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Barry Dov Walfish





The Defamation of Orpah





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Barry Dov Walfish





The Defamation of Orpah








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The Defamation of Orpah

Chesed, lovingkindness, is a major theme in the book of Ruth. And yet, the rabbis have little sympathy for Orpah. To the contrary!


The Defamation of Orpah

Ruth clinging to Naomi, while Orpah sadly returns to the land of Moab. (adapted), William Blake, 1795. Wikiart

Orpah in the Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth, set during the time of the judges, tells how a family of four from Bethlehem in Judah—Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion—migrates to Moab during a famine. Elimelech dies soon after their arrival in Moab and the two sons marry local Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.

After ten years in Moab, both Mahlon and Chilion die, and Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem. Her daughters-in-law decide to accompany her (1:7), but Naomi advises against it:

רות א:ח וַתֹּ֤אמֶר נָעֳמִי֙ לִשְׁתֵּ֣י כַלֹּתֶ֔יהָ לֵ֣כְנָה שֹּׁ֔בְנָה אִשָּׁ֖ה לְבֵ֣ית אִמָּ֑הּ (יַעֲשֶׂה) [יַ֣עַשׂ] יְ־הוָ֤ה עִמָּכֶם֙ חֶ֔סֶד כַּאֲשֶׁ֧ר עֲשִׂיתֶ֛ם עִם־הַמֵּתִ֖ים וְעִמָּדִֽי׃ א:ט יִתֵּ֤ן יְ־הוָה֙ לָכֶ֔ם וּמְצֶ֣אןָ מְנוּחָ֔ה אִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אִישָׁ֑הּ וַתִּשַּׁ֣ק לָהֶ֔ן וַתִּשֶּׂ֥אנָה קוֹלָ֖ן וַתִּבְכֶּֽינָה׃ א:יוַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה לָּ֑הּ כִּי־אִתָּ֥ךְ נָשׁ֖וּב לְעַמֵּֽךְ׃
Ruth 1:8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother's house. May YHWH deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 1:9 YHWH grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 1:10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”[1]

The women persevere, insisting they will follow their mother-in-law to Judah, and Naomi urges them not to with greater force, saying that she no longer has anything to offer them and they are young and should move on with their lives.[2]

Naomi clearly loves both of her daughters-in-law equally and has their best interests at heart. She urges them both to stay in Moab, return to their families and seek new husbands. Why should they come to a foreign land, with a foreign god, to begin a new life in foreign surroundings where their chances to find husbands would be limited? This time, Naomi succeeds in convincing one of them to return home:

רות א:יד וַתִּשֶּׂ֣נָה קוֹלָ֔ן וַתִּבְכֶּ֖ינָה ע֑וֹד וַתִּשַּׁ֤ק עָרְפָּה֙ לַחֲמוֹתָ֔הּ וְר֖וּת דָּ֥בְקָה בָּֽהּ׃
Ruth 1:14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

Naomi tells Ruth that she should follow Orpah’s example:

רות א:טו ‎וַתֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּה֙ שָׁ֣בָה יְבִמְתֵּ֔ךְ אֶל־עַמָּ֖הּ וְאֶל־אֱלֹהֶ֑יהָ שׁ֖וּבִי אַחֲרֵ֥י יְבִמְתֵּֽךְ׃
Ruth 1:15 So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law."

Ruth, however, responds with a speech of her own, emphasizing how she will now see Naomi’s people as her own.[3] Ruth exhibits great generosity of spirit and boundless love for her mother-in-law but the author of the story does not judge Orpah harshly. Orpah loves her mother-in-law, but she also sees the wisdom in her advice. Reluctantly and tearfully, she takes her leave and disappears from the story.[4]

Orpah in Post-Biblical Sources

In classical post-biblical literature, the treatment of Orpah is almost entirely negative.

Orpah’s Name

While not offering a negative judgment on her decision, some commentators, ancient and modern, see the name of the character as implying a play on the word ערף (ʿoref) which means “back of the neck.” As the rabbis put it (Ruth Rabbah 2:9): שֶׁהָפְכָה עֹרֶף לַחֲמוֹתָהּ, “for she turned her back on her mother-in-law.”

