Rus, David, and the Prohibition of Marrying Moavites

A critical feature of the
Book of Rus is the question of whether Rus was allowed to marry into the Jewish
people. The Torah prohibits a Moavite from marrying into Klal Yisroel to
prevent damaging Klal Yisroel’s pristine moral nature by people who have
inherited the disturbing character traits associated with the Moavite people:

An Ammonite or a
Moavite should not enter the congregation of
Hashem. Even the tenth generation should not enter the congregation
Hashem, forever. Because of the fact that they did not come forward
with bread and water when you were on your way out of Mitzrayim and because of
the fact that they hired Bilaam ben Be’or of Pesor, Aram Naharayim, to curse
(Devarim 23:4, 5).

Since there are no
indications that the nation of Ammon participated in employing Bilaam, the Ramban
(ad loc.) explains that each of the two reasons specified here applies to only
one of the two nations involved: The Ammonites are excluded from marrying into Klal
because they did not provide food for the Jewish people, thus not
demonstrating any hakaras hatov for the fact that Avraham Avinu had
saved their ancestor Lot, and Moav is banned for hiring Bilaam.

The Mishnah (Yevamos
76b) rules Ammoni velo Ammonis, Moavi velo Moavis, that the
prohibition of marrying into the Jewish people applies only to male Ammonites
and Moavites and their male descendants. Thus, a male member of the Moavite
people who converts to Judaism is still prohibited from marrying someone born
Jewish. However, a female Moavite convert and all her descendants, and the
female descendant of a male Moavite convert may freely marry within Klal
. It is for this reason that Boaz was permitted to marry Rus, who
was a Moavite.

The Gemara
explains that only Ammonite men are included in the ban, since only men would
have been involved in going out to present food and drink to the Jews. The
female Ammonites’ lack of involvement in this mitzvah may have been
because of their extreme modesty – they never left their houses to be near
unfamiliar men. Similarly, since we can assume that Bilaam was hired by the
Moavite men, only they are prohibited from marrying into the Jewish people, not
the women (see also Yerushalmi).

The Story of Rus

In addition to the
above-quoted Mishnah, several other early sources discuss whether the
prohibition preventing Moavites and Ammonites from marrying Jews is restricted
to males or extends also to females. The first time we find this matter
discussed is in the days of Rus. Megillas Rus tells us that Ploni
Almoni, an uncle of Rus’s late husband Machlon, was concerned about marrying
Rus pen ashchis nachalasi, lest I destroy my descendants (Rus 4:6),
which Rashi explains to be a concern that his descendants born from Rus
would not be allowed to marry other Jews, because of their Moavite ancestress. Rashi
there explains that Ploni Almoni erred regarding the halachic rule of Ammoni
velo Ammonis

Yet, the comment of Ploni
Almoni is peculiar. If he felt that female Moavites are prohibited from
marrying Jews, why was he only concerned that his descendants would be banned
and not about whether he himself was permitted to marry Rus? On the other hand,
if he was willing to marry Rus because he knew that the prohibition is
restricted to male Moavites, why was he concerned about his children? We will
return to this question shortly.

The Story of David

The issue of whether
Moavite women may marry Jews surfaced again concerning the lineage of King
David, who was descended from Rus. A fascinating passage of Gemara
describes an early halachic debate among several known Biblical
personages – whom we see from this Gemara were exemplary Torah scholars.
Doeig HaEdomi, a member of King Shaul’s retinue, and Avner ben Ner, Shaul’s
chief-of-military-staff, debate the halachic issue concerning whether
Moavite women may marry Jews. The discussion between them is what one expects
from Talmidei Chachamim of the first order, vociferously debating a halachic
issue in your local Beis Medrash. But first let us examine the
historical context.

Background to the

After Shaul failed to
destroy Amalek and he had been told that he would therefore lose the monarchy,
Hashem commanded Shmuel to clandestinely anoint David, the youngest of Yishai’s
eight sons, as the new King of Israel. Shmuel carried out this mission, but it
had been kept a complete secret.

