Malka Z. Simkovich
When I was a kid my family and I opened the Friday night Sabbath meal each week by singing a poem called “Eishet Hayil,” “The Woman of Valor.” This biblical song, which comprises the closing passage of the biblical book of Proverbs, extols the virtues of a woman who works tirelessly to keep her household running. When I began to think about the meaning of this song as an adolescent, I resisted the notion that it was truly about an exhausted and overworked wife who gets up early in the morning to prepare meals for her husband and children.
The song had to be, I decided, read as a metaphor between the Jewish people and the Sabbath. I’m not sure when I acquired this interpretation, but I remember believing that this reading was a well-established approach to a song that would have little or no theological importance if it were read literally.
As I got older, however, I became less inclined to read the song metaphorically. The poem is too specific, I realized, to be about the Sabbath Queen. The woman of the song gets up early in the morning to feed her children, she gives to the poor, and she conducts transactions with visiting traders. How would these images translate into being about the Sabbath itself?
I changed course again, and when I sang the poem each Friday night as a young adult, I considered only its literal meaning. I soon started to view The Woman of Valor as an antiquated ballad that polemically situates a Jewish woman where the author thinks she ought to be: in the kitchen.
When I got engaged to be married, I was impressed and relieved to hear from my soon-to-be husband that he had no interest in singing The Woman of Valor at our Sabbath table. Like me, he believed the poem to be a misogynistic song that would have little pertinence to our progressive household. For twelve years of marriage, we didn’t sing it on Friday night, and when we hosted guests at our Friday night meal, we would proudly explain that this song simply didn’t jive with our worldview.
The Woman of Valor
But when I entered my early thirties, I had yet another change of heart. While I continued to read The Woman of Valor literally, I began to think of it as a love letter that a husband wrote to his wife. In doing so, I realized that the end of the song actually elevates what comes before it, reflecting a kind of internal dialogue occurring within the mind of the writer. With this new understanding, I’ve recently asked my husband to begin singing Woman of Valor with me every Friday night.
At first blush, the relationship between the woman in question, who is the author’s partner, seems traditional and undistinctive. The woman oversees all of the domestic aspects of her household, while her husband spends his working hours outside of the house, consorting with fellow elders of the town (“Her husband is prominent in the gates, as he sits among the elders of the land” Proverbs 31:23). The husband, it seems, is a member of the social and religious elite of their community. But subtle details embedded in this song make it theologically poignant.
The first fifteen verses of the poem meticulously describe the work that the Woman of Valor invests into her household. Among other tasks, she uses materials to make valuable goods, she rises in the morning before dawn to prepare food, she makes sure to provide for the needy, and she clothes her household in beautiful clothes. But the detailed descriptions of the accomplishments of the Woman of Valor undergo a major shift in verse 25. In this verse, the speaker moves away from focusing on the domestic work that the Woman of Valor does and considers instead her pious character. The clothes she wears to adorn herself and the bread she makes early in the morning abruptly take on abstract characteristics.
Note, for example, that the phrase “bringing her food [לַחְמָהּ] from afar” in 31:1 at the beginning of the song is reframed into “[she] never eats the bread [וְלֶֽחֶם] of idleness” at the end. And while the Woman of Valor dresses [לְבוּשָׁהּ] in expensive materials, her garments, made up of “linen and purple” (v. 22) are replaced with the donning [לְבוּשָׁהּ] of internal characteristics: “strength and splendor” (v. 25).
The upending that begins in verse 25 comes to a head in the poem’s famous second to last verse, which radically overturns everything that comes before it. The verse reads: “Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory; it is for fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised” (v. 30).
It seems strange, and even disingenuous, to praise the woman’s fear of God and declare grace and beauty illusory, when the author opened his poem with fourteen verses that repeatedly underscore the beauty of the woman’s attire. In fact, this oft-quoted verse once frustrated me, reminding me of the ways in which Orthodox educators today sometimes send messages to young women that much of their currency is tied up in how they carry themselves, and at the same time, that these same women must disregard material aesthetics in favor of higher ideals.
