Mishlei (Proverbs) 31 is a fixture of our Erev Shabbat services. Placed in the midst of the songs and prayers of the evening, Eishet Ḥayil is a beautiful interlude during which men sing to their wives, declaring her before all present as precious, industrious, respected, virtuous, righteous, and praiseworthy.
To truly understand all the implications of this glowing tribute, however, we need to “start at the beginning.” You see, the Eishet Ḥayil with which we are so familiar starts in verse 10! Here are the first 9 verses:
“The words of King L’mu’el, the prophecy with which his mother disciplined him:Mishlei 31:1-9 CJB
“No, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows!
“Don’t give your strength to women or your ways to that which destroys kings.
“It is not for kings, L’mu’el, not for kings to drink wine;
“It is not for rulers to ask, ‘Where can I find strong liquor?’
“For they may drink, then forget what has been decreed,
and pervert the justice due to the poor.
“Give strong liquor to one who is perishing, wine to the deeply depressed;
Let him drink, forget his poverty and cease to remember his troubles.
“Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who need an advocate.
“Speak up, judge righteously, defend the cause of the poor and the needy.”
Our initial reaction is, “why does this beautiful mishlei start so strangely?” The glaring contrast gets our attention, pulling us to further examine the context so crucial to our understanding.
Our Sages of blessed memory explain that these verses are Bat-Sheva haMalḥa’s warning to her son Shlomo haMeleḥ in which she admonishes him to live the “intelligently disciplined life” which he so aptly describes in Mishlei 1:3. The familiar prose of Eishet Ḥayil then follows; but the words are not Shlomo’s – they are the eulogy which Avraham Avinu composed when his wife Sarah died. Shlomo includes it here in response to his mother Bat-Sheva as a tribute to her desire for him to find an exemplary wife.
At first glance it certainly seems a bit odd that men sing an ancient eulogy to their wives each week. We’ve all heard the entreaty to appreciate our loved ones while they are still alive, but isn’t this just a little – for lack of a better word – creepy? It certainly doesn’t seem very romantic!
Consider this. Because it is a eulogy, Eishet Ḥayil brings a timeless perspective of what otherwise appears to be a dauntingly exemplary life. It considers a woman’s life in its entirety, conferring honor upon her for all her accomplishments, both past and future. It sees the best in her, because, in the long run, that’s her legacy.
It serves as a reminder to her husband that, beyond her roles of wife and mother within the household, she is a vital member of the community; and her good reputation enhances his good name. To her husband, it is a clarion call to self-examination – while opportunity still exists, today, in this moment, how can he encourage her toward her greatest potential?
Tomorrow is promised to no one. Just as every man is reminded of his own mortality each time he puts on his kittle, he is also reminded of his wife’s mortality each time he sings Eishet Ḥayil to her. No matter his oratory skills, Eishet Ḥayil provides a unique venue for a man to speak love in a way that resonates with his wife. Most importantly, it gives him the words which his heart yearns to say so he needn’t one day have regrets for having left it all unspoken.