Friday, September 26, 2008

Singing About the “Woman of Valor”

Aishet Chayil, “The Woman of Valor,” which is traditionally sung at the Shabbat table on Friday nights, is actually a selection of verses from the Book of Proverbs (31:10-31) written by King Solomon. It has been speculated that Solomon wrote these verses either as “provincial wisdom” on the ideal qualities of a wife, or as a tribute to his mother, Batsheva. Some commentaries have suggested that the verses of Aishet Chayil are descriptions of the Torah, Shabbat, and the soul, all of which have feminine names in Hebrew and thus assume some feminine attributes. As with all of the books of the Bible, Proverbs reflects a deeper understanding of the relationship between the Jewish people and God.

The Midrash teaches that on the day of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai the Jewish nation was married to God, with the Torah serving as the ketubah (marriage contract). The Aishet Chayil section of Proverbs, therefore, can also be read as a description of the ideal Jewish nation – prosperous, generous, beautiful, loyal and happily laboring for the fruits of the Torah.

Why is Aishet Chayil recited on Friday night? The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 11) cites one esoteric reason: The Sabbath declared: “Master of the Universe, every day of the week has a partner except for me!” The Almighty answered: “The People of Israel will be your partner.” While this is an obvious metaphor, it represents the deeper understanding that the relationship of the Jewish people and God is a relationship of holiness, which is best celebrated on Shabbat, the day that is unique in its holiness.

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