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Mishlei 31-02 (A Woman of Character) [31:10 thru 31:31]
NOTE: For a PDF copy of this segment, please click here. This will enable you to print out the entire text of the article. [Rev 4]
Key Concepts of Mishlei 31-02 (A Woman of Character)
Shlomo Hamelech closes the book of Mishlei with a song of praise and appreciation for the Jewish woman. Here he views her as an idealized wife and mother, seen primarily from the perspective of her husband who is deeply grateful for the wonderful treasure granted to him by Hashem.
In the first chapter of Mishlei Shlomo had compared the Divine gift of wisdom to the idealized metaphor of a woman calling upon man to fulfill his potential. (See Segment 01-05.) In subsequent chapters Shlomo had pointed out how the powerful influence a woman can exert upon a man has the potential to destroy him if she is the wrong kind of woman. (See for example, Segment 02-03.) Now, in this final chapter of Mishlei Shlomo has reverted to the metaphor of a virtuous woman who urges a man to overcome his failings and rise to moral perfection.
He began the chapter with a message of admonishment from his own mother, Bas Sheva. She urgently advised him to resist the temptations inherent in his role as a great king. (See Segment 31-01.)
Now he turns his attention to an idealized image of the perfect Jewish woman and draws a word picture of the wonderful qualities that make her so appropriate for her mission as wife and mother. These qualities are the virtues of character (middos) which Shlomo describes in terms of the specific patterns of behavior that reflect those virtues. Of course, not every type of behavior is relevant to every woman. For example, the woman in this metaphor spends a good deal of time spinning flax and wool into yarn. She appears to be actively involved in generating income for her household and among her duties is the management of the household staff, which apparently includes a number of maids.
The important point is that even though the specific behaviors will be different for each woman, the underlying middos are universal, and every woman should aspire to attain them. Every man should see his wife as an embodiment of all the virtues as they fit her particular situation in life. In fact, he should hold himself to the same moral standards as those he has come to expect from her.
Exploring Mishlei
PART 1. A TRUE TREASUREMishlei introduces the ideal Jewish woman. In her husband’s eyes she is unique, one of a kind. He is fortunate indeed to have been granted such a treasure. He would be foolish not to show her the appreciation and consideration appropriate to a Divine gift that he was found worthy of receiving.
(י) אֵשֶׁת חַיִל מִי יִמְצָא וְרָחֹק מִפְּנִינִים מִכְרָהּ: (יא) בָּטַח בָּהּ לֵב בַּעְלָהּ וְשָׁלָל לֹא יֶחְסָר: (יב) גְּמָלַתְהוּ טוֹב וְלֹא רָע כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיהָ:
(10) A woman of character — fortunate [is the man] who finds her. Her value is far beyond pearls. (11) Her husband’s heart relies on her. [When she is home], he will not suffer any loss. (12) She treats him with goodness and she is never vindictive, all the days of her life.
PART 2. THE INGREDIENTS OF CHARACTERA series of 14 behavior patterns is presented here, each of which is associated with an underlying moral virtue (middah).
(יג) דָּרְשָׁה צֶמֶר וּפִשְׁתִּים וַתַּעַשׂ בְּחֵפֶץ כַּפֶּיהָ: (יד) הָיְתָה כָּאֳנִיּוֹת סוֹחֵר מִמֶּרְחָק תָּבִיא לַחְמָהּ: (טו) וַתָּקָם בְּעוֹד לַיְלָה וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ וְחֹק לְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ: (טז) זָמְמָה שָׂדֶה וַתִּקָּחֵהוּ מִפְּרִי כַפֶּיהָ נטע נָטְעָה כָּרֶם: (יז) חָגְרָה בְעוֹז מָתְנֶיהָ וַתְּאַמֵּץ זְרֹעוֹתֶיהָ: (יח) טָעֲמָה כִּי טוֹב סַחְרָהּ לֹא יִכְבֶּה בַלַּיְלָה נֵרָהּ: (יט) יָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה בַכִּישׁוֹר וְכַפֶּיהָ תָּמְכוּ פָלֶךְ: (כ) כַּפָּהּ פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי וְיָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן: (כא) לֹא תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג כִּי כָל בֵּיתָהּ לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִים: (כב) מַרְבַדִּים עָשְׂתָה לָּהּ שֵׁשׁ וְאַרְגָּמָן לְבוּשָׁהּ: (כג) נוֹדָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָהּ בְּשִׁבְתּוֹ עִם זִקְנֵי אָרֶץ: (כד) סָדִין עָשְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּר וַחֲגוֹר נָתְנָה לַכְּנַעֲנִי: (כה) עֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן: (כו) פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ: (כז) צוֹפִיָּה הֲלִיכוֹת בֵּיתָהּ וְלֶחֶם עַצְלוּת לֹא תֹאכֵל:
 
(13) Industrious. [When she has time on her hands] she looks for [raw] wool and flax, and her hands work eagerly [to spin them into yarn].
