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Thoughts on Eshet Chayil – A Woman of Valor

There is no requirement to recite specific biblical verses or special prayers at a funeral, however certain passages appear as suggested readings in the various rabbinic manuals used at such occasions. Quite frequently, at memorial services for women, rabbis choose to read or to chant verses from the passage that concludes the book of Proverbs, a section which contains twenty-two verses in alphabetical order about Eshet Chayil, a woman of valor. This famous passage lauds the accomplishments of what sounds like a superwoman, who has it all and does it all. She tends to the needs of her household, raises her children, prepares food, and supports her husband. She is up before dawn, working steadily until after dusk and is described as weaving and sewing and then creating a business and selling her wares. She finds time to plant a garden and harvests its produce. Not only that, but she buys and sells property. Clearly she is the business manager for the household, as well as cook, shopper, teacher, and advisor for her children and her family. She is generous to a fault, extending her hand to the needy and is well-respected within the community.

Some interpreters see this poem as progressing through various stages in life and while not specifically mentioning her demise, tells of how her husband and children come forward to praise her, “Many women have done well, but you surpass them all.” These words of eulogy may explain why this passage found its way into the funeral services of so many women over the years.

That said, I must confess that I have received warnings from numerous women over the years, who tell me that they will come back and haunt me should I read these words at their funerals. Perhaps it is because the constant repetition of these words at so many funerals make them nearly meaningless. When every woman is described as an “eshet chayil,” how could that term convey any sense of honor anymore? Or perhaps this ideal woman of biblical days is not the image of a woman that we would necessarily promote today, a woman who shoulders all of the work and responsibility of the family while her husband sits in honor at the gates of the city. Yes, like so many women today, she is a multi-tasker, both at home and in the marketplace, but expectations in our time are that her husband shares those tasks with her and does not get to sit like a judge in the city gates or even like Archie Bunker in his designated easy chair or in a recliner in the living room until he has shouldered his share of the household chores.

Dr. Ellen Frankel, writing in a commentary on “My People’s Prayerbook” volume 7, asks, “Why should a husband praise his wife, and not the other way around, or why shouldn’t they praise each other?” She goes on to ask, “What is the woman being praised for, and what is being left unsaid? Is this song meant to deceive the woman into thinking that her religious status equals her husband’s, when in fact she is barred from the most important roles in worship and observance? Are the women’s roles that are enumerated in this song – seamstress, farmer, realtor, philanthropist, cook, counselor, major-domo – still desirable today? Is this song a description of a ‘worthy woman’ - or of a drudge?”

It seems that the Eshet Chayil reading at a funeral may be a modern phenomenon among non-Orthodox rabbis, since I do not see it in traditional prayer books, some of which give the outline of a funeral service, nor does it appear in the standard Orthodox rabbis’ manual, the Madrich, as part of a memorial service. It is mentioned though by some authorities as a substitute used in some communities for the 91st Psalm, Yoshev B’Seter Elyon, said while accompanying the casket of a man to the cemetery. Excerpts from Eshet Chayil are included, however, among the possible readings in both Reform and Conservative Rabbis’ manuals and I must confess that I have generally included it most of the time over the years at women’s funerals, without much thought whether its description is accurate or more aspirational, or as one writer sees it, simply “patronizing.”

While its recital at funerals seems to be more recent, Eshet Chayil, however, does appear in a very different context in traditional prayer books as part of the Friday evening home ritual prior to the chanting of the Kiddush. Many people sing it to their wives, most notably in recent years to a melody written by the late composer, Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker, a lively tune sometimes played at weddings as well. This usage, as part of the Shabbat liturgy, we do know more about. Eshet Chayil does not appear in the pre-dinner rituals in earlier siddurim, but apparently was introduced by the Rabbis of 16th century Safed, the center of Lurianic Kabbalah, the mystical teachings associated with Rabbi Isaac Luria. In various prayer books published after the 16th century, cited by Professor Moshe Chalamish, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, in his volume Hanhagot Kabbaliot b’Shabbat, Kabbalistic Practices on the Sabbath, we find the instructions “afterwards [following Shalom Aleichem and another introductory prayer, Ribon Kol HaOlamim], without interruption, one should recite the passage of Eshet Chayil, from beginning to end, regarding the Shechinah [the Divine Presence, the name given to the lowest of the ten divine sefirot, Malchut, which unites with the upper sefirot on Shabbat].”

