Eishet Chayil: A Template for Modern Women

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In this article, a modern woman who lives by Jewish tradition explains why she feels that Eishet Chayil is very relevant for her and her family. In response to another article which claims that the poem is outdated and unrealistic, Ashira Lapin Gobrin claims that the words – some taken literally and some allegorically – will serve her daughters well as a template for “how to be strong female presences in their homes, their communities, and their workplaces.” Gobrin is a mother of three, senior executive of a global software company, and a self-proclaimed modern, relevant Eshet Chayil. The article was published as a guest post in the Canadian Jewish News.

Eshet Chayil: A Template for Modern Women

As a modern religious woman, I often find myself reflecting on the wisdom of our sages, especially when I read ancient texts that remain so relevant and meaningful many thousands of years later. Every Friday night, I have one of these moments when my family sings Eshet Chayil, the alphabetical acrostic poem found in the closing chapter of Proverbs and traditionally chanted at the Shabbat table.

Some say King Solomon wrote Eshet Chayil about his mother, or perhaps his wife. The Midrash Tanchumah says it was Abraham’s eulogy to his beloved wife, Sarah. Either way, to me Eshet Chayil stands as an ode to Jewish women through the generations.

But not everyone would agree. CJN columnist Lauren Kramer recently argued (April 16) that Eshet Chayil depicts woman as “a selfless slave,” that its lyrics are “utterly outdated and have no meaning in the context of our present-day reality.” Kramer says the poem “doesn’t describe her or anyone else she knows, nor does it present a realistic set of goals for anyone to aspire to.” [See the full article here.]

I beg to differ. Eshet Chayil contains references that are both allegorical and literal. Many commentaries suggest the female protagonist of the song is a symbol of the Divine Presence, or of Shabbat itself. But the poem also has a practical layer, describing the female head of the household as a role model for her family and for future generations – a universal image of a woman and a mother eloquently reflected in a song. Whenever Eshet Chayil was written, the concept of a working woman was not modern – it was nothing less than revolutionary. But then Judaism has always placed a high value on the female role, both inside and outside the home.

Eshet Chayil speaks in images that are ancient and at the same time very modern. It demonstrates a woman whose husband entrusts everything to her. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks refers to this woman as “active, practical, a businesswoman as well as director of the household.” She is an entrepreneur who is industrious, capable, charitable, wise, empathetic and intuitive. She builds an extensive network and “travels far to earn her livelihood” and at the same time nurtures her family, looks after her staff and “reaches her palm to the poor and extends a hand to the needy.” She pays attention to detail while “she makes elegant coverings, her clothing is fine linen and purple wool.” She gives care to how she looks and dresses – “she is clothed with strength and dignity.” She is wise and kind and hard working, and she has a sense of humour – “she can laugh at the days to come.”

Smart, sexy and genuine – what a woman! No wonder the first verse of Eshet Chayil asks: “A woman of valour, who can find?”

In fact, Jewish history is full of such women. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah were eshet chayils. Both my grandmothers and my mother are eshet chayils. All three of my beloved sisters could be perfectly described as eshet chayils. How lucky I am that my husband thinks this of me, too, and that he expresses that sentiment every Friday night so my children can hear and acknowledge it, and hopefully see themselves as part of a long line of strong Jewish role models, leaders and contributors who all upheld the same ideals and values. Eshet Chayil offers my children a template to work from when they start their own families – how to be strong female presences in their homes, their communities and their workplaces.

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