Ben Zion Shenker’s setting of Eshet ḥayil—the words from Proverbs that are customarily recited at the Sabbath eve table in praise of one’s wife as part of the preliminary ritual before the meal—is one of his most beloved melodies. Unlike many other more restrained tunes for this text and its Sabbath eve function, this version has an unmistakable and deliberately intended Hassidic flavor, even though it is entirely original and has no specific melodic source in Hassidic song traditions. It was brought to public attention outside Shenker’s own Hassidic world through this arrangement by Stanley Sperber for mezzo-soprano solo and four-part mixed chorus a cappella. Sperber made the arrangement in the 1960s for the Zamir Chorale in New York, of which he was the founder and director. With Eileen Penn (daughter of the well-known Yiddish writer Asher Penn) as the soloist, it became one of Zamir’s trademark numbers and was performed at nearly every Zamir concert during that time frame, always “bringing the house down.” On one of Zamir’s concert tours of Israel in that same period, it was performed so frequently and at so many venues that Miss Penn was actually dubbed “the eshet ḥayil lady” by city bus drivers and store proprietors who recognized her from concerts they had attended.
Although the term eshet ḥayil has most often been translated literally as “a woman of valor,” that terminology has always been troublesome and less than satisfactory—not least because of its military and other inapplicable connotations. “A woman of virtue” and “a virtuous woman”—alternate translations that appear in a number of sources—also present semantic difficulties in terms of sexually-related associations, even though the poem does indeed enumerate a host of virtues that, quite apart from (assumed) sexual fidelity, constitute an aggregate desiderata from biblical-era perspectives. Other, more discerning translations include “a woman [wife] of true value”; a woman of true [i.e., inner] strength”; “a woman of accomplishment”; “a woman of true worth”; or “an ideal wife.” But however the words may be rendered in English for the sake of a succinct phrase, they are widely understood to describe a woman who is the pillar of strength of her family and household. Thus the most ubiquitous translation of eshet ḥayil might also work in the sense of a metaphor for valor in the daily struggle to balance with equilibrium all the aspects pertaining to her multiple roles within a traditional society—or, in 20th/21st–century lingo, to “be all things to all people in her family” while maintaining her own identity and sense of self-fulfillment.
The succeeding line in the Proverb, “for her price is far above rubies [or other jewels],” can also be problematic, for it risks an objectionable comparison of a woman’s worth with monetary considerations. (Some modern-era scholars have preferred the translation “corals”—stones that were found in the Sea of Reeds and in India.) Obviously, this reference to precious stones is simply a literary device used to indicate that a good wife is of inestimable worth to her family.
The phrase “Who can find [an eshet ḥayil]?” should not be construed as an actual question. It is better understood idiomatically to mean “[she] is precious”—i.e., rare, in the sense of “as if difficult to find,” and therefore to be respected, appreciated, honored, and revered.
The catalogue of household activities and obligations must of course be understood in the context of premodern sensibilities, and these references can also be reinterpreted in less literal terms as symbolic images. At its core the text describes a composite desiderata of a woman in whom her husband places unqualified trust—who is respected and admired by all in her household; who is kind to the less fortunate and gentle to all; who is self-assured and dignified; who is praised by her entire family; who upholds religious precepts and moral values; and who is God-fearing. “A man who is fortunate enough to have found a good wife,” observed a 14th-century rabbinic scholar with regard to this Proverb, “will lack for nothing. Even if he is poor, he must consider himself rich.... he must treat his wife with love and sympathy” (M’norat hammaor).
In its functional rendition at the Sabbath table, eshet ḥayil is either spoken or sung to any one of many folklike tunes that have accumulated in the aggregate repertoire.
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