THE JERUSALEM JEWISH VOICE
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A WOMAN OF VALOR, WHO CAN UNDERSTAND?
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ASHET CHAYEL, A WOMAN OF VALOR, is a beautiful 22 verse alef-betic acrostic poem, 3000 years old-- it is a paean to a great woman, whose self-expression is an ideal wife and housewife. Most Jewish families chant it from the prayerbook Friday night, just before kiddush (hopefully, as they smell and anticipate a delicious Shabbat meal, cooked with love and skill by their wife/mother). Kabbalists initiated this custom, as a Sabbath tribute to the Shechina, God's female Percievable Presence (and Jewish women who embody it?-- many recite it at female funerals and, especially Sephardim, engrave it upon their tombstones).
Yet few folks bother to study and analyze the poem, as they blend with its lilting melodies, very tired from another week's struggle with our environment, on our way back to Eden. But we must also understand this poignant Jewish statement on women, especially in our age of confusion over the unique essence of male and female.
WHERE DID THIS POEM COME FROM? WHO WROTE IT?
What's your guess? I did a survey (try your own!)-- many assume that the prayerbook itself is the original source; some opine that the siddur got it from kabbalistic sources, e.g. Zohar. Others recall its Biblical origin, but don't know where-- guesses vary from Genesis to Psalms, from Kohelet to Song of Songs, even from observant and well-educated Jews. Those who know Bible well correctly cite Proverbs-- some even chapter, 31; Proverbs begins with the dangers of a bad woman (2:16; 5:1f) and closes with the blessings of a good one; but very few (e.g. former Hartman H. S. Principal S. Lorch) remember that the poem begins only with 31:10, and is the very end of Proverbs-- so let's first look at its background, 31:1-9 (only Chief Rabbi Lau also quoted these 9 obscure verses from memory!- I was really impressed!) 1. The words (or matters) of Lemuel, King of Masa, whose mother disciplined him: 2. What's this, my son! And what's this, son of my womb! And what's this, son of my vows! 3. Don't give your strength to women, nor your ways to what wipes out kings. 4. It's not for kings, Lemuel, not for kings to drink wine, nor is strong drink for rulers (cf. vodka at farbrangin-- see San. 42a). 5. Lest he drink and forget what was made law and pervert the judgment due all children of poverty (rich folks' sharp lawyers can remind his besotted honor of the correct law). 6. Give strong drink to one who's perishing (e.g. a last drink for those about to be executed-- San. 43a) and wine to those of bitter soul-- see Ber. 57a, Eruv. 65a. 7. Let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his travail no more. 8. Open your mouth for the mute, in the cause of all children of vicissitude-- see Git. 37b. 9. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy". Then, with no introduction whatsoever, comes the poem, 31:10-31: "A woman of valor who can find....".
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Who wrote the poem? -- The lack of transition before 31:10, e.g. "Lemuel responded", suggests that it simply continues his mother's words. Similarities of style and expression between 31:1-9 and 31:10-31 also suggest a common author (e.g. vv. 8 & 26, 3 & 10, 29-- see M. Lichtenstein, Chiasm and Symmetry in Proverbs 31, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44, 1982). But mustn't the opening phrase,"the words of Lemuel", (31:1) refer to the poem, a response to his mother's discipline?-- Lemuel admits that she's right and praises her as a model Woman of Valor (Ibn Ezra), perhaps implying: "I want a girl, just like the girl, who married very good old dad"-- see Metzudas Dovid. But we might translate 31:1 "the matters of Lemuel...", if we attribute authorship to his mother.
