The Biblical verses known as Eshet Chayil are traditionally recited by husbands to their wives at the Shabbat table, a paean of praise for an industrious home-maker, a nod to the burden of both visible and invisible labour undertaken by women.
Those whose tradition it is often find it meaningful, a weekly recognition of the sharing of the workload in the marital partnership.
Yet look a little closer at the text, and this description of perfect womanhood is less the expression of family gratitude for the domestic and emotional labour of the matriarch, and more about the lived reality of women who were not only the cooks and needlewomen, weavers and housekeepers, but also the economic powerhouse on whom the family depended.
The adjective chayil is used most often to mean force of a military kind: this woman is strong, powerful, even warlike – not a modest and passive creature. She not only does the home-building, but she is also the one who surveys and buys fields, who goes out to buy the raw materials for her products to sell the articles she has made. She plants and maintains vineyards and so on.
The woman is the very definition of the sufferer of the “second shift” – not only economically active, but also running the home. Arlie Hochschild, in her 1989 work on marital roles, discovered that, on average, women worked 15 hours longer each week than men.
It would seem this woman needs to be chayil and have fortitude to cope with her life. Given this view of women as efficient and creative, competent and hardworking, forceful and skilled negotiators, one wonders why they have been kept from leadership in the name of “tradition”.
- Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in
south London for 30 years