While this may reflect an intentional wordplay by the author, the rabbis offer another interpretation of her name which is much more negative, and which is certainly not part of the book’s design (Ruth Zuta 1:4):

שם האחת ערפה, שהיה לה ליערף כעגלה ערופה.
The name of one was Orpah, for she was worthy of having her neck broken like the broken-necked heifer.[5]

This extremely harsh interpretation of her name fits much of rabbinic literature, which depicts Orpah in an exceedingly negative light.

The earliest source for the expanded life of Orpah is the pre-rabbinic Biblical Antiquities (1st-cent. C.E.).[6] In its retelling of the David and Goliath story, David taunts Goliath, mentioning that they are cousins, since David is a descendant of Ruth, and Goliath of her sister, Orpah:

BA 61 Hear this word before you die. Were not the two women from whom you and I were born sisters?[7] And your mother was Orpah and my mother Ruth. And Orpah chose for herself the gods of the Philistines and went after them, but Ruth chose for herself the ways of the most powerful and walked in them. And now there were born from Orpah you and your brothers. And because you have risen today and have come to destroy Israel, behold I who was born from your own blood have come to avenge my people. For after your death your three brothers too will fall into my hands. Then you will say to your mother, “he who was born from your sister has not spared us.”[8]

Why is Orpah, a Moabite woman, cast as the mother of Goliath, a Philistine giant, and his—here unnamed—three brothers? While Biblical Antiquities does not reference biblical verses to explain its expansions, Rabbinic literature does.

Mother of Giants

The Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 42b) identifies Orpah as the mother of Goliath, based on a midrashic reading of a passage in the book of 2 Samuel (21:18–22) that describes four Philistine warriors as ילידי הרפה “sons of the giant (harafah).” The rabbis understand the word harafah not as “the giant” but as a personal name of a woman, Harafah, and note that it is similar to Orpah: כתיב הרפה וכתיב ערפה “her name appears as Harafah and as Orpah.” The names share three out of four consonants,[9] and this is enough for the rabbis to identify them as referring to the same person.

Each of the four sons of Harafah/Orpah is killed by David or one of his warriors.[10] The Talmud explains that the killing of Orpah’s sons by a descendant of Ruth is brought about because Orpah’s kiss to Naomi does not measure up to Ruth’s act of devotion and steadfastness:

ויפלו ביד דוד וביד עבדיו דכתיב (רות א:יד) ותשק ערפה לחמותה ורות דבקה בה. אמר רבי יצחק אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יבואו בני הנשוקה ויפלו ביד בני הדבוקה.
“And they fell into the hands of David and his servants.” As it is written: “And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, and Ruth cleaved to her” (Ruth 1:14). Rabbi Yitzḥak says: The Blessed Holy One, said: The children of the one who kissed [i.e., the four giants descended from Orpah] will come and fall into the hand of the children of the one who cleaved [referring to David and his followers].

Nevertheless, the birth of these four powerful warriors was a reward for the tears Orpah shed when leaving Naomi:

דרש רבא בשכר ארבע דמעות שהורידה ערפה על חמותה זכתה ויצאו ממנה ארבעה גבורים שנאמר ותשאנה קולן ותבכינה עוד (רות א, יד).
Rava taught: As a reward for the four tears that Orpah shed over her mother-in-law, she merited that four mighty warriors descended from her,[11] as it is stated: “And they lifted up their voice and wept again.” (Ruth 1:14)

Similarly, a different midrash suggests that this reward, as well as a second reward, were the result of the steps Orpah took while accompanying Naomi (Ruth Rabbah 2:20):

ר' ברכיה בשם ר' יצחק אמר, ארבעים פסיעות הלכה ערפה אחר חמותה ונתלה לבנה ארבעים יום, [שנ' ויגש הפלשתי השכם והערב, ויתיצב ארבעים יום].
R. Berechiah said in the name of R. Yitzhak: “Orpah walked with her mother-in-law for forty steps, and [as a result, retribution] was suspended for her descendant for forty days, [as it says (1 Sam 17:16): ‘For forty days the Philistine (Goliath) came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.’]”
ר' יודן בשם ר' יצחק, ארבעה מילין הלכה ערפה אחר חמותה, ועמדו ממנה ארבעה גבורים, [שנ'] את ארבעת אלה יולדו להרפה בגת.
R. Yudan said in the name of R. Yitzhak: “Orpah walked with her mother-in-law for four miles, and from her were descended four warriors, [as it says] (2 Sam 21:22): ‘These four were descended from Harafah in Gath.’”