Who's Lemuel? Who's mommy? Why do their conflicts close Proverbs?-- the text is enigmatic. But the O.T. (Only Testament) is spiritual shorthand-- its full meaning is to be found only in Israel's oral tradition, embodied in the Talmud and Midrashim, their commentaries, and the heart of every Jew. Thus all non-Jewish Biblicists will ask Yaakov to teach them his ways, as the law goes forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem (Is. 2:3). Rashi (from S.S. Raba 1:10, Ecc. Raba 1:2) explains that Lemuel is Solomon's new name here-- it means "for the sake of God", referring to this poem, his paean of repentence after his mother chastises him. Ibn Ezra claims that Lemuel means "God is to them"-- everyone worshipped only the One God during his reign, the 40 year peaceful apex of Jewish history (but Shlomo's wives, perhaps others too, worshipped idols!-- Ruth Fogelman, IK11:4f,33). Both ignore R. Yochanan, Lev. Raba 12:5, who explains that Lemuel means "against God", expressing his mother's outrage. David admonished Shlomo (but not Adoniyahu or Avshalom-1K1:6, Ex. Raba 1:1) until his death; on his deathbed, he asks Shlomo (then 12--Malbim) to be strong, become a man and follow the Torah (rather than his reason, per Malbim; IK2:2f). Shlomo's mother, Bat Sheva, who ensured that he be the next king, also took over his discipline, to ensure that he'd also be a good king (Ibn Ezra).
Shlomo married Ms. Pharoh the night before the dedication of the Temple. Exhausted by an entire evening of wine and 80 dances, his first in 7 years, he overslept; the key to the temple was under his pillow and no one would dare wake him-- so the very first morning sacrifice was offered late. When Bat Sheva heard this, she was aghast! She ran to her son, slapped him (or had him lashed) for his abandoned life style, and berated him with Prov. 31:2-9*; she said that she'd be blamed for his sins, as his father, David, was so righteous (see Rashi, Lev. Raba 12:5, Rashby in San. 70b, Midrash Mishle, Ber. 8a, and Numbers Raba 10:8, where any male contact with a menstruant woman is prohibited). Bat Sheva assumes that Jewish monarchy is a responsibility, not a privilege to lead an enervating life of ease and indulgence (cf. today's politicians). Shlomo's sin laid the groundwork for the eventual destruction of his Temple (Lev. Raba 12:5, Mid. Mishle), as Miriam and Aharon's critique of Moshe led to the open rebellion of the spies and Korach & Co.
Hirsch explains 31:2-- A true mother prepares her thoughts for the spiritual future of her child in her womb; her solomn vows accompany his entrance into the world-- he's the son of her womb and the son of her vows. A mother's thoughts and emotions as she bears and suckles her child have effect. "To imbibe something with one's mother's milk" is no empty phrase. The seed is then planted for the child's character, for gentleness or violence, for modesty or sensuality, for nobility or vulgarity. After birth, mother's example shows his awakening soul the ideas which he should follow-truth, decency, purity or their opposites! Showing him/her the right way requires mother's intelligence and firm resolve-- his future good behavior depends upon her teaching him to control his own will. So Rav J. Soloveichik notes that only your mother imparts your inner essence, determining whether you're Jewish-- father just educates and develops it, integrates it with the external world. King Solomon indeed looks back to his earliest formation in Prov. 4:3f.
*Some say that Jeroboam (see IK11:26f) and 1000 of his men rebuked Solomon for immorality; but Jeroboam sinned much more when he became King of Northern Israel-- Lev. Raba 12:5; cf. political protestors-- what's their alternative?
Now, given its somewhat sordid background, let's examine and explore Proverbs 31:10-31.
Yael Levine Katz (5610-550, P.O.B. 71140, Jerusalem 91711) wrote the first female PhD thesis at Bar Ilan's Talmud Dept., on Midreshei Eshet Hayil (1992). Midrash Eshet Chayil is appended to Midrash Mishle3; there are 12 mss. extant-- some lack several verses. A modern scholar like Katz is more likely to ascertain the correct text of these midrashim than great talmudists of former ages, who didn't even know of many mss.'s existence, besides not having access to them. True, their intuition and learning would alert them to hidden meanings and allusions in the text before them; but they'd try to rationalize textual anomalies by ingenious interpretations, rather than studying comparative mss. Yisrael Chazani uses such mss. to resolve talmudic contradictions, which generated volumes of pilpul, complex imaginative constructs, in previous ages. He lectures (coed, in Hebrew) on Shabbat, 45 minutes before Mincha, at Menachem Tziyon in the Jewish 1/4.
