For me, this is the most important verse of the Eishet Chayil. When I was a very young woman, the current religious teaching was one of submission approaching subjection. Popular books encouraged perfectly intelligent women to abandon their brainpower and lean on their poor spouses (who had also been taught that subjugation was the manly way on one hand or the righteous manly way on the other). He was expected to make every decision for her from the time she opened eyes in the morning to the last blink at night. “I just don’t know, I will have to ask my husband” we would helplessly intone to anyone asking for a decision on anything.
Not the Eishet Chayil. She is neither an impulse buyer, nor a shop-aholic. She considers a field (not a dress, not a piece of blingy jewelry, not the hottest new chariot) and buys it. There is no mention of a family consultation here. Why not?? Isn’t that just courtesy?? There are several reasons for this. The reasons are in almost every verse of this selection. Pr.31:11,12,13,15,16,18,19,24,25,26,27,30 and 31. Her husband safely trusts in her. She is not idly contemplating how to spend his hard-earned money. . . We will learn more on this story as we work through the passage.
This is the seventh verse of the Eishet Chayil passage, so it begins with the seventh letter of the Hebrew Alef-Bet, Zayin. Zam’ma is from the verb root zamam, which means to purpose, so she is eyeing the field, not idly, but with a plan, a purpose, an intention in mind. Sawdeh is a field. There is an English cognate: sod from a grassy field. It is also related to the Hebrew word sode, which is a base or basis. Vatikawkehu, and she takes it. The vav is the conjunctive prefix, tav is a feminine subject prefix, which replaces the first letter of the verb root, lekak. This verb is also used to describe a husband “taking” a wife. It does not at all imply thievery or thuggery. It means to accept responsibility for, more than just owning. Mipri The mem prefix means from or of, and pri means fruit. There is a cognate in English, one of the finest of fruits, the pear. Berry is not far fetched as a cognate either. Khapeiha The root word is kaph, and means the palm of the hand. The fruit of her hands is another way of saying what she has earned by her diligence and skill. From, or of, her own skills and diligence she plants a vineyard. Natah, nun tet ayin hey. Nun is a picture of life, tet is a picture of a womb, ayin is a picture of the eyes, and hey is the feminine suffix, which pictures a window or breath of air. What a letter-perfect picture of planting. In the seed is life, which is hidden away in the earth, as in a womb, nourished and grown, then revealed to the eyes and the fresh air. Kerem, kaph resh mem, is a vineyard. The letter-picture is of an open hand, the head, and water. The proffered gift of the vineyard is a heady water!
Verse 6 starts out with the conjunctive prefix, the letter vav, the sixth letter of the alef-bet. Vatakam (And she rises) b’od lahylah (while it is yet night,) vatiten (and she gives) teref, (food, – but literally- prey,) l’beitah (to her household) v’khoq (and instructs) l’na’aroteyha (her young women).
We have sung the song, “Kumbaya.” We probably learned that it was African and meant “Come by here.” If it is Hebrew -as I believe it is – it means kum (arise), ba (come), Yah (A shortened form of the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of the Almighty). It is quite possible that this is a part of an African language, just as many Hebrew words are a part of our English language. But we know that kum means arise, just as it is used in this verse. We even see a form of this word in the Christian writings (Mk. 5:41): Talitha cumi (Aramaic, for “Damsel, arise!”).
This verse reveals the character of the virtuous, strong woman leads her to courage, industriousness, boldness, and compassion: While it is yet night – a time of fear, or sorrow, or a time when Scripture is not widely read and observed, she is not cowering, not waiting for help from someone else. She boldly arises and gives food (or prey!) to her household, and instructs her young women. She is not just teaching the skills and customs of housewives. The word khoq actually refers to the statutes: rules from Scripture, particularly those that cannot be deduced by common sense. Another surprise -the Jewish housemistress, the Eishet Chayil, is a Torah scholar! She is capable of doing and teaching household principles and common sense traditions, but she is imparting Scriptural wisdom to her young women. Which brings up another question: These young women – referred to as hers – are they daughters, hired helpers, servants, or slaves? Whoever they are, they are deemed worthy to receive instruction in Torah, and not only in the moral laws, but also in the statutes or decrees that we hear and obey even if they don’t make sense to us. This passage speaks to us of the elevated position of women and girls in Hebrew culture at this time. They were not expected to be brutes or beasts of burden, but even thousands of years ago, in the time of Solomon, they were to receive, and even give, instruction in the chukot of Scripture. Need I point out that this implies a widespread ability to read Scripture – that which is written? The women were expected to be literate and learned.
This is a revealing portrait of the ideal woman and the wisdom of her culture. She is no imperious mistress of the household, but prepares what has been taken (in hunting, fishing, marketing) and prepares it for her household. Neither is she a timid soul. The word teref leads to some interesting questions. Does she do the hunting and fishing herself? Does she do the actual slaughter and cleaning? Does she do the cooking, or does she just prepare for her maidens to cook? Whatever the answers are, from time to time, family to family, culture to culture, she is clearly industriously involved in the process. I would love to hear others’ thoughts about why the word teref is used here, and what the meaning might be.
The first letter of this verse is the letter hey, which has a numerical value of five. Five is known as the number of grace, and hey stands for a window. A window at the same time lets in a breath of fresh air and limits, frames, and defines a point of view. The first word bears a strong resemblance to the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of the Almighty. The two words do share a common root, to be. This four letter word uses the suffix letters tav and hey to indicate that the subject is feminine. Simply, the first word, haytah, means she is.
The next word begins with the prefix caph, which means like or as. The word aniyot is the plural form of the word ani, which means I, ship, or mourning! The first time the plural form is used in the Bible is in Genesis 49:3, in the blessing/prophecy about Zebulun living by the coasts, by the coasts of the ships in Tsidon. I is the first person singular subjective pronoun, which in Hebrew can be ani (alef nun yod), anoki (alef nun vav kaph yod), or simply the letter-prefix alef. In Hebrew, even when words only share similar sounds, they often have related meanings, but something even more interesting to ponder is going on here with ani (I), ani (ship), and ani (mourning). The same combination of letters, in the same order, produces different meanings in different contexts, just as water (H2O) is sometimes a liquid, sometimes a solid, and sometimes a vapor, while retaining its same chemical “spelling” of H2O. The Hebrews were not well known in history as great adventurous seafarers or traders, as their near neighbors the Phoenicians were, at least until the time of Solomon, and up to that point, family connections had been unusually strong, so it could be that there is an even closer connection between mourning and ships for them, a connection that we can understand. Ships take our loved ones away from us for long and often dangerous trips. Ships disrupt family life. Of course, this passage emphasizes the great advantage of foreign trade, especially for the transport of foods, but danger is also implicit in the verse.
Sokher (samekh, vav, khet, resh) means to trade. This verse not only stresses the strength — the adventurous sense — of the Eishet Chayil but also introduces the Eishet Chayil as a woman of means and a woman of business acumen.
Mimerchaq (mem, mem, resh, khet, quf) from afar. The first mem is a prefix letter, meaning from. The second mem is another prefix letter, emphasizing distance. The root word, r’khoq, means distance.
Tawvee, (Tav, vet, yod, alef). The tav is a prefix, meaning she. The vet, yod alef is another form of the verb bo (bet, vav, alef), which means to come. In this case, it means to cause to come, or to bring – she brings.
Lahkmah (lamed, khet, mem, hey) has a suffix hey at the end of the word, meaning her. The lekhem part means specifically bread but refers to all food: her bread or her food.
Sometimes we valorous women must undertake strenuous, adventurous, and even dangerous trips in order to care for and nourish our families. Occasionally we must face sorrow and mourning to do what is right. We cannot be dissuaded from doing what is best for our families by fears and worries.
But the sense of adventure should not be overlooked either. Yes, there can be trepidation associated with foreign adventures, but there is excitement too in the tastes of exotic places. Often we improve our nutrition when we prepare foods from other lands. Mealtimes can be greatly improved with homegrown foods and with exotic foods. It doesn’t hurt either, to enjoy ethnic foods with clothing, decor, and words from another culture to enhance food and learning.
Dalet is the fourth letter of the Hebrew alef-bet. It has a numerical value of four, and it represents a door. I think we get our English word delete from dalet. If we want to delete something, we figuratively toss it out the door! We go in and out through the doors of our lives, seeking opportunities. (Opportunities is the way we like to translate the Hebrew word mitzvot. While the common translation is commandments, we see each of them as a blessing to be taken hold of rather than a command to be grudgingly obeyed. All of the commandments are blessings. Opportunities are facing the open door — the Latin words are op [the first letters of the Latin word for eye, the first letters in opposition, the first letters in open] and port – door, gate, or harbor. The suffix is probably from unus- one).