(14) Innovative. She has become like the ships of a merchant, getting her sustenance from afar.
(15) Conscientious. She gets up while it is still night, preparing food for her household and giving work assignments to her maids.
(16) Persevering. She envisions a field and she buys it. From the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
(17) Determined. She girds herself with strength and empowers her arms.
(18) Learns from Experience. [When] she discerns that her endeavor is good, her lamp is not snuffed out at nightfall.
(19) Generous and Thoughtful. [Even] when she is [busy at the spinning wheel] with her hands stretching out to the distaff and her palms supporting the spindle, she thinks of the needy. (20) She opens her palms to the person and stretches out her hands to the destitute.
(21) Responsible. She has no fear for her family because of snow because [the members of] her household are [warmly] clothed in scarlet wool.
(22) Judicious. She has made for herself elegant bedcovers for herself; linen and purple wool are her clothing.
(23) DevotedBecause of her support her husband is distinctive in the councils when he sits with the elders of the land.
(24) Effective. She makes cloth and sells [it]. She delivers a belt to the itinerant trader.
(25) Righteous. Her garb is [moral] strength and beauty [of character]. She smiles to the last day.
(26) Wise and Inspiring. She opens her mouth with wisdom for the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
(27) Vigilant. She observes the ways of her household. She does not eat the bread of laziness.
PART 3. ETERNAL VALUEThe song comes to a majestic conclusion with the recognition granted to the virtuous Jewish woman by her grateful husband and children.
(כח) קָמוּ בָנֶיהָ וַיְאַשְּׁרוּהָ בַּעְלָהּ וַיְהַלְלָהּ: (כט) רַבּוֹת בָּנוֹת עָשׂוּ חָיִל וְאַתְּ עָלִית עַל כֻּלָּנָה: (ל) שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה’ הִיא תִתְהַלָּל: (לא) תְּנוּ לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶׂיהָ:
(28) Her children have arisen and praised her [in gratitude]. Her husband has extolled her [in appreciation]. (29) “Many women have achieved [virtues] of character, but you have surpassed them all. (30) [Superficial] charm is false and [physical] beauty is of no lasting value. A woman who fears Hashem, she should be praised. (30) Give her the fruits of her hands and let her be praised in the gates by her very own deeds.”
Learning Mishlei
PART 1. A TRUE TREASURE.
(י) אֵשֶׁת חַיִל מִי יִמְצָא
A woman of character  אֵשֶׁת חַיִל is the ideal wife and homemaker. Fortunate indeed is the man who finds her — מִי יִמְצָא , for she is a gift to him from Hashem. Every man should aspire to be worthy of being blessed with such a woman at the center of his life.
וְרָחֹק מִפְּנִינִים מִכְרָהּ:
Her value is far beyond pearls  וְרָחֹק מִפְּנִינִים מִכְרָהּ , for she is a priceless treasure to her husband.
(יא) בָּטַח בָּהּ לֵב בַּעְלָהּ 
וְשָׁלָל לֹא יֶחְסָר:
He continues to be impressed by her conscientiousness, integrity, and competence, and so her husband’s heart relies on her — בָּטַח בָּהּ לֵב בַּעְלָהּ  completely, trusting her with his deepest secrets and relying on her to keep all activities of the household within the boundaries of halachah. Even when he must be away from home he knows that she will do whatever is necessary to guard the well-being of the family. He is assured that when she is at the center of his home, he will not suffer any material loss — וְשָׁלָל לֹא יֶחְסָר .
גְּמָלַתְהוּ טוֹב וְלֹא רָע
כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיהָ:
She always treats him with goodness  גְּמָלַתְהוּ טוֹב , and even when he has behaved badly, she is never vindictive  וְלֹא רָע , for she is a forgiving person, all the days of her life — כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיהָ , in good times and bad times, in youth and old age.
PART 2. THE INGREDIENTS OF CHARACTER.
(יג) דָּרְשָׁה צֶמֶר וּפִשְׁתִּים 
וַתַּעַשׂ בְּחֵפֶץ כַּפֶּיהָ:
She is industrious and cannot bear to be idle. When she has time on her hands she looks for wool and flax  דָּרְשָׁה צֶמֶר וּפִשְׁתִּים , and her hands work eagerly  וַתַּעַשׂ בְּחֵפֶץ כַּפֶּיהָ  to spin the raw materials into wool and linen yarn.
(יד) הָיְתָה כָּאֳנִיּוֹת סוֹחֵר 
מִמֶּרְחָק תָּבִיא לַחְמָהּ:
She is innovative and plans ahead for every contingency. She even arranges to get food for her household at the time and place that prices are advantageous. She has become like the ships of an enterprising merchant  הָיְתָה כָּאֳנִיּוֹת סוֹחֵר getting her sustenance from afar  מִמֶּרְחָק תָּבִיא לַחְמָהּ .
