How To Read Eshet Hayil

Explaining this ancient song for the present day.


Excerpted with permission from JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

I cannot remember exactly when my family began singing Eshet Hayil at the Friday night table. I do know that it was we, the kids, who brought this custom into the house. When I was five years old, my family moved to Toronto from Sarnia, a small town in Western Ontario where my father had owned a furniture store that was founded by his father, an immigrant from Galicia. “Who had time in Sarnia,” recalls my father, “for a leisurely Friday night dinner? You had to rush home, eat quickly, and get back to the store.” When my family moved to Toronto, however, all this changed. My father ceased working on Shabbat. We began attending Jewish schools and camps where we learned tefillot, prayers, and Hebrew songs.

Jewish woman lighting sabbath candles

Singing as a Renewed Commitment

When we first introduced the singing of Eshet Hayil at the Shabbat table, my father, who had received but a rudimentary Jewish education growing up in Sarnia, struggled with the complex Hebrew words, yet persisted in going through it every week. For our family, singing Eshet Hayil symbolized a renewed commitment to Jewish observance and the authentic calm of a leisurely Shabbat meal shared with the whole family. It stood for the realization of a Jewish Canadian/American dream, completely elusive to my grandfather’s generation: the possibility of earning a living while living as a fully observant Jew.

The Origins of Eshet Hayil

Scholars say that the custom of singing Eshet Hayil at the Friday night table was initiated by kabbalists in the 17th century, who viewed Shabbat as an occasion of mystical union with the Divine. They understood Eshet Hayil allegorically as a representation of the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God. In a sense, we were living out our own contemporary allegorical interpretation of Proverbs 31, with the Woman of Valor being the Sabbath, whom we had welcomed, with renewed energy, into our midst.

There is allegory, and then there is literal reading. Singing Eshet Hayil was also an occasion to offer appreciation for my mother, who cooked, baked, and sewed, and had now prepared the Shabbat dinner that we so much enjoyed. The valorous woman in Proverbs 31 never sits still, let alone rests. Her light never goes out and she rises from her bed when it is still dark. Was that not just like my own mother, who teemed with nervous energy, walked more quickly than anyone else in the family, and had this uncanny ability to wake up in the middle of the night in response to the sound of my footsteps approaching my parents’ room?

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Wendy Zierler is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women's Writing (2004) and of the feminist commentary included in My People's Passover Haggadah (2008).

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