Who Is the Eshet Chayil?
Tehillim (Psalms) and Shirat Ha-Yam (The Song of the Sea) are some of the first examples that come to mind as biblical poetry. But for some reason, Eshet Chayil – the concluding alphabetic acrostic of Mishlei (Proverbs 31:10-31) that is traditionally sung every Friday night before Kiddush – doesn’t register as “biblical poetry.” Many seem to forget that Eshet Chayil is in Mishlei, Proverbs, or that it is even biblical.
This is curious. Eshet Chayil is performed as frequently as many of the other biblical “poems.” Perhaps this is precisely the point: the lived experience of Eshet Chayil as a paean to the balaboosta – a song of praise performed for the lady of the house on erev Shabbat – overpowers its textual context as the ending of Mishlei and determines its interpretation.
Is Every Woman an Eshet Chayil?
Many people have real difficulty imagining how to read the poem outside of its context at the Shabbat dinner table, as a way for husbands to praise their wives, and children to thank their mothers before partaking of the Shabbat dinner (which, in most cases, the women prepared). Yet this reading is difficult to defend. The Eshet Chayil–the “capable wife,” as the phrase can be translated–cannot really be about “everywoman.” In the poem, Eshet Chayil is a woman who has risen above the others. In other words, she is not the everyday housewife but the ultimate fantasy housewife – the one who always roasts the succulent chicken, gives the floors their sparkling sheen, dresses the children in their finest for the Sabbath, all while keeping the household accounts in order.
In this light, I would like to offer a feminist critique of the poem. By painting a picture of a perpetually perfect housewife, it sets unreasonable androcentric expectations for real women, offending the sensibilities of a post-Betty Crocker, Draper, and Friedan world. One could even go further and point out that the poem outlines an asymmetrical division of labor. While the woman does everything for the home, including running the business aspects of it and acquiring real estate (traditional “male” activities), her husband, noda‘ bash‘arim, a man “renowned at the [city] gates,” does little more than accumulate social capital from all her toil and ingenuity, bshivto ‘im ziqne ’aretz, “as he takes his seat among the elders of the land”(v 23).
Many biblical poems are preserved within a narrative and performed by a character. Biblical scholars call these poems “inset” because they are inserted into the prose narrative frame.In cases where the poem is not performed by a character, as in collections of poetry like Tehillim or Mishlei, the literary collection itself provides its context. This literary context is provided in titles or ascriptions that give the poem a setting, such as divre chakhamim, “the words of the wise men” (Prov 22:17) or mizmor ledavid, “a psalm of David.” These kinds of titles, while not relied upon in biblical scholarship as historically accurate, were understood in traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation as providing the real-life performed context that is missing from poems existing outside of narrative.
The problem with Eshet Chayil is that it is neither an inset poem, nor does it have a title or an explicit attribution. Who is its speaker? What is its context? These are questions that we must answer to identify the female subject of the work.
A Mother’s Instruction to Her Son
It is possible to read Eshet Chayil in light of its preceding text. Viewed this way, the poem might appear to be speaking as the voice of a mother advising her son on the best choice of wife. In the Masoretic text Eshet Chayil is preceded by Prov 31:1-9, an instruction of King Lemuel’s mother to her son. This instruction is unusual for a number of reasons. First, it is specifically a woman’s instruction to her son. By contrast, the ten instructions in the first nine chapters of Proverbs seem to be delivered in the father’s voice; the mother is mentioned only in the father-mother word pair, for symmetry in the poetic structure. The fact that a woman teaches in Prov 31:1-9 connects it to Eshet Chayil, where it is praised that piyha patcha bchokhma vtorat-chesed ‘al-lshonah, “Her mouth opens with wisdom, an instruction-in-responsibility is upon her tongue” (v 26).
Lemuel’s mother’s words of wisdom can likewise be seen as thematically (and lexically) connected to the subsequent poem. Her very first piece of advice concerns Lemuel’s choices in his relationships with the opposite sex: ’al-titten lanashim cheylekha, “Do not give your vigor (chayil) to women” (v 3). This advice, read in conjunction with Eshet Chayil, begs an interpretation of the poem as a list of must-haves when shopping for the ideal wife. The second to last line of the poem is what really lends itself to such an interpretation, as a mother’s advice to her son: sheqer hachen vhevel hayofi, “Grace is a lie and beauty is ephemeral” (v 30). Looks fade, choose a woman of substance!
An Ode to Wisdom
But perhaps Eshet Chayil is best understood as not being about a woman at all; a number of early interpreters who understood the poem this way. Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose of Milan (ca. 4th century CE) both saw Eshet Chayil as none other than personified “Wisdom.” Midrash Proverbs (ca. 9th century CE), one of the earliest extant commentaries on the poem, identified a number of allusions to Torah in the description of the woman. This laid the groundwork for later medieval commentators, such as Rashi, to see the entire poem as allegorical for Torah.
This reading is well supported by the sustained personification poetry of “Lady Wisdom,” Chokhmah-Chokhmot, woven through the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs. The Hebrew term Chokhmah, like Torah, is grammatically feminine. This feature of the language supports the sustained personification. Modern biblical scholarship, which reads the poem in the context of the entire book, also frequently associates the woman of the poem with “Lady Wisdom,” viewing the final section of Proverbs as an attempt to rehabilitate the position of (human) women, who are typically depicted negatively in the earlier parts of the book
Such an interpretation makes eminent sense in the context of the organization of the entire book. Mishlei begins with a feminine personification of Wisdom in chapters 1-9 and concludes with a poem that praises those achievements Wisdom can practically enable. Again, however, the interpretation relies upon a reading of the poem as a conclusion to the book in its present form: the idea of Wisdom as a woman bookending the supposed “meat” of the matter in Mishlei, meshalim and divrei chakhamim.
Context is Everything
This discussion illustrates how heavily the poem’s interpretation relies upon the context in which it is read. Those who encounter the poem every Friday night, extolling the women in attendance, likely understand it as a song of praise. Those who read the poem as part of, indeed the conclusion to the book of Proverbs, likely see the woman as representative of the abstract qualities of wisdom praised throughout the collection. Finally, anyone reading the poem solely against what comes immediately before, would understand it as advice a mother gives to her son on choosing the right kind of woman. The poem’s interpretation is intimately linked to its context.
Thus, there is no single interpretation of this poem—as there is no single interpretation to any literary creation—everything depends on context. We cannot say what the poem really means. Within Judaism, the Friday night Shabbat table context is just as important as its written context in the biblical canon. It is just as much a paean to the woman to whom it is sung this erev shabbat as it is a text in a timeless written collection of meshalim.
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June 26, 2014
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Dr. Jacqueline Vayntrub is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. She holds a Ph.D. in Northwest Semitic Philology from the University of Chicago and she is the author of Beyond Orality, part of Routledge’s Ancient World series (forthcoming).
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