(טו) וַתָּקָם בְּעוֹד לַיְלָה 
וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ וְחֹק לְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ:
She is conscientious and dedicated to the well-being of her family. Each morning she gets up while it is still night  וַתָּקָם בְּעוֹד לַיְלָה  and prepares food for her household  וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ . While doing her own work, she gives work assignments to her maids — וְחֹק לְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ .
(טז) זָמְמָה שָׂדֶה וַתִּקָּחֵהוּ 
מִפְּרִי כַפֶּיהָ נטע נָטְעָה כָּרֶם:
A woman of vision and perseverance, she sets her mind on a goal and does not deviate from it until she has achieved it. For example, she envisions owning a field  זָמְמָה שָׂדֶה  and when through constant thrift she has saved up enough money, she buys it  וַתִּקָּחֵהוּ . She works the field and then, from the fruit of the work of her hands she plants a vineyard  מִפְּרִי כַפֶּיהָ נָטְעָה כָּרֶם .
(יז) חָגְרָה בְעוֹז מָתְנֶיהָ 
וַתְּאַמֵּץ זְרֹעוֹתֶיהָ:
She focuses her energies on the task at hand, gaining strength from her determination to succeed. She girds herself with the strength — חָגְרָה בְעוֹז מָתְנֶיהָ  of her willpower and empowers her arms— וַתְּאַמֵּץ זְרֹעוֹתֶיהָ  with her zeal and her sense of duty.
(יח) טָעֲמָה כִּי טוֹב סַחְרָהּ 
לֹא יִכְבֶּה בליל בַלַּיְלָה נֵרָהּ:
She learns from experience and when she discerns that her endeavor is good — טָעֲמָה כִּי טוֹב סַחְרָהּ , she follows through, giving it her all, so that her lamp is not snuffed out at nightfall — לֹא יִכְבֶּה בַלַּיְלָה נֵרָהּ .
(יט) יָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה בַכִּישׁוֹר 
וְכַפֶּיהָ תָּמְכוּ פָלֶךְ:
Although often engrossed in her work, she does not neglect those who need her help. Thus, when she is spinning yarn and she is busy stretching out her hands to the distaff — יָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה בַכִּישׁוֹר (the stick that holds the unspun flax or wool) and her palms are supporting the spindle — וְכַפֶּיהָ תָּמְכוּ פָלֶךְ (onto which the spun yarn is wound), she is sensitive to those in need.
(כ) כַּפָּהּ פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי
וְיָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן:
She does not keep the needy waiting but responds immediately. She opens her palm to the poor person — כַּפָּהּ פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי who ask for her help, and she stretches out her hands to the destitute person — וְיָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן , who is too ashamed to ask.
(כא) לֹא תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג 
כִּי כָל בֵּיתָהּ לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִים:
Her care for the needy does not come at the cost of her devotion to her family. Thus, in the winter she has no fear for her household suffering from cold and snow — לֹא תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג , because all the members of her household are clothed in heat-retaining scarlet wool — כִּי כָל בֵּיתָהּ לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִים .
(כב) מַרְבַדִּים עָשְׂתָה לָּהּ 
שֵׁשׁ וְאַרְגָּמָן לְבוּשָׁהּ:
She furnishes her home and dresses with discretion. She makes what she can, and chooses items that are appropriate to her station in life and the society in which she lives. She has made elegant bedcovers for herself — מַרְבַדִּים עָשְׂתָה לָּהּ ; linen and purple wool are the materials she has selected for her clothing — שֵׁשׁ וְאַרְגָּמָן לְבוּשָׁהּ .
(כג) נוֹדָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָהּ 
בְּשִׁבְתּוֹ עִם זִקְנֵי אָרֶץ:
She acts with unselfishness and devotion to help her husband assume a prominent role in the affairs of the community, subtly offering him the benefit of her own counsel. As a result, her husband is distinctive in the councils — נוֹדָע בַּשְּׁעָרִים בַּעְלָהּ  of the community, enhanced by the fine clothing that she provides for him to wear as he sits with the elders of the land — בְּשִׁבְתּוֹ עִם זִקְנֵי אָרֶץ .
(כד) סָדִין עָשְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּר
וַחֲגוֹר נָתְנָה לַכְּנַעֲנִי:
Through her effective management of the household, she frees her husband from financial worries and helps him devote more time to Torah study. She makes cloth from the yarn that she has spun and sells her output  סָדִין עָשְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּר  to generate income for the family. She also fashions the cloth into items of clothing to be marketed to the public. Thus, she delivers many a belt to the itinerant trader — וַחֲגוֹר נָתְנָה לַכְּנַעֲנִי , who sells it for her in other cites.
