Boaz’s Shoe (or Glove)

More from my commentary. This time it is all about personal articles of clothing. (Being in Germany as I write this I chuckle about the debate of shoe v. glove since the German word for glove is Handschuh.) Again, no footnotes have been carried over from the book.

Tg Ruth 4:7  This custom was observed in former times in Israel: when they were transacting business or redeeming or exchanging one with another before witnesses. A man would take off his right-hand glove and reach out with it, the possession, to his companion. Thus was the tradition in the house of Israel for a man to make purchases from his companion before witnesses.


As can be seen, the Targumist has added a number of phrases to the biblical text in order to explain or clarify the process that is taking place in the story. The biblical account itself is an explanation of an ancient practice with which the author assumed his audience would be unfamiliar. The NRSV renders the opening of the verse, “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging….” The Targum follows the biblical text at this point, portraying the custom as having been “observed in former times in Israel.” Yet Levine sees this as an effort to justify the substitution of the term “glove” for “shoe” (more on that below). The Targum, writes Levine, “attributes the custom to biblical antiquity. Furthermore, it adds that such is the custom of the house of Israel.” It is true that the Targum adds “house,” בית, to the final reference to Israel, but the placement of these practices in Israelite antiquity is hardly an innovation of the Targum, it is present in the biblical text itself.

The Targumist also adds that this exchange would take part “before witnesses.” This addition is in keeping with Boaz’s actions in 9, when he tells those who are present that they are witnesses to the transaction. In so doing, the Targumist has made verse 7 the template for all the action that is to follow the next few verses; what follows is exactly how it should be.

Targumic scholars of the last fifty years have spent a considerable amount of time on the fact that Tg. Ruth replaces the “shoe” that is exchanged with a “glove.” The Targum appears to be unique in making this substitution and it seems to have escaped notice until the medieval period. Schlesinger appears to be the first modern scholar to take note of the fact that Ramban, in his commentary on Exod 28:41 refers to a translation by השוטים, “the fools,” that renders “shoe” with “glove.” Schlesinger sees this as evidence that Tg. Ruth is not a valid translation. Beattie has pointed out that Ramban’s comments where, in fact, responding to Rashi’s commentary on Exod 28:41 where Rashi cited an “Old French” custom.

In Old French, when they appoint a person to be in charge of something, the ruler puts in his hand a leather glove, called guanto [gant in modern French], and thereby he grants him authority over the matter. They call this transmission revestir, invest, transmit [this glove], and this is the [expression] “filling of the hands.”

So Ramban, commenting on Rashi who is making an observation about an Old French custom of investiture, mentions a translation of “fools” of Ruth 4:7 that substitutes “glove” for “shoe.” Is this translation Tg. Ruth? It is impossible to say, although it is, as mentioned, the only tradition known that makes this replacement. But what if it is? Ramban is writing in the mid-13th century and more than a hundred years earlier Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome cites Tg. Ruth as authoritative. (Ramban himself cites Tg. Ruth in an affirming manner in his commentary on Exod 22:15.) The Targum itself is likely much older than that. So the first recorded challenge to “glove” rather than “shoe” is, if this is indeed a rejection of that tradition, not until the mid-13th century. That is hardly evidence of a sectarian origin of the text.

If we consider older sources, such as the Talmud, there seems little reason to view this substitution as problematic, at least from an halakic standpoint. While there is much debate in rabbinic sources as to whether it is the purchaser or the seller who is to hand over the symbolic object in such a person, there is agreement that the nature of the object simply must be a utensil of reasonable worth. b. B. Mesi’a 47ab states:

It was taught on Tannaite authority: Transfer of title may take place with a utensil even though the utensil is not worth a perutah [a very small amount].

So whether it is a glove or a shoe, such an exchange would have been acceptable from a legal standpoint.

Why would the Targumist make such a change? It is impossible to say. Levine suggests that “the targum is following sectarian literalism in its exegesis; the Heb. reads שלף, not חלץ which is the usual verb for removal of the shoe, consequently, another item of apparel must have been intended, probably a glove.” It hardly seems exegetical “literalism” to assume that a different verb necessitates a different object. It may be that, just as Rashi used an analogy from the Old French culture he was familiar with, that the Targumist may have been “updating” this practice with one in his region. In more modern Arab cultures being struck with a shoe is considered a great disgrace, due to the filth acquired by shoes in their day-to-day use. Perhaps if the use of gloves had become more common by the time of the Targumist, he simply decided it was a more seemly item to exchange. Again, it is impossible to say why it is that this substitution should have been made, but the exchange as described remains intelligible and legal, according to rabbinic sources.

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