The word darsha (dalet-resh-shin-hey) comes from the Hebrew word derash (seek), with a hey suffix, meaning she. Dalet-resh-shin is active searching. A midrash is the presentation of a search for meaning, and it holds the same place in Jewish worship services as a Christian sermon. Whereas the sermon has a connotation of a discourse or lecture, indicating a passive audience of entertaining, enlightening, or boring material, a midrash is an invitation to actively join and participate in the search for understanding. The Eishet Chayil actively seeks the material she needs to do her work.
Tzemer (tzaddi-mem-resh) wool, also means an outer or upper covering, as in the wooly coat of a sheep or a person, a tent or a tree-top. It is related to words for plucking, pruning, cutting, protecting, guarding, or covering. A closely related sound-alike word zemer, means to pluck, to play, or to sing. First the wool is plucked, cut, or shorn from the sheep, combed, carded, then spun, woven, or knitted, cut and sewn. The spinning wheel hums as a spinner draws fibers out and spins them into yarn or thread. Knitting and weaving are rhythmic processes that turn thread or yarn into fabric. The whole effect is as musical as an operetta. The process can be drudgery without a song, or can be a delight as one works designs in music and in fabric. Our Father not only wants us to be able to make a living and get the exercise we need by doing the work that needs to be done, He wants us to find joy and delight in our work.
Uphishtim (vav-phe-shin-tav-yod-mem) The first letter, vav, is the Hebrew conjunction. The three letter root, (phe-shin-tav) pashat means plain, spread out, fanned out, – or – plucked. It refers to flax which is plucked, and spread to dry. The fibers are then pulled from the stalks, then spun and woven into fabric. Rakhav (Rahab) the innkeeper (some translations make unsavory intimations about certain aspects of her profession) hid the Hebrew tourists, or spies in the stacks of flax on her rooftop. Rakhav is a good example of en Eishet Chayil, for her diligence in business, for her courage in hiding the aturim (often rendered spies), for her understanding that the aturim were from an elohimly nation, and for her determination to protect her family during the coming attack.
Wool is a fabric of warmth. It makes excellent outer coverings, and sheds water. Linen is a better fabric for inner garments. It is smooth and soft, and it absorbs and wicks moisture away from the skin. What a wonderful picture of Our Heavenly Father’s care for the tiniest details of our lives! Not only does He want us to be warm and protected from the elements, he also wants us cool, and dry, and protected from ourselves – from perspiration and itchiness! He wants the roughness toward the exterior, and the smoothness toward our skins. It is funny, but the coarser, rougher fabric requires a gentler treatment than the smoother, finer fabric. We wash our wools in cool water, let them air dry on flat racks, and if any pressing is required, we do it with a relatively cool iron. Our linens, however, are usually washed in hot water, and pressed with a hot iron. The righteous ones often receive stricter treatment that the worldly. Now judgment begins with the household of Elohim.
Vata’as (vav-tav-ayin-shin) Vav is the Hebrew conjunctive prefix. The tav is a prefix indicating that the subject of the sentence is female. The ayin–shin is the root word, meaning to do, work, or make.
Bekhefetz (bet-khet-phe-tzaddi) The bet is the second letter of the alef-bet, and here it is used as a prefix, meaning with. Khet Phe Tzaddi form the root word, meaning delight or pleasure. Pleasure is not as the world seems to think, a passive reaction to circumstances, but it is really the response that we can choose to make in and to every circumstance. The Eishet Chayil is choosing to work with pleasure and delight, rather than with whining, grumbling, murmuring, or complaining. She is choosing to beautify the mitzvot. What must be done must be done, so it may as well be made beautiful. If she must clother her family, why not clothe them warmly in the winter, cooly in the summer, and beautifully, whatever the weather! And she delights in the process as well.
Kapeyha (kaph–pey–yod–hey) The kaph is the cup – the open palm of the hand. (It can also refer to the sole of the foot.) Whereas the yod is an active, working, grasping hand, the kaph indicates receptivity; more an active readiness to receive than simply passive acceptance. The work that a woman does often involves preparing to receive. A close Eishet Chayil friend of mine went into business for herself. After studying tax laws, public relations, and her specific field of endeavor, she got her tax number, and set up her business with all of the proper licenses and permits, and then immediately opened a business account. She had to get ready to receive all of her clients, do all of her work, pay all of her bills, AND she would need an account for the money that would have to flow through her business. She had to have her cup ready to overflow.