At this time, Shaul began
suffering bouts of depression. Shaul’s advisers sought out someone who could
play music and thereby help Shaul cope with his depression. One of Shaul’s
attendants knew David and suggested him for the position. David tried out for
the position and was very successful. Shaul then sent a message to Yishai,
David’s father, requesting that David be allowed to assume this position
permanently. David did fill the position, and Shaul loved David tremendously,
and had David also assume the role of being the royal armor-bearer. Shaul sent
a second message to Yishai, requesting that David remain with Shaul “for he has
found favor in my eyes” (Shmuel I 16:14-23).

At this point, the
Pelishtim (Philistines) waged war against the Jews. The Pelishtim had a giant
warrior among them, Golyas (known in English as “Goliath”), who stood over six
tall (well over ten feet!). Golyas would taunt the Jews with his
powerful, terrifying voice. Golyas challenged the Jews to send one
representative who would face off in battle against him, with the nation of the
victor taking the members of the other nation as slaves. At the same time,
Golyas screamed blasphemous declarations about Hashem. The Jewish troops were
terrified of Golyas (Shmuel I 17:1-11).

At the time, David’s
three oldest brothers served in Shaul’s army. Yishai, David’s father, who is
described as zakein ba va’anashim, meaning a well known personage,
sent David to bring provisions to his brothers at the battlefront (Shmuel I
17:12). David discovered that Shaul was offering a vast reward to whoever would
vanquish Golyas.

David the Brave

David, after gathering
information about the situation, volunteered to fight Golyas by himself. Shaul
discouraged David, noting that Golyas was an experienced warrior, whereas David
was not.

David replied that Hashem
is the One who provides all salvation, and that Hashem often helped David fight
lions and bears while he was tending his sheep. Shaul gave David his blessing.

Shaul’s armor was placed
upon David, but David said that he could not move freely with the armor, and
removed it. David then took five smooth stones from a stream and placed them in
his shepherd’s bag.

When Golyas saw David, he
taunted him, saying “I will offer your flesh to the birds of the heavens and
the animals of the field,” to which David responded: “You come against me with
sword, spear and javelin, and I come against you with the Name of Hashem,
Master of Armies, the G-d of the troops of Israel.” At this point, David took
his slingshot, shot one stone that struck Golyas on the forehead, and Golyas
fell dead. David then took Golyas’s sword, chopped off his head and
demonstrated to all the Pelishtim that their hero was dead. The Pelishtim fled,
and on that day, the Jews vanquished their enemy.

Now we come to the
strangest part of the story:

“And when Shaul saw David
move forward against the Pelishti, he said to Avner, his general, ‘Avner, whose
son is this lad?’ And Avner answered, ‘As you live, O King, I do not know.’ And
the king responded, ‘Find out whose son is this lad’” (Shmuel I,

This last part of the story
is bizarre. Both Shaul and Avner certainly knew David well — David was Shaul’s
armor-bearer and the one who played music to treat Shaul’s fits of depression.
Furthermore, they were also familiar with Yishai, who was a well-known
personage and with whom Shaul had negotiated twice for David’s employ.

The Gemara Passage

As we can imagine, we are
not the first to ask these questions: They form the basis of a fascinating
Talmudic discussion (Yevamos 76b-77a).

The Gemara asks
why Shaul asked Avner who David and Yishai were; he knew them both, very well.
The Gemara answers that he suspected that David might be the person who
would be replacing him as king of the Jews. Shaul inquired whether David was descended
from the branch of Yehudah that was destined to be the Jewish royal family.
Thus, the question “Avner, whose son is this lad?” was not about David’s
identity but about his genealogical roots.

