Eishet Chayil – A Song for Friday Night
What Is Eishet Chayil?
Eishet Chayil (pronounced aish-et chai-eel or eishes chayil) is generally translated as “Woman of Valor.” It’s a portion from the Book of Proverbs (chapter 31:10–31) that is traditionally sung before the Friday night Shabbat meal.
The origin of the custom to sing Eishet Chayil on Shabbat is unknown, but it has been widely adopted by almost every Jewish community. It is sung at the beginning of the Shabbat evening meal, immediately before Kiddush.
In many homes, singing Eishet Chayil is a way to give honor to the mother or matriarch of the family.
Proverbs 31: Who Is the Woman of Valor?
The Biblical poem is commonly understood as an ode to feminine strength and qualities, and a moment of appreciation for all the hard work the women of the household have exerted in preparing the lavish Shabbat meal.
But this popular understanding is a bit perplexing. For starters, it doesn’t really seem to make sense in context. After all, Eishet Chayil is the closing section of the Book of Proverbs – King Solomon’s epic work of wisdom and morality. Why would Solomon choose to end this book by penning his ideal vision of womanhood?
The question becomes compounded when we pay closer attention to the actual words of this song. Because it doesn’t seem to be a universal ode to “women.” Eishet Chayil seems to be referring to someone very specific. For example, one of its verses reads: “many women have displayed strength, but you have risen above them all” (Proverbs 31:29). That sure sounds like it’s addressing a particular “you,” and not some generic feminine character.
And even if we do assume that Eishet Chayil is a generic poem about women, that raises a whole bunch of other questions: Why is this song idealizing an “eishet chayil” of all things? Literally, a woman of power or even military strength? Are those the first praiseworthy feminine virtues that come to mind?
Furthermore, if we look at some of the other qualities of the Woman of Valor, they’re not necessarily the kinds of things we want to idealize about women in our day and age. For example, the song talks about a woman who bakes bread (Proverbs 31:27) and sews curtains (31:21-22) while her husband “sits with the elders in the gates of the city” (31:23). How does that sit with our 21st-century sensibilities? Is this the model of womanhood that we want to sing about around our table?
For all of these reasons, it’s hard to reconcile the common understanding of Eishet Chayil with the text itself.
Eishet Chayil: Meaning & Interpretation
While the specific intention behind the custom to sing Eishet Chayil on Friday night is unclear, there are a number of different approaches for explaining this practice.
As has been mentioned, some people consider it to be a song of gratitude and recognition for the hard-working woman of the household. But others understand the Eishet Chayil – the “Woman of Valor” – as a metaphor.
Some say that it’s a reference to Shabbat itself. In many places in our liturgy, Shabbat is identified with a feminine quality. For example, the concept of the Shabbat Queen, or Bride. This line of thinking interprets Eishet Chayil as a song that expresses our love and appreciation for Shabbat, and the gifts that “she” bestows upon us every week.
Others ascribe a more mystical meaning to the song. According to the Jewish mystical school of thought, Eishet Chayil is sung in honor of the Shechina – the feminine Divine Presence – which the mystics say is more accessible to us on the night of Shabbat.
Eishet Chayil: A New Approach
But none of these explanations for the custom do justice to the text of Proverbs 31 itself. The question remains, why did King Solomon write this song? Why did he close his book of wisdom with this dramatic poem, this ode to a Woman of Valor? What was his intention?
Is it possible that we’ve got it all wrong? Could Solomon perhaps have written this about a specific woman, a “Woman of Valor” who played a crucial role in his own life? What is the deeper meaning behind the words of this song?
Rabbi Fohrman tackles these questions and more in this mind-blowing course on Eishet Chayil. Check out this deep dive into the surprising, hidden meaning of the text. It will completely transform the way you understand Eishet Chayil.
Proverbs 31: Eishet Chayil Explained
Below is a breakdown of the Eishet Chayil text, in its original Hebrew and translated into English, from Proverbs chapter 31, verses 10–31.
It explains in details the traits of a woman of valor.