Orpah the Witch

According to the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 95a), in a fantastic tale with many folkloristic elements, Abishai ben Zeruiah, arrives in Philistia to save King David from the hands of Ishbi be-Nob, Orpah’s son, who had captured him and was trying to kill him, in revenge for David’s killing of his brother Goliath:[12]

רכביה לפרדיה וקם ואזל קפצה ליה ארעא בהדי דקא מסגי חזייה לערפה אמיה דהוות נוולא כי חזיתיה פסקתה לפילכה שדתיה עילויה סברא למקטליה אמרה ליה עלם אייתי לי פלך פתקיה בריש מוחה וקטלה.
[Abishai] mounted the king’s mule and arose and went to the land of the Philistines. The land miraculously contracted for him and he arrived quickly. As he was progressing, he saw Orpah, his [Ishbi-benob’s] mother, who was spinning [thread with a spindle]. When she saw him, she removed her spindle and threw it at him, intending to kill him. [After failing to do so], she said to [Abishai]: “Young man, bring me [my] spindle.” He threw [the spindle and struck her] at the top of her brain and killed her.

Thus, Orpah here has becomes a witch-like character, who sits weaving and wields a spindle as a weapon. not Not only is she the mother of Israel’s enemies, but an enemy herself, and who dies an ignominious death.

Orpah as a Promiscuous Woman

The Orpah/Harafah connection explains how Orpah becomes identified as the mother [or ancestor] of Goliath and the other three warriors in 2 Samuel 21, but what still needs explaining is how a Moabite woman ends up as the mother of Philistines from Gath.[13] For the rabbis, Orpah was a Moabite princess, as she and Ruth are both daughters of King Eglon of Moab, whom Ehud assassinates in Judges 3 (Ruth Rabbah 1:9).[14]

Even so, several midrashim explain that, after leaving Naomi, Orpah turns to extreme promiscuous activity. For instance, in a gloss on the phrase about Orpah leaving, Midrash Ruth Zuta writes:

אמרו אותה הלילה הערו בה מאה ערלות פלשתים, ויצא ממנה גלית הגתי הפלשתי.
That night she one hundred Philistine penises poured [their seed] into her, and from this, Goliath the Gittite was born.[15]

The comment may imply that Orpah was so promiscuous that she let many men have sex with her one after another, though it sounds more like a depiction of a gang rape. The point seems less about Orpah and more about impugning Goliath’s lineage. This is even clearer when we look at the series of midrashim about Orpah’s promiscuity in the Talmudic pericope noted above (b. Sotah 42b), which opens with an interpretation of why Goliath is referred to as ish ha-beinayim (1 Sam 17:4, 23), literally “an in-between man.”

The simple explanation is that Goliath is an intermediary, acting as a champion for the Philistine side who goes into the no-man’s land between the two battlelines challenging the other side to send an opponent to fight him. The rabbis, however, after offering several creative interpretations, make use of the connotation of in-betweenness to call the integrity of Goliath’s lineage into question:

רבי יוחנן אמר בר מאה פפי וחדא נאנאי.
Rabbi Yohanan said: [Goliath] was the son of one hundred fathers [pappi] and one old maid.[16]

Having begun travelling down this path, the Talmud piles on further insults against Goliath and his mother:

וגלית שמו מגת תני רב יוסף שהכל דשין את אמו כגת.
[The verse says that] he was “named Goliath, of Gath” [1 Sam 17:4). Rav Yosef taught: [This is] because everyone would thresh his mother as people do in a winepress [gat].
כתיב מערות וקרינן מערכות. תני רב יוסף שהכל הערו באמו.
It is written [that Goliath came from] “the caves [meʿarot] of the Philistines” [1 Sam 17:23], but we read, [according to the Masoretic text: He came from among] “the ranks [maʿarkhot] [of the Philistines.”] Rav Yosef taught: [The word] meʿarot is related to the word he‘erah, meaning poured, and implies that everyone poured [heʿeru] [their seed] into his mother.