At this point, Doeig
HaEdomi piped up, “Rather than ask concerning whether he is appropriate to
become king, you should ask whether he may marry into the Jewish people. After
all, he is descended from Rus, the Moavite.” To this, Avner retorted that we
know that the halachah is that only male descendants of Ammon and Moav
are prohibited, and therefore Rus was permitted to marry into the Jewish
people. Doeig, however, disputed the veracity of this ruling. A halachic
debate ensued between Doeig and Avner, concerning whether one can prove from
the verses that the prohibition against Ammon and Moav is limited to males, or
whether it extends also to the female descendants. Doeig won the upper hand in
the debate, producing irrefutable arguments that females are also prohibited.

What was Doeig’s

As explained by the Ritva
(ad loc.), Doeig insisted that the prohibition against marrying Ammonites
applies equally to men and women of this nation. In his opinion, the Ammonite
women equally share blame for the discourtesy they showed the Israelites, since
the Ammonite women should also have provided food and water. He disputes with
excusing their not providing help as attributable to their extreme modesty,
since the Ammonite women should have assisted the Jewish women.

But what about the
Moavite women?

But wait one minute! This
concern should not affect David, who was descended from Moav, not from Ammon,
and the Moavite women cannot be accused of hiring Bilaam. However, Doeig
contended that Moavite women are also prohibited. Although it may be true that
Bilaam was hired by the men, since the prohibitions against marrying Moavites
and Ammonites are mentioned together, just as female Ammonites may not marry
Jews, the same applies to female Moavites (Rashba, Yevamos 76b).

When Avner was unable to
disprove Doeig’s approach, Shaul referred the issue to the scholars who debated
such matters in the Beis Medrash. These scholars also responded that the
prohibition banning the marriage of Ammon and Moav applies only to males and
not to females. Doeig then proceeded to demonstrate that their approach was
incorrect, leading the scholars of the Beis Medrash to conclude that
their previous assumption was wrong and that henceforth the halachah
would be that female descendants of Ammon and Moav are prohibited from marrying
into Klal Yisroel. This ruling would seriously affect David and all his
family members. Boaz had married Rus assuming that the prohibition banning
Moavites applied only to males, and now the scholars of the Beis Medrash
were considering banning Moavite and Ammonite women and all their descendants.

Amasa to the Rescue!

They were about to
conclude that this is the halachah, when another scholar, Amasa, who was
also a general in Shaul’s army, rose and declared, “I have received a direct mesorah
from Shmuel’s Beis Din that the prohibition relates only to male
descendants and not to female ones.” This last argument apparently turned the
entire debate back in favor of Avner’s original position, and it was accepted
that David and all of Yishai’s descendants could marry within Klal Yisroel
(Yevamos 76b-77a).

What did Amasa’s
declaration change? In what way did this refute Doeig’s arguments?

Based on a halachic
explanation of the Rambam (Hilchos Mamrim 1:2), the Brisker Rav
explains what changed.

There are two basic types
of Torah laws:

  • Those that are handed down as a mesorah from Moshe Rabbeinu at Har
  • Those derived on the basis of the thirteen rules with which we derive
    new halachos, called in English the hermeneutic rules.

Let me explain each
category by using examples:


We have a mesorah
that the Torah’s requirement that we take “the fruit of a beautiful tree” on Sukkos
refers to an esrog. No halachic authority in Klal Yisroel’s
history ever questioned this fact, and for a very simple reason. We know this
piece of information directly from the great leaders of Klal Yisroel who
received this information from Moshe Rabbeinu, who heard it directly from
Hashem (Rambam, Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah).


However, there are also
Torah laws that were not taught with a direct mesorah from Har Sinai,
but are derived through the hermeneutic rules of the Torah. For example, there
is a dispute among tana’im whether a sukkah requires four walls
to be kosher or whether it is sufficient if it has three. This debate is based
on two different ways to explain the words of the Torah (Sukkah 6b).

