Episode 79: Word of the Week: Eshet Chayil

[Theme music plays]

Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous, here with Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.

[Theme music fades and jingle music plays]

Nahanni: Welcome back to Word of the Week, a miniseries where we dig into one word and explore its meaning for Jewish women. This time: Eshet Chayil!  OK, so it’s actually two words, and in Hebrew they mean...

 

[Jingle music plays]

Miriam: A woman of valor.

[Jingle music plays]

Rachel: I think the phrase eshet chayil is a very loaded term.

Rena: It's a woman who's got her head put on straight. Like a woman who has the right values.

Miriam: She has a very specific role to play. She is the general. The husband is the commanding officer, but she's the one actually getting the things done.

Rachel: I really don't see it necessarily as a fulfilling way to be.

Miriam: It has not aged that well. Understatement, understatement!

 

[Jingle music plays]

Nahanni: Eshet chayil is usually translated as woman of valor. It comes from a 22-verse acrostic poem at the end of the Book of Proverbs that sings the praises of an unnamed woman. 

[Eshet Chayil clip plays]

A woman of valor who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value. Her husband’s heart relies on her and he shall lack no fortune. She repays his good but never his harm all the days of her life. She seeks out wool and linen, and her hands work willingly. She is like merchants’ ships from afar; she brings her sustenance. She arises while it is yet night-time and gives food to her household, and ration to her maidens.

Nahanni: In some Jewish families, the poem is sung before the Friday night Shabbat meal. The custom may have originated in the seventeenth century with the Kabbalists in Tzfat, who connected Shabbat with a feminine manifestation of the divine.

In this episode of Word of the Week, we talk with three Jewish women who grew up singing Eshet Chayil at home—Rena Nickerson, Miriam Anzovin, and Rachel Stomel. We’ll hear them reflect on the meaning of Eshet Chayil today. First, who is this woman of valor? What’s her story?

 

Rena: This is a very busy woman.

Miriam: She just works from morning till night and allows her husband essentially to go and do whatever he needs to do by getting all of the home work done.

Rachel: She goes out and she, you know, buys a field, and she makes some sort of crafty thing and she sells it, and she's very industrious.

Miriam: She handles everything in the household. She handles everything in terms of running the land and making sure everybody is clothed and fed.

 

[Clip of Eshet Chayil plays]

Nahanni: What first comes to mind for you when you think of Eshet Chayil?  

Miriam: First, I remember my father singing Eishes Chayil*  to my mother, every Erev Shabbat.

Nahanni: That’s Miriam Anzovin, a TikTok star and Torah commentator based in Boston.

Miriam: And I remember just such a look between them of love and adoration, and it was always a highlight of our getting into the Shabbat spirit.

[Guitar music plays]

Rena: I grew up singing Eshet Chayil every Friday night at the Shabbat dinner table, as I still do.

Nahanni: And this is Rena Nickerson from Toronto, my old friend, who is currently the general manager of SodaStream Canada.

Rena: It's always been a very positive, meaningful song, where really you're celebrating the woman of the house.

 

Nahanni: Do you identify with this text? 

[Guitar music plays]

Rena: I relate well to that idea of a very productive woman who's focused on what she can do for herself and her family. The idea that she doesn't abide by laziness is something that you see in Eshet Chayil.

[Eshet Chayil translation plays]

She anticipates the ways of her household and partakes not of the bread of laziness. Her children arise and praise her, her husband lauds her.

Nahanni: So I don't know if you remember this, but back when we were in our, I don't know, late teens, early twenties, and you were thinking about who you might marry, you said to me that one of your criteria was that your husband should be able to sing Eshet Chayil to you from memory, looking into your eyes.

Rena: [Laughs] I don’t, I'm sorry. I was such an intense person, I think, as a kid. Luckily for my husband, he does actually know Eshet Chayil by heart and he does sing it to me, although maybe not always looking in my eyes after 25 years of marriage.

 

[Guitar music plays]

Nahanni: What do you think this song is trying to say?

Miriam: The intent is to show appreciation for a Jewish woman and share how essential they are to Jewish life and Jewish community. And that's beautiful. That's the great part.

Nahanni: And what's the not great part?

Miriam: The not great part is the onus that’s put on her, the sort of very structured life that is prescribed there. The main problem as I see it with Eishes Chayil is that there is one formula for being a good Jewish woman. And that it clearly articulates all the aspects of her daily work and obligations and responsibilities to her family, to her husband, to the community. It places her in a role that is very defined. And outside of those behaviors and actions that are described, well, then the question is, is she an eishes chayil? Has she gone beyond the boundaries of what she should or is expected to do? And if she does go beyond them, does that make her quote-unquote, a “bad woman”?

Nahanni: Yup. It's such a holding up of the married woman with children.

Miriam: Right. It's putting on a pedestal one description of a woman.

 

[Guitar music plays]

Nahanni: So, Rena, it’s so interesting that your associations are so positive, because other people have said to me that they feel like it sort of puts women on this pedestal, you know, that's one of the critiques of it. I'm wondering what you think about that.