(כה) עֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ 
וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן:
Although the needs of her family require that she spend much of her time in the production of clothing, her true garb in a spiritual sense is formed by her moral strength and beauty of character — עֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ . She joyfully greets each day with the knowledge of all the good she is doing for her family and the community. And so she smiles happily even to the last day of her life — וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן .
(כו) פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה 
וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ:
Her positive influence goes far beyond her physical deeds and the example she presents to others. When she opens her mouth it is with wisdom — פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה , for the teaching of kindness is on her tongue — וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ .
(כז) צוֹפִיָּה [הילכות] הֲלִיכוֹת בֵּיתָהּ 
וְלֶחֶם עַצְלוּת לֹא תֹאכֵל:
She understands the weakness of human nature and so she does not take it for granted that everything will be done as it should be. And so she continually observes the ways of her household — צוֹפִיָּה הֲלִיכוֹת בֵּיתָהּ  to ensure that the standards of modesty and integrity of halachah are being met. She does not eat the bread of laziness — וְלֶחֶם עַצְלוּת לֹא תֹאכֵל  but feels a sense of personal responsibility that all will be done as it should be. And so she tries to anticipate future needs and problems.
PART 3. ETERNAL VALUE.
(כח) קָמוּ בָנֶיהָ וַיְאַשְּׁרוּהָ 
בַּעְלָהּ וַיְהַלְלָהּ:
Although she does not advertise her accomplishments, her qualities are evident to those who know her, especially the immediate members of her family. Her children have risen and praised her — קָמוּ בָנֶיהָ וַיְאַשְּׁרוּהָ  in gratitude for taking care of all their needs. Her husband understands what a treasure he has, and so he has extolled her — בַּעְלָהּ וַיְהַלְלָהּ  to let her know how much he appreciates her. What do they say?
(כט) רַבּוֹת בָּנוֹת עָשׂוּ חָיִל 
וְאַתְּ עָלִית עַל כֻּלָּנָה:
“Many women have achieved individual virtues of character — רַבּוֹת בָּנוֹת עָשׂוּ חָיִל , but you have surpassed them all — וְאַתְּ עָלִית עַל כֻּלָּנָה  because you have excelled in every virtue.”
(ל) שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי 
אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה‘ הִיא תִתְהַלָּל:
“Don’t praise a person for the qualities that were given to him by Hashem, but for the middos of character that he developed through his own efforts. Charm is false and beauty is of no lasting value — שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי , for they fade in time and are gone. A woman who fears Hashem, she should be praised — אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה’ הִיא תִתְהַלָּל for her achievements in the service of her Creator are everlasting .”
(לא) תְּנוּ לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ 
וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶׂיהָ:
“Give her the fruits of her hands — תְּנוּ לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ . Let her see naches from what she he has built and what she has sacrificed. And let her be praised in the gates of the city by her very own deeds — וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶׂיהָ . The memory of what she has been and done will live on forever in the hearts of her husband and her children. Her memory will live on, too, in the hearts of all her community as a valiant example to be followed by future generations.”
Additional Thoughts
This segment begins by describing its subject as an אֵשֶׁת חַיִל , a term that is often translated as “woman of valor” or “woman of accomplishment”. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch defines חַיִל as a general term which refers to an accumulation of resources. These could be possessions, power, moral virtues, or wisdom. It is likely that Yisro was referring to all of these qualities in varying degrees when he advised Moshe Rabbeinu, אַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל – “You should seek out from all the people men of ability” (Shemos 18:21). In our context, the accumulation of qualities that define an ideal woman are headed by moral character (middos) and therefore we have translated חַיִל as “woman of character”
Sources
The primary sources used in the interpretation of the verses of this segment are listed below.
י – המאירי, חנוך לנער, מצודות
יא – חנוך לנער, אלשיך, רשר”ה
יב – המאירי, מצודות, מלבי”ם
יג – אבן עזרא, המאירי, רשר”ה
יד – המאירי, חנוך לנער, מצודות
טו – המאירי, חנוך לנער, רשר”ה
טז – המאירי, מצודות, רשר”ה
יז – רבינו יונה, המאירי, רלב”ג, חנוך לנער, רשר”ה
יח – רלב”ג, חנוך לנער, מצודות
יט – רש”י, רלב”ג
כ – המאירי, מצודות
כא – רש”י, מצודות,
כב – חנוך לנער, מצודות
כג – המאירי, חנוך לנער, מצודות, רשר”ה
כד – רלב”ג, מצודות
כה – רש”י, אבן עזרא, רשר”ה
כו – המאירי, חנוך לנער, מצודות
כז – רש”י, המאירי, חנוך לנער, מצודות
כח – המאירי, מצודות
כט – רש”י, חנוך לנער,
ל – רש”י, חנוך לנער
לא – רש”י, מלבי”ם, רשר”ה