Background Information on Eshet Chayil

by

Aya Baron

Eshet chayil is a 22-verse poem found in proverbs 31, verses 10-31, which delineates qualities of an ideal Jewish woman. This prayer is traditionally read before the Kiddush wine blessing as families welcome in Shabbat on Friday evening. This is a custom many believe originated with the mystics in Tzfat who connected Shabbat to shekinah- the feminine manifestation of The Divine. This prayer has since entered the domestic sphere, with the male head of the home singing it to honor his wife. As such, there are many families for whom this tradition resonates, and many for whom, for a variety of reasons, modern or creative adaptations are a better fit.

This acrostic poem presents insight into ancient Jewish culture and customs. According to one Midrash, Abraham wrote it for his wife, the biblical matriarch Sarah. According to another, the verses correspond to 19 Jewish ancestral matriarchs. Thus, it contains grains of history and layers of that have the potential to spark imaginative artwork and critical conversation.

Further, imagining this prayer in its original context, a time in which domestic labor was the primary way for women to express their value, it remarkably and beautifully honors unseen labor performed in the home. While this can feel limiting in a modern context where unseen labor, performed by individuals within the household or others beyond, is often overlooked, this prayer captures a snapshot of a time when its recitation was a meaningful way for women to be seen and honored for their service.

This lesson explores how eshet chayil interacts with contemporary American culture, translating age-old questions into a modern context through creative and tangible inquiry. This is relevant to adolescent girls who are forming their identities and are increasingly bombarded with images and ideas from mainstream media about what it means to be a girl. Shedding light on cultural forces that impact identity formation, and elevating personal journaling, critical conversation and creative writing creates an opportunity for adolescents to thrive. 

7 Comments

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I have a son-in-law who is very much like Abigail's "Nabal." He has used "Eshet" as a cudgel when she did not measure up to his lofty expectations. Rather than praising and building her up into that "Eshet Chayil", he tore her down in every way. Now that she has escaped to her father and mother, we see her as a strong, wise and talented woman, happy in life before G_d. She is also renewing ties with her once estranged 18 year old daughter.
"Eshet" became a hated passage from her husband's hand. Now, by G_d's mercy, I might turn it to precious cut stone, by which to build a living and noble daughter.

I am an African American woman born and raised on the lower side of New York City -- that has a large Jewish community. I am and have always been fascinated with their history and culture. Thank you for the information!

Why is the text itself missing? Or is it elsewhere on the JWA site?

Are women obligated to sing Eshet Chayil at chabad houses?

Hi,
My late wife's second yahrzeit occurs on the 4th of Sivan (June 3 this year). Typically I would check out the Parashat HaShavua for material to "craft" a dvar in Marion's memory. However Bemidbar is mainly concerned with creating a census of the Jewish people and the army, etc. When Marion gave birth to our daughter Shoshana, our obstetrician (who was Orthodox) called "Eshat Chayil". So perhaps this should be the 'theme' of this year's dvar. I'd appreciate any input, ideas. B'Todah.

The practice of praising the women of the house who have traditionally been expected to prepare the home for the day of rest (and it is a lot of work!) is a recognition of womens' work (not just traditional work but work of all kinds). Making the praise of women a practice, and recognizing the many ways they "build their house" is an expression of gratitude that is good for both the sedentary, contemplative men described in the passage and the women who deck them out in splendor, teach them, and quietly protect them through their actions. Their work speaks for itself, but it is good for the men to be in the habit of praising and appreciating them, too. There is a lot of wisdom in the original passage (Proverbs 31) that is today not as well appreciated as it should be.

I would love to learn more about this lesson.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Background Information on Eshet Chayil ." (Viewed on May 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/article/background-information-on-eshet-chayil>.