At this point, the Talmud moves to wordplay insults about Orpah directly:

כתיב [שמואל ב כ"א:ט"ז] הרפה וכתיב ערפה. רב ושמואל, חד אמר הרפה שמה ולמה נקרא שמה ערפה שהכל עורפין אותה מאחריה וחד אמר ערפה שמה ולמה נקרא שמה הרפה שהכל דשין אותה כהריפות.
It says [her name is] Harafah and it says [her name is] Orpah. Rav and Shmuel [differed on why]. One of them said: Her name was Harafah, and why is she called by the name Orpah? Because everyone came at her from behind [ʿorfin] her. The other said: Her name was Orpah, and why is she called Harafah? Because everyone threshed her like groats [harifot] [i.e., engaged in sexual intercourse with her].

This piling on of coarse insults seems gratuitous, verging on the pornographic But it graphically makes the point that Orpah, Goliath’s mother, was a dissolute, lecherous woman.

Why is Orpah Portrayed So Negatively?

The rabbis loved creating oppositional pairs of virtuous and wicked characters. Examples are Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Esther and Vashti, and of course David and Goliath.

  • Just as Goliath is a foil for David, so Orpah, Goliath’s mother or ancestor, is a foil for Ruth. If Goliath was a wicked person, his parents and ancestors must have been likewise.
  • If Ruth is a model of virtue, kindness, steadfastness, and loyalty, Orpah must be a model of dissoluteness, promiscuity, unbridled passion, and depravity.
  • While Ruth rejected her idolatrous homeland and clung to Naomi, Orpah returned to a life of idolatry and lewdness. Orpah’s decision to remain in Moab is not just a personal choice, an innocent act devoid of any negative implications; it is seen as a betrayal of Naomi, her people, and her God, and led to her offspring becoming Israel’s mortal enemies.[17]

And yet, there is an unfortunate irony in the rabbis’ extremely derogatory portrayal of Orpah’s character. The major theme of the book of Ruth is chesed, lovingkindness, and the rabbis have nothing but praise for the chesed Ruth shows to Naomi. And yet, the rabbis seem unable to muster any sympathy for Orpah. They were focused on what they saw as her rejection of Naomi and her people. But now, looking back, perhaps a bit of compassion and understanding for Orpah in her situation would not be uncalled for.


Orpah in Medieval Exegesis

In the Middle Ages, the peshat commentary tradition on the Book of Ruth had little to say about Orpah.[18] We may find here and there a hint of disapproval, but the attitudes are for the most part neutral. One exception is the typological commentary by Isaac ben Joseph ha-Kohen (15th cent) in which each character in the book plays a role in the drama of Jewish history in the biblical period. While Ruth is a figure for the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, who cleaved to God and his anointed one, called Mahlon, Orpah is a figure for the other tribes who turned their backs (‘oref) to the kingdom of Judah and committed idolatry.[19]

Modern Poetic Readings of Orpah’s Life

When we turn to the modern period, we find several Hebrew and Yiddish poems that show much more sympathy for Orpah’s situation and justify her decision to stay in her ancestral home. These poets are addressing the figure of Orpah as portrayed in the Book of Ruth, unencumbered by rabbinic baggage.

Avraham Huss: “Orpah”

Hebrew University Professor of Meteorology, Avraham Huss’s (1924-2015) “Orpah” is written in the first person, in the voice of Orpah, who speaks to Naomi and Ruth and tells them that she has fulfilled all her obligations and duties, she owes no one anything, and she just wants to return home to live with her memories. Moving to another place means, for her, forgetting the past and her deceased husband, and making a fresh start. For this she is not ready:

