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Eishet Chayil – verse one

March 30, 2010
Eishet Chayil verse 1

The first word of the first verse begins with the letter alef, a very good place to start!

What a question!  Who can find a valorous woman?! For the next 22 verses, we will look at the meaning of chayil as it applies to a woman.  Indeed, can one simply find a valorous woman?  Or, is a valorous woman nurtured and grown — or mined and polished?  Jewels are seldom just found lying on the ground with cut and polished faces.  They are more often mined – found deep beneath the surface.  They are not easily recognized even where they are mined.  The rough stones are usually brought up to the surface and closely examined for quality and potential. Then they are cut – to give them faces – facets – surfaces. Then the finest gems are polished and set. A fine jewel may become encrusted with grime, grease, or dirt if it is not properly cared for, but only a fool would dispose of a fine gem because of surface soil.  A soak, a polish, and the beauty is restored.  Even the setting, which only serves as a frame for the beauty of the gem, tends to increase in value with age – and tender care.  The woman, like the stone, should not be mistreated (more for the sake of the setting!), but she is strong and able to withstand the normal course and challenges of life. This is part of the value of most gemstones.  The settings, however, like small children surrounding her, can be easily marred or even destroyed by blows aimed at marring or destroying the jewel.

Unlike Torah, which starts with a beit, indicating that there is something going before that we are not privy to, this advice to a young man starts with the first letter of the alefbet, showing, perhaps, that this is advice from the very beginning! The word eishet is a combination form of isha, showing the connection between the isha and the chayil, the woman and her valor.

The verse begins with alef, the beginning, the source, of the alef-bet. It stands as a notice, as if to say, “Let’s start at the very beginning.”  And the very beginning puts the prince in the mindset that you don’t just pick up any woman.  You choose her very carefully.  You treat her very carefully.  You value her very highly.  You protect her and guard her from loss or theft or damage.  And you don’t throw her away in her old age.  Alef also has a numerical meaning of the number one.  Alef also signifies the presence and action of the Almighty: the Elevated One.  He is the Av (spelled alef-bet), the Father, the source, the spring. All good comes from Him.  The alef is traditionally associated with the ox, a strong, gentle, straight-forward servant and even a guide.  An ox naturally plows a straight furrow with little attention from the person at the plow handles. (The person comes in handy for making the turns and placing the next furrow.) But the alef could be even better represented by a cognate word in English: the elephant!  Like an ox, he is strong and steady, and willingly serves, but both animals, in their strength, can be very dangerous if enraged.  Both animals can be a good representation of the Almighty, the Elevated One.

Eishet comes from ishah (spelled alefshinhey), which comes from ish (spelled alefyodshin), which means man.  “And the man declared, ‘This one shall be called woman, for from man was she taken.'” (Gen. 2:23)  It was not by man’s hand, or yad, that she came, but the hand of the Almighty took her out of the man.  The word translated rib in the most common Bibles, is from the Hebrew word tselem, which can mean rib, but is more often used to indicate a whole side, a shadow, or an image.  Man was made in the image of Elohim, and the Ishah is the image or side of man.  She was intended to stand at his side and by his side.

Chayil is related to the words, chai, life, and chaim, lives, and the name Chavah, Hebrew for Eve, (the first woman) the mother of all living, all associated with life, life force. Chayil means force, army, host, strong, valorous, courageous, or even virtuous.  What a surprising way to define the ideal woman!  Especially if we take the old viewpoints of women being the weaker sex, the gentler gender, and the source of our earthly troubles.  We can look back through history and see that the status of women varied widely through the parade of years and cultures.  Women have been denigrated in arabic cultures, as being little better than pets, not even possessing a soul; in certain hellenic cultures as not having an independent intellect, and in many British and European cultures as not having physical strength, stamina, or courage. In some Christian cultures women were barred from owning property or making contracts.  In many cultures women are not allowed to serve as witnesses or on juries.  And yet any culture building its values on Scripture, especially informing its values by Proverbs 31: 10-31, would have to recognize not only the value of a virtuous (strong) woman, but also that such women are vital.  Virtue comes from the Latin word, virtus, not goody-goody, but strong.

The word translated here as jewels is rendered in some translations as rubies.  The word in Hebrew is meep’neeneem, that which has faces.  I am not sure why it would be translated specifically as rubies, but we can easily see why “those which have multiple faces” would be a good word for gems, as most gems are cut and polished with multiple faces, facets, or surfaces.  The bread (sometimes translated shewbread) in the temple is called bread of faces, lechem panim.  How could a woman be like (or better than) rubies or faceted gems?  A woman is not to be double-minded, but multi-faceted.  Just as the word chayil is multifaceted then, so is the eishet, the woman so described, a person of many dimensions, abilities, and strengths.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 11:49 am

    “but only a fool would dispose of a fine gem because of surface soil.”

    love this! thanks for posting!

  2. July 31, 2010 6:50 pm

    This is one of my favorite posts. :]

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