OU TORAHDedicated by the Jacobs and Chill Families in Memory of Harold and Pearl Jacobs
Dora Bas Rivka Silver O'H
This chapter of Proverbs is easily the most famous - at least, most of it is. It is recited as "Eishes Chayil," "A Woman of Valor," on Friday evenings at the Shabbos table. However, that famous section does not begin until verse 10.
The chapter starts "The words of King Lemuel," Lemuel being a name for Solomon. (It's also Gulliver's first name in Gulliver's Travels, but that's neither here nor there.) The name Lemuel, Rashi explains, means "to G-d," and this chapter was composed as part of Solomon's repentance to G-d following his wedding to Pharaoh's daughter. According to the tale related in the Midrash, Solomon overslept, delaying the Temple service, for which he was reprimanded by his mother, Batsheva. (Remember her from way back in II Samuel?)
Her reprimand was a follows: Solomon's father, David, had a number of wives (not unusual for a king), but he didn't allow them to distract him from his duties, and especially from his service to G-d. While the other wives all hoped that their sons would be heir to the throne, all Batsheva wanted from Solomon was to be steadfast in Torah. It is not appropriate for Solomon, as king, to party and neglect his duties.
Alcohol impairs one's judgment, and the king needs to have impeccable judgment. It would be better to give the wine to those who are downtrodden, so they can forget their troubles for a while. If he abstains from wine, Solomon will have his wits about him, so that he can stand up for those who cannot defend themselves.
At this point, after his mother's rebuke, Solomon replies by praising the one who bore him, with the familiar "Woman of Valor." The praises enumerated are that such a woman is worth more than precious pearls. The husband who relies on such a woman to run his affairs will prosper, as all she does for him is good. Unprompted, she purchases wool and flax to spin into clothes. She is like a ship, bringing provisions to her household, working all hours.
When the praiseworthy woman decides to do something, like purchase a field, she doesn't rest until the job is done; she strengthens herself to see it through. She works on a task day and night until she is satisfied in the quality of the results. Even when engaged in a large undertaking, she does not neglect her seemingly more menial (but equally crucial) daily routine.
This type of woman is charitable and generous, as well as hard-working. Her family doesn't fear inclement weather because she has seen to it that they have the finest protection from the elements. Her own deeds are like garments of the finest cloth. Because of her influence, her husband stands out from the crowd and makes a positive impression.
The woman of valor wears strong and beautiful character traits like garments and she will leave this world pleased with her reputation. Her statements are well-thought out and wise, and she encourages others towards acts of kindness. She is aware of her household's needs and never slacks, causing her to be praised by her family that many women have done very well, but she has exceeded them all.
Grace and physical beauty are superficial; a woman who performs the will of G-d is truly praiseworthy. Her accomplishments testify to her greatness.
The various Midrashim apply different parts of this praise to the Foremothers and other righteous Jewish women, such as Ruth, Yael and Michal.
As we have discussed, every Proverb has both a straightforward and a metaphorical understanding. In the second layer of meaning, the woman of valor is a metaphor for Torah and the husband is one who studies it. A person is fortunate if he acquires knowledge of Torah, which is more valuable than pearls. Torah brings prosperity and a good reputation among people, etc. (See Rashi for a fuller examination of this interpretation.)