Content on each heroine developed by the National Jewish Outreach Program, sponsors of Shabbat Across America
SPECIAL NOTE: One of the most iconic phrases for BBG’s is “strength and dignity are our clothing;” it comes from the song Aishet Chayil.
To teach more about the song of Aishet Chayil
To teach more about Jewish female ancestors
To connect these ancestors with relatives and friends
To help explore the idea of tradition
To have a fun interactive Shabbat-appropriate program
15 blank large poster boards or jumbo Post-its
Put the names of the female ancestors at the top of the blank poster/Post-its; write one name on each
1 large poster board/jumbo post-it with the Hebrew of Aishet Chayil
1 large poster board/jumbo post-it with the English of Aishet Chayil
Print outs of the information on each of our ancestors on a separate sheet of paper
Different colored mini post-its or stickers (enough colors or different ones for the number of participants)
Set-Up (this program should be done in a large room that is relatively empty):
At the front of the room post the poster boards/jumbo post-it notes of the English and Hebrew write up of Aishet Chayil, a sheet with the introduction “Why do we sing Aishet Chayil?” should be posted next to it.
Post the large poster boards/jumbo post-its with the names around the room with at least 2 ½-3 feet of space between them
Next to each blank poster board/jumbo post-it, post the print outs of the Jewish female ancestors (think about an art museum – the blank poster/post-its are the equivalent of the art work and the print-outs are the plaques that are placed next to the art work)
Hand out the mini post-its/stickers to the participants; give a different one to each participant
Activity and timing (Total 60-75 minutes):
Introduction (3 minutes)
Ice breaker (5 minutes)
Silent Museum (45-60 minutes)
After all the participants read Aishet Chayil, they go around to each different “exhibit” and read the description of the female ancestor. For the first round, everyone puts a sticker on the poster board/jumbo Post-It if they think that the line from Aishet Chayil or the story about the ancestor applies to a family member. Afterwards, the facilitator should have everyone tell who they think it applies to and why they think it applies to that person.
The second round, they should go around and place their stickers if they think it applies to a friend. Everyone should gather and explain why that characteristic applies to that person.
In the final round, they should go around and put a sticker on the poster board that has a value/characteristic they feel applies to themselves. Again, they should gather and talk about why they think it applies.
Conclusion (5-7 minutes)
Icebreaker:Go around the group and each participant should tell who her role model is and why.
Introduction: Many of us have role models who teach, challenge and inspire us. We are lucky to have these people in our lives. When we think of Jewish role models, we often think of Albert Einstein, Moses and King David. Many of us may not realize the incredible values that many of our female ancestors teach us through their stories and actions. Please take the time to explore this museum of our Jewish female ancestors to learn more about how incredible they were. As you read about each one, place a sticker on the poster board if the story of the ancestor reminds you of someone in your family or if someone in your family who displays that same characteristic.
Conclusion: I hope that after this experience, you feel motivated. We have inspiring Jewish ancestors whose values and characteristics inform how we think and act even until today. We have wonderful friends and family who carry on the tradition of those values as a constant reminder of the tradition we are a part of, the good we and our family and friends are doing, and the great people we can become.
Why do we sing Aishet Chayil?
Aishet Chayil, “The Woman of Valor,” is a song many traditional Jewish families sing on Friday evening. It is a selection of verses from the Book of Proverbs written by King Solomon. It has been speculated that Solomon wrote these verses either as qualities of an ideal wife at that time or as a tribute to his mother, Batsheva. Some commentaries have suggested that the verses of Aishet Chayil are descriptions of the Torah, Shabbat, and the soul.
Additionally, Midrash (Rabbinical stories that expand on stories from the Torah) teaches that the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was a marriage. On that day the Jewish nation was married to God, with the Torah serving as the ketubah (marriage contract). The Aishet Chayil section of Proverbs, therefore, can also be read as a description of the ideal Jewish nation – prosperous, generous, beautiful, loyal and happily laboring for the fruits of the Torah.
This song is sung on Friday nights because traditionally, Jewish women are viewed as the caretakers of the home. There is no better time than right before the Friday night meal for a family to acknowledge their deep appreciation to the wife and mother of the family. The Midrash cites an additional reason: The Sabbath declared: “Master of the Universe, every day of the week has a partner except for me!” The Almighty answered: “The People of Israel will be your partner.”While this is an obvious metaphor, it represents the deeper understanding that the relationship of the Jewish people and God is a relationship of holiness, which is best celebrated on Shabbat, the day that is unique in its holiness.
AISHET CHAYIL Who can find a woman of valor? She is more precious than pearls.
Her whole life she strives to do only good for him;
She looks for wool and linen; she is always industrious.
She is like a merchant’s ship, bringing food from afar.
She rises very early to prepare for the waking of her household, making breakfast for everyone.
She sets goals. If she sees a field and wants it, she will get it and easily grow a garden.
She possesses an inner strength that is complemented well by her physical health.
She tastes and sees that her business is good, in part because her lamp never goes out at night.
She sets her hands to weaving clothing for her family.
She spreads out her palm to the poor and the needy.
She does not fear cold or rain, for she keeps her whole house dressed and warm.
She attends to her own modesty and covers herself with linen and purple
Her work at home allows for her husband to be an important leader in his town.
She makes cloth and sells it, delivering the fabric to all her clients.
She is clothed in strength and dignity; she looks cheerfully to the future.
She opens her mouth in wisdom, and kindly teaches others.
She oversees the activities of her household, ensuring that it is always running smoothly.
Her children and husband praise her:
‘Many daughters have done well, but you surpass them all.’
Grace can mislead while beauty is fleeting; it is for her belief in God that this woman should be praised.
If you show her handiwork to others, they will praise her in the town.
Who can find a woman of valor? She is more precious than pearls.
Her partner trusts her and never feels that he is lacking.
The name Sarah means princess, and indeed, in all aspects of her life, Sarah, the wife of Abraham, the first matriarch of the Jewish people, was the essence of royalty. While ancient marriages were often very unbalanced -- with the women having virtually no rights and no role other than the preparation of food and the care of children, Sarah and Abraham had a partnership. Sarah worked together with her husband in actively preaching monotheism. Our sages teach us that Sarah taught the women that there is one true God, while Abraham taught the men.
Sarah was a very beautiful woman. Indeed, twice, when Abraham and Sarah were forced to go to Egypt and to Philistia due to famine, Abraham told the local people that Sarah was his sister, fearing that due to her beauty they would use any means to take her, even to the point of killing him.
Alas, Sarah was barren. Knowing that God had promised that Abraham’s children would inherit the land of Canaan, she instructed Abraham to take her handmaid, Hagar, as a concubine so that any children Hagar bore would be considered as Sarah’s. Hagar bore Abraham a son, Ishmael.
Thirteen years later, Abraham and Sarah were informed by three angels that they would have a child. The Torah tells us that Sarah laughed to herself in disbelief, for both she and her husband were old (89 and 99). Still, one year later, Isaac was born. Sarah and Abraham knew that their son was destined to be the spiritual link in the formation of the Jewish people. Sarah, however, was concerned about the influence of Ishmael on Isaac. She insisted that Hagar and Ishmael leave their home. When Abraham hesitated, God told him not to be upset, for Ishmael would become a nation (indeed, he became the progenitor of the Arab nations) and that "everything Sarah says, [Abraham should] heed." From this, our Sages deduce that Sarah was a greater prophet then Abraham.
Sarah died at the age of 127. Abraham immediately went to Hebron, purchased Ma'arat HaMachpela (the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs), for 400 silver shekel, and buried Sarah there.
Who can find a woman of valor -- Why are these words appropriate for Sarah? Actually, in one commentary’s opinion, the entire Aishet Chayil poem was written by Abraham for Sarah. Throughout their union, they were truly partners. She was a noble woman who declined an easy and luxurious life for one of devotion to God.
She is more precious than pearls-- What was precious to Sarah was her husband, Abraham, and his mission to bring the knowledge of one God to the world. What was precious to Sarah was taking care of the people who followed God’s ways and joined their camp, even when some of them made insulting remarks (according to the Midrash, some accused her of taking in a foundling and calling it her own when Isaac was born, since she was so old). What was precious to Sarah was making sure that her son, Isaac, was not corrupted by his half-brother Ishmael; and what was precious about Sarah was that all this was done with her whole heart.
Her partner trusts her and never feels that he is lacking -- Throughout the narrative of Abraham and Sarah, one sees unity in their relationship. Twice Sarah was kidnapped and taken to the opulent palaces of local leaders, but she held her tongue and did not say that Abraham was her husband, since they would then murder Abraham. She put herself in mortal danger, yet never faltered from the righteous path. There is no doubt that Sarah was extraordinarily gifted, with an unprecedented understanding of the Divine. In fact, when Abraham hesitated to trust her judgment regarding the banishment of Ishmael, God Himself told Abraham to listen to his wife, and indeed, history proved that her decisions strengthened their historical destiny.
Her whole life she strives to do only good for him
Rebecca grew up surrounded by people of somewhat less than sterling character. Her father, Betuel was Abraham's nephew. A weak man, Betuel allowed his home to be ruled by his son Laban, who had a great desire for wealth and power.
The very first time Rebecca is introduced in the Torah, she rushes over to Eliezer, the Abraham’s servant who was a stranger in town, and offers to draw water from the well for him and for his entire caravan of camels. Rebecca had a natural generosity of character and Eliezer knew immediately that she was destined to marry Isaac.
Rebecca and Isaac were married for 20 years before they had children. During her pregnancy, however, Rebecca was concerned because she felt that the child within her was struggling. God, however, informed Rebecca that there were two children (representing two nations) in her womb, that they would always struggle with one another, and that the elder would serve the younger. Rebecca subsequently gave birth to Esau the hunter and to Jacob the scholar.
Rebecca was well aware of the importance of Isaac's heir, and she was equally aware that Esau did not have the character necessary to build a nation of monotheists. But Isaac, who was blind, saw in Esau character traits that he himself did not possess but which he felt were important for the Jewish people to possess: physical strength and the ability to go out and confront the world. Jacob was, in Isaac’s perception, too much like himself, an intellectual who spent his time learning in the tents. When Isaac was about to give the birthright blessing to Esau, Rebecca convinced Jacob to dress up as Esau and receive the blessing.
After he received the birthright, Rebecca knew that Jacob would have to leave home until Esau's anger subsided, so she had Isaac bless him again and instruct him to go find a wife among her family in Haran. With the departure of Jacob, nothing more is heard about Rebecca. Her strength and wisdom, however, played a crucial role in the development of the Jewish people.
Her whole life she strives to do only good for him – Rebecca, like her mother-in-law, Sarah, was fully devoted and supportive of her husband's spiritual mission to develop a relationship with God. It was, however, her responsibility to raise their twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Rebecca knew the goodness, integrity and strength of Isaac's heart and soul, but she also was able to see that he was blind when it came to his elder son. This verse affirms the fact that Rebecca's directive to Jacob to deceive his father was given with the pure intention of assuring the continuation of the sacred mission of Isaac and Abraham. Throughout their lives together, Rebecca stayed focused on her husband’s mission: assuring the continuation of spiritual growth for the rapidly expanding family of Abraham.
One Midrash maintains that Rebecca was possibly three years old when she met Eliezer at the well and was brought to Canaan to marry Isaac. In that case, one could surely say that she was truly with him, "all the days of her life."
She looks for wool and linen; she is always industrious
Leah is often thought of as "the unloved wife," which one might think made Leah bitter. In fact, Leah was a woman entirely dedicated to sharing Jacob's dream of building the Jewish people and was able to help do that by giving birth to six of the twelve tribes. The only description that the Torah gives of Leah is that she was Laban's elder daughter and that she had "tender eyes."
There is no description of Leah's emotions when her father deceived her sister’s betrothed and replaced Rachel, the bride, with Leah. In her heart, Leah wanted nothing more than to be wed to Jacob, for she saw the true holiness of his character. A week after her wedding, Laban allowed Jacob to wed his first love, Rachel and the situation, indeed, was difficult. God however, showed great mercy towards Leah and she rapidly bore Jacob four sons: Reuben, Simon, Levi and Judah. When Rachel insisted that Jacob marry her maid Bilhah, so that Bilhah could bear children in her stead, Leah followed suit and gave Jacob her maid Zil'pa. Zil'pa bore Jacob two sons, Gad and Asher.
The struggle for dominance in Jacob's house continued. Rachel wanted a child and Leah wanted Jacob's love. Genesis 30 affords us an example of the sisters’ relationship: Reuben brought his mother some dudaim, a type of plant that serves as a fertility drug. Rachel asked Leah if she could have the dudaim. Leah agreed, but for the "price" of Jacob spending that night in her tent, rather than Rachel's. When Jacob returned from the fields, Leah went out to greet him. That night, Leah conceived her fifth son, Issachar, and shortly thereafter had another son, Zebulan. It was prophesied that Jacob would have twelve sons, and Leah was already the proud mother of half of all the tribes.
When she conceived for a seventh time and saw that the handmaidens had two sons each, she prayed that this child would be a girl so that Rachel would at least have as many sons as the maidservants. God heard Leah's prayers, and her youngest child was a daughter, Dinah.
She looks for wool and linen – The verse describes a level of self-assertion that was a key feature of Leah's personality. "She seeks," she does not wait for someone to come and hand it to her. Subtly, the Torah demonstrates Leah's ability to overcome her trials through assertiveness and will-power.
One can see this trait as well through the names she gives her first four sons. She named her first son Reuben, from the Hebrew word ra'eh (see) because she says, "God has seen my humiliation, for now my husband will love me." Leah passively expected that now that God had blessed her with a son, Jacob would be more attracted to her. When this did not happen, she turned to prayer, thus taking a more active role in changing her life. She was blessed with another son and named him Simon [from the Hebrew word sh'ma (hear)], saying "God has heard that I am unloved..." Her prayers to God continued to lead to action in life and by the birth of Levi [from the Hebrew word lavah (attached)], she felt assured that her husband had become "attached to [her]." When Judah was born, Leah was no longer focused on winning Jacob's love—she had earned herself a full place in his world, and she called her fourth son Judah, from the Hebrew word hodu (praise), saying "this time let me gratefully praise God." From the very beginning of her relationship, Leah sought out "wool and linen," different ways to earn her husband's love since it was not naturally given to her.
She is always industrious – Leah did not simply assume that she could take her relationship with Jacob for granted. All her life she worked at it, and she worked willingly. This is exemplified in the story of the dudaim (a type of plant used for fertility). Leah gave Rachel the beautiful dudaim that her son Reuben brought to her in exchange for Jacob’s spending that night in her tent, instead of Rachel's. When Jacob returned to the tents, Leah went out to greet him and drew him to her tent. This self-assertion was rewarded, and the son that was conceived that night was named Issachar [from the Hebrew word sachar (reward)].
She is like a merchant’s ships, bringing food fromafar
Jacob first met Rachel while she was tending her father's sheep. Rachel and Jacob fell in love immediately. He asked for her hand, and her father, Laban, agreed only if Jacob would work for him for seven years. Since Leah was the older daughter, Laban thought it was only appropriate that she would wed first. He had Leah dress in the wedding dress and veil the night of the wedding, and Jacob was already married to Leah before he realized what his uncle had done. After the festivities of Jacob and Leah's wedding were completed, Rachel and Jacob were permitted to wed and Rachel became his beloved wife.
Being the beloved wife of Jacob could not, however, replace Rachel's desire for children. She watched her sister blossom time and again in pregnancy, while she remained barren. Desperate and jealous, she demanded of Jacob: "Give me children, for if not, I am as dead." When Jacob responded that this was God's department, Rachel gave Jacob her handmaid, Bilhah, to serve as a surrogate for her. Bilhah bore two sons, whom Rachel named Dan and Naftali. One can only imagine the joy Rachel felt when she eventually presented Jacob with a son of her own, Joseph.
Before leaving Laban’s house, Rachel stole her father's idols. While her motive is not identified in the Torah, the Midrash explains that Rachel did not want her father to continue his idolatrous practices. Laban used this theft as an excuse to chase after Jacob and his family. When he demanded the return of his idols, Jacob, not knowing Rachel's guilt, declared his family's innocence and announced that "whoever you find with your idols shall not live. In front of our kinsmen, identify for yourself what I have and take it." Laban proceeded to search through the caravan. When he came to Rachel's tent, however, she sat on the idols and told her father that she could not rise, "for the way of women was upon her." Laban left without his idols, but Jacob’s declaration did, indeed, shorten Rachel's life. Rachel went into labor as the family approached Bethlehem and bore her second son, Benjamin. While she saw her infant son, Rachel did not survive. She died, and was buried on the road to Bethlehem. Today, her grave is a popular site for women to pray for children.
She is like a merchant's ships – A merchant ship is a vessel laden with useful goods and valuable treasures, but these items only have value if they can be brought to shore. Rachel felt like a ship adrift. She knew that she had a significant contribution to make to the developing Children of Israel, and she desired nothing more than to bear and raise Jacob's children. Alas, for many years, Rachel was barren. She was a ship laden with treasure but unable to bring her goods to shore bringing her bread [sustenance] from afar - Rachel finally fulfilled her dream of becoming a mother with the birth of Joseph, but she died tragically after the birth of her second son, Benjamin.
Parents live on through their children, and Rachel as the mother of Joseph, is given credit for his later leadership talents. The character traits he learned from his late mother and the stories he heard about her influenced his development as a person and fortified him when he was in Egypt. Through Joseph, and thus, indirectly through Rachel, all of Jacob's family was sustained not only during the great famine, but afterwards, as well, when they settled in Egypt.
She rises very early to prepare for the waking of her household, making breakfast for everyone
While the Torah is filled with interesting "minor" characters whose names are not mentioned in the text, there are few who play as crucial a role to Jewish history as Bithiah, otherwise known as Bat Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh. The only mention of Pharaoh’s daughter may be found in Exodus 2: Pharaoh's daughter comes down to the River to bathe, sees a basket among the reeds, and fetches it. Opening the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter beholds a baby boy crying. She concludes: "This is one of the Hebrew children," and has pity on the child. The child’s sister [Miriam] approaches and asks Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and call a Hebrew wet-nurse who will nurse the child for you?" Pharaoh's daughter agrees, and the young girl calls the child's mother. Pharaoh's daughter says to the woman, "Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will pay you wages." The woman takes the child and nurses him. The child grows up, the woman brings him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he becomes a son to her. Pharaoh’s daughter names the child Moses, [saying] "I drew him out of the water."
Through this act of compassion, drawing the Jewish child out of the water and not killing him, Pharaoh's daughter merited Divine favor. God said "Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son. You are not My daughter, yet I shall call you My daughter." Thus she is called Bithiah, which means "Daughter of God."
Bithiah named the child Moses, and Moses is the only name assigned him in the Torah. Even God did not call him by any other name. While the use of the name given to him by his adopted mother may seem of little consequence, it attests to the fact that the way she raised him helped make him into the leader that he ultimately became. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (a great rabbi from Germany in the 1800s) reflected that this name left a deep impression on the child. All his life he was "never to forget that he was thrown into the water and that [she] drew him out of it. Therefore, all his life he is to have a soft heart for other people's troubles and to be alert to being a deliverer in times of distress." Indeed, compassion was noted as one of Moses' greatest character traits, a trait he learned from Bithiah.