Ruth the Moabite: The Most Beautiful Woman You’ve Never Seen

The Book of Ruth is an extraordinary biblical story. At its center is the brave friendship between two women that leads to the founding of the Davidic dynasty, and a heroine whose character traits made her an everlasting symbol of beauty


Naomi and Ruth, reproduction of a work by French artist Louis Héctor Leroux, one of the first 100 postcards printed by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Among the hundreds of stories that appear in the Hebrew Bible, the tale that unfolds in the Book of Ruth is imbued with a unique, fresh spirit and unparalleled originality. It is a story devoid of heroic male figures or villains, no sin or punishment, war or peace. It is a story of life itself embodied in the figures of two female protagonists: Ruth and Naomi. The Bible devotes very little space to the stories of women, and few female figures receive an entire book. Some women in the Bible aren’t even mentioned by name, and those who are tend to have their outward appearance emphasized. Ruth is an exception.

Ruth is a heroine whose actions define her character—her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi, who can offer her nothing but companionship; her willingness to leave her familiar life behind and move to a foreign land, without money, property or security; her modesty, resourcefulness, and the brave,  underestimated, friendship between the young foreign widow and her mother-in-law. All of these factors make Ruth a beautiful figure, without us knowing anything about her physical appearance.

Ruth holding a sheaf of wheat, reproduction of a work by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel, 1886, one of the first 100 postcards printed by the Lebanon Company, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

These traits explain why Ruth captivated the imaginations of so many artists, and often served as a model of female beauty in paintings of biblical scenes, particularly during the Romantic era. It is therefore not surprising that a picture postcard series published by the “Lebanon” publishing house in the late 19th and early 20th centuries includes a number of wonderful reproductions of artworks depicting scenes from the Book of Ruth.


A Biblical Legend: Two Women against All Odds

Ruth is not a classic heroine. She is a figure on the margins of society: a foreigner, widowed and poor. But, like in a fairy tale, not only does her story end with a joyous marriage to a respectable man, a member of the chosen people, she is also rewarded: her lineage establishes the royal dynasty of King David. This success is not to be taken for granted in the patriarchal world of the Bible. In fact, such a positive story dealing with the relationship between two women -Ruth and Naomi – is unique in the literary landscape of the Bible.

The fields of Boaz, reproduction of a work by an unknown artist, postcard published by the Jüdisher Verlag, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

In just four chapters, the biblical author of the Book of Ruth manages to create the image of a complete world for the story’s heroines,  sketching a delicate and loving relationship, which, against all odds, changes destinies—and for the better. The brief dialogue in the first chapter between Naomi and her widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, sets the stage for a much larger plot.

Naomi virtuously asks her daughters-in-law to return to their community so that they might rebuild their lives. However, Ruth chooses to share her mother-in-law’s fate despite the many difficulties, offering a strong declaration of love:

“Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” (Book of Ruth 1: 16–17).

Readers learn about their hardships only tacitly from the story. At their most vulnerable moment, Ruth and Naomi find a clever solution that relies on their respective talents. In an effort to save her mother-in-law from starving, Ruth goes to the fields to gather stalks of wheat dropped by the reapers. Meanwhile, Naomi, who does not join Ruth in the field, uses her practical sense to devise a plan to save her brave daughter-in-law. Their mutual caring and capacity to listen to each other are the keys to their alliance. Knowing that a young and impressive woman like Ruth attracts attention, Naomi creates the conditions for a solution to her daughter-in-law’s predicament, which in the biblical world is marriage and status.

Ruth in Boaz’s field, a reproduction of a work by Hungarian artist Lajos (Ludwig) Bruk, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the next part of the story, more is hidden than revealed. The biblical author leaves things seemingly innocent on the surface. Yet, in setting the scene on the threshing floor at night, and using language replete with verbs carrying a secondary sexual meaning, he constructs palpable sexual tension. We will never know what happened that night between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing room floor, but the story ends happily—Boaz redeems the poor foreigner Ruth and their marriage makes her a rich and respectable woman. With the birth of the couple’s son Obed, Naomi too is rewarded. She becomes a grandmother, a role that was almost denied her. The Davidic dynasty was established thanks to these two women and their story is enshrined in the Book of Books.

Ruth and Boaz, reproduction of a work by French artist Henri Frédéric Schopin, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

A Bold, Trailblazing Female Partnership

The Book of Ruth’s revolutionary feminism may not have shattered any glass ceilings, but it did make some dents. In the end, Ruth and Naomi’s fate was changed by the actions of men. Yet those actions were carefully shaped by thoughtful female instigation and guidance. One can also find in the story an ambivalence familiar from the modern era — women as the main driving force in private spaces, and men who dominate the public arena, while benefiting from greater privileges.

