A Woman of Valor
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A Woman of Valor, described by its composer as a tone poem for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, is a setting of selected and reordered verses from the concluding alphabetical acrostic poem in the Book of Proverbs (31:10–31). Commonly known by its incipit, eshet ḥayil, the poem is essentially an ode to the ideal (or idealized) wife in both conventional and timeless terms. As part of the domestic Sabbath eve ritual, it is customarily recited or sung at the Sabbath table on Friday evenings—upon return from the synagogue—along with other songs, prayers, and liturgical pronouncements that precede the festive Sabbath eve meal.
Although the term eshet ḥayil has most often been translated literally as “a woman of valor,” that terminology has always been troublesome and less than satisfactory—not least because of its military and other inapplicable connotations. “A woman of virtue” and “a virtuous woman”—alternate translations that appear in a number of sources—also present semantic difficulties in terms of sexually-related associations, even though the poem does indeed enumerate a host of virtues that, quite apart from (assumed) sexual fidelity, constitute an aggregate desiderata from biblical-era perspectives. Other, more discerning translations include “a woman [wife] of true value”; a woman of true [i.e., inner] strength”; “a woman of accomplishment”; “a woman of true worth”; or “an ideal wife.” But however the words may be rendered in English for the sake of a succinct phrase, they are widely understood to describe a woman who is the pillar of strength of her family and household. Thus the most ubiquitous translation of eshet ḥayil might also work in the sense of a metaphor for valor in the daily struggle to balance with equilibrium all the aspects pertaining to her multiple roles within a traditional society—or, in 20th/21st–century lingo, to “be all things to all people in her family” while maintaining her own identity and sense of self-fulfillment.
The succeeding line in the Proverb, “for her price is far above rubies [or other jewels],” can also be problematic, for it risks an objectionable comparison of a woman’s worth with monetary considerations. (Some modern-era scholars have preferred the translation “corals”—stones that were found in the Sea of Reeds and in India.) Obviously, this reference to precious stones is simply a literary device used to indicate that a good wife is of inestimable worth to her family.
The phrase “Who can find [an eshet ḥayil]?” should not be construed as an actual question. It is better understood idiomatically to mean “[she] is precious”—i.e., rare, in the sense of “as if difficult to find,” and therefore to be respected, appreciated, honored, and revered.
The catalogue of household activities and obligations must of course be understood in the context of premodern sensibilities, and these references can also be reinterpreted in less literal terms as symbolic images. At its core the text describes a composite desiderata of a woman in whom her husband places unqualified trust—who is respected and admired by all in her household; who is kind to the less fortunate and gentle to all; who is self-assured and dignified; who is praised by her entire family; who upholds religious precepts and moral values; and who is God-fearing. “A man who is fortunate enough to have found a good wife,” observed a 14th-century rabbinic scholar with regard to this Proverb, “will lack for nothing. Even if he is poor, he must consider himself rich.... he must treat his wife with love and sympathy” (M’norat hammaor).
In its functional rendition at the Sabbath table, eshet ḥayil is either spoken or sung to any one of many folklike tunes that have accumulated in the aggregate repertoire. This setting, however, is a sophisticated concert work in which the mezzo-soprano soloist calmly but resolutely probes the inner significance of the words and images, and in which the intricate and inventive gestures of the strings play an equally important role.