Mesorah Versus Logic

Are there any halachic
distinctions between the two categories of Torah-derived laws? Indeed, there
are. The Rambam explains that when the position is based on logic, halachic
authorities may disagree what is the halachah. Thus, there can be a
dispute among tana’im whether a sukkah must have three walls or
four. However, there can never be a dispute concerning a matter that Klal
received as a mesorah. Once a greatly respected Torah
authority reports a mesorah from his rebbe,who in turn
received this mesorah back to Moshe Rabbeinu, that a specific halachah
or principle is true, no one can question this mesorah. Thus, any
dispute about a halachah of the Torah can concern only something derived
logically with hermeneutic principles.

There is another halachic
difference between something taught by mesorah and something derived
through logic. The final decider of all halachah in every generation
(until the end of the era of the Talmud) was the Sanhedrin, also often
called the Beis Din HaGadol, the supreme Beis Din. Once the great
Torah scholars of Klal Yisroel participated in a debate in the Beis Din
, which then reached a decision, their conclusion is binding on all
of Klal Yisroel (Rambam, Hilchos Mamrim 1:1;
Comments of Ramban to Sefer HaMitzvos, Rule II).

There is a question
whether a Beis Din HaGadol may overturn a ruling that had been decided
previously, either its own decision or one made by an earlier Beis Din
. The answer to this question depends on whether the ruling involved
was based on logic or whether it was taught by mesorah. When the
original decision was reached by logic, then a later Beis Din HaGadol
has the authority to reexamine the case, and, should it decide to, overturn the
previous ruling.

However, this can never
happen with a law whose source is mesorah. There can be no debate, no
discussion and no overturning. Once a recognized scholar announces that he
received this law as a mesorah from Sinai, this is accepted by all, and
no debate or questioning of this mesorah may transpire.

Thus, it makes a
tremendous difference in halachah whether something is a mesorah,
which means it is not subject to argument or debate, or whether it is based on
an interpretation of the hermeneutic rules, which is subject to argument and

On the basis of these
rules of the Rambam, the Brisker Rav (in his notes to the book of Rus
in his Chiddushim on Tanach) explains why Amasa’s argument closed
the debate in David’s favor. Doeig, Shaul, Avner, and the other members of
Shaul’s Beis Medrash all assumed that limiting the prohibition of Ammoni
and Moavi to males was based on hermeneutic exposition, and thus debatable.
Furthermore, if Doeig demonstrated that his approach was logically correct, the
long-established interpretation permitting Rus to marry into the Jewish people
would be overturned. Indeed, the result of this ruling would be that Rus and
all her descendants would be prohibited to marry into the Jewish people.

Amasa, however, explains
the Brisker Rav, knew that the principle of Moavi velo Moavis, that
female descendants of Moav could marry into Klal Yisroel, was a mesorah
that Shmuel knew originated at Har Sinai. Thus, its basis was not a logical
interpretation of the Torah, which can be refuted, but mesorah, which
cannot. Therefore, a logical interpretation concluding otherwise was completely

At this point, we can
return to an earlier question we asked about the story of Megillas Rus. Ploni
Almoni, Machlon’s uncle, seems convinced that he may marry Rus, notwithstanding
her Moavite origins, yet he was concerned that his descendants from her might
not be allowed to marry other Jews. The Brisker Rav explains that Ploni Almoni
assumed that the law permitting Moavite women to marry Jews was based on logic,
which might at some time in the future be refuted, thus changing the accepted halachah.
At that point, the ability of his descendants to marry Jews would be
overturned. However, Ploni Almoni was incorrect, since the halachah that
Moavite women may marry Jews is mesorah, and therefore irrefutable.
There can and will never be a question as to whether the descendants of Boaz
and David may marry Jews, notwithstanding their Moavite origins.


the halachic issues regarding the pedigree of David, which are of
supreme importance to us, since they are the basis of the lineage of Mashiach,
we learn a very important lesson from the marital restrictions of the Moavites.
One of the three identifying characteristics of the Jewish people is our
quality that we are makir tov, we appreciate what others, and especially
Hashem, have done for us and acknowledge that appreciation. From this mitzvah,
we see how concerned we should be about developing the qualities that
characterize the Jewish people.