The first three chapters describe an enterprising and courageous sisterhood of two unique women. Ruth is assertive, independent and loyal to Naomi. She operates modestly and with complete trust in the wisdom of her elder. In reward for her loyalty and goodness, wise Naomi guides the young woman’s life to ensure her future welfare. Naomi and Ruth demonstrate an autonomy and feminine wisdom not described anywhere else in the Bible. Together they act towards their own benefit within the social conventions of the era and without compromising their reputations.

Ruth and Boaz, reproduction of a work by French artist Henri Frédéric Schopin, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

This cooperation and reciprocity gives power to the powerless. In a tough world with rigid boundaries, this partnership manages to change fates, not through physical beauty or cunning, but through courage, empathy and mutual support. Together they bring about an optimal result, which otherwise would not have materialized. This is an inspiring story about women in a man’s world and about how women’s character, friendship, and love have changed destinies over the ages, from biblical times to this very day.

Haircuts on Lag BaOmer: The First Printed Documentation!

A beautiful illustration from a book printed in 1601 for the Jewish community in Venice contains the first-ever printed documentation of the Lag BaOmer holiday haircut tradition

The earliest known documentation of the custom of haircutting on Lag BaOmer. From: Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections

In 1601, a unique manual was printed in Venice for the benefit of members of the Jewish community, with the intended audience including adults and children alike. The Sefer HaMinhagim (“Book of Customs”) was printed in Yiddish—a language we would not necessarily associate with Italian Jewry. Although Yiddish was not widely used in the rabbinic literature of the time, Judeo-German was one of the most commonly spoken languages ​​among Italian Jews.

The book’s authors took into account the difficulty of some of its readers in deciphering the written commandments and therefore included woodcut illustrations to make the religious laws, commandments and customs more accessible. The use of illustrations that dramatized the various laws and traditions was apparently intended to allow readers of the book to clearly understand the practicalities of Jewish life and customs in simple, direct fashion.

The book contains the first known documentation of the Lag BaOmer custom of cutting one’s hair, an act that symbolizes the end of the historical period of mourning dedicated to the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to Jewish tradition, the Rabbi’s 24,000 disciples were stricken with disease as punishment for not treating each other with respect. Some scholars believe that the Rabbi’s followers in fact perished during the events of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

“The more detailed the illustration in the books, the easier it was to clearly explain the religious laws relating to the haircutting custom,” explains Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Men receiving haircuts on Lag BaOmer, a woodcut illustration from the Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections

The Crown of the “Giant” Queen of Tonga and the Star of David

How did a glittering Star of David become the centerpiece of the royal crown and state symbol of a Pacific island nation? What does the Kingdom of Sheba have to do with circumcision? Join us on a journey around the globe as we follow the six-pointed star to the most unexpected of places…


Queen Sālote Tupou III wearing her crown adorned with the Star of David, source: Wikimedia, colorization: MyHeritage

Tonga, a small island kingdom in the southwest Pacific Ocean made headlines in early 2022, when an underwater volcano erupted near its shores causing a tsunami. This was followed by a strong earthquake less than two weeks later. As sometimes happens when a faraway place suddenly appears in the news, our curiosity was piqued, and we wanted to learn more.

The town of Neiafu in Tonga, source: Wikimedia

What do we know about Tonga? Well, not much. We know it’s an island nation in the South Pacific; that at the Olympic opening ceremony, the flagbearer tends to wear a straw skirt; and that the Disney movie Moana takes place in that general area. The Tonga Islands – there are about 150 of them – are sometimes known as the “Friendly Islands,” a name given to them by Captain James Cook, who chose it, allegedly after having been received on the islands with kindness when he landed his ship there during a major local festival.

The inhabitants belong to the Polynesian peoples that stretch across the islands of the vast Pacific Ocean from Fiji to Hawaii. Admittedly, Polynesian culture, rich with demi-gods and folk tales about such things as the creation of the coconut, is very far from Jewish and Israeli culture. Which is why I was very surprised when shortly after beginning my search for information about this distant kingdom, I came across a very familiar symbol.

A coronation photograph of Tonga’s revered Queen Sālote Tupou III, who ascended to the throne in 1918, shows her wearing a white gown with a ribbon sash across her chest and an ermine fur-trimmed robe in the best European tradition. Around her neck is an elaborate necklace with a pendant in the shape of a cross. However, the most surprising detail of all is her crown, which features at its center the six-pointed Star of David, an ancient symbol not usually associated with the Pacific Islands.

