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Why Sing Eishet Chayil on Friday Night?

Why Sing Eishet Chayil on Friday Night?

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The beautiful 22-verse hymn Eishet Chayil, “Woman of Valor,” is an alphabetic acrostic found in the closing verses of the book of Proverbs.1 It is traditionally sung in many Jewish homes on Friday night before kiddush.

Although I have not seen it documented, it seems that, like much of our Friday night rituals, this custom originated with the mystics of Safed, specifically the students of Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), as a way of greeting the Shechinah (Divine Presence) and the “Shabbat Queen” (as will be explained below). Perhaps the earliest mention of this custom is in the Siddur of Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz (1565–1630).2

On the most basic level, the singing of Eishet Chayil has become a way of expressing gratitude to the lady of the house, for what is a more fitting time to sing her praises than on Friday night, after she worked tirelessly to ensure that the Shabbat Queen be greeted in royal fashion? Indeed, the Arizal is known to have kissed his mother on both her hands every Friday night.3 Some follow the custom of the Arizal, and have the children kiss their mother’s hands on Friday nights (this is not a Chabad custom).

Woman of Valor: From Sarah to Batsheva

While some say the “Woman of Valor” refers to a generic praiseworthy woman, according to one Midrash, Eishet Chayil was originally composed by our forefather Abraham as a eulogy to his wife, Sarah, and then later included in the book of Proverbs.4 According to others, it was written by King Solomon to honor his mother, Queen Batsheva, wife of King David.5

Midrash Shocher Tov on Proverbs explains how the 22 verses of Eishet Chayil correspond to 19 great Jewish women (the last four verses correspond to the same person) and the lessons we can learn from them.6

These explanations point to the simple reason for reciting Eishet Chayil on Friday night: as a way to express our deep gratitude to the lady of the house.7 But there are far deeper reasons as well, and one recites the hymn regardless of his marital status.

The Shechinah—Blessings for the Coming Week

According to Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz (the Shaloh), this hymn is a metaphor for the Shechinah (Divine Presence). The 22-verse acrostic, which goes through the entire Hebrew alef-bet, corresponds to the 22 mystical conduits of blessings that are opened on Shabbat.8

This mirrors the teaching of the Zohar that all blessings for the coming week come from Shabbat.9 Appropriately, in Eishet Chayil we say, “She rises when it is still night; she gives food to her household and an allotted share to her maidens”10—the blessing of food for the household comes from Shabbat.

The 48 Crowns of Torah

The word chayil (חיל) has the numeric value of 48 (8+10+30=48), corresponding to the 48 habits through which Torah is acquired. Thus, Eishet Chayil is a metaphor for the Torah, which was given on Shabbat.11

The Shabbat Queen

The Kabbalists explain that Shabbat night is referred to as a “queen,”12 also called eishet chayil. Therefore, we sing Eishet Chayil to welcome the Shabbat Queen.13

The Shabbat Bride

The Midrash relates that every day of creation was created with a “mate.” Sunday was paired with Monday, Tuesday with Wednesday, and Thursday with Friday. Only the Shabbat was left without a mate. In response to Shabbat’s complaint, G‑d replied that the Jewish people would be Shabbat’s mate.14 Therefore, we sing the Eishet Chayil on Friday night to the Shabbat “bride.”15

The Soul

Eishet Chayil refers to the soul. It may be a praise to the “animal soul” (or more specifically, the “intellectual soul”), through which the “G‑dly soul” serves G‑d throughout the week.16

Alternatively, it is said in praise of the G‑dly soul. Having left its lofty place up on high, it came down into this mundane, physical world. On Shabbat the soul is lifted up spiritually, and G‑d, together with the heavenly host, sings its praise: “A17 woman of valor who can find, for her price is beyond pearls.”18

All One

In truth, all of the explanations are interconnected. For it is the noble woman of the home, more so than the man, who makes the home into a Divine spiritual place—a place of Torah, a place where our souls can flourish, serving G‑d in all that we do. As the Midrash says in relation to Eishet Chayil, just as G‑d gave the Jews the Torah through the 22 letters of the alef-bet, so too does He praise the Jewish woman with 22 letters.19

Footnotes
2.
Siddur Shaar ha-Shamayim.
3.
Shaar ha-Kavanot, Inyan Arvit Leil Shabbat 2.
4.
Midrash Tanchuma, Chayei Sarah 4.
5.
See Metzudat David, Proverbs 31:10.
6.
See Midrash Shocher Tov (Midrash Mishlei) 31.
7.
Another reason given for reciting Eishet Chayil on Friday night is that Shabbat night is designated as a special time for marital relations. See Minhagei Yeshurun 29.
8.
Siddur Shaar ha-Shamayim.
9.
Zohar 2:88a.
11.
See Avot 6:6; Talmud, Shabbat 87a; Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei 964; and Eitz Yosef on the Siddur (printed in Otzar ha-Tefillot).
12.
Talmud, Shabbat 119a and Bava Kama 32b.
13.
Shaar ha-Kavanot, cited in Shaar ha-Kollel 18:2.
14.
Bereishit Rabbah 11:8.
15.
Sefer Ziv Minhagim, p. 96.
16.
See commentaries of Ralbag and Malbim, Proverbs 31:10.
18.
See Maamar Mordechai, cited in Yalkut Me’am Loez, end of Mishlei.
19.
Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei 964.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Penina Rivka Los Angeles, CA, USA October 14, 2017