Per Midrash Eishet Chayil , the first 20 verses refer to great Biblical heroines, noted below, at the end of each verse-- Katz notes that most are praised for aiding their husband or other men, but Mrs. Noach and Ruth for their own holy personalities. Rav Y. Hadari views midrashim as ancient Rabbis' weekly Shabbat addresses to the public-- they were more concerned with teaching important messages to their flock and keeping them engrossed, than with exact and historically correct exegesis-- we don't question their Biblical expositions unlike in halacha (law).
I primarily used Judaica Proverbs, The Malbim on Mishle and Hirsch's Siddur for my commentary-M= Malbim, H= Hirsch, MD= Mtzudos Dovid; each commentator reflects his own times, knowledge and agenda.
31:10: Ashet Chayil, a woman of valor, who can find?-- and her price is far beyond pearls
One can't expect to just "find" a true woman of valor; he must earn her, deserve her by himself becoming a great man of valor (see Ex. 18:21, not Is. 5:22!, per Num. Raba 10:8); this does not mean only financial success, but soul development, way beyond wealth and jewels (H); she's more inaccessible and elusive than even precious pearls (M). In fact, she's rare, so few ever find her (see Ecc. 7:28; there are also few righteous men-- Sukka 45b). The targum renders "ashet chayel": "a pious or kosher woman"; Metzudas Tziyon: "an eager and upright woman"; Ibn Ezra: "one capable of acquiring wealth"! This is righteous Mrs. Noah.
11: Her husband's heart trusted her (not to enter even "platonic" relationships with other men?) and he'll lack no gain (lit. "booty"-- his trust will be validated).
Most women squander their husbands' money (M)-- she's the opposite, bringing him unexpected gains, "booty" (H)! She guards the home front-- watches his property well; thus he can travel on business without having to rush home (MD). This is Sara, in whose merit Avraham became wealthy when she was taken by Pharoh (some say that he later gave this "non-kosher money" to his concubines' sons-- see our Chaye Sara study)!
12: She requites him with good and not evil (interspersed-- e.g. serving him good soup while turning her back to him, a valid cause of divorce per R. Akiva) all the days of her life .
She's appreciative, paying back good, but not vindictive, avenging evil, e.g. bearing a grudge for an incident 10 years ago (MD). One can do much good to another, and still cause him moments of chagrin and hurt by personal whims and caprices, and by the manner in which he acts toward him. But she gives her husband nothing but happiness (H). Most women are a mixed bag of pleasure and pain or a source of good only while young and healthy, and when all's well (M; are husbands even more so?). But she's constantly unalloyed goodness. This is Rivka, kind and consoling to Yitzchak after Sara's death-- tho he suspected her of intimacy with Eliezer on their trip ( Misgav Imahos -- Rav Aharon Sarfaty, 5378).
13: She sought out wool and flax and worked with her hands with desire .
She eagerly seeks to help her household-- her husband needn't force her to buy materials and work (MD); lazy or rebellious wives may not buy much food, so that they don't have to cook; if their husbands buy it, they may leave it to spoil, cook it in the simplest untasty fashion or burn it (one discontented talmudic rabbi's wife used to prepare the opposite of the food he requested!). This represents Leah, who joyfully welcomed Yaakov into her tent the night she bartered her mandrakes for his company.
14: She's like merchant ships, bringing her food from afar .
Tho her husband is required to support her, she sends her merchandise to be sold and purchases her necessities with the proceeds (MD). She'll go to great lengths, literally and figuratively, for greater profits to help her home (M); she providentially plans for even the remotest contingencies (H). This is Rachel, who craved kids. Accordingly her son Yosef supported the whole world, like a ship laden with goodies.
15: She arose while still night and gave food to her household and a portion to her maids .
This is Pharoh's daughter, Batya, a de facto or prototype Jewish mother, who saved and nurtured Moshe, when she went down to the riverside to cleanse herself of idols (Misgav Emahot).