Eishet Chayil, Proverbs 31 in English
10 A woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.
11 Her husband’s heart trusts in her, and lacks no treasures.
12 She is good to him, never bad, all the days of her life.
13 She looks for wool and flax, and sets her hand to them willingly.
14 She is like a merchant fleet, she brings her bread from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night, and supplies provisions for her household, the daily fare of her maids.
16 She sets her mind on a field and acquires it; she plants a vineyard through the fruit of her handiwork.
17 Her loins are girded with strength, and her arms are mighty.
18 She sees that her business thrives; her lamp never goes out at night.
19 She sets her hand to the distaff; and her fingers work the spindle.
20 She stretches out her palms to the poor; she extends her hand to the needy.
21 She does not fear for her household on account of snow, for her whole house is dressed in crimson.
22 She makes covers for herself; her clothing is linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, where he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes cloth and sells it, and offers a girdle to the Canaanite.
25 She is clothed with strength and splendor; and laughs until the last day.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is upon her tongue.
27 She oversees the activities of her household, and never eats bread of idleness.
28 Her children stand and rejoice in her, her husband praises her.
29 Many women have displayed valor, but you rise above them all.
30 Grace is falsehood and beauty is vapid; a woman who fears God is the one who shall be praised.
31 Give her from the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.
Eishet Chayil, Proverbs 31 in Hebrew
Proverbs 31 is a Hebrew acrostic, shown in the breakdown below.
יא בָּטַח בָּהּ, לֵב בַּעְלָהּ; וְשָׁלָל, לֹא יֶחְסָר.
יב גְּמָלַתְהוּ טוֹב וְלֹא-רָע כֹּל, יְמֵי חַיֶּיהָ.
יג דָּרְשָׁה, צֶמֶר וּפִשְׁתִּים; וַתַּעַשׂ, בְּחֵפֶץ כַּפֶּיהָ.
יד הָיְתָה, כָּאֳנִיּוֹת סוֹחֵר; מִמֶּרְחָק, תָּבִיא לַחְמָהּ.
טו וַתָּקָם, בְּעוֹד לַיְלָה וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ; וְחֹק, לְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ.
טז זָמְמָה שָׂדֶה, וַתִּקָּחֵהוּ; מִפְּרִי כַפֶּיהָ, נָטְעָה כָּרֶם.
יז חָגְרָה בְעוֹז מָתְנֶיהָ; וַתְּאַמֵּץ, זְרוֹעֹתֶיהָ.
יח טָעֲמָה, כִּי-טוֹב סַחְרָהּ; לֹא-יִכְבֶּה בַלַּיְלָה נֵרָהּ.
יט יָדֶיהָ, שִׁלְּחָה בַכִּישׁוֹר; וְכַפֶּיהָ, תָּמְכוּ פָלֶךְ.
כ כַּפָּהּ, פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי; וְיָדֶיהָ, שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן.
כא לֹא-תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג: כִּי כָל-בֵּיתָהּ, לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִים.
כב מַרְבַדִּים עָשְׂתָה לָּהּ; שֵׁשׁ וְאַרְגָּמָן לְבוּשָׁהּ.
כג נוֹדָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָהּ; בְּשִׁבְתּוֹ, עִם-זִקְנֵי-אָרֶץ.
כד סָדִין עָשְׂתָה, וַתִּמְכֹּר; וַחֲגוֹר, נָתְנָה לַכְּנַעֲנִי.
כה עֹז-וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ; וַתִּשְׂחַק, לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן.
כו פִּיהָ, פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה; וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד, עַל-לְשׁוֹנָהּ.
כז צוֹפִיָּה, הֲלִיכוֹת בֵּיתָהּ; וְלֶחֶם עַצְלוּת, לֹא תֹאכֵל.
כח קָמוּ בָנֶיהָ, וַיְאַשְּׁרוּהָ; בַּעְלָהּ, וַיְהַלְלָהּ.
כט רַבּוֹת בָּנוֹת, עָשׂוּ חָיִל; וְאַתְּ, עָלִית עַל-כֻּלָּנָה.
ל שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן, וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי: אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת-יְהוָה, הִיא תִתְהַלָּל.
לא תְּנוּ-לָהּ, מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ; וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶׂיהָ.