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Amid the Alien Corn: Scrolls of Ruth at the Library of Congress

(The Following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Midrash Rabba. Pesaro, 1519: Gershom Soncino. First printed edition of this classic work. African and Middle Eastern Division.

The Scroll of Ruth is one of the five biblical scrolls, and with its pastoral beauty and idyllic-like quality is surely one of the most popular books in the Hebrew Bible. The story, which unfolds in the fields of Bethlehem and takes its characters from famine to plenty, and from bereavement to marriage, revolves around the steadfast relationship between Ruth, a young Moabite widow, and Naomi, her widowed Israelite mother-in-law. Even if you have not read the Scroll of Ruth, Ruth the Moabite is an archetypal figure in the Western imagination; a symbol of that complicated space between grief and resilience best caught, perhaps, in Keats’ immortal image of Ruth “amid the alien corn.”

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn

– John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

Solomon ben Moses Alkabetz, “Shoresh Yishai” Constantinople, 1561. African and Middle Eastern Division.

But Ruth is more than a single image frozen in time, beautiful as that image may be. In Jewish tradition she is also associated with a host of principles ranging from acceptance of the “other” to the value of human empathy and social justice. These and other readings of the scroll arose over the centuries as rabbis and sages wrestled with the question of why the book was written in the first place, and even more important, why was it included in the Hebrew Bible? The ostensible answer, of course, is that the scroll provides King David with a praise-worthy genealogy since Ruth was the proselyte ancestress of David (4:22); a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism. A good reason, surely, to include the Scroll of Ruth in the biblical canon, yet not quite enough for the inquiring rabbinic mind, which sought deeper truths. One opinion, first recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, suggests that the Scroll was written to show “how greatly God loves proselytes” (BT Yebamot 47:1). Another opinion, recorded in a classic work apparently from the eighth century quotes a third-century sage, Rabbi Zeira, as stating that the purpose of the Scroll of Ruth was “To teach you of the magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense lovingkindness” (Midrash Rabba on Ruth, 2:15).

Moses Alshekh, “Eynei Moshe” Venice, 1601. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Many rabbis ascribed the Scroll of Ruth to Samuel the Prophet, though there is no basis for this in the Bible itself, apart from chronological possibility. Solomon ben Moses Alkabetz, for example, the famed Kabbalist best known today for his beautiful Sabbath hymn “Lekha Dodi,” was certainly of this opinion. Writing from the great Kabbalistic center of 16th-century Safed, Alkabetz begins his “Shoresh Yishai” (The Root of Yishai), a lengthy commentary on the Scroll of Ruth, by noting that it was written “by Samuel the Prophet because he saw Ruth’s greatness and nobility.”

Rabbinic literature also saw the Scroll of Ruth as a good opportunity to wax eloquent on the virtues of female modesty. Rashi, for example, the classic commentator from 11th-century France, assures us that Ruth scrupulously avoided bending over as she gleaned out in the fields, stating with great authority that “she would glean the standing ears while standing and the ones on the ground while sitting.” Four centuries later, again from Safed, noted Kabbalist Moses Alshekh developed the theme in his “Eynei Moshe” (The Eyes of Moses) with an almost novelist-like approach, using a kind of inner monologue in which Ruth gives voice to all her concerns about gleaning amongst the young men, imagining every worst-case scenario.

Ha-Tekufah. Tel-Aviv, 1921. The Art Nouveau cover and first page of the poem “Ruth” by Jacob Fichman. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Nor was modern Hebrew literature indifferent to the appeal of Ruth the Moabite, though here the focus was less on her presumed modesty and more on her (also presumed) grace and beauty. In a number of Hebrew poems from the modern period, Ruth is equated with bounteous nature in general and with ripe fields of grain in particular. So, for example, in one poem Ruth is “the sunlit sheaf of wheat” for whom the fields ripen (Eliyahu Meitos, 1916); in another she is the “honey of the grain ready for the sickle” (Yitzhak Shalev, 1972). And in his sweeping poem “Ruth,” Jacob Fichman (1881-1958) created a heroine who was synonymous with the burgeoning land in his own day and age; a metaphor for the young Jewish pioneers laboring in the fields of their ancient homeland.

Megillat Rut / Scroll of Ruth, Maty Grünberg. London: Osbend Press, 1996. 125 of 180 signed and numbered copies. Hebrew and English. African and Middle Eastern Division.

First published in 1921 in the pages of Ha-Tekufah (The Season), a Hebrew periodical printed in various European capitals before finally settling in Tel-Aviv, Fichman was later to give a moving account of the way in which the poem took shape in his mind, writing that it first occurred to him as he was riding a donkey one evening on his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and imagined Ruth and Naomi stepping out of the shadows shrouding the hills of Moab. The poem, as he further tells us, was written a few years later on the deck of a ship taking him from Italy to Palestine, and then eagerly demanded for publication by Ha-Tekufah’s energetic editor.

Today, the shelves of the Hebraic Section at the Library of Congress bear witness to the ongoing dialogue with the Scroll of Ruth not only through the words of rabbis, poets, and authors, but also through the work of gifted artists and publishers in the form of limited-edition artist’s books. Here, for example, is an artist’s book by Maty Grünberg, published in London in 1996.

Megillat Rut / Scroll of Ruth, Lynne Avadenka. Landmarks Press, MI, 2004. 12 of 25 signed and numbered copies. Hebrew and English. African and Middle Eastern Division.

With silk-screen prints in bold, primal colors, the book is a powerful example of the way in which an artist creates his or her own visual commentary on the biblical story. In the image shown here, Grünberg’s unerring sense of color imbues the sheaf of barley which Ruth gives Naomi with all the beauty, and all the love, of a bouquet of flowers.

In striking contrast with Grünberg’s bold images is this limited-edition scroll by book-artist Lynne Avadenka.

With colors of soft green and gold echoing the ripe fields of the harvest and its subtle use of relief printmaking techniques, Avadenka’s Scroll of Ruth captures the delicate quality of the scroll as a whole, and the special, muted grace of Ruth in particular. Particularly striking is the use of handmade paper reminiscent of sheaves of barley, making the story unfold as naturally as the seasons of the agricultural cycle themselves.

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