05 July 2007

אשת חיל: How To Translate Eshes Hayyil?

A commonly sung poem by Jews, particularly customarily on Friday nights at the shabbas table is that entitled אשת חיל (Eshes Hayyil), which spans verses 10-31 of the last chapter of משלי (the book of Proverbs), chapter 31, in effect, the last section of the book. It is a nice piece devoted to the woman and praising her work.
Since a lot of people are either familiar with this piece already or otherwise don't care, one may inquire, "Drew, Why are you bringing this up?"
The answer is that Suzanne McCarthy has been blogging recently about this piece over at Better Bibles Blog in a multi-part series entitled "Songs of a Valiant Woman" (parts one, two, three, and four). A central question regarding this piece is how to translate אשת חיל into English. A common translation I often hear/read is the Woman of Valor (or, alternatively, the Valorous Woman). The נפקא מינה (significance) to this is how to translate this second word, חיל, (i.e. woman of חיל), which is reflective of how one sees this section of 22 verses.
In a post pre-dating her four-part series, McCarthy composed a posting entitled "A Virtuous Woman", she has the following:
This word is defined in the Koehler-Baumgartner as
* capacity, power, strength
* property, wealth
* qualified, fit for military service
* of good family, valiant, brave
Thus, we see that there are several options in front of us from which to choose, beyond the oft-mentioned valour option (in the above list, it's the fourth option).
Normally, I wouldn't say anything, but a few months ago, I came across Christine Roy Yoder's article "The Woman of Substance (אשת חיל): A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31" (in JBL 122:3 (Fall 2003): pp. 427-447), which, as you can tell, is not inclined towards the reading of valor. Her description in the first footnote is noteworthy:
The translation of חיל as “substance” is an effort to capture its range of meaning, many elements of which are evident in Prov 31:10–31. Independently or as part of a phrase, the term חיל refers variously to strength (e.g., 1 Sam 2:4; Qoh 10:10), an army (e.g., Exod 14:4; Deut 11:4; Jer 32:2), wealth, property, or profits from trade (e.g., Prov 3:22; Isa 30:6; Jer 15:13; Job 20:18), ability (e.g., Gen 47:6; Exod 18:21; 1 Chr 26:30, 32), and bravery (e.g., Judg 11:1; 1 Chr 5:24). Men with חיל are typically affluent, landowners, persons of good repute, who serve (often militarily) with loyalty and bravery (e.g., Exod 18:25; 2 Sam 23:20; 2 Kgs 15:20; 24:14; Ruth 2:1). They are, that is, persons of “substance”—strength and capacity, wealth and skill—much like the woman described in Prov 31:10–31. For the same translation of חיל in Ruth 2:1, see E. F. Campbell, Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 7; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 90.
I, personally, find it more sensical to the text to describe this text to be describing this woman of substance, of being economically able/skilled.


Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for the links. I will follow them. In my next post, I will show how Wolters adds another dimension to the interpretation of 'hayil'. I use valiant in my posts since I am working through Wolters book, the Song of the Valiant Woman. You have got me thinking and I will respond with a post soon.

Drew_Kaplan said...

Sure thing! Thank you for checking out my posting.
I'm very glad I got you thinking and I look forward to your future post(s).

Anonymous said...

Hi Drew! This comment isn't directly about the post--but is all about getting the words right... I was honored to see that, in the past, you have referenced my essay in Azure. Now, I have decided to dive into the (for me) uncharted waters of writing a blog about Jewish thought, especially understanding key biblical concepts. It’s called “The Hebrew-Zen Dictionary” (perhaps temporarily…) and appears in http://dorshav.typepad.com. Since this is both very new to me, and rather demanding, I would greatly appreciate both your input (content, style, length, etc.) and encouragement in making this real… :) All the best, and Shabbat Shalom -- Ethan Dor-Shav.

hbrasil said...

Here's another translation: Wonder Woman! (http://www.tvclassic.net/programs/wonderwoman/wonderwoman.html) Hehehe... thanks for the study