Upon careful inspection, however, I do not think that verse 30 contradicts the first fourteen verses of the poem. Instead, it offers a way out for the Woman of Valor, a way for her to maintain her lifestyle but interpret it in a religiously meaningful way.
Everything that the woman does, the author suggests in this verse, from her cooking to her weaving to her trading, derives from her fear of God. Rather than being driven to trade, cook, and dress well in order to establish a materially comfortable life, the Woman of Valor does these things because they match her internal state of being: a being that rejoices in hard work in the service of God. This is the crux of the poem’s message.
Subtle differences between the first fourteen verses and the last seven verses suggest that the author sought to make a clear distinction between these sections, but keep them linked in a way that demonstrates that one section does not undermine the other. Whereas in the first 14 verses, the author describes over and over the hands of the woman of valor, and the products of her hands, in verse 25 and on, he focuses on her mouth. Compare the following hand imagery
She looks for wool and flax, and sets her hand to them with a will (v. 13)
She plants a vineyard by her own labors [lit: hand] (v.16)
[She] performs her tasks with vigor [lit: (she) exerts her arms] (v.17)
She sets her hand to the distaff; her fingers work the spindle (v.19)
She gives generously [lit: she extends her hands] to the poor; her hands are stretched out to the needy (v.20)
with the following mouth imagery that occurs in the final section of the song, verses 25-31:
She looks [lit: she laughs] to the future cheerfully (v. 25)
Her mouth is full of wisdom, her tongue with kindly teaching (v. 26)
[She] never eats the bread of idleness (v. 27)
Her children declare her happy; her husband praises her (v. 28)
It is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised (v. 30)
Let her works praise her [lit: and praise her] in the gates (v. 31)
The first three of these allusions refer to the speech of the woman herself, which results in speeches of praise that are referenced into the final three allusions. The imagery of the woman’s hands does not contradict the imagery of the woman’s mouth. Rather, the author is suggesting that in working with her hands, the woman has found a tangible way to engage in the service of God.
The final verse demonstrates that the themes of physical work and wise speech are not in tension with one another, but work with one another. In this verse, the author exhorts the members of the Woman of Valor’s household to share the household bounty with the Woman of Valor and sing her praises in public. This verse is a fusion of both sections of the song, elevating the work of the woman’s hands into an act of service to God: “Extol her for the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the gates” (v. 31).
Today, I sing the Woman of Valor’s poem every Friday night with my husband and children. While the song ascribes traditional roles to husband and wife, roles that I myself do not fully embrace, there are two aspects of the song that make it meaningful for me.
First, while it is clear that the woman of this poem does the housework and the husband’s time is spent mostly in the public sphere, the husband deeply appreciates all of the work that his wife does. What makes their relationship work is not that the husband and wife accomplish an equal number of the same tasks, but that each expresses consistent appreciation for the work that these tasks require. The wife gives the husband only good things (Prov 31:12), and the husband in kind praises her and partakes in the fruit of her labor with her (Prov 31:31). The relationship between husband and wife is one of mutuality, and the woman’s husband proscribes a family dynamic in which all members of the household must show their appreciation for the woman of the house by verbally extolling her.
Second, and more importantly, the conclusion of the song is that physical labor for one’s loved ones is an expression of divine service. By taking imagery that the speaker first uses to describe the woman’s labor, and elevating this imagery to describe the woman’s divine service, the husband equates her labor with divine service itself, and gives her a place in the scheme of religious community service.
Even more profoundly, by shifting focus from his wife’s hands—on what she does for him, for her children, and for her household—to her words, her teachings, and her wisdom—the husband humanizes his wife in a way that underscores who she is and what she feels. The Woman of Valor is an individual with a special destiny, not an anonymous servant who can be replaced.
The redemptive nature of the last seven verses of Woman of Valor thus offer a profound depiction of a woman engaged in a relationship of mutuality, and of someone who has her own voice and deserves to be heard. While her marriage is one demarcated by traditional roles, the Woman of Valor transcends the domestic sphere to become a servant of God.