Thanksgiving is over and Hanukkah is soon. I have written about being thankful and lots on blessings, but this week as I was getting ready to talk about Shabbat, myjewishlearning.com had an article on “How to Read Eshet Hayil.” This definitely goes along with being grateful and tradition has it being sung every Friday night. So what is this song about a “woman of valor” and what are the challenges that some feel with the ancient words?
“Eshet Hayil,” sung by the husband to his wife, is from Proverbs 31 and is sung in Hebrew. The Kabbalists in the 17th century belied that the “woman of valor” was the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God. The words detail the woman who never sits still, let alone rests. She manages the household which includes everything like planting a vineyard, acquiring an estate, buying wool and flax, making clothes for everyone, and making cloth and selling it to the merchant plus taking care of the needy and poor. It also states that “she rises while it is still night” and “her lamp never goes out.” She doesn’t “work outside the home” as women do today but the list definitely includes work that could be her professional side. Was it unrealistic or true back then and what about now? Is this the expectation?
Many women have questioned me when I pre-sent this as part of the Shabbat evening and feel it may represent what they are doing but not always happily. I poke fun but still strive to understand the psalm and the way we use it today. Perhaps it is better that we sing it in Hebrew — the feeling is there without the emphasis on all the work that the woman is expected to do. In the article, author Wendy Zierler tells us to read the nine verses that proceed this acrostic poem. “We typically ignore the fact that the Eshet Hayil is preceded by nine verses of instruction offered by an unnamed Queen Mother to her son King Lemuel, in which she warns him against drunkenness and debauchery (with women), encouraging him instead to judge righteously and be an advocate for the needy.” It has been suggested that the verses that follow are that the king was honoring his mother!
Changing traditions is hard but sometimes necessary AND could be fun! Perhaps instead of (or in addition to) the traditional Eshet Hayil, we could find another poem or even write one or maybe even just speak from the heart each Friday night. It is a wonderful tradition to say thank you to those who have helped us through the week and through life. Perhaps even say something to the fathers, grandparents, cousins, good friends, children and whoever else is around your Shabbat table. Rituals can be changed and you will be surprised how quickly a “new” ritual becomes something that has to happen and everyone speaks of it as “something we have always done”!
Laura Seymour is the director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family JCC.
Is ‘Eshet Hayil’ working for you?