16: She contemplated a field and acquired it; from the fruit of her hands she planted a vineyard .
She was thrifty and gradually accumulated enough savings to fulfill her plan, to buy a field (H). This is Yocheved, Moshe's Mom; he was known as "the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts".
17: She girds her loins with vigor (for her far-off work, vv. 14, 16) and strengthens her arms (for her domestic duties, vv. 13,15-- M).
She wasn't robust by nature, but her zeal and sense of duty gave her strength. This is Miriam, who prophesied that her mother would bear Israel's redeemer and encouraged her father to resume marital relations; when slavery became heavier after Moshe's birth, her father mocked her prophecy, hit her on the head, and spat at her (would you report him for child abuse?). But she didn't give up and watched Moshe's little ark from a distance.
18: She experienced that her merchandise was good; her lamp would not go out at night .
When one experiences success and approval, she's inspired and driven to do more; laziness and apathy are often the response to uninspiring and/or unsuccessful work-- cf. shoddy East European socialist products. Her increased efforts and overtime are an attempt to extend her effective kindness beyond her home-- see 20f (M). So Chana "tasted the taste of prayer" when she prayed for a son and thus merited Samuel, Korachian combination of Moshe and Aharon, whose prophecy begins with IS3:3-- " The lamp of God hadn't yet gone out and Shmuel was lying down, in the Temple of the Lord..." (nearby-- one may not sleep there); Rav B. Krieger explains that God's Presence was no longer found in the Temple per se, polluted by the sons of Eli, but in Shmuel, wherever he was. So Nachman of Breslav said that wherever he was, he was on his way to Israel-- but when he arrived and had his mystical Zionist experience, he wanted to go back to Europe immediately; early chalutzim, however, settled and developed the land with sacrifice; tho not consciously seeking mystical experience, they were unconsciously forging the deepest links with God, per Rav Y. Kook and Rav J. Soloveichik.
19: She streched out her hands to the distaff (it prepares the spindle to spin-- Rashi) and her palms supported the spindle
She doesn't ignore her household duties, despite her business ventures ( Judaica ; cf. working women today). This is Yael (non-Jewish, Mrs. Chever the Kenite), who killed Sisra with a tent peg ("spindle") rather than with a sword, a man's garment, forbidden by Deut. 22:5!!! Others say that she was first intimate with him many times to weaken him (Yev. 103a).
20: She opened her palm to a poor man and streched out her hands to one really down and out.
She openly gives her whole hand to the broken begger who's lost all sensitivity to begging. But she aids the respectable pauper, who's ashamed to seek or accept charity openly, discreetly-- with her palm (M). She's both generous and sensitive. Ibn Ezra renders: With her hand, she breaks bread for the pauper . This is the widow in Zarefat, who fed Eliyahu bread and water (1K17).
21: She fears not for her household from snow, for all her household are dressed in crimson (shanim-- M and MD, who claims that crimson cloth generates warmth).
Would her daughters be expelled from Bet Yaakov, which prohibits red clothing, the garb of loose women in talmudic times? Perhaps these are red long johns. Some, e.g. Rashi, interpret "shanim" as colored, rather than red, garments. Ibn Ezra assumes that shanim is linen. She doesn't ignore her own family's needs while spinning for the poor-- M; every faithful Jew and Jewess must balance their family's needs vs. those of the public; while Jewish charity begins at home (or with oneself), one may not rear his family to be selfish and oblivious to others; a beautiful holiday family feast to which guests in need aren't invited is an abomination to God (Rambam). There was heavy snow in Solomon's era-- envision the Temple covered with snow; cf. Hillel's frozen rooftop Torah seminar in a Jerusalem snowstorm. This is Madam Rachav, later to become converted Mrs. Yehoshua (see Meg. 14b)-- she didn't fear Israel's armies as the spies gave her a protective sign, a crimson thread in her window (a hint of laws of menstruation?)
22: She made herself precious ornaments (or "beautiful bedspreads"-- see 7:16)
She's also self-respecting and dignified (YF); her family had warm winter clothing, but she was content with just a warm bedspread-- H; fine linen and purple wool are her rainment. -- heaven rewards her with affluence, bestowing its blessing on her good work (M-- but we expect individual reward for mitzvos only in the next world?-- charity's different!). Ralbag interprets her clothing and ornaments as admirable traits; repugnant ones are symbolized by soiled clothing (a scholar may not have a stain upon his garments). Her constant activity keeps her warm, so she wears light linen clothing with wool decorations (H). This is Batsheva, who ruled the entire world in royal rainment.
23: Her husband's known in the gates (where the wise men and elders convene; see Deut. 25:7-- MD), when he sits with the elders of the land .
He has beautiful clothes!-- Rashi. His wife encouraged him to learn and become a great scholar and judge at the gates-- Ralbag & M. Her husband was pointed out as such-- her moral and spiritual influence benefit the community via his unusually fine public words and actions (H-- imagine the behavior of Kenesset members, both observant and non-observant, married to women of valor). This is Micha; she saved her husband David from murder by her father, King Saul the First and Last (1S19:18). David fled to Samuel, who taught him Torah on the highest level; Michal wanted credit, so David was known in the gates as her husband-- she risked her life for him and engendered his learning ( Misgav Imahot ).
24: She made a cloak and sold it, and GAVE a belt to the peddler .
She also makes clothes for sale (MD). She uses the money for charity (M). She uses her leftover thread from the cloak to make belts for poor peddlers to sell at a higher price than she would get, the highest level of charity; she GIVES them away, not SELLS them. She's both conscientious and charitable at the same time, a model for her MK husband. If this passage just dealt with her business acumen, it would appear above with her good household management, rather than here with her spiritual qualities (H). The hidden heroine is Hazelelponi, Samson's ma (ICh4:3), who made the 30 cloaks he owed the Philistines (Judges 14:12f); when he paid them otherwise (14:19), she sold the cloaks (Misgav Imahot).
25: Strength (Hirsch: resoluteness) and beauty are her rainment and she'll laugh at the last day
She will die with a good name-- Rashi; she will be confident of her hereafter. Her garments are strong, durable and beautiful (MD-- she's practical, yet playful and romantic?). Ibn Ezra says she's adorned with both strength and beauty. Ralbag says she has beautiful traits and is strong enough to control her physical desires, following the ways of Torah. Her good deeds endow her with a "spiritual garment" of strength and dignity; she'll put it on when her final day on earth comes and her spirit must leave its clothing, her body, behind and go "smiling", in confidence, to the world-to-come (M-- the righteous are shown their share in the world to come, per Gen. Raba 62:2). Ralbag's criteria for reward in the hereafter is a developed intellect, rather than mitzvos. This is Elisheva, sister of Nachshon, prince of Yehuda, married to Aharon (Ex. 6:27; priesthood joined royalty-- a Maccabian model?-- see B.B. 110). She experienced 4 great honors on Nissan 1, and was a great midwife of Egyptian salvation, per Sota 11b.
26: She opened her mouth with wisdom and a teaching of kindness was on her tongue .
She always speaks with wisdom and teaches everyone to be kind (MD). Targum renders: "the right conduct of kindness-- learning and wisdom, Torah, must accompany all good acts, to ensure they indeed be productive-- giving a drunk, drug addict or young strong begger money may hurt him. On that final day of judgment, she'll show that she lived by laws of moral wisdom and relate all her acts of kindness, beyond the call of duty (M). This is the wise woman (Serach bat Asher?) in 2S20:16, who saved Abel-Bet-Maaca, where Sheva b. Bichri took refuge.
27: She supervises the ways of her house and won't eat bread of idleness
Her servants respect and obey her (YF). She teaches truth and modesty to her whole household (Rashi). Even in her old age, when she can't or shouldn't work, she refuses to sit idle and supervises other household workers. This is Mrs. Ovadia, who saved her sons from Achav's idolatry (see 2K4:1).