Queen Sālote Tupou III’s 47-year reign (she died in 1965), is the longest of all of Tonga’s monarchs. One could say she was their “Queen Elizabeth.” Yet, unlike Queen Elizabeth II of England, Sālote was famous for her height – she was 6 foot 3 inches tall (1.91 m) – and was dubbed “The Giant Queen” by the world media.

“The New York papers tell of the world’s largest queen, though ‘her country is one of the world’s smallest'” – The Hebrew press reports on the New York press’ coverage of Tonga and its queen, Davar, March 27, 1932


Her fame reached as far as Israel, when in 1953, she told reporters while attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London that her grandmother had been present at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Tonga’s queen won over the masses at the coronation when during the heavy rainfall, she refused to close the roof of her carriage and rode through London while smiling and waving to the crowds lining the streets despite the downpour.

We cannot conclude this episode without relating this little anecdote: During her visit, journalists asked how she came to acquire her perfect English accent, to which Queen Sālote smiled and replied, “What is so surprising? English blood flows through my veins, for, back in the day, my grandfather devoured two English missionaries who had come to our island to spread the Christian faith.”

Queen Sālote Tupou III wearing her crown adorned with the Star of David, source: Wikimedia


Returning to Queen Sālote’s coronation photograph, how did this allegedly Jewish symbol find itself in Polynesia, and particularly in a country known to be devoutly Christian since the 19th century? In my quest to find out, I realized that the six-pointed star also appears several times on Tonga’s national coat of arms! At the center is a large white Star of David overlaid with a red cross, while three smaller Stars of David appear at the top left. Some say the group of three stars symbolizes the three main island groups that make up the kingdom. Others say they stand for the three royal dynasties that comprise the current monarchy. The same design also appears on Tonga’s royal flag. What’s more, the Star of David has occasionally appeared on the kingdom’s official stamps and coins.

Tonga’s national coat of arms, source: Wikimedia

I wanted to know why Tonga’s people use this particular symbol, but it turns out that in Israel there aren’t many historians who are experts in the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. I tried a different route. I sent my question to the Israeli ambassador to New Zealand who is also responsible for Israel’s relations with Tonga and who just happened to be visiting the islands at the time, but even when he asked his hosts, he couldn’t get a precise answer.

In fact, the six-pointed star appears in many cultures, and is not necessarily related to the Jewish Star of David. The symbol is often displayed as two superimposed triangles, like on the Israeli flag, and it has been known in Eastern cultures for thousands of years, being adopted by the Jews only at a relatively late stage. The historian Dr. Ian C. Campbell, who researched the history of Tonga, told me that the Rev. Shirley Waldemar Baker, a Christian missionary who lived in the Kingdom of Tonga for some thirty years in the late 19th century, was the designer of the above-mentioned coat of arms. Other sources claim a local prince as its creator. In any case, the symbols on it are clearly Western, and likely originated under the influence of external factors, most probably Christian missionaries.

The Free Church of Tonga, in the capital city Nuku’alofa. A Star of David adorns the central rose window, source: Wikimedia

It would appear that the story doesn’t end with the coat of arms. The rose window of the Free Church of Tonga in Nuku’alofa, the nation’s capital, also features a large Star of David, while the highest peak in Tonga is called “Mount Zion.” It turns out that the same missionaries probably introduced additional stories connecting the people of Tonga to the ancient peoples of the Near East, as a way to foster an emotional connection among the islanders with the stories of the Bible.

An English priest by the name of James Egan Molton, who served as head of the Methodist Church in Tonga in the early 20th century, wrote an article claiming that the people of Tonga originated in the Persian Gulf. According to historian Dr. Paula Latu, a native of Tonga, Molton wrote another text that featured the interesting claim that the king of Sheba and his subjects settled in Tonga, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa. The kingdom of Sheba is believed to have been located in the Gulf of Aden, in Yemen or Ethiopia. However,  the missionaries who came to the Tonga Islands, “with the Bible in hand,” likely based their improbable claim of the connection between Tonga and the kingdom of Sheba on Psalm 72, verse 10, in which it is written: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall render tribute;  the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.” The Christian missionaries’ imaginations were probably aroused by the mention of the islands in connection with the kings of Sheba and Seba.

