Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Minhag Mythbusters: Does a Husband Sing Eishes Chayil for His Wife?

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Photo: Mishlei 31:10-14, Aleppo Codex 32-292-r

Minhag Mythbusters: Does a Husband Sing Eishes Chayil for His Wife?

There is a widespread minhag to sing Eishes Chayil on Friday night before kiddush. Many are under the impression that a husband sings this to (or for) his wife, as the English book Rite and Reason: 1050 Jewish Customs and Their Sources (1995) states: “[Eishes Chayil] contains praise for one’s wife who exerted herself and prepared the Shabbos delicacies.” But is this the actual reason why we sing Eishes Chayil? Specifically, is this the basis of the original minhag or is this a post-facto explanation? And if the latter, when and how did things change, and what are the implications for how we relate to the practice? These questions were posed to me, and I’d like to summarize my findings here.

Let us start with the text of Eishes Chayil itself, i.e. the final 22 pesukim of Sefer Mishlei. Could these pesukim apply to one’s wife? Certainly. But is that likely? No, it is highly unlikely. Says who? Says Shlomo ha’Melech in the opening pasuk of Eishes Chayil: “An accomplished woman, who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls” (Mishlei 31:10). In other words, a true eishes chayil is a rarity of rarities, and it would be extremely unlikely that every Jewish husband who sings this song was able to find and marry one. What if the husband who sings this to his wife is not doing so because she is an eishes chayil but because she aspires to be? That would be great! However, I doubt that most women hear Eishes Chayil and think to themselves, “My husband is telling me that these are the expectations I should live up to.” And if we take the allegorical reading – that Eishes Chayil is about Torah, or the psyche, or the soul – then it certainly wouldn’t be relevant to sing to one’s wife. And either way, what does Eishes Chayil have to do with Shabbos evening?

So, where did the minhag originate, if not from the pshat of the pesukim? Professor Yael Levin answers:

Contrary to popular opinion, the minhag to recite [Eishes Chayil] did not originate with [a husband] showing honor to his Jewish wife who toiled and worked to prepare Shabbos – which is an implication that developed over the years. Rather, the foundation [of this minhag] is a Kabbalistic ritual which developed in Safed (Tzfat) in the middle of the 15th century. Its recitation constituted a component of a symbolic wedding ceremony which began with the Kabbalists going out to the fields outside of the city several hours before the onset of Shabbos; there they would greet the [Sabbath] bride with the recitation of poems and chapters of Psalms – the most well-known of which is the poem "Lecha Dodi." At a much later stage, they stopped going out to the fields, and the minhag transitioned to the courtyard of the synagogue. Upon arriving at home, they would announce in a loud voice with great joy, "Shabbat shalom!" like a bridegroom greeting the bride with great joy and a smiling countenance. At an even later date, their minhag was to circle the table clockwise two times: first they would circle it in silence, and once they finished, they would take two myrtle branches - one in the right hand and one in the left - join them together, make a blessing on them, smell their fragrance, and immediately afterwards they would circle the table a second time. Nowadays they sing Shalom Aleichem and, in a beautiful melody while sitting, they sing the song of Eishes Chayil corresponding to the shechinah, "which contains 22 pesukim corresponding to the 22 heavenly pipes which are open at that time and empty out a flow of blessing from the heavenly wellspring from the head of all the crowns."

In other words, the minhag to recite Eishes Chayil had nothing to do with husbands and wives! The “eishes chayil” in the text was taken to be an allegorical reference to “the Sabbath bride,” and it wasn’t even recited in the home or on Shabbos itself! Only when the original significance of the minhag was forgotten did people take this to be about actual wives. Moreover, Eishes Chayil was only recited but wasn’t sung until the melody was composed by Benzion Shenker in 1946!

What are the implications of such findings? Do we embrace the current “folk explanation” as a “legitimate” post-facto reason for the minhag? Do we strive to raise awareness of the minhag’s true origins? Regardless of the answer, one thing is clear: it is better to know where a minhag came from than to not know.

One of the many aspects of Judaism I appreciate is the ability to conduct “halachic archaeology.” In other religions and cultures, asking, “Why do we do XYZ?” will often be met with a shrug – or worse, with the non-answer of “TRADITION!” In Judaism, there are always answers, and it is always possible to conduct research to find them.
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