Author Archives: Wendy Zierler

Wendy Zierler

About Wendy Zierler

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).

How To Read Eshet Hayil

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?

Rachel and Leah’s Shared Anger

Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

In Genesis 31, Jacob calls his wives Rachel and Leah out to the field and confidentially expresses his desire to return to Canaan. Vataan Rachel v’Leah (31:14): Rachel and Leah respond in one voice–as indicated by the singular verb form–expressing a shared anger against their father and a willingness to leave Haran. Jacob then gets up, places his wives and sons on camels, carries off his cattle and other property, and departs.
urj women's commentary

At first, Jacob appears as the central actor in this narrative. Everything is said and done in relation to him, stated in masculine possessive terms. In 31:19, however, Rachel seizes the opportunity afforded by Laban’s going off to shear his sheep to steal her her father’s t’rafim. Until this point, Rachel and Leah followed a course initiated by Jacob and his concerns. Here, however, Rachel initiates and plots her own destiny. So much so that in the next verse Jacob is seen as following Rachel’s lead: Rachel stole the t’rafim (v. 19) and Jacob “stole the mind (literally: heart) of Laban the Aramean” (v. 20).

Jacob re-assumes center stage in the narrative when Laban overtakes him on his journey and the two men begin to air their respective grievances. But from the moment Rachel steals the t’rafim, Jacob ceases to control the action or facts. It is in a condition of ironic ignorance that Jacob makes his rash pronouncement v. 32): “But the one with whom you find your gods shall not live.” (Compare Jephthah‘s vow in Judges 11:30 to sacrifice the first to come out to meet him, a vow that leads him to sacrifice his daughter.)

Several midrashic sources contend that Jacob’s death sentence for the theft of Laban’s t’rafim is borne out in Rachel’s tragic death after giving birth to Benjamin (for example, Bereishit Rabbah 74.32). According to a plain reading of Genesis 31, however, Rachel emerges from the episode victorious and unscathed. After all, Jacob’s curse is conditioned upon Laban actually finding the t’rafim in someone’s possession–something that Laban never accomplishes.