Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Reflection on the Eishes Chayil

The "Eishes Chayil" is the name of a section of the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament of the Bible; more specifically, it is the name for Proverbs 31:10-31. The words "Eishes Chayil" are often translated as "Woman of Valor" or "Woman of Worth," because that is what the verses describe: a good wife. These verses are popular in the Jewish religion, usually being recited or sung on Friday nights, before the Shabbat dinner, by the husband of a family as praise towards his wife (it can also be sung in praise of all Jewish women if no women are present, or in praise of Jewish womanhood if no men are present). Basically, the poetry in these verses (in Hebrew, they create an acrostic poem, with each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet) describes the ideal wife. If taken completely literally, it directly praises many of the tasks a woman of the period would do to care for her family; many of these tasks are not very common in today's culture, so I like to try and discover the characteristics of an ideal wife that each verse is praising instead of just the tasks themselves.

I think one of the best wives in an anime is Nagisa from Clannad, so as I explain the characteristics in this poem, I'll compare her to them. I don't expect her to match all of them (after all, she doesn't live in a culture with much Judaism present), but I think she could fulfill a surprising amount of them. We'll see what the results are as I summarize this beautiful poem (a translation of which can be found here). Also, whenever I mention God in this post, I'm talking about the God of Judaism and Christianity, the God I believe in.

Verse 10: “She is far more precious than jewels,” as one translation says. It’s very obvious from watching After Story that Nagisa is definitely precious in Tomoya’s eyes. What makes this ideal wife so precious? The rest of poem will explain it, and we’ll see if Nagisa matches up with it.

Verse 11: She is trustworthy; her husband can safely trust in her, and he will gain much from her. Nagisa is definitely not a flimsy wife who leaves at a moment’s notice: Tomoya trusts in her, and with good reason. Even if he breaks a promise or two or is unusually harsh with her, she doesn’t desert him; instead, she is always at his side, a strong support for him, and he gains so much strength and happiness from her.

Verse 12: She doesn’t hurt her husband. The only time I can recall Nagisa ever hurting Tomoya was in her death, which was completely beyond her control. She never harms him out of spite or anger; instead, she only does good to him.

Verse 13-15: She helps provide for her household. The poem speaks of her seeking out material for making clothing and food for her household to eat. I don’t ever remember Tomoya bringing home food: it seems Nagisa was the one who always obtained that for the household. She always has food ready for Tomoya when he comes back home from work; she most definitely provides some of the basics for him.

Verse 16: She can make independent decisions for her household. This kind of fits with the above group of verses of helping provide, and, again, I think Nagisa does this well.

Verse 17: She’s strong. It could be interpreted as being in general strong, but the verse itself seems to be speaking of physical strength. That’s one of the areas Nagisa does not do well in; it’s not her fault, but she is just not physically strong.

Verses 18-19: She’s industrious, and she works to provide for her family. These verses seem to speak of the wife creating merchandise to sell, to help add to her household’s funds. Nagisa does this by taking a job as a waitress; she works hard to make sure her family isn’t left destitute.

Verse 20: She helps the poor and needy. I don’t recall the show ever mentioning Nagisa doing works of service; I don’t think it would be against her personality to do so, but it’s never shown, so I don’t think we can say she does well in this area.

Verses 21-22: She creates fine things for her family. Specifically, the verses talk about creating fine linens and clothing for the family, but it could probably be expanded to other items as well. Does Nagisa do this? I don’t remember seeing her sew clothes or anything for her family; I don’t remember her making anything besides food, so maybe she doesn’t really fit these verses either.

Verse 23: Her husband is well-known. I’d guess this verse is implying that her worth helps make him known, but that might be extrapolating a bit too much. At his work, Tomoya seems to be held in high esteem, so I think this verse is fulfilled well.

Verse 24: See Verses 18-19.

Verse 25: She is strong, dignified, and secure in the future. She’s so secure that “she laughs at the time to come.” I think Nagisa has these qualities in spades; she often seems to have them more than Tomoya does, at least by the time After Story rolls around.

Verse 26: She is wise and kind. Again, like with the previous verse, I think Nagisa has these qualities, more so than Tomoya does.

Verse 27: She takes care of her household and is always working for them. Can you imagine a time when Nagisa is shown to slack off and take a lazy day? I can’t recall one.

Verse 28-29: She is blessed and praised by both her children and her husband. I’d suspect Ushio would bless her mother, even though that’s not seen in the show, and Tomoya definitely praises her. He praises her so much that he often feels unworthy of her. I think can easily see him quoting verse 29 to Nagisa: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”

Verse 30: She fears the Lord. Here’s the one where the break in cultures shows up most prominently. This verse says that the woman of worth is devoted to God. Nagisa’s not Jewish or Christian, so she can’t fulfill this verse. There’s a short shot in the ending montage that includes her and Tomoya burning incense, which I’d assume is a Japanese religious ceremony (who knows, though, I could be wrong). Even if it’s not, there’s no indication of her being Jewish (or Christian), so she’s not devoted to God. There’s just no way around this one.

Verse 31: She should be praised for her worth. Tomoya praises her, at work (if I recall), with her parents (I’m pretty sure), and with her daughter (I’m positive on that one). Nagisa is most definitely praised and held in high esteem.

In the end, then, how does Nagisa stack up to the qualities of a “Woman of Worth” portrayed in this poem? Very well, actually. She provides for her family, she’s industrious, she is strong, dignified, kind, and wise, and she does only good for her household. She doesn’t completely fit this poem, though. I think the cultural differences are part of this, mainly. The biggest thing is that she’s not a follower of God. This poem is part of the Bible, so the woman praised therein must of necessity be a holy woman who fears God. (Since I’m Catholic, I would agree that for a woman to truly be, in the best way possible, a “Woman of Worth,” she must fear the Lord. Disagree with me if you will, but I think this is the truth.) The other area Nagisa doesn’t match up well with, from what’s shown in the series, is caring for the poor and needy. I don’t know how much emphasis the Japanese culture and associated religion place on caring for the downtrodden, but it is heavily emphasized in Judaism and Christianity, so a “Woman of Worth” would have to be kind to the needy.

In conclusion, then, it seems Nagisa fulfills the majority of the qualities of a “Woman of Worth” portrayed in the “Eishes Chayil.” She’s not Jewish or Christian, though, and she doesn’t (at least from what’s shown) care for the poor and needy. She seems, then, to fulfill the poem’s descriptions as best as possible, based on how much the Japanese culture and the Jewish culture overlap. Nagisa is a valiant woman, then, but not perfectly valiant, in the eyes of this poem; she's a hell of a lot better than most female characters in media, though.

Nota Bene: Thanks for Wikipedia for providing some background information on this poem. The website also informed me of some new facts, and it has some good background on Jewish womanhood. Images are from Google Image Search.

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