The local theologian Dr. Ma’afu Palu expanded on this point. He claims the verse from Psalms deals with gifts that the kings will give to the Messiah. “These are qualities that characterize Tongans everywhere. They are known for their generosity,” he says of the people who, as we recall, inhabit the “Friendly Islands.” “According to this theory, the son of the queen of Sheba abdicated the throne and set sail from the Mediterranean Sea, arriving at last in Tonga,” he says.

A portrayal of the biblical Queen of Sheba. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

According to Palu, the missionaries found additional similarities between the Bible stories and the reality they encountered in Tonga. “The first book of Kings, chapter 22, tells of pagan leaders, whose worship was similar to ours here in Tonga before the spread of Christianity in the 19th century. Furthermore, male circumcision was customary in Tonga from ancient times. The belief was that the same prince of Sheba who – allegedly – started the settlement in Tonga brought these customs here.” On the common local custom of circumcision, Palu adds that the bodies of the kings of Tonga were considered sacred, so they were the only men in the kingdom who were not circumcised.

Clearly, these stories and the Star of David all derive from Christian missionaries who sought to convert the locals by connecting them to the stories in the Bible. The island state enthusiastically adopted these, along with an affinity to the ancient Hebrews, the Star of David, and the name Zion. Nevertheless, besides the mysterious connections to biblical symbols, Tonga and Polynesia also have their own fascinating ancient local traditions with a wide pantheon of gods and myths.

And what of Queen Sālote’s beautiful crown? We still have many questions for which we could not find any answers. We were unable to find any mention of the crown that appeared in the coronation photograph, or when or where it was made. We weren’t able to find out if other kings used it before or since or where it is located today. Perhaps our readers can shed light on additional threads linking the Middle East to the peoples of the Pacific.

Why Does Elijah Visit Us on the Eve of Passover?

The story of how the most zealous of the biblical prophets ended up becoming everyone’s most anticipated Passover dinner guest

Elijah ascends to the heavens, in a chariot of fire. From a copy of Sefer Evronot, 1716, the National Library of Israel collections

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD,

Malachi 3:23


We know him as the secret guest of the Seder feast…

Some say that he celebrates alongside the rest of the festive meal’s participants – present, yet unseen. Others swear that he arrives in the dead of night and tastes from the remaining cup of wine when everyone is already fast asleep, after having drunk their four cups. Truly, there is none better suited for the role of guest than the prophet Elijah. The biblical book of Malachi describes the prophet as the herald of redemption. He is also one of the only biblical figures whose death is not related in the Bible. Like Enoch, he ascends to heaven before death.

Elijah’s debut on the biblical stage is as dramatic as his departure: He first appears while prophesying a drought that will cease only when he himself calls for the rains to fall. His prophesy immediately follows a listing of the sins of King Ahab. The severe drought that Elijah inflicts on Israel lasts for three years. When King Ahab attempts to undo it, Elijah challenges him, defeating and even killing the prophets of Baal, causing King Ahab at last to repent and abandon idolatry. When Ahab’s son Ahaziah succeeds him to the throne, the new king is quick to restore idol worship. Ahaziah sends two groups of soldiers to kill the aged Elijah, one after another, yet both missions end in disaster – Elijah summons fire from the heavens to consume the soldiers. The third time, the soldiers kneel before the prophet, begging him to spare them. The king dies as a result and his brother Yoram succeeds him.

After the death of the sinful king comes the denouement in the story of the prophet—his ascension to heaven in the presence of his disciple Elisha:

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11)

The Prophet Elijah in the Yahuda Haggadah, the Israel Museum

Among the Hebrew prophets, Elijah stands out as a strict and stubborn figure who is not afraid to confront the kings of Israel or its God. He is also the only prophet who seeks a tangible and severe punishment for the sinful people of Israel. All of which makes it puzzling that this is the very same kindly old man who comes to visit us on the night of the Seder, and whose chair is reserved in the synagogue for use during the Brit Milah or Bris (circumcision) ceremony.

So why did Elijah, specifically, inherit these roles in Jewish tradition? It seems that his religious zeal for the strict adherence to God’s laws was what secured him the role of guardian and guest. Moreover, his Passover role is predicated on the special chair in the synagogue bearing his name.