Those who are familiar with Kabbalistic lore will recognize the hints given in this passage from Proverbs regarding this aspect of divinity. We are told that its 22 verses [following the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet] represent “the 22 channels from above which pour forth at this time and empty an outpouring of blessings from the upper pool of the crowns of divinity.” Thus, contrary to popular opinion, according Chalamish and his various Kabbalistic sources, this recitation was not intended as praise of the housewife, but is meant to refer to the Shechinah and by reading it, we might draw down those blessings into our home each Shabbat. That interpretation is underlined by an alternate tradition of reciting this passage either prior to or immediately after reading the Song of Songs which has its own kabbalistic interpretations, and which many read on Friday afternoon.

Indeed, long before the Kabbalists in Safed, Rashi in 11th century France, after giving a more literal interpretation of these verses, tells us that “eshet chayil” refers to the Torah, an identification already found in the Midrash Mishlei, the Midrash on Proverbs, dated to the 9th century by Professor Burt Visotzky in the introduction to his edition of that midrashic work. This allegorical interpretation is not so far-fetched when we consider that already in Proverbs itself, we find “Wisdom” personified as a woman in chapter eight and “Wisdom” in that chapter is understood in the opening lines of Genesis Rabbah as nothing other than Torah.

We can point to other similar attempts to view these lines as allegorical, referring to the soul or some other concept. However, even with these interpretations in mind, most husbands who chant these words believe they are extending praise to their wives at the Sabbath dinner table. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, commenting on this prayer in My People’s Prayer Book, admits that this passage describes “a workaholic ‘supermom’ beyond belief.” He goes on to say, “Its portrait of women who raise a family but also establish careers has become everyday reality for many modern women. The poem was far ahead of its time. Still, the poem is problematic in that it does not praise single women, women without children, or women who do not work outside the home. Is it,” he asks, “a good model for us?”

Dorff goes on at some length discussing these issues and then raises the question about this image of a workaholic woman and the notion of putting work ahead of family and devoting ourselves to our jobs 24/7. “One wonders,” he asks again, “whether this poem is a proper model for today.” In spite of these serious objections, Dorff points to positive values found in Eshet Chayil. “The eshet chayil gives to the poor. ‘She smiles at the future.’ Her husband trusts her and takes pride in her, telling her that in his eyes she rises above all other women. Her children also bless her. This high regard arises not because she is physically attractive, but because she is God-fearing in the way she leads her life.” Dorff concludes, “These are the verses that should correctly occupy the consciousness of a man who says or sings this poem to his wife around the Shabbat table, where children and guests can witness the respect and love he has for her.”

If one opens the section with Shabbat dinner prayers in the Conservative siddur, Lev Shalem, one will find the entire text of Eshet Chayil printed in the section designated for Shabbat and Festivals at Home. One can choose to read it or not as one wishes. Here “eshet chayil” is translated as “a woman of many talents.” In light of the criticism I’ve mentioned by some of our rabbis and teachers in the non-Orthodox world regarding this passage, I note one response is that one can turn the page and find biblical selections from the book of Psalms also extolling “a man who reveres Adonay,” thus answering the query of Dr. Frankel about “praising each other.” [It does not respond, however, to a comment she adds regarding the appropriate prayers for the Shabbat table of a same sex couple. But she admits that we can’t fault the Bible for not reflecting our current reality.] These passages are followed by the traditional blessings for the children. This entire section, following the Shalom Aleichem, in Lev Shalem, is entitled “Blessing Those at Our Table.” Whether or not we find the biblical images relevant to our time, it is appropriate, perhaps, to take time out each week on Shabbat, to voice our appreciation of our fellow family members.

Comparing the passages in Lev Shalem to those in the Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, one finds as well selections from Eshet Chayil “in praise of a woman” and from Psalm 112 (one of the same passages used in Lev Shalem) “in praise of a man.” The Reform volume includes just an English rendition while Lev Shalem provides the Hebrew original for comparison as well. I notice that the verses chosen from Eshet Chayil in Mishkan Tefillah pretty much line up with those sections emphasized by Rabbi Dorff and omit almost all of the earlier verses that speak of her many tasks both at home and in public. The image of the workaholic does not appear in this version. The authors end the section from Eshet Chayil with a free paraphrase, “Charm is deceptive and beauty short-lived, but a woman loyal to God has truly earned praise. Honor her for all her offerings; her life proclaims her praise.”