... הָאִישׁ שֶׁשָּׁכַב בֵּין שָׁדַי
אָכֵן הוֹתִיר זִכְרוֹנוֹת כְּמִיהָה וּכְאֵב
מִמִּשְׁלָב גּוֹרָלִי בִּתְוַאי חַיָּיו, שֶׁנִּקְטַע סְתָמִית בְּכֹחוֹ שֶׁל זֶה הַיּוֹדֵעַ כֵּיצַד לְהַחֲיוֹת וְכֵיצַד לְהָמִית וְקוֹצֵב אֶת הָעֵת לִקְמֹל וְהָעֵת לְלַבְלֵב – וְקוֹבֵעַ אֶת הַמָּתַי. וְאֶת הָאֵיךְ.
...The man who lay between my breasts
Indeed left memories, longing and pain
From the register of my fate in the outline of his life, which was cut down, just like that,
by the power of the one who knows how to give life and how to take it and fixes the time to wither and the time to bloom and determines the when and the how.
וּבְכָן – מִמֶּנִּי נָטְלוּ אֶת טַעַם הַמַּשְׁמָעוּת.
אַתֶּן יְכוֹלוֹת לָלֶכֶת נִשְׁעָנוֹת עַל מַטֵּה שִׁכְחָה. וַאֲנִי נִפְרֶדֶת מִכֶּן מִתּוֹךְ הַשְׁלָמָה נְבוֹכָה, וּפֹה בְּמוֹאָב, יוֹם אֶחָד, עֲרִירִית, אָמוּת, אֲנִי – לֹא אֵלֵךְ.[19]
And thus, from me was taken the taste of meaning. You can go, leaning on the staff of forgetfulness. I part company with you in confused resignation, And here in Moab, one day, all alone, I shall die, I—will not go.

For this Orpah, life is over. She just wants to live with her memories and is not ready to face an uncertain future.

Samuel Bass: “Orpah”

In “Orpah” by poet and educator, Samuel Bass (1899-1949), Orpah longs to return to Moab, without sadness or regret. She looks forward to renewal, to beginning life anew in her beloved homeland.

בְּחַבְּקָה חֲמוֹתָהּ, מֵעֶבְרוֹ שֶׁל כָּתֵף תֶּחֱזֶה הַרְרֵי מוֹלַדְתָּהּ בְּעֵין־זֹהַר, אֶת צְעִיף הָאֵדִים הַכָּחֹל הָעוֹטֵף הַבִּקְעָה, בָּהּ שׁוֹכֵן בֵּית אִמָּהּ, גַּן הַנֹּעַר.
While she embraces her mother-in-law Over her shoulder she sees the mountains of her homeland, at the well of Zohar, The blue misty veil that embraces the valley wherein is nestled her mother’s house, the garden of her youth.
לֹא דִּמְעָה בְּעֵינָהּ, צֵל יָגוֹן לֹא תֵּדַע בְּנַשְּׁקָה הָאָחוֹת הָעוֹטְיָה טֶרֶם לֶכֶת, בְּמַגָּע אַחֲרוֹן זֶה, גַּם בִּרְכַּת הַפְּרֵדָה
לָאַלְמוֹן אָז תִּתֵּן, לְיָמִים בְּשַלֶּכֶת.
There are no tears in her eyes, She knows not a shadow of grief As she kisses her wandering sister before going,At this final encounter, she also takes leave of widowhood, for days in the fall.
עִם קִצּוֹ שֶׁל מַחְלוֹן הֵן לֹא בָּא עוֹד הַקֵּץ
עַל חֶמְדַּת־נְעוּרִים סוֹעֲרָה וְזוֹהֶרֶת.
פֹּה אַדְמַת גִּדּוּלָהּ, אֲבִיבָהּ בָּהּ הֵנֵץ,
אֵיךְ תּוּכַל וְתַכֶּה שָׁרָשִׁים בְּאַחֶרֶת. ...[21]
Mahlon’s[22] demise does not put an end
to youthful desire, stormy and radiant.
Here is the land of her youth, where her spring burst into bloom, How could she strike roots in another?

Itzik Manger: “Orpah Can’t Sleep”

Itzik Manger, the great Yiddish poet, who created biblically based ballads set in 19th-century Eastern Europe, in a poem called “Orpah Can’t Sleep” (Orpe ken nisht shlofn = ערפה קען נישט שלאפן) imagines Orpah receiving a letter from her father, imploring her to come home:

ערפסיא, טעכטערל, קום אהיים,
די מאמע איז אלט און קראנק.
קראסא די קו האט זיך געקאלבט
און אלץ איז גאט-זיי-דאנק.
Orposya,[23] little daughter, come home,
Mother is old and sick.
Krasa the cow, had a calf
And everything is all right, thank God.

The father relates that Antek, the court recorder, had stopped him recently to say that he had heard that Orpah’s husband had passed away and that he asked her father to tell her that even though she had lived with a Jew he was willing to take her back just as she was.

ערפה לייגט אוועק דעם בריוו.
אנטעק רופט זי צוריק,
אפשר טאקע, אפשר ביי אים
איז איר באשערט איר גליק?
זי גייט פאמעלעך צום פענצטער צו,
איר הארץ איז מאדנע שווער,
די בית-עולם שלאפט אין לבנה-שיין
און זי וויינט א לעצטע טרער...
Orpah puts the letter away.
Antek is calling her back,
Maybe, indeed, maybe with him
Is her happiness destined to be?
She walks slowly to the window,
Her heart is oddly heavy,
The graveyard sleeps in the moonlight
And she cries a last tear…[24]

Manger too, imagines Orpah returning to her hometown, to familiar surroundings, where she can start over again and build a new life.

Tamar Biala: “Orpah’s Letter to Her Parents”

Finally, contemporary author and midrashist, Tamar Biala, offers this meditation on Orpah and her fate in the form of a letter Orpah wrote to her parents:[25]

מכתב של ערפה להוריה - נמצא על ידי נכדתה, חיה, לאחר מותה
Orpah’s Letter to her Parents – Found by her Granddaughter, Chayah, after her Death
'ערפה' קראתם לי, בתכם התינוקת משפקחתי את עיני לראשונה, מתבוננת סקרנית בעולם. 'ערפה' הסברתם כשבכיתי, בעיניים מוצפות כאב, כדי שתלמדי מניסיוננו: לא לפנות עורף.
‘Orpah’ you called me, your baby daughter, as soon as I first opened my eyes, looking curiously at the world. ‘Orpah’ you explained, when I cried, with eyes flooded with pain, so you would learn from our experience, not to turn back (lifnot ʿoref [a play on Orpah’s name]).
אף פעם, הייתם מדגישים, אף פעם לא להסתובב אחורה, לא לחשוב מה היה אילו ולא להתחרט. מי שמסתובב, שמהסס וממשיך להתבונן בעברו, הופך לנציב של מלח, הייתם מתרים בי. רק להמשיך קדימה, בראש זקוף, פתוחה לקראת העתיד! תמיד להתחיל מחדש, להושיט יד, להאמין .
Never, you would insist, never turn back, never think “what if” and do not regret. Whoever turns around, hesitates, and keeps contemplating his past, becomes a pillar of salt, you would warn me. Just keep moving forward, with head held high, open to the future! Always start over, lend a hand, believe!
וכך עשיתי לאחר שאבדו לנו התאומים, ואחר כך אבא, באותה שנה, מאותה מחלה שפגעה גם בי, ושהצלחתי להחלים ממנה בעצמי, לבדי.
And so I did after we lost the twins and then father, in the same year, from the plague that attacked me too, from which I recovered, by myself, alone.
נעמי, הזרה מבית לחם, בחרה בי. ראתה את בדידותי, את כוחותי ומייד נמשכה אלי. ואני – אליה – לחיבוקה החם, לעיניה הטובות, לניגוניה שנעמו כל כך ללבי המבקש אהבה.
Naomi, the stranger from Bethlehem, chose me. She saw my loneliness, my strengths, and instantly was drawn to me. And I – to her – to her warm embrace, her kind eyes, to the melodies that were so pleasing (na‘amu [a play on Naomi’s name]) to my love-seeking heart.
אהבתי את נעמי, שהיתה לי לאם, אהבתיה, אהבתי את משפחתה ואת האחות הקטנה שבה זכיתי פתאום, באמצע החיים, רות החמה והמתרפקת.
I loved Naomi, who was a mother to me, I loved her, I loved her family and the little sister I gained all of a sudden, in the middle of life, Ruth, warm and embracing.
ואז שוב הכה בי הגורל, בכולנו, מחלון וכליון נשמטו לנו תחת הידיים, אבל אני, זקפתי סנטרה של רות והכרחתי אותה לקום מקברם ולשבת עמנו לקבל פני המנחמים.
And then fate struck at me, again, at all of us, Mahlon and Chilion slipped right from our hands, but I lifted Ruth’s chin and made her rise from their graves and sit with us to receive the comforters.
בדרך ליהודה, לביתה שבבית לחם, עוד המומות בכאבינו, נתלות זו בזו היא דחתה אותנו, אמי המאמצת. רות ואני סרבנו, לא רצינו להיפרד ממנה, גם ממנה, האהובה?! אך כשהיא התעקשה והבהירה לנו שלא יהיו לנו חיים לצידה, שלא יהיה לנו עתיד, נזכרתי במצוותכם, והחלטתי לקיים את בקשתה, בקשתכם, בקשת לבי הצעיר והמאמין. רות ואני נופיע לפתע בעירנו, דמיינתי, אנשים יתהו, ירחמו, יחשדו, אך אנו נשמור אמונים זו לזו, כי לעולם נהיה אחיות, כמו שהבטחנו בעבר, ולעולם נזכור את נעמי.
