The book of Ruth seemingly tells us almost nothing about Machlon and
Kilyon. We read that they were husbands of Ruth and Orpah and sons of
Elimelech and Naomi; besides that we are told nearly nothing, except for
their names. Their names in Hebrew, however, are remarkable indeed and the
Sages made these names the starting point of their interpretation. These
Hebrew names imply so much that no serious interpreter can afford to
disregard them. In Hebrew, Machlon invokes either forgiveness, or
dissipation and profanation and Kilyon is clearly derived from the Hebrew
word for destruction. The first meaning of Machlon is expounded in this
"Machlon was called so because the Holy Once Blessed Be He ultimately
forgave him because he opposed his father's plan and strove with (or
against) him for justice. Kilyon was so called because he was wiped
completely from the world…. Ruth, the wife of Machlon joined the Jewish
people for God forgave him so that his name is remembered. Orpah, the wife
of Kilyon did not join the Jewish people for God destroyed Kilyon and his
name was not remembered in Israel (Zohar Chadash 71a)."
The translation that is explicated here is the first one,
of "forgiveness". We will shortly discuss a source that interprets the
second meaning. The full meaning of the remarkable statement that we just
read become clearer as we proceed through the series. For now, note how
the meaning of the names serves as the key to interpreting the entire
story of Ruth.
When we receive too little information from which to form a larger
interpretative picture, recourse to wider context and other Biblical
sources becomes imperative. The Talmud records a teaching that exemplifies
this exegetical technique. I do not mean to imply, God forbid, that
statements of the kind that we are about to read are de-novo
interpretations and not based on some ancient tradition but merely ask you
to put that likely possibility temporarily aside in an attempt to learn
from the Rabbis how to read a Biblical text.
"Sons of Shelah, son of Yehuda: Er…and Yoash and Saraf who became husbands
in Moab and those who live in Lehem and these matters are of great depth"
(Chronicles I, 4:21-23).
Rav and Shmuel disagree. One says."Their names were Machlon and Kilyon.
Why were they called Yoash (despair) and Saraf (conflagration)? Because
they despaired of Redemption and became culpable of destruction by fire."
The other one says, "Their names were Yash and Saraf. Why were they called
Machlon and Kilyon? Machlon - because they profaned their bodies. Kilyon
because they deserved destruction in God's hand, that they became husbands
in Moab - they married Moabite wives. Those who live in Lehem - this is
Ruth, the Moabite who settled in Bethlehem. The matters are of great
depths - the One Profound of History enunciated them: "I found David, My
servant (in Sodom)" and (regarding Lot) "your two daughters that are found
(Bava Basra 91a)."
In additon to identifying Machlon and Kilyon with otherwise known Biblical
personalities, the Sages placed them squarely within the framework of
descendants of Shela, son of Yehuda. More remarkably, they draw our
attention to the fact that Shelah called his son, the progenitor of
Machlon and Kilyon, by the name of his deceased brother, Er. As we see
time after time, in one pithy statement the Rabbis succeeded in alluding
to a number of profound teachings (See Yalkut Rebeni Vayeshev 157a and
Koheles Yakov, entry Er). We will attempt to merely gain a surface
understanding of this passage by demonstrating that it utilizes another
rabbinic exegetical technique that is well suited for when information is
scanty - recourse to patterns. To do so, we will use the principle, that
history is a series of cycles in which the later generations are granted
the opportunity to repair the mistakes and missteps of earlier
Although this idea applies to individual destinies as well as
nations, it is invoked most aptly in intergenerational sagas of families
and may be familiar to some of our readers from certain classics of
Western literature. The pattern called up here is that of two brothers,
both of whom are given and opportunity to lay the claim to history. Yet,
one "steps up to the plate" and gives rise to a line of progeny or a
nation and the other one fails and is spiritually lost. This pattern is
well known to us from the book of Genesis. Failure is not always complete
and final. Often there is a second chance and an opportunity to return.
SOmetimes it is taken and sometimes it is wasted. This pattern includes
Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob and …Er and Onan.
And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar.
And Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sight of HaShem; and HaShem
And Judah said unto Onan: 'Go in unto thy brother's wife, and perform the
duty of a husband's brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.'
And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he
went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he
should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did was evil in
the sight of HaShem; and He slew him also (Genesis 37, 7-10).
We see in Yehuda's family, the same recurring situation; in fact it comes
back three times. There are two brothers who seemingly are both destined
for perdition, yet one is saved and the other one perishes. Er and Onan
both sin; however, Er is ultimately redeemed by Yehuda's Levirite marriage
to Tamar but Onan is lost. Similarly, Machlon and Kilyohn both die but
Boaz brings Machlon's memory back via Levirite marriage to Ruth. Lastly,
in Chronicles the name of Er returns to Yehuda's line through his third
son Shela, who names his firstborn - Er. Shelah, through this son is an
ancestor of Machlon, whose wife was Ruth. Machlon and Kilyon are
personally given a chance at redemption but fumble it; yet, Machlon is yet
redeemed by Ruth . Yehuda and Tamar also have two children, Peretz and
Zerach. Peretz is an ancestor of Boaz, who redeems Machlon thorugh Ruth
and ultimately begets the Davidic line.
Ruth is in a similar situation. Ruth also has the opportunity for
redemption. She is a descendant of Lot, who had two daughters. Both
committed grievous sins, just like Er and Onan. Like they, one is saved
through Ruth and the other one is lost with Orpah (See Zohar 188a on
Genesis 25, 24 and the discussion by R. A. Z. Naiman in his commentary on
Ruth, in Idrei Ts'on, p14-16).
The story of Boaz and Ruth is not only a narrative about two individuals
who find each other but an account of cosmic spiritual forces that propel
them together. As we will see, their encounter at the threshing floor
replays all the situations above, only this time correct choices are made,
sin is overcome and the cycle of redemption can finally close.
Look how much we have learned for our Sages. We mined the names for
information, we explored other relevant Biblical passages and we plumbed
the depths of recurring patterns. As a result we emerged with a much
broader appreciation of both Machlon and Kilyon and the idea of redemption
as it is alluded to, painstakingly developed and carefully formulated in
the book of Ruth.