It has become a Jewish custom for men to recite Eishet Chayill “a woman of valour”, a 3000 year old poem, at Friday night dinner, and thus to think about and be thankful for all his wife has done for him and their family throughout the past week, but how can this old poem be relevant to the modern orthodox woman?
My research has spanned the religious (Aish/Chabad/my learning partner in Gateshead etc,) a feminist American Christian blogger, the Orthodox Feminists & the local – our own Danny Wolinsky, who inspired me to research this topic.
Jewish Women - Forget the stereotype Jewish mother/princess/mother-in-law, you know the jokes…
What do Jewish wives make for dinner? Reservations.
What do you say to a baby Jewish Princess?
Gucci Gucci goo!
Then there is the Jewish wife, who divorced her husband for religious reasons, she worshipped money and he didn’t have any!
Did you hear about the Jewish man whose credit cards were stolen? He wouldn’t report it, as the thief spent less than his wife!
And lastly…Why don’t Jewish mothers drink? Alcohol interferes with their suffering!
If not for the Jewish woman, Bnei Yisrael would still be enslaved in Egypt.
When Pharaoh decreed that all first-born Jewish males should die, the men decided to refrain from “relations” with their wives so as not to bring any more children into this world. The women, however, had faith that God would save them and bring them out of Egypt, so they went to their husbands in order to bring more Jewish children into the world. Their faith and foresight were said to have merited the redemption from Egypt of the entire Jewish people.
After Moshe received the Torah from Hashem at Mount Sinai, he offered it first to the Jewish women, for he knew that if they accepted it, it would become part of the Jewish people for all time, as the women would take responsibility for passing it down generation to generation.
It was the Jewish woman who, in the face of adversity, held steadfast to her trust in Hashem, even when those around her did not. While the Jewish people wandered through the desert, the men repeatedly complained to Moshe and even asked to go back to Egypt! And, when Jewish spies were sent in to the Land of Israel and came back with reports of great dangers, it was the men who refused to enter. Forty years later, only the women of that generation merited entering the land.
The Jewish woman, who today is the one entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining the three mitzvot central to the Jewish home: kashrut, Shabbat, and family purity.
If not for her, where would we be? There would be no home, no family... no Jewish people. On Friday night, she sits as the Queen of her table, while all those around her sing her praises. And rightly so.
So we have a lot to live up to as modern Jewish women, safeguarding the entire Jewish people.
But, on a Friday as we struggle with the usual Friday Challah making, or Daniel’s queue, toilet cleaning, ironing finishing, table laying, meal planning, cake making, arrangement making, yom tov planning, Sainsburys visiting, school collecting, bedroom tidying etc etc etc, and then our loved ones come home and say “What did you do today?”... nothing much we reply, I think about all the things Eishet chayill requires me to be and feel rather inadequate.
For many men in Judaism, I sometimes believe, their roles are so proscripted, so visible, so rule book following, that they can sometimes struggle to see or value women's role in Judaism. This, I think, if I can be political for a moment, is true of the "establishment" as well, be it the US, Rabbi's honorary officers and so on. Sometimes I feel that the movements to "empower" women by allowing them to participate more fully in services, miss the point. Don’t get me wrong, I will always defend a woman’s right to do more traditional male roles within Halacha if they want to, but maybe, just maybe, all we want is to be appreciated and valued for what it is that we do do.
And what do we do? we "keep the home fires burning" we educate, we encourage, we feed, we clothe, we sympathise, we support, we create, we love, we bring Judaism and Hashem into our everyday lives and into our homes.... and this ENABLES Jewish men to be able to do their thing.
So what literally should we be like, as a “woman of valour?” the ideal to which all godly women must strive?
The bad news for the domestically-challenged among us is that the life of the Eishet Chayill woman is like the mother of a “to do” list come to life: She rises before dawn each day, provides exotic food for her children, runs a profitable textile business, invests in real estate, cares for the poor, spends hours at the loom making clothes and coverings for her bed, and crafts candle holders out of coffee filters. (Okay, I stretch the point, but you get the idea.)
So it’s easy to feel less than adequate in the Eishet Chayill stakes every time I turn to a cake mix for dessert or reach for a packet of shop bought schnitzel, or pop into Primark for something new for my girls to wear for shul.
One woman I researched decided to attempt to turn the poem into a to-do list, and this resulted in a 16-item list that included everything from lifting weights each morning (“she girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong”), to making a purple dress to wear (“she makes coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple”), to knitting red scarves for her husband (“when it snows, she has no fear for her household, for all of them are clothed in scarlet”), to making a homemade sign and literally praising her husband at the train station on his return from work (“her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land”).
She found that it all proved exhausting.
If you reinterpret the poem for today’s society, without taking it too literally the poem more closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior than a domestic to-do list. Like all good poems, it was intended to highlight the glory of the everyday; it was never meant to be used prescriptively as a to-do list or a command.
Eishet Chayill can be special because a woman should know that no matter what she does or doesn’t do, her loved ones praise her for blessing the family with her energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way.
In Jewish Culture, “eshet chayil”—woman of valour!—is invoked as a sort of spontaneous blessing Think of it as the Hebrew equivalent of “you go girl,”
Women friends cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice, and honouring everything from battles with cancer, to brave acts of vulnerability, to difficult choices, with a hearty “eshet chayil!”—you go girl, you woman of valour.
So, as modern women, I suggest we set aside the to-do list and embrace Eishet Chayill as it was meant to be used—not as yet another impossible standard for women, to measure our perceived failures, but as a celebration of what we’ve already accomplished as women of valour.
We women are brave in so many ways. We are brave in ways worthy of poetry. We are Eishet Chayill Women, not because of what we do, but how we do it—with guts, with vulnerability, with love.
We are the Women of Valour, who set the tone of love, spirituality, and personal growth for all those around us. To know us is to appreciate our strength and talents. And, just in case you might happen to forget, "Eishet Chayil" is there as a weekly reminder.
Sing it with feeling for your own Eishet Chayil, or for the Eishet Chayils that have safeguarded the foundation of the Jewish people for thousands of years and continue to do so today.
You are ALL Eishet Chayill’s – You Go Girls!