The name of this book of wisdom, Mishlei, is translated to English as ‘Proverbs’, but that is perhaps too limited a designation. The Hebrew word mashal, from which the name Mishlei is derived, is more akin to an extended metaphor than a pithy saying.
Sefer Mishlei contains the collected wisdom of Shlomo, the wisest king to sit on the throne in Jerusalem. In Melachim I 3:5-14, the Bible relates how this son of King David achieved such greatness. Hashem appeared to Shlomo in a dream and offered him whatever his heart desired. Young King Shlomo asked only for the wisdom to guide God’s people in righteousness. So pleased was the Lord with Shlomo’s request that He granted Shlomo’s wish and in addition, also him great wealth and success.
Sefer Mishlei refers to the fear of Hashem as “the beginning of wisdom” (1:7), noting that recognition of His hand in the world is the source of all understanding. It admonishes the wise to seek out similar companions and to avoid the fool and the temptress, promising reward for the hard-working and dedicated, and suffering for the lazy and the wicked.
On the surface, the lessons of Sefer Mishlei seem straightforward, but in his own introduction to the book, King Shlomo promises that great secrets lie behind his words. The metaphors in the text can be understood both literally and figuratively, and can be projected onto a number of different situations.
Throughout the text, wisdom is personified as a righteous woman, while temptation is represented by the harlot. King Shlomo tells the reader that Hashem founded creation itself on wisdom, making order out of the chaos. That wisdom has been understood to be God’s Torah, and following its precepts will earn the faithful His reward.
Later chapters of Sefer Mishlei cite Agur son of Yakeh and King Lemuel as sources for the parables contained within. Jewish tradition considers both to be monikers for King Shlomo, as Agur means “compiler” and Lemuel means “for God”.
The final chapter of the book, chapter 31, includes the beautiful passage entitled “A Woman of Valor.” This poem, like everything else in Sefer Mishlei, can be understood literally, as a description of the ideal woman. However, in Jewish tradition it has been explained as a reference to the matriarch Sara, the Torah or even the Shabbat. In fact, it is customary in many Jewish homes to sing this poem on Friday night around the Shabbat Table, while welcoming the Sabbath Queen. According to Metzudat David, Shlomo chose to end his book of wisdom with a praise of the woman of valor as a tribute to his mother, Batsheva, from whom who learned much of the wisdom contained within.