28: Her sons (or children) rose and validated her, her husband and praised her
This implies that a good wife and mother usually will be appreciated and praised as the source of their family's happiness (or turn sour? only after she's dead?). Perhaps her daughters don't need and praise her as much as her sons, for they become her, with their own internal strength and faith (see Mona ). Some translate: "Her children were upright...". This is the Shunamite, who fed Elisha and made an apartment for him (2K4:8f). He blessed her with a child, whom he revived from death.
29: Many daughters have done valiantly, but you excelled them all .
She may not get public attention and praise, because many Jewish girls are wonderful wives and mothers (M), unless ruined by Western Education, which teaches them to be everything but. This is Ruth, a Moabite princess, who voluntarily converted to a poor woman's Judaism.
30: Charm is false and beauty fleeting; a woman with God-awareness will be praised .
Homely women proclaimed this as they danced before prospective grooms on Av 15-- beautiful women praised beauty and noble women nobility (Taanit 26b, 31a)! This is how she excelled even other good women, by rejecting fleeting values, e.g. beauty. She's rewarded by both worldly recognition (see 31) and the hereafter (M). This too is Ruth, who left her empty native civilization to follow Naomi to the Holy Land. She merited to be David's great-grandmother; he sated God with songs and praises.
31: Give her of the fruit of her hands and praise her works in the gates.
The term "Ashet chayil" also appears in: " A valiant woman is her husband's crown, but as rot in his bones is one who fails in her calling" (Prov. 12:4) and: "And now my daughter fear not-- all you say I'll do for you; for all in my people's gate know you're a valiant woman " (Ruth 3:11)-- fit for a "gibor chayal", a man of substance, 2:1, i.e. Boaz-- Midrash Lekach Tov.
FUN GIRL OR FRUM (pious) GIRL?
What's the main function of a wife-- mother and housewife or girlfriend? Ashet Chayil is a great mom to both her husband and children; but there's no mention of sex appeal, of fun, of communication, what Shlomo may have sought in Ms. Pharo, and his dad, David, in young Bat Sheva, perhaps subsequently abandoned by him de facto, for younger women-- she may even fear to enter his chamber, occupied by young beautiful Avishag, to save her son (IK1:11f). Shlomo may reflect his parents' own conflict between joy and duty. Now a pious older, perhaps bitter, woman, less "fun", Bat Sheva may want her son to enter more serious, meaningful and enduring marital relationships. She may have been too close to him when David was so busy elsewhere, causing him to pick her opposite or younger image-- Ms. Pharo. One becomes wise in sublimating, only dreaming about, his Oedipal attachment to his mother (Ber. 57a, Freud). This might explain both Solomon's great wisdom and his passion for alien women (IK11:1f)-- would today's sages, e.g. The Rebbe and Rav Shach, marry such women?
Rav A. Steinsaltz ( Nashim Bamikra ) suggests that Shlomo's now trying to balance the Biblical stress on beauty, e.g. re Sara, Rachel, Yosef, Avshalom and Esther, with more important and enduring aspects of women and marriage. Was Sara, who stayed in her tent, an Ashet Chayil or an alternative model of a great Jewish wife?
The Torah notes that Lemech (Cain's descendant, not Noach's Shemitic father) had 2 wives, Ada and Tzila-- apparently not common in those days (Gen. 4:19). But R. Yehuda b. Simon (Gen. Raba 23:2) claims that men took one woman for a girlfriend and escort ("Tzila", "in his shadow"), the other for a mother and homemaker ("Ada", "he turned away"; some reverse the 2 wives), before the flood. Both were unhappy-- one's husband, and her kids' father, was never there and the other had no kids (i.e no deep connection to him, so she might be discarded for a younger floozie-- YF); Rashi, who had only daughters, cites this midrash. Rav Aviner stresses the need to combine both realms in one wife to ensure families both pious and happy. So the study of Torah must interface with the way of the earth, the physical transmuted by the spiritual, to bring the world back to Eden. We've assumed that Ashet Chayil represents real flesh-and-blood women-- we'll deal with allegorical approches to it in a future study, God willing!
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