Who is Mishlei’s “Woman of Valor”?

Students in Dr. Stuart Halpern’s course, “New Approaches to the Book of Ruth” had the opportunity to hear from author Rabbi David Fohrman, of the Torah education website Alpha Beta, on April 5, 2017. Fohrman presented a compelling case that the poem “Eishet Ḥayil” (“Woman of Valor”) - which is contained in chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs (Sefer Mishlei) and traditionally sung in Jewish households every Friday evening - is not about a hypothetical ideal woman, but about a specific, real one: Ruth. “I want to suggest that it is not just an ode to Ruth, but a commentary on Ruth,” said Fohrman.

“The term ‘eishet ḥayil’ applies only once more, in all of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) - to Ruth,” stated Fohrman, noting that Boaz describes her as such in their second conversation (Ruth 3:11).

In the course of the lecture, Fohrman showed how a line-by- line analysis of “Eishet Ḥayil” reveals a multitude of linguistic and content-based references to the story of Ruth. For instance, “She riseth also while it is yet night” (Prov. 31:15) may refer to Ruth’s nighttime visit to Boaz’s granary, or to how she would arrive by morning at Boaz’s field to glean barley and therefore likely had to set out while it was still night. The description of the Woman of Valor’s husband as “known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land” (Prov. 31:23) sounds very much like Boaz in the final chapter of the Book of Ruth.

While Ruth is renowned for her exceptional kindness to her mother-in- law Naomi, Fohrman suggested that Proverbs’ extolling how the Woman of Valor “doeth [her husband] good and not evil all the days of her life” (31:12) highlights Ruth’s kindness towards her deceased first husband, Mahlon. “She remains loyal to him even after his death,” said Fohrman, pointing out that Boaz had to be pushed into enacting the Levirate marriage that would carry on his deceased kinsman’s name. “Nobody was really interested in perpetuating Mahlon’s name,” said Fohrman. “Ruth basically demands yibum (Levirate marriage) from Boaz.”

One of the numerous linguistic examples Fohrman discussed was the verse (Prov. 31:29): “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” In the Hebrew original, the word “grace” appears as “ḥen.” Fohrman suggested that the verse alludes to Boaz and Ruth’s first conversation, in which Boaz generously invites her to glean in his field, and not anywhere else. When Ruth asks Boaz (Ruth 2:10), ‘Why have I found favor in thy sight, that thou shouldest take cognizance of me, seeing I am a foreigner?’ she, like the Proverbs verse, uses the word “ḥen” (translated into English here as “favor”). Boaz replies by praising Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi’s family, her willingness to leave the land of her birth, and the fact that she has “come to take refuge” in the God of Israel (Ruth 2:11-12). This reply parallels the second half of the Proverbs verse, which specifies fear of God as the Woman of Valor’s most laudable trait.

Additionally, Fohrman suggested that one of the final phrases in “Eishet Ḥayil,” “Her children rise up and call her blessed” (Prov. 31:28), may allude to assumed author of Proverbs, King Solomon, who was Ruth’s own great great grandson.

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