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. 

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Background Information on Eshet Chayil ." (Viewed on May 13, 2021) <https://jwa.org/article/background-information-on-eshet-chayil>.

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