The first manuscript illustration of Elijah’s chair, from a 16th century prayer book, Germanic National Museum Library, Nuremberg, Germany, Nuremberg

The tradition of Elijah’s chair being used during the circumcision ceremony began in the Middle Ages, when a tale developed of an agreement made between God and the zealous Elijah, that a Jewish baby’s circumcision could not be held without the prophet’s presence. In Pirkei Derabi Dliezer, it is written – “By thy life! They shall not observe the covenant of circumcision until thou seest it (done) with thine eyes. Hence the sages instituted the custom that people should have a seat of honor for the Messenger of the Covenant” (chap. 29, 213-214).[1]

The most zealous of God’s prophets, who asks that the sinful people of Israel be stricken (usually, it’s the other way round, with God signaling his wrath against his sinning people through one of his prophets), is naturally also considered the strictest when it comes to following rules. That is why he was also given this role, to oversee the circumcision, to ensure that it be carried out to the letter of the law.

Chair of Elijah the Prophet, Genoa, Italy, photo: Yad Ben Zvi

We’ve already mentioned that Elijah is considered the herald of redemption—who wouldn’t want a guest bearing such good tidings? Elijah, having already proved himself in his Brit Milah ceremony role, was recruited to serve as the guest of honor at the Seder feast, one of the holiest nights of the Jewish year.  Passover is also called the Festival of Redemption, and who better than the herald of redemption to be the special guest at our Seders?

Elijah is also the bringer of peace. With redemption not quite upon us yet, the peace that Elijah brings on the eve of the Seder is first and foremost for the celebrants, and is directly related to the terrible persecution experienced by the Jews of Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages. The figure of Elijah served as a shield from antisemitic persecutions which would tend to escalate before Passover due to false claims about Jews murdering Christian children and using their blood to bake matzah bread.

It’s worth noting that, despite his obvious zeal and enthusiasm, the figure of Elijah is quite separate from that of the Messiah – Elijah serves to herald redemption, he does not bring it himself. If Elijah the prophet does visit our home, this is not evidence that heaven on earth has been declared, only that we have again been granted a measure of peace and security for this year. A lower bar, certainly, but still one we are happy to accept.

Elijah ascends to the heavens, in a chariot of fire. From a copy of Sefer Evronot, 1716, the National Library of Israel collections

Over time and with the growing sense of security among the world’s Jews, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel, the peace that Elijah brings is understood in more narrow terms; that is – between parents and children. Already in the Talmudic literature and within the framework of his role as the messenger of peace, Elijah is considered Judaism’s supreme arbiter. Hence, he was recruited to settle the great Seder controversy: the fifth cup. A heated debate took place among the sages over how many cups of wine to drink at the Seder meal. The generally agreed-upon answer is four, but some argued for five. Therefore, a compromise was reached: We pour five cups of wine, but drink only four.  And when Elijah returns he will solve the problem, once and for all!

Eventually, Elijah was called upon to settle more serious disputes, and in case you didn’t know, dear readers, there is a belief that our Elijah is the deciding vote even in soccer matches. The Hebrew term teiku (the equivalent of “tie” or “draw”), appears in Talmudic literature as a term that indicates a discussion among the sages that ends in indecision. The word is interpreted as an acronym for: Tishbi yitaretz kushiyot uba’ayot (literally, “[Elijah of] Tishbi will decide questions and problems”), meaning, the question will stand until such time when the prophet Elijah of Tishbi will arrive and decide it.

Elijah’s cup belonging to the Bender Rebbe, the Bill Gross Collection, photo: Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Jewish tradition loves innovations, but only those that are rooted in the Jewish sources. The prophet Elijah is the herald of redemption, bringer of peace, the prophet who escaped death, and also – and this explains his miraculous visiting abilities – a teleporter of the highest order. The term kfitzat haderekh (lit. “contraction of the road”) appears in the Talmud as a journey that is miraculously shortened. After all, Elijah of the book of Kings is already unique in his ability to launch himself from one location to another. Before ascending to heaven, he was known for his sudden appearances. One moment he is in Tsarfat, (no, not the Hebrew name for France, but the ancient Phoenician city Sarepta, Sarafan in modern-day Lebanon) and the next he is standing in front of Obadiah, a court official in charge of King Ahab’s household in the Kingdom of Israel. Even those to whom Elijah suddenly appears are not too shaken, as Obadiah says to the prophet, “And it will come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the spirit of the LORD will carry thee whither I know not” (1 Kings 18:12)

The traditions of the prophet Elijah that began in Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages are preserved to this day among all the Jewish communities of the world. Most of us still leave an empty chair and a full cup of wine for the prophet Elijah, just in case. And, if and when the time comes to announce the redemption and peace on earth, who are we to argue?


Thanks to Dr. Chana Shaham-Rozby for her help with this article.


[1] Pirkei de rabbi eliezer (“The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great, According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna”), translated and annotated by Gerald Friedlander (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1916)