying Ruth would return spiritual life to Machlon. But it appears that Ploni’s inherent concern only for his self, caused him to err in his unjustified fear of what may happen in the future. Such a concern was not a result of fear of sin, because if it was, then surely Boaz would have had the same concern, rather it was an outcome of his concern for himself.

All this does not mean that Ploni was a bad person, and we do not see that he was punished for refusing to marry Ruth. Indeed, one opinion in Chazal hold that his name was Tov, meaning good, and since a person’s name indicates his essence, it seems that he was certainly not an evil person, and may well have been a ‘good’ person. However, the consequence of his failure to redeem Ruth, was that he is doomed to anonymity when he could, like Boaz, have been associated with greatness, in being the ancestor of David HaMelech and the line to Moshiach. In this vein, when Rebbetzin Dina Weinberg 6 was once asked, “Why do we have to keep the Torah? Isn’t it enough just to be a good person?” She replied that in Judaism, it is not enough to be good; we must strive to be great. Ploni may have been a good person, but he missed his big opportunity at greatness. This should serve as a stark reminder to all of us not to spurn our personal opportunities at greatness.

  1. Ruth Rabbah, 6:2 states that he was Elimelech’s brother.
  2. Quoted in Mishbetsot Zahav, Ruth, p.116.
  3. Ruth Rabbah, 7:7.
  4. Targum Yonatan, Ruth, 4:1.
  5. Mishbetsos Zahav, Ruth, p.110.
  6. The wife of Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l.

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