NEW YORK — Rare is the Jewish woman who is not praised as an Ayshet Chayil, a woman of valor, though too often it comes at her funeral, when she is not around to hear the rabbi intone from the Book of Proverbs.
“A woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far beyond rubies…”
Perhaps the words have become a cliché, their meaning lost from hearing them so often. But the specificity of the attributes described in this 22-verse text still intrigue us, portraying a confident, independent woman to some, and to critics an all-too familiar image of wife in a supporting role.
For the living, the words of Ayshet Chayil, the woman praised as a devoted wife and mother, wise, kind, charitable and business-savvy, traditionally are sung by husbands to their wives just before Kiddush on Friday nights. Some commentaries posit that the woman in the text, written by King Solomon according to tradition, is a symbol of Shabbat itself, or of the soul, or the divine presence. But the plain meaning suggests that the man of the house is thanking his wife for all she does throughout the week for him, their family and household.
In keeping with the mood and spirit of Shabbat, a time to let go of weekday worries and reflect on the values that mean the most, the husband gives voice to his appreciation of his wife (at least once aloud during the week) and the key role she plays.
That moment evokes sweet images for me, remembering the contented smile my mother had at the Shabbat meals she prepared, carrying over to the warm glow in our own home, and to seeing my daughter and daughters-in-law continuing the tradition.
Mother’s Day, which fell this past weekend, seems a fitting time to blend the secular calendar custom of honoring women dear to us on a Sunday in May with the Jewish tradition of blessing these women each Shabbat by acknowledging the talents they personify.
Beyond sending a generic greeting card message, though, or even reciting the verses from the closing chapter of Proverbs, how meaningful it would be if we sons and husbands composed our own, personal tributes to the women we love in our own hand (such a rarity these days) and told them just why they are so special.
And while saying it with flowers is a lovely gesture, finding new ways to honor these women by lightening their loads — from driving an additional carpool to improving our own cooking skills — would probably be even more appreciated.
Curiously, the ancient words of Ayshet Chayil do not describe the quintessential Jewish woman as laboring to prepare the Sabbath meal. While we remember our bubbes for the delicious foods they made, there are no images of cooking, baking or cleaning in Proverbs. Instead we have the consummate woman who seems remarkably contemporary: wise, loyal, God-fearing, strong, overseeing her business, providing for the poor as well as for her family, and inspiring loved ones to thank her publicly.
“Her children rise and call her happy; her husband also praises her: Many women have excelled, but you surpass them all.”
The image we conjure up from the words of Proverbs is a woman who stands tall but is filled with grace.
“Clothed with strength and dignity, she can laugh at the days to come,” says the text.
And yet I know that many women, whether they express it or not, are deeply ambivalent about the imagery of Ayshet Chayil, which, however well intentioned, they say, promotes the ideal woman as helpmate to her husband, the jewel in his crown.
In truth, gender plays a significant role throughout the 31 chapters of Proverbs. They are written from father to son, with an emphasis on keeping the commandments and acquiring wisdom, which is described in the feminine.
“Say to Wisdom, ‘you are my sister,’ and call Understanding a kinswoman. She will guard you from a forbidden woman, from an alien woman whose talk is smooth.”
That passage is an example of how King Solomon writes passionately of the power of women for good or evil — the source of insight or the dangerous seductress.
“A capable wife is a crown for her husband,” he observes in Chapter 12, “but an incompetent one is like rot in his bones.”
The choice a man makes determines his fate and his family’s future. All the more reason to rejoice when one has chosen wisely.
Today the ancient words of Ayshet Chayil are appreciated more for their emotional resonance than for the actual attributes described. Few 21st-century women “seek wool and flax” to work with their hands, “grasp the spindle” with their palms, make and sell garments and “supply merchants with sashes.”
But women are still seeking to balance work and home, professional responsibilities and family, being a loving partner and a compassionate role model to the next generation. Reading Ayshet Chayil now reminds us that those tensions have been with women for centuries, and even in the age of gender equality, the emotional burden within the family remains heaviest on them.
“Give her the reward she has earned,” Ayshet Chayil concludes, “let her deeds bring her praise in the gates.”
So on Mother’s Day, or Shabbat — or any other day — sing to her with a full heart and pray that she feels in her soul the sincerity of your sentiment.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)