Some years ago, I attended a lecture at a convention in which the speaker shared a passage from the Midrash Mishlei which gives us a very different view of the context of the Eshet Chayil verses. After all, though this poem is quite complete as a 22-verse alphabetic acrostic, it is preceded in Chapter 31 of Proverbs by nine verses claiming to be the words of “Lemuel,” whom the sages see as another name for King Solomon, the purported author of the entire book. We are told that these are “the words of Lemuel, king of Massa (seen as a synonym for proverbs), with which his mother admonished him.” The verses which follow are purportedly criticism brought by his mother, Bathsheba, regarding the vices indulged in by her son, the king. In particular she singles out women and wine as most damaging: “Do not give your strength to women; [this supposedly said to a man whom we’re told had 300 wives and 700 concubines] your vigor to those who destroy kings. Wine is not for kings, O Lemuel, not for kings to drink.”

According to the Midrash, the day set for the dedication of the brand new Temple built by Solomon as well as the day on which he planned to celebrate his union with Pharaoh’s daughter were the same day. The book of Kings tells us that these many foreign wives that were intended supposedly to cement alliances with other kingdoms, came with their own idolatrous baggage. In the case of Pharaoh’s daughter, she brought rather realistic depictions of the various heavenly bodies that she worshiped and she hung them over the marital bed of Solomon and herself. When morning came, Solomon saw the stars still above him and turned over and went back to sleep. This happened multiple times, until his mother came and rebuked him for delaying the sacrificial offerings in the new Temple. Her words of rebuke, according to the midrash, were followed by her recommendation for the ideal wife, an eshet chayil, that would have been a much better choice for her son. The lesson for us is that a woman of valor, one who demonstrates the right values, sets the tone for righteous living in her household and for her family.

This late midrash on Proverbs also provides a picture of the great sensitivity of another Eshet Chayil, Beruriah, the wise and famous wife of the second century sage, Rabbi Meir. The midrash tells us a tragic story of the death one Shabbat afternoon of the two talented young sons of this couple. These two boys died of unknown causes that day while their father was in the Bet Midrash, the study hall, for the afternoon prayers prior to the conclusion of Shabbat. Beruriah covered their bodies with a sheet. When Meir came home, he asked his wife, where his sons were. “They’ve gone to the study hall,” she said. “I did not see them there,” said Meir. He made havdalah and again asked where the boys were and she put him off as she served him dinner. When he finished his meal and recited the birkat hamazon, he again asked and she told him that she had a legal question for him to answer. She said that some time ago, a man had left a deposit with them and that now he had come to reclaim it. She wondered if she should return it to him. His response was “My daughter, is not one who holds a deposit obligated to return it to its owner?” She replied, “Without your opinion on the matter I would not give it back to him.” With that she took him by the hand and brought him into the boys’ bedroom and uncovered the bodies of the two of them. The midrash continues, “He burst into tears, saying, ‘My sons, my sons! My masters, my masters! My natural born sons, and my masters who enlightened me with their learning in Torah.’ At this point, Rabbi Meir’s wife said to him, ‘Master, did you not just now tell me that we must return a pledge to its owner?’ To which he replied, ‘The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21)’ Rabbi Hanina said: ‘In this manner she comforted him and brought him solace, hence it is said, “Eshet chayil mi yimtza, what a rare find is a capable wife!”’”

By adding the Eshet Chayil passage to the evening rituals of Shabbat at home, the Kabbalists may well have intended to laud the Shechinah, God’s indwelling spirit, this aspect of divinity that they strove to raise back into perfect union with the upper spheres. However, clearly in the minds of most Jewish families which recite or sing these words, the intent is less to celebrate the unification of the divine elements than to recognize the godly qualities that may be found within those with whom we share our lives.

[Note: If you check You Tube for Eshet Chayil (or Eishes Chayil) by Benzion Shenker, you will find a number of renditions. My favorite is a version performed by three renowned Israeli cantors, backed up by the Raanana Symphonette and a choir, performed in Tel Aviv in 2013. Shenker, who wrote not only this well-known tune, but many others including the most commonly sung melody for the 23rd Psalm, passed away in 2016 at age 92.]

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