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Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Perfect Woman

Last Friday was the holiday of Shavu’ot (Pentacost) and, as is customary, one stays up all night to study Torah. At 3AM I heard an interesting talk from Rabbi Yuval Sherlo which I enjoyed very much. It was based on things said by Rabbi Yaakov Medan (co-head of Har Etzion yeshivah). I will try to reconstruct it from memory.

Every Friday evening, after returning from the synagogue and before dinner, the husband recites the concluding 22 verses of the book of Mishlei (Proverbs), known as Eshet Chayil. The translation of the Hebrew word chayil into English is not simple; some translate it as valour, others as accomplished or competent – hence “woman of valour” or “accomplished woman”.

From the context of the text, it is clear that the eshet chayil is an extremely resourceful woman: she provides for the home, she gets up before dawn, she feeds the poor, she makes and sells things and she is wise and kind. It is not suprising that the expression eshet chayil has become synonymous with a most fine woman, a woman to marry. This acrostic hymn is recited by the husband to symbolize his gratitude for having such a great wife. The Midrash attributes eshet chayil to Abraham, who composed it as a eulogy for his wife Sarah.

But turning back to the book of Mishlei, who is this woman of valour? Was there a historic figure that was the “original” eshet chayil?

Chapter 31 of Mishlei opens with “The words of king Lemuel, the burden with which his mother corrected him”, and continues with the mother’s king chastising her son for consorting with the wrong kind of women and for being drunk. She tells him not to forget his duty as king, which is to judge righteously and plead the cause of the poor and needy. And later in the chapter (verse 23) the husband of the eshet chayil is described as someone who is “known at the gates, where he sits among the elders”. As we know from the Bible, the Judges of Israel sat at the gates of the city, so as to be available to the public. In other words, the husband is none other than the king of Israel, who is by nature of his job also a judge.

[Some commentators went as far as to identify Lemuel as king Shlomo (Solomon), and the whole monologue by his mother taking place on the morning of the day of the consecration of the Temple. Shlomo is late in waking up after a night of excessive drinking and inappropriate consorting, no less...]

So, if the husband is Shlomo, who is the eshet chayil? Is Shlomo’s mother describing a real woman? It seems not. She scolds her son for his present wives and concubines and then launches into the long hymn of Eshet Chayil to describe the woman her son should have married. She gives him the “blueprint” for the woman he should be looking for, the woman of valour that will take care of the poor that he will judge, that will make sure the household is taken care of while he serves the people at the gates.

And now for the interesting part. If we search the Bible we find only one woman who is described in the words “eshet chayil”: Ruth, the Moabite widow who decided to become Jewish and follow her destitute mother-in-law to Israel. After her husband-to-be Boaz finds her sleeping at his feet in the field and hears her story, he cries out “for you are an eshet chayil!” (Ruth 3, 11). Ruth is the archetype of all women of valour; she symbolizes what every man, certainly a king, should aspire to find in the woman he marries. And it is on Shavu'ot that we read the story of Ruth.

Shlomo’s mother is not making up an imaginary woman. She reminds her son where he comes from, what his roots are. Remember, she tells him, "charm is deceptive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears God shall be praised" (verse 30). She asks him to look to his great-great-grandmother, Ruth, in order to find the model for the woman he should marry – the eshet chayil.


Here is the hymn of Eshet Chayil (Mishlei 31, 10-31) in Hebrew transliteration and English:

Eshet chayil mi yimtza v'rachok mip'ninim michrah
An accomplished woman, who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls.

Batach bah lev ba'lah v'shalal lo yechsar
Her husband's heart relies on her and he shall lack no fortune.

G'malathu tov v'lo ra kol y'mei chayeiha
She does him good and not evil, all the days of her life.

Darshah tzemer ufishtim vata'as b'chefetz kapeiha
She seeks wool and flax, and works with her hands willingly.

Haitah ka'oniyot socher mimerchak tavi lachmah
She is like the merchant ships, she brings her bread from afar.

Vatakom b'od lailah vatiten teref l'vetah v'chok l'na'aroteiha
She arises while it is still night, and gives food to her household and a portion to her maidservants.

Zam'mah sadeh vatikachehu mip'ri chapeiha nat'ah karem
She plans for a field, and buys it. With the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.

Chagrah b'oz motneiha vat'ametz zro'oteiha

She girds her loins in strength, and makes her arms strong.

Ta'amah ki tov sachrah lo yichbeh balailah nerah
She knows that her merchandise is good. Her candle does not go out at night.

Yadeha shilchah bakishor v'chapeiha tamchu falech
She sets her hands to the distaff, and holds the spindle in her hands.

Kapah parsah le'ani v'yadeiha shil'chah la'evyon
She extends her hands to the poor, and reaches out her hand to the needy.

Lo tira l'vetah mishaleg ki chol betah lavush shanim
She fears not for her household because of snow, because her whole household is warmly dressed.

Marvadim astah lah shesh v'argaman l'vushah
She makes covers for herself, her clothing is fine linen and purple.

Noda bash'arim ba'lah b'shivto im ziknei aretz
Her husband is known at the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.

Sadin astah vatimkor vachagor natnah lak'na'ani
She makes a cloak and sells it, and she delivers aprons to the merchant.

Oz v'hadar l'vushah vatischak l'yom acharon
Strength and honor are her clothing, she smiles at the future.

Piha patchah b'chochma v'torat chesed al l'shonah
She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the lesson of kindness is on her tongue.

Tzofi'ah halichot betah v'lechem atzlut lo tochel
She watches over the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Kamu vaneha vay'ash'ruha ba'lah vay'hal'lah
Her children rise and praise her, her husband lauds her.

Rabot banot asu chayil v'at alit al kulanah
Many women have done worthily, but you surpass them all.

Sheker hachen v'hevel hayofi ishah yir'at Hashem hi tit'halal
Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears God shall be praised.

T'nu lah mip'ri yadeiha vihal'luha vash'arim ma'aseha
Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. That is the correct pshat and should be publicized throughout the world. Yasher Koach!

Anonymous said...

There are some psukim in Eshet Chayil that hint to Ruth’s life story:
* Vatakom b'od lailah.
* Zam'mah sadeh vatikachehu.
* Noda bash'arim ba'lah b'shivto im ziknei aretz.

Thank you for the nice summary!
Yael, Jerusalem.

KfirYaffe said...

deep, loving and powerful. The woman of the world, read, be inspired, and bring redemption to all.

Unknown said...

OK, I am a goy... I was told I shold google Eshet Chayil by a friend, a young Jewish woman, as a sample of poetry in Hebrew. this is very beautiful in english, the sentiments expressed. I must hear it in Hebrew now. Thank you!