Friday, April 11, 2014

The Woman of Valor
A lithograph of the Eishet Chayil in Hebrew by Shuki Freiman

" A woman of valor who can find?  More honorable than costly stones is such a one."--Prv 31:10

As we complete our reading of the Proverbs of Solomon for this Lent, we come across that great praise of the Godly woman that ends this book.  It is a well-loved passage among the Jews, who call it by the Hebrew name Eishes Chayil (or Eishet Chayil), which means "Woman of Valor."  It is the Jewish tradition to recite the passage before the Friday meal every Sabbath to praise the women of the house or all the women of Israel; thus the man recites it to his wife or to any woman there, and if there are only women in the household, they recite to praise all the women of Israel.  The passage describes the characteristics of a wonderful wife or "the perfect wife," as Fray Luis de León calls it in his commentary of the same title (La perfecta casada).  Such a woman works to beautify her home and to support her family; she weaves scarlet clothes for them and never has idle hands in providing for her household.  Her virtue is such that all the other men of the town will praise her and congratulate her husband for having such a worthy life.  Above all, she is devoted to the Lord, and it is this which truly makes her surpass all other women.

As I mentioned, the Spanish Augustinian friar Fray Luis de León (1527-1591) wrote a commentary on this passage for his newly-married niece, publishing La perfecta casada in 1583.  Below is a selection from the work dealing with this first verse of the passage.  One interesting point is the explanation of the word used to describe the woman as valorous or virtuous (in the Septuagint, the word [ἀνδρείαν] is literally "of manliness," and Fray Luis, who knew Hebrew, uses a similar Spanish word [varonil] in describing this term).  He also describes the many characteristics of the virtuous wife in her relationship to her husband.  May these words of a poet and theologian lead wives to live as women of valor and lead men to support them in this quest for holiness.
 Eshet Chayil Ketubah by Naomi Teplow

"Then let us see for what cause the Holy Spirit calls the good woman a woman of valor, and later we will see with what propriety He compares her and prefers her to precious stones.

Here we say woman of valor, and we would be able to say woman of manliness, as Socrates, close to Xenophon, calls the perfect wife; as what we call here manliness or valor, in the original is a word of great significance and force, and such that barely with many examples it matches what [the word] signifies.  It wishes to say virtue of soul and strength of heart; industry and riches and power and advantage, and, finally, a being perfect and complete in those things to whom that word is applied; and all this truly possesses she who is the good woman, and she is not if she does not possess them.

And so that we understand what is true, the Holy Spirit names her with this name, that encloses truly such a variety of treasure....

In such a manner, then, with great truth and significance of praise, the Holy Spirit does not call the good woman good, neither says or asks: Who can find a good woman?, but calls her woman of valor, and uses in this a word as rich and as significant as the original that we spoke of, to tell us that the good woman is more than good, and that which we call good is a mediocrity of speech, that does not gather that excellence which the good woman has to have and has in truth....

And this is the first praise that the Holy Spirit gives her, and with this comes to birth the second, which is to compare her to precious stones.  In which, like in a word, it finishes telling comprehensively all that in which we are going to say is enclosed; because just as the valor of a precious stone is of high and extraordinary valor, so the good of a good spouse has high carats of virtue.  And as the precious stone in truth is a little thing, and for the greatness of the secret virtue earns a great price, so that which in the thin subject of the woman is esteemed as good is a great and rare good.  And as in the precious stones that which is not very fine is not good, so in woman there is no mediocrity, neither is good that which is not more than good.  And in the same manner as is rich a man that has a precious emerald or a rich diamond, although he has no other thing, and to possess these stones is not to possess a stone, but to possess in it an abbreviated treasure, so a good woman is not a woman, but a mountain of riches, and who possesses her is rich with her alone, and she alone can make him blessed and happy.  And in the mode that the precious stone is brought in the fingers, and is placed before the eyes, and is placed on the head because of its beauty and honor, and the owner has there together a belonging in happiness and a help in necessity, neither more nor less for a good woman does her husband have to love her more than his eyes, and he has to bring her upon his head; and the best place of his heart has to be hers, or to say it better, all his heart and his soul; and he has to understand that, in having her, he has a general treasure for all the different times, and that she is a bar of virtue, which is to say, that in every time and situation she will respond with his delight and she will fulfill his desire; and that in happiness he has in her sweet companionship, with whom he will increase his joy in communicating it, and in sadness loving counsel, and in doubts faithful advice, and in works gift, and in faults help, and medicine in infirmities, increase for his estate, guard of his home, teacher of his children, foresight of his excesses, and, finally, in truths and jokes, in prosperity and adversity, in the flowered age and in the rested old age, and for the process of all of life, sweet love and peace and rest." 
A statute of Fray Luis at the University of Salamanca, where he taught

Nota Bene: This selection is from Chapter I of La perfecta casada, found online at  The translation is my own.

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