The third verse of the Eishet Chayil begins with the letter gimel, which means camel, and is used to stand for great generosity, possibly because the camel is known for the care she gives her calf and for the many benefits she gives to her owners, such as transportation of people and goods, and her usefulness from hair to hide for coverings. This comparison to a camel is not to imply that a woman has no more value than gems or pets or pack animals, but the comparisons and contrasts of this poem imply that an eishet chayil is superior to any thing that people value.
The word gamalat-hu (gimel–mem–lamed–tav–hey–vav) is formed by the word gamal (from the letter gimel) with a suffix showing the object of her generosity, him. Another interesting point about the use of the word gamal is that it is sometimes translated suckle and at other times quiet or wean, all interactions between a mother and her child. Occasionally, a woman does “mother” her husband, just as there are times when a husband’s care for his wife can be almost paternal.
Tov (tet-vav-bet) means good. Interestingly enough, tov does not begin with the letter tav, as we might expect from earlier examples of word and letter similarities. Instead, it begins with the letter tet, which often stands for a coiled serpent. In this particular case, however, the other meaning of tet is particularly apt because the other meaning of the letter picture is that of a pregnant belly. As a serpent coils around its clutch of eggs, protecting them from predators, so a woman’s pregnant belly protects the second greatest gift a woman has for her husband: their child. The letter vav can be a nail or a man, and bet, as we have seen, means house or household. As Leah proclaimed with the naming of her son Levi, “This one will cause my husband to cleave to me” (Gen. 29:34). And so, it is expected that a pregnancy will join a household together. Although pregnancy and children are to be desired, a child is a gift from the Almighty, and marriages yet without children are still open for blessings of all sorts from the Most High.
V’lo (vav-lamed-vav) The vav prefix is the Hebrew conjunction. Lo is an interesting word formation, using the same letters as the short title for the Creator: El (spelled aleph-lamed), but turned around backwards. Alef-lamed is the same word and sound that is a part of our English words el, elevator, and elevation, meaning lifting up. But backwards, we have lamed-alef: learning one. One of the first words an English-speaking child learns is NO! This is the beginning of a child’s internalizing boundaries. Many of the Ten Words Begin with lamed-alef. All except one of these commands contain the word lo. These lo‘s bear the strength of the Almighty himself in their teaching of what is not allowed – for the safety and well being of the individual and society.
Ra (resh-ayin) This word, evil or bad, is composed of the letters resh (head) and ayin (eyes). When the head is led by the eyes, rather than by the intellect and the spirit, the result is likely to be evil. This word for evil is the name of an Egyptian idol. The command to wear tzitzit is so that we will not stray after our eyes (Num. 15:37-39).
Kol (kaph-lamed) A kaph is an open and extended hand, showing the palm, here a calling or collecting gesture, and lamed, as we have seen earlier, stands for learning. These letters have the sound of calling together, collecting, and college (a gathering together for learning). Kol means all.
Y’mei (yod-mem-yod) Yod is an active, accomplishing hand. Mem is the beginning of our English word memory, and has the additional meaning of waters. Yod-mem, depending on the vowels, can form the word yam (meaning sea) or yom (meaning day). The final yod is a way of indicating a plural. Yod-mem-yod, then, means days.
Khayeyha (kheit–yod–yod–hey) The kheit looks like – and stands for – a gate, the yod‘s are two active hands, and hey means breath, wind, or spirit. What a picture of life: an open gate for choices, two active hands, and the spirit! (The short word for life is kheit-yod, and the common word translated life is khayim, or lives. The final yod is another way of indicating plural. Hebrew is well known for its tendency to use plural forms where English would use a singular form. Some of these words are elohim, a plural form used to indicate the Mighty One of Israel; panim for face; mayim and shamayim for water(s) and heaven(s) or sky; and khayim or khayey for life. One explanation of this phenomenon could be that all of these words denote something quite complex. We may speak of one Elohim, but He has many characteristics. Or we may have one face with many expressions, or with characteristic features of several different ancestors. Water and heaven can be seen as one molecule, or as the vast expanses of ocean and atmosphere. One life may be seen as many lives in the sense that we may have met diverse goals or that there may have been different stages of our lives. I also think of the plural forms of singular nouns as showing either greatness, or one who represents or unifies many (Queen Victoria representing all of her subjects, but she wasn’t three or seventy thousand). The final hey is a suffix meaning her.
An eishet chayil seeks ways that she, her courage, her strength, and her industry can bless her husband and her family in, through, and by, her life.