On the way to Judah, to her house in Bethlehem, still stunned in our pain, hanging one on another, she pushed us away, our adoptive mother. Ruth and I refused, we did not want to separate from her, from her too, the beloved?! But when she insisted and made clear that by her side, we would have no life, I remembered what you commanded me, and I decided to fulfill her request, your request, the request of my young and believing heart. Ruth and I will appear all of a sudden in our town, I imagined, people will wonder, have pity, be suspicious, but we will keep faith with each other, because we will always be sisters, just as we had promised in the past, and we will always remember Naomi.
כשהסתובבתי והתחלתי ללכת, הרגשתי מייד שמשהו לא בסדר. קול פסיעות מתרחקות שמעתי, אך לא היו אלה רק פסיעותיה של נעמי. שני זוגות צעדים שמעתי, חרישיים, מתרחקים והולכים ולא הבנתי מה קורה. בקשתי להסתובב אחורה, לצעוק לרות, לקרוא, לברר, להבין, אך קולכם המזהיר והחד נשף בערפי ודחפני קדימה, קדימה, בכוח מכאיב: 'אף פעם לא להסתובב אחורה, לא לחשוב מה היה אילו ולא להתחרט. מי שמסתובב, שמהסס שממשיך להתבונן בעברו, הופך לנציב של מלח, רק להמשיך קדימה, בראש זקוף, פתוחה לקראת העתיד! תמיד להתחיל מחדש, להושיט יד, להאמין' ואני, כשדמעותי נושרות ונבלעות בחול החם בדרך למואב, המשכתי קדימה, קדימה, קדימה.
When I turned and started to go, I felt right away that something was not right. I heard footsteps walking away, but not just those of Naomi. Two sets of footsteps I heard, soft, getting farther away, and I did not understand what was happening. I wanted to turn around, to cry out to Ruth, call out, clarify, understand, but your voice, warning, and sharp blew on my neck (nashaf be-‘orpi [another play on the name Orpah] and pushed me forward, forward, with painful force: “never turn back, never think ‘what if’ and do not regret. Whoever turns around, hesitates, and keeps contemplating his past, becomes a pillar of salt. Just keep moving forward, with head held high, open to the future! Always start over, lend a hand, believe!” And I, as my tears fell and vanished into the hot sand on the way to Moab, kept moving forward, forward, forward.
והייתי ילדה טובה.
And I was a good girl.

As Biala portrays her, Orpah has internalized the lesson she learnt from her parents not to dwell in the past but to make the best of present circumstances and move forward with life. As Biala writes elsewhere, “Orpah represents the ability to separate, the healthy ability to kiss the past goodbye and to arrange for herself a new life. … Orpah is not a rebel. She leaves in order to live in the most proper way that she is able.”[26] In a reversal of sorts, it is Orpah who feels betrayed by Ruth, who chooses Naomi over her and never properly says goodbye.

Orpah and Ruth choose different ways to respond to the traumas that they suffered. While Ruth has been greatly honored and praised by our tradition, deservedly so, for the choice she made, the choice of Orpah also deserves our understanding and compassion.


May 13, 2021


Last Updated

February 21, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Barry Dov Walfish was the Judaica Bibliographer and Curator at the University of Toronto Libraries until his retirement in 2017. He holds a Ph.D. in Medieval Jewish Intellectual History from the University of Toronto. He is the author of Esther in Medieval Garb,  Bibliographia Karaitica, and The Way of Lovers (with Sara Japhet) and is the main Judaism editor for De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception.