Greatest Women in Tanakh

In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read about the righteous daughters of Tzelofchad. Recall that the five daughters (Machlah, Noa, Haglah, Milkah, and Tirzah) had no male siblings, and their father had passed away, so they inquired about their inheritance. Are daughters allowed to inherit? It might sound like a straight-forward “yes”, but it was much more complicated in ancient Israel.

‘The Daughters of Zelphehad’ (1908 Illustration)

The main part of the inheritance was the tribal land. When a woman married, she joined the tribe of her husband. If she inherited land from her father, then it would ultimately become part of her new tribe’s territory. As such, a portion of land from one tribe would pass to another, which is a problem since the tribal boundaries were set by divine decree. Moses had to take the question up to God, who answered that, yes, daughters do still inherit from fathers. Moses instructed the daughters to marry within their own tribe so that the land would not be transferred out.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 119b-120a) holds that they were, in fact, permitted to marry whomever they wished, and Moses simply suggested they marry within their own tribe. The Talmud also says that all five daughters were chokhmaniot [sages], darshaniot [interpreters of Torah], and tzadkaniot [righteous]. It proceeds to prove this from the Torah’s verses. Of their righteousness, the Talmud states that

they did not rush to marry, but rather waited to marry those fit for them. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov taught: Even the youngest to be married among them was not married before turning forty years of age.

If they waited until after age forty to get married, how were they able to have children so late? The Talmud answers that they were so righteous that all miraculously remained fruitful into old age! In short, the daughters embodied what it means to be an eshet chayil, a “woman of valour”. Having said that, the only woman in the Tanakh who is explicitly called an eshet chayil is Ruth (3:11). One intriguing Midrash explains why.

The Women of Eshet Chayil

The Eshet Chayil song traditionally sung Friday evenings before Kiddush comes from King Solomon’s Proverbs (ch. 31). Midrash Mishlei comments on its words that each verse corresponds to a righteous woman from the Tanakh. The first verse (“A woman of valour who can find? Her worth is greater than pearls.”) corresponds to Sarah. The Midrash says this is related to Psalms 92:15, “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age…” The “they” here are Abraham and Sarah, who finally had a child at an advanced age. The Midrash says of the couple that they were “equal in charity and kindness, and a good sign for the whole world…” The Midrash mentions the wife of Noah here, too (called Na’amah according to tradition), who was similarly equal to her husband.

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

The second verse (“The heart of her husband trusts her, and he lacks nothing.”) refers to Sarah again—this time exclusively—since her husband Abraham became exceedingly rich because of her. This is alluding to the time they spent in Egypt, when the Pharaoh “dealt well with Abram for her sake; and [Abram] had sheep, and oxen, and donkeys, and servants, and maids, and she-donkeys, and camels.” (Genesis 12:16) Abraham trusted Sarah, and lacked nothing materially thanks to her.

“She bestows good to him, and not bad, all the days of her life.” This refers to Rebecca who, the Midrash says, finally allowed Isaac to feel good after his mother’s passing. “She seeks wool and flax, and works diligently with her hands.” This refers to hard-working Leah. “She is like a merchant fleet…” is Rachel who

was embarrassed about [her lack of] children every day. Therefore, she merited a son who was similar to a ship that is filled will all the good in the world, as Joseph kept the whole world going through his merit, and supported the world in those years of famine.

“She rises while it is still night…” is Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh. She adopted baby Moses and would wake up throughout the night to care for him, as if she was his own mother. The Midrash reminds us that she ultimately converted to Judaism, merited to have her name among the great women of Israel, and even entered the Garden of Eden alive.

“She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” This is Yocheved, the mother of Moses. Through her came the greatest prophet of all time, “equivalent to all of Israel, who are called a ‘vineyard’, as in Isaiah 5:7, ‘For the vineyard of the God of Legions is the House of Israel.’”

“She girds her loins with strength…” This is Miriam, the tough sister of Moses. She was the leader of the women throughout the time in the Wilderness. The Midrash points out that it was Miriam who prophesied the redemption of Israel and the coming of Moses, saying “In the future, my mother will give birth to the saviour of Israel.” Few believed her, and she was harshly criticized—even by her own father! She remained steadfast and was vindicated at the end.

Female Souls Reincarnating

The verse that begins with the words Ta’amah ki tov sachrah, “She perceives that her merchandise is good…” is Hannah, who “tasted” (ta’amah) prayer. After being barren for many years, Hannah went to the Tabernacle then in Shiloh (this was before the Temple in Jerusalem was built) and beseeched God. Eli the High Priest thought she was drunk and told her to stop imbibing wine. She replied that she wasn’t drunk at all, and was just “pouring out her heart” in prayer (I Samuel 1:15).

‘Hannah’s Prayer’ by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld (1860)

We learn much about the proper way to pray from Hannah, who is considered the “mother of prayer”. Therefore, the ta’amah verse in Eshet Chayil reminds us of the incident in Shiloh, where Hannah hadn’t tasted any wine at all, and was rather steeped in communion with God. The second half of the verse, “her lamp does not go out at night”, refers to her long-awaited son Samuel, who “illuminated” Israel and of whom it is written, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the temple of God.” (I Samuel 3:3)

“She lays her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.” This is Yael, who smote the wicked Sisera and saved Israel in the time of the judge Deborah (Judges 4:17-22). The Midrash points out that even in that moment, Yael was exceedingly modest and instead of using Sisera’s sword to kill him, she used a tent peg, since the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:5) states that “There shall not be the vessel of a man on a woman.” Kli gever, “vessel of a man”, is traditionally translated as weaponry, which women shouldn’t be adorned with.

“She stretches out her palm to the poor…” is the widow of Tzarfat, who took care of Eliyahu (I Kings 17). She was very poor herself, so Eliyahu brought about a miracle for her where her only
“jar of meal” and “cruse of oil” did not run out for many days until her financial situation improved. Later, he also revived her son who had fallen ill and died. That boy was the prophet Jonah! (See Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 32.)

“She is not afraid of snow upon her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet.” This is a clear allusion to the scarlet thread, chut shani, of Rachav (Judges 2). When Israel was ready to reclaim their Holy Land, Joshua first sent two spies to investigate. Their presence was uncovered and the two spies hid in the home of Rachav. Although a Canaanite, Rachav told the spies:

I know that God has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you. For we have heard how God dried up the waters of the Red Sea for you when you left Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings across the Jordan, whom you doomed. When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for Hashem your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below. Now, since I have shown loyalty to you, swear to me by God that you in turn will show loyalty to my family… (Judges 2:9-12)

The spies told her to hang a scarlet thread on her home as a sign for the Israelite forces to spare her household. Rachav went on to convert and join the Jewish people, and even married Joshua! The Tanakh calls her a zonah, generally translated as “harlot”, but many of our Sages interpreted the term in the sense that she actually had a bakery and provided mazon, “sustenance”. In Yalkut Shimoni (on Yehoshua 9) it is said that she really was a harlot (from the age of ten, no less) and finally gave up her sinful ways at the age of fifty, inspired by the Israelites arrival. She repented so thoroughly that the mighty Joshua himself married her, and from them descended eight great prophets and priests of Israel: Jeremiah and his father Hilkiah, Seraiah, Baruch and his father Neriah, Hanamel, and Shallum (see also Megillah 14b).

Intriguingly, the Arizal taught that Rachav (רחב) reincarnated in Hever (חבר), who was the husband of Yael! (See Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36) Hever had a female soul, which is probably why Yael had to be the stronger, more “masculine” one and execute Sisera herself. And for her tremendous deed, the Arizal says Yael (יעל) reincarnated in Eli (עלי) the High Priest! Perhaps Yael had a male soul all along. Of course, it was Eli who confronted, and then blessed, Hannah. The Arizal says that Rachav’s soul went from Hever to Hannah, so Hannah was also a reincarnation of Rachav. This is alluded to in Hannah’s prayer, which began:

And Hannah prayed, and said: my heart exults in God, my horn is exalted in God; my mouth is enlarged [rachav] over my adversaries; because I rejoice in Your salvation.

Regal Women

The next verse of Eshet Chayil is “She makes for herself garments; her clothing is fine linen and purple.” Purple is traditionally the colour worn by royalty, so this verse is referring to Batsheva, the wife of King David and mother of King Solomon.

“Her husband is known in the gates…” is referring to Michal, the first wife of King David. She was his companion at the start of his career, and played a key role in making him “known in the gates”. The Midrash points out that Michal also saved David’s life when her father Saul (the first king of Israel) wanted to get rid of him (I Samuel 19).

Sadin ‘asta v’timkor, “She makes linens and sells them…” The term sadin is a reference to Samson, whose first major attack on the Philistines involved a riddle with a prize of linens:

And Samson said to them: “Let me now put forth a riddle to you; if you can solve it and relay it to me within the seven days of the feast, then I will give you thirty linen garments [sadinim] and thirty changes of clothing. But if you cannot relay it to me, then you shall give me thirty linen garments [sadinim] and thirty changes of clothing.” And they said to him: “Put forth your riddle, that we may hear it.” (Judges 14:12-13)

Presumably, Samson had linens from his righteous mother who made them. Thus, this verse of Eshet Chayil is referring to Samson’s mother. The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) identifies her name as Tzlelponit [צללפונית]. Although no explanation is given as to where this name comes from, a careful reading of the Tanakh reveals the answer.

After Samson’s famous attack using three hundred flaming foxes (Judges 15), he hid in a cave near the town of Etam. In the Tanakh, we read that the sons of “the father of Etam were Jezreel, and Ishma, and Idbash; and the name of their sister was Hatzelelponi [הַצְלֶלְפּוֹנִי].” (I Chronicles 4:3) The Talmud makes the connection between the two Etams. Since a sister is mentioned—which is extremely rare in Biblical chronologies—it must mean she was especially noteworthy. And this is because she was the mother of the great Samson!

“Strength and splendour are her clothing…” refers to Elisheva (“Elizabeth”), the wife of Aaron. The Midrash states that she “saw four joyful events in one day: her brother [became] a prince; her husband, high priest; the brother of her husband, king; and her two children, young priests.” Elisheva’s brother Nachshon ben Aminadav was the leader of the tribe of Judah, her husband was the first kohen gadol, and her children Nadav and Avihu were priests as well, while her brother-in-law Moses was like the king of Israel. According to one tradition, the midwives Shifrah and Puah who saved the Israelite babies in Egypt were Yocheved and Elisheva (Sotah 11b). Another opinion is that they were Yocheved and Miriam.

“She opens her mouth with wisdom…” this is Serach bat Asher. She was the granddaughter of Jacob who revealed to him that Joseph was still alive. No one wanted to be the one to break the news to Jacob, fearing he might not be able to handle the news in his old age. So, the graceful Serach was tasked with the job, and she did it so well that Jacob blessed her with everlasting life. According to tradition, she lived for centuries and merited to enter Heaven alive, where she teaches in a Heavenly Yeshiva. (For more, see ‘The Incredible Story of Serach bat Asher’ in Garments of Light.)

The Midrash here identifies Serach with the wise woman of II Samuel 20. There, the Tanakh tells us of yet another rebellion incited against King David by Sheva ben Bichri. Sheva and his followers built a stronghold in the town of Avelah Beit Maacah. David’s general Yoav besieged the town and sought to annihilate it completely. A wise woman came out and advised him not to proceed and slaughter the innocent. She promised to deliver Sheva’s head over the town walls. The wise woman convinced the townsfolk to turn on Sheva, and they delivered the head, ending the rebellion and saving countless lives. The Midrash says this woman was Serach bat Asher.

“She looks over the ways of her household…” this is the wife of the prophet Ovadiah. In I Kings 18 we read how Ovadiah saved one hundred prophets from the evil Ahab and Jezebel by hiding them in caves. Ovadiah was an attendant of the king, but was secretly working to save God’s true prophets. He also helped Eliyahu. Later, in II Kings 4, we read how a widow of a prophet sought the help of Eliyahu’s protégé, Elisha. The Sages identify this widow as the wife of Ovadiah. She was able to save her children from slavery and idolatry.

“Her children rise up, and call her blessed…” refers to the Shunamite woman who took care of Elisha. Just like his master Eliyahu, Elisha revived a dead child. This child was the son of the Shunamite woman, who the Sages identify as the prophet Habakkuk.

Finally, the Midrash identifies the last three verses of Eshet Chayil with Ruth:

“Many daughters have done valiantly, but you have surpassed them all.” This is Ruth the Moabite, who came under the wings of the Divine Presence. “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; [a woman that fears God she shall be praised].” She left her mother and her forefathers and her wealth, and came with her mother-in-law and accepted all of the commandments… Therefore, she merited that David came from her, who gave pleasure with songs and praises to the Holy One, blessed be He. Therefore, it is stated “Give of the fruit of her hand and let her works praise her in the gates.”

The Midrash concludes with three lines for Ruth who, as mentioned, is the only woman to be explicitly called an eshet chayil in the Tanakh.

It is natural to wonder about some glaring omissions in the Midrash, including no mention of Tzipporah or Deborah (who, according to the Arizal, shared a soul), nor of Abigail or Esther, among others. The latter is described as possessing “grace” multiply times in Megillat Esther. Perhaps, then, we can add that Esther is alluded to in the verse “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; a woman that fears God she shall be praised.” While Esther was exceedingly graceful and beautiful, what really mattered was her unwavering faith in God.

Next time you sing Eshet Chayil, you will know whom to keep in mind, and while reciting each verse, from which great Jewish woman to draw strength and inspiration.

A summary: