The beautiful 22-verse hymn Eshet 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 Eshet 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, Eshet 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 Eshet 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 Eshet 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 Eshet 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, Eshet 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 eshet chayil. Therefore, we sing Eshet 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 Eshet Chayil on Friday night to the Shabbat “bride.”15

The Soul

Eshet 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 Eshet 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