ESHET HAYIL (Heb. אֵשֶׁת חַיִל; "a woman of valor"), opening words praising the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10–31. This poem enumerates the qualities of the ideal wife in a sequential alphabetic acrostic of 22 verses, one for each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. She is lauded as provident, economically successful, working hard for husband and household, and charitable to the needy. She possesses optimism, faces life with confidence, and speaks in wisdom and kindness. Her efforts enable her husband to function as a prominent communal leader, "As he sits among the elders of the land." The conclusion of the passage celebrates a woman's domestic and spiritual strengths: "Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain, But a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised … and let her works praise her in the (city) gates."
In many Jewish families the song is recited or chanted on Friday evenings before the Kiddush. This custom originated in kabbalistic circles and initially referred to the Shekhinah ("Divine presence") as the mystical mother and wife. Later this devotion became a domestic ceremony in which the family paid homage to its wife and mother. Other sources maintain that Eshet Ḥayil refers to the Sabbath or the Torah. In some places this song was chanted at Jewish weddings. Its verses have often been used as inscriptions on tombstones of the pious; in Sephardi rituals the first verse is recited before the *Ashkavah ("laying to rest") prayer at women's funerals.
Derashot to some of the singular verses of Eshet Ḥayil appear in tannaitic, talmudic, and midrashic literature. Several smaller Midrashim expound the poem in sequence, a genre which has assumed the rubric Midreshei Eshet Ḥayil. Some of these Midrashim interpret the entire poem as referring to Sarah. One such text appears in Tanḥuma, Ḥayei Sarah 4. Two additional versions, which interpret the poem until the verse "Her husband is prominent in the gates" (Prov. 31:23), appear in Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Ḥayei Sarah 3, pp. 116–18, and in Aggadat Bereshit, ed. Buber (Cracow, 1893), ch. 34, pp. 66–69. Several Midreshei Eshet Hayil interpret each of the verses of Eshet Ḥayil as referring to a different biblical female personality.
The earliest surviving manuscript of Midrash Eshet Ḥayil was copied in 1270. This text, which was erroneously appended to the end of Midrash Proverbs, is actually an independent Midrash. It contains derashot to the first 20 verses only. The women in the first eight verses, all mentioned in the Pentateuch, are presented in chronological order: the wife of Noah, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Bithiah the daughter of Pharaoh, Jocheved, and Miriam. The remaining women appear in non-chronological order. With the exception of Elisheba, the women mentioned in the latter group appear in the Prophets and Hagiographa. A critical edition of this Midrash has been prepared by Y. Levine (Midreshei Eshet Ḥayil, pp. 1–151).
Several Genizah fragments of Midrash Eshet Ḥayil survive. One such text was published by L. Ginzberg (Ginzei Schechter, 1 (1928), 163–68). Other versions have been annotated by Y. Levine (Midreshei Eshet Ḥayil, pp. 254–83) and M.B. Lerner (Sefer Zikaron le-Tirzah Lifshitz). Additionally, four Yemenite editions of Midrash Eshet Ḥayil containing derashot to the entire poem exist in their entirety. The version in Midrash ha-Gadol, by R. David ha-Adani, refers to the verse beginning "And the lifespan of Sarah" (Gen. 23:1) (ed. Margulies, pp. 368–74). Another edition, based on Midrashha-Gadol, appears in Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ, by R. Zechariah ha-Rofeh (Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ al Ḥamishah Ḥumshei Torah, Bereishit–Shemot, Jerusalem, 1991, Gen. 23:1–2, pp. 163–64). An additional edition is attributed to R. Moses Albalidah and was published by Z.M. Rabinowitz in Mi-Ẓefunot Yehudei Teiman (1962), pp. 209–22. However, this ascription is questionable (Midreshei Eshet Ḥayil, p. 244).
The Eshet Ḥayil poem also served as the basis for many post-medieval derashot, in which traditional sources concerning women, primarily talmudic and midrashic, were expounded. This external form was particularly prevalent and common among Sephardi rabbis as eulogies for women. Contemporary Jewish feminists have sought to reclaim this poem and have offered new insights and interpretations.
A. Bardack, "Praising the Work of Valiant Women: A Feminist Endorsement of Eshet Ḥayil," in: D. Orenstein (ed.), Lifecycles, 1 (1994), 136–40, 395, 415; Y. Levine, "Eshet Ḥayil (Mishlei 31:10 – 31) ba-Pulḥan ha-Yehudi," in: Beit Mikra, 31:4 (1986), 339–47; Y. Levine Katz, "Midreshei Eshet Ḥayil," Dissertation, Bar-Ilan University (1993); M.B. Lerner, "Keta Hadash mi-Midrash Eshet Ḥayilu-Tehilato shel Ma'amar Yud-Bet Nashim," in: Sefer Zikaron le-Tirzah Lifshitz (2005); S. Valler, "Who is eset hayil in Rabbinic Literature?" in: A. Brenner (ed.), A Feminist Companion to Wisdom Literature (The Feminist Companion to the Bible, 9) (1995), 85–97.
[Yael Levine (2nd ed.)]