Rena: So, I like the idea that each woman has her own potential and I feel like it's almost a menu. And it's like, we could be, you know, planting a vineyard—buying by the way, buying a vineyard—and planting a field. We could be, you know, working the spindle, we could be working...knitting. And all those things I take to be, in these days, not literal. I don't actually plant or sew or knit or anything like that. But I prefer a song that has women with agency, which the woman in the song clearly does. And also, what I like about the song very much is the balance of, like, it's not just that she's running around doing things. She looks smiling towards the future.

[Clip of Eshet Chayil plays]

She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She has fear of God, right? She's not just busy and never idle. She has purpose.

Of course, every woman has to have her own limits and her own abilities and figure out what she wants to do with her life. But this woman’s got it pretty well figured out. And I think she's not a bad model for me and my daughter.

And also, I mean, I missed the most important line, in a way, which is that “charm is deceptive and beauty is not. A God-fearing woman is the one to be praised.”

[Clip of Eshet Chayil plays]

Sheker hachen, vehevel hayofi, isha yirat hashem hi tit’halal. Everything we see in social media and media about idealized female form and body and other things girls are told to do to make themselves look more beautiful...we're saying, no, you have to think much bigger than how you look because at the end of the day, that's not actually what matters.

[Guitar music plays]

Rachel: You know, on the surface it sounds like this woman is very independent, you know, a very different vision of how we imagine women used to be. She seems very, very “leaning in” and very, like, a modern career woman.

Nahanni: Rachel Stomel works at the Center for Women’s Justice in Jerusalem, supporting women who are trapped in marriages where their husband refuses to grant them a divorce.

Rachel: You know, under Jewish law, a woman's earnings that she makes while she is married don't actually belong to her—it belongs only to her husband. So, when you think of it like that, and you think of this woman who is earning all these things and very industrious, you know, to me it feels more like an Employee of the Month award…

Nahanni: [laughs]

Rena:…rather than, you know, respect for an accomplished person because she's not earning this for herself. So that's something that just recently dawned on me and I'm like, “ooh.”

[Guitar music plays]

Rachel: One of the phrases at the way-beginning of Eshet Chayil, you know, it says gemelat’hu tov v’lo ra, kol yemei chayeha...

[Clip of Eshet Chayil plays]

Rachel: ...which means that, you know, “she repays his good but not his harm all the days of her life…”

[Guitar music plays]

Rachel: Let's say somebody is abusive, you know, and they do something bad to the other person and the other person just takes it. That is not praiseworthy, you know— that is dangerous and that is wrong. So I feel like, you know, we're saying this at the Shabbat table at this kind of family time, which is often, like, a very fraught time for people who are not in good relationships. And sometimes it's the man reading it to the woman, you know, saying, “She repays his good but never his harm all the days of her life” and holding that up as this ideal. That I think is where I get icked out. That becomes a threat rather than becoming a comfort.

 

[Guitar music plays]

Nahanni: Do you hear it used in other contexts ever? Like, do you hear women referred to as an eshet chayil, like in conversation?

Rachel: Yeah. And what they mean by that, like, “just a true eshet chayil”—it’s like a good, proper religious woman… Sometimes it's used also as, like, you know, to commend women for doing a lot of free labor—women who are in caregiving positions, we praise them a lot and we're like, “Wow, they go above and beyond, good for them!” But it never translates into, “Therefore we will pay them. Therefore we will, you know, give them better conditions.” It's always like, “Wow, look at their sacrifice. Good for them.” And it just ends there.

[Eshet Chayil clip plays]

She seeks out wool and linen, and her hands work willingly. She is like merchants’ ships from afar; she brings her sustenance. She arises while it is yet night-time and gives food to her household, and ration to her maidens. She envisions a field and buys it; from the fruit of her handiwork she plants a vineyard.

Miriam: It is quite outdated. And so sometimes I will update it in my mind.

[Jingle music plays]

So an eishes chayil doesn't necessarily have to have a husband, firstly, an eishes chayil doesn't necessarily have to have children, nor weave clothes or make the foodor any of the specific actions that are described in Eishes Chayil.

So if people want to have a different way to express their appreciation for their partner, male or female, or any gender, that's also a good thing. And perhaps we can take inspiration from Eishes Chayil in how we articulate gratitude. We could tailor it to the individual person that is being appreciated—not only “Thank you for taking care of all of this and raising the children and creating the clothes and managing our household. Thank you for fixing the wifi. Thank you for taking the dog to the vet. Thank you. Thank you for all these things that you are doing.”

[“Eshet Chayil of Hip Hop” Song clip plays]

 

Nahanni: And that’s our Word of the Week!

[Eshet Chayil of Hip Hop clip plays]

Thanks to Miriam Anzovin, Rena Nickerson, and Rachel Stomel. Thanks also to the Tonti family—Julie, Mat and May—for sharing their beautiful singing and guitar playing. You’re now listening to “Eshet Chayil of Hip Hop” by Lea Kalisch.

[“Eshet Chayil of Hip Hop” Song clip plays]

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble and our Word of the Week jingle is by Alicia Jo Rabins. 

Find us online at jwa.org/canwetalk, or wherever you get your podcasts. And that wraps up our Word of the Week mini-series. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time!

*Eishes Chayil is the Yiddish pronunciation of the poem’s title.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 79: Word of the Week: Eshet Chayil." (Viewed on April 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-79-word-week-eshet-chayil>.