In response to Scott's message, below. Your comment, "the home is the dominion of women and it's the woman, the wife the mother that truly does the important work of preserving our people through her work" is beautifully written.
The Jewish girl, who becomes the Jewish Wife, then the Jewish Mother, is primarily important, because without women, there is no Jewish people, This is "work" that men cannot perform, involving immense valor, and suffering pain that a man cannot endure, for a woman to give birth to a child, and more work to nurture her husband and that child for many years thereafter.
How does she do it? During the first pregnancy, the pregnancy hormones create a new section in her brain for increased love, patience and nurturing, which lasts for the rest of her life, that males do not ever have. Baruch Hashem. Reply

Scott June 22, 2017

I'm a pretty simple guy. I look at shul and see it as the dominion of men. A guy that can't even lein the portion simply has to mouth the blessing and he gets a yasher koach the home is the dominion of women and it's the woman, the wife the mother hat truly does the important work of preserving our people through her work. Maybe you're a guy who is passionate about saying the prayers day in day out in a room but for most Jews the love for our people comes from memories of the shabbat and holiday tables. From the love of their mother. The way that the woman makes a kosher home... A graceful and beautiful home. Which takes a huge effort. When you look at why the liberal strains are dying I blame it on their marginalization of the role of the Jewish home and woman telling her that the only thing that matters is bring a rabbi.

I say, not sing like a cheap camp song, Eshet Chayil it to my wife to recognize the behaviors she takes in her domain that make it possible for Jews to survive and thrive/ Reply

Sherry Roth Coral Springs August 12, 2016

To Anonymous in South Florida who skips Ayshet Chayil: I hear you on this! My personal opinion is that if it just depresses you, why do it? This should be something beautiful and uplifting. Maybe if you meet the right person, you can sing it again, but for now...skip it if makes you that upset. who needs that kind of bad karma in their life? It just makes you sick! Reply

Anonymous Southern Florida August 11, 2016

I was married 44+ years, and found myself widowed 4 years ago. I live alone, and have Friday night dinner alone as well.
It does not feel soothing for me to recite Eishet Chayil. As a matter of fact, it makes me cry. And so I skip it. Is that wrong to do? Reply

Naomi Baltimore, MD via chabadofparkheights.com August 1, 2016

To I sympathize with you. Whether or not any person said this to you, you do have an intrinsic value and preciousness, and you are an Eishes Chayil. May Hashem help you find people who show you appreciation. Reply

Anonymous Coral Springs July 28, 2016

Kind of sad I'm posting anonymously because I post here on occasion and while most of my posts are positive and related to opinions on other topics, the subject of this post is upsetting to me personally.
I am twice divorced and neither husband was well versed in Jewish ways. I never had Ayshet Chayil sung to me. I had seen it done on rare occasions as a teen, when I spent Shabbat at my best friend's house, and I thought it was so romantic to show that kind of appreciation to one's wife. Now that I've been single again for over 15 years and not a prospect in sight, it makes me feel like a worthless outcast, to be alone on Shabbat and not to have someone who loves and appreciates me, and declares it in this way. So I feel I will have to wait until my funeral for someone to say it about me, and then of course it will be too late. I'm sorry if this post is a downer...just my 2 cents. Reply

Jorge Qro. Mexico July 28, 2016

I mustn't forget to read the 22 last verses of Proverbs on Friday Night. Beautiful, this mystical article about Eishet Chayil, “Woman of Valor” I have for certain that a house where it's sung in praise of the Shechinah is a house full of blessings. My nefesh, ruach, and neshama, -animal soul, spirit and intellectual soul- these three levels of my G-dly soul have been lifted up by the reading of this article; this is my personal feeling. Thank you Rabbi Shurpin. B"H. Reply

Anonymous Spring Valley July 28, 2016

Shabbos Queen You wrote the Shabbat Night is called "Queen". Is this specifically the night that is the shabbos queen? Reply

Anonymous Melbourne via jewishmelbourne.com.au July 28, 2016

thank you! I have heard many different opinions on Aishes Chayil, and this is a great overall explanation, thanks. Reply

Anonymous July 28, 2016

I don't understand I've been to many different religious families for Shabbos. Nobody I've ever seen sings this to their wife or to the lady of the house. They seem to sing it because they have to. The wife is usually not even in the room when it's sung. This has never made sense to me. Reply

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