Shabbat observance for an orthodox family in the 1960’was very different than that of the orthodox family of the 21st century. For the most part the eruv was practically non existent unless it was constructed for personal use, in one’s personal domain. Boys didn’t play basketball on the driveway hoop (it wasn’t shabbasdik) unless you went away for a weekend (to the mountains or resort), nor did orthodox Jews own canines as pets because they were considered mooktza on Shabbat. Another noticeably absent feature of Jewish domestic life in those years was the liturgical rendition of Eshet Chayil, which today is conspicuously integrated into the Friday night Shabbat ritual prior to Kiddush. In the 1960’s the Friday night ritual was composed of singing shalom aleichem, Kiddush, dinner, with zemirot (optional), birkat hamazon, and a race for the newspaper. Jewish family life in the 1960’s was more harmonious, with less divorce and more shalom bayit. My mother didn’t have her hair coiffed or an erev Shabbat manicure. Even though my father didn’t publicly declare his admiration for my mother through chanting Eshet Chayi,l it was apparent from their relationship that mutual respect, love and admiration were the conspicuous ingredients of their marriage.
My children, however, experienced a different Shabbat, its flavor altered to conform to the affluent suburban, Jewish community of the 21st century. Taking a Shabbat walk in our neighborhood one would notice many so - called orthodox Jews walking their dogs as well as teenage boys playing basketball in their driveways. On Friday night there is another conspicuous addition to the ritual – Eshet Chayil, renditions of which are becoming more flamboyant. Interestingly and ironically, there is an inverse ratio at play. In the 1960’s when orthodox Jewish divorce was practically non existent Eshet Chayil wasn’t part of the Friday night Shabbat ritual. As the divorce rate has gone up so coincidentally has the amount of men chanting Eshet Chayil in praise of their wives. I don’t mean to suggest that a correlation exists between the increased frequency and trendiness of chanting Eshet Chayil and the rising divorce rate among orthodox Jews.
Eshet Chayil has become the sine qua non of publicly proclaiming ones love and commitment to their spouse. At weddings, it has become fashionable for the chattan to go down on his knee in front of his kallah and in the presence of hundreds of guests publicly chant the Eshet Chayil. There seems to be an association between love of one’s spouse and reciting the chapter from Mishle. My children expressed concern that since I didn’t sing Eshet Chayil might there be a problem with our relationship. Having explained to them that our relationship was as solid as the foundation stones of the Kotel I went on to explain my reservations about chanting Eshet Chayil.
Eshet Chayil follows the tradition and is consistent with the underpinnings of the marriage contract in Jewish law. Al pi halacha, the man marries the woman, and it is the man who ultimately grants the Get. This is so because in Jewish law the contractual language of the transaction positions the man as the initiator of the transaction. He is the active member of the transaction and she is the passive member, accepting the ring and the Ketubah. In the TB Tractate Kiddushin, the Mishnah begins with the language of the transaction “Haisha Nikneit…..” the emphasis is on the verb Kannah. In the Mishnah that we are referring to, the root “Kannah” appears in the passive form. She is bought. He does the buying. No matter how one views it in the final analysis, the man initiates the transaction. He has acquired her in one of three ways as the Mishnah stipulates. Al pi halachah there is no double ring ceremony. The bride isn’t a co-equal partner in the transaction. She is being acquired, he is doing the acquiring. This brings us back to the subject of Eshet Chayil.
Now that he has acquired her, he does a weekly assessment of his investment as is expressed in Chapter thirty one of Mishle. By the husband iterating the words of Eshet Chayil, he is confirming that indeed he made a good transaction. By affirming his acquisition, is there the inevitable and subconscious level of comparison being made with others making similar deals? Let us also not forget that the text was written at a time when polygamy was very much a part of our culture. In saying these words is he comparing his acquisition to others that he has made or is he comparing his acquisition to those made by friends and associates? The man is in the market place, as a business person, reviewing his investments, checking the market to determine the value of his performance.
The text of Eshet Chayil provides us with a check list of her performance in terms of whether or not this was indeed a sound investment. Examples abound. For instance, verse 16 “she contemplates a field and purchases it”; or verse 17 “she girds her loin with vigor and strengthens her arms”. Or verse 21 “she fears not for her household for snow, for all her household are dressed in crimson”. And while she is working the fields and makes sure that everyone has warm clothing, he, “her husband is known in the gates, when he sits with the elders of the land”.(verse 23).
There are commentaries that claim that the text shouldn’t be perceived in the simple format as I have presented it but understood as a metaphor. She being Israel or she being the Torah. Regardless of the commentary, the fact is that the text has been adopted as a song to be sung to the wife of the household on Friday evening. It isn’t sung in the Beit K’nesset in praise of Torah, nor is it sung in praise of Israel.
Jewish mothers have always worked hard and it is to their credit that we are as successful as we are. They have devoted their lives to their children, and it would seem more appropriate for the children to chant the Eshet Chayil to their loving mothers while the husband quietly sits back and contemplates his returns on his investment.