There is one festival in the Jewish calendar that is traditionally regarded as a “Ladies Yom Tov”. This is Rosh Chodesh, the first day of every Hebrew month. Work is not forbidden by the Torah on Rosh Chodesh, nonetheless, many Jewish sources maintain that there is a praiseworthy custom for women to refrain form work on Rosh Chodesh on the grounds that this day has been given to them as a special Yom Tov of their own.
The Tur, the 14th century codifier of Jewish law, explains that each of the Shloshet Haregalim (three pilgrim festivals) represents one of the forefathers, each of whom have a special connection with one of the festivals. Accordingly, the twelve festivals of Rosh Chodesh were representative of and carried significance to each of the twelve tribes. However, because the tribes sinned at the incident of the golden calf, this holiday was taken away from them as a punishment. It was given instead to those who did not involve themselves with this episode, and were therefore deserving of reward: the righteous women of Israel.
That the women refused to participate in the sin of the golden calf is seen in the text of the Torah that states, all the people i.e. the men tore off their golden earrings in order to make the calf, but there is no mention of the women (Ex. 32:1-6). On the other hand, concerning the contributions towards the building of the mishkan reported in last week’s parasha, the Torah emphasises the prominent role played by the women. “And the men came in addition to the women, as many as were willing hearted, and brought clasps, and pendants, and rings and golden beads, all vessels of gold” (Ex. 35:22). Ramban interprets the words “in addition to the women” as an indication that the women showed even more enthusiasm than the men in donating to the mishkan. This is why they merited a holiday of their own.
Based upon this explanation, a question arises: Why Rosh Chodesh? The men were deprived of this festival because of the sin of the golden calf, but it cannot have been given to the women merely on account of the men’s loss of it. There must be a more significant connection between Rosh Chodesh and the women of Israel. Tosafot, the French and German talmudists of the 12th and 13th centuries, offers the following reason: The mishkan, to which the women contributed so generously, was actually erected and consecrated on Rosh Chodesh of the month of Nissan (as we read in this week’s parasha). Women, therefore, celebrate on the first day of every month.
This explanation also has its problems. Since the women gave supplies to the mishkan and did not actually build it, why then do they celebrate the day on which the mishkan was set up rather than the day on which G-d commanded the people to contribute? In addition, why was the focus of their reward and resulting recognition based on their contribution to the mishkan, rather than for their abstaining from worshipping the golden calf? It surely must have been more difficult to refuse to participate with their husbands in the incident of the golden calf then to join with their husbands in giving to the mishkan.
The latter question can be answered as follows: Abstaining from contributing to the golden calf is not sufficient proof of the women’s nobility. One could perhaps attribute their abstention to miserliness. The men were creating a golden idol and were asking everyone for donations of any gold they could muster. Maybe the women just did not want to part with their jewellery. However, giving generously to the construction of the mishkan proved the opposite. They were generous by nature, yet they overcame their innate generosity when asked to contribute to the golden calf. The men, on the other hand, were always liberal givers, both for good and bad, as proven by their donations for both the golden calf and the mishkan.
We still have yet to answer the first question as to why women do not celebrate the day on which they gave their gifts. One could suggest as follows: The whole-heartedness of a mitzvah can be determined only after its performance. A person might give charity and then regret it afterwards. During the week of the consecration of the mishkan, it was put up and then collapsed every day for the first seven days. On the eighth day, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, it was set up again and remained intact. When the women saw the mishkan collapse day after day, had they not have contributed whole-heartedly or had second thoughts about their donations, they might have had some secret satisfaction in their hearts upon seeing the mishkan disassembled. They might have even seen it as an opportunity to reclaim their donations. However, on the contrary, the women were happy to see the mishkan finally remain standing on the eighth day, proof of their authenticity in giving. It is for this reason that the holiday of Rosh Chodesh was given to the women as an everlasting commemoration of their inherent kindness.
Our sages teach us, “Whoever overcomes his natural traits, all his sins are forgiven” (Yoma 23a). This refers to one who removes any grudge he might have against those who have sinned against him. However, this maxim is also applicable to our service of G-d. True service of G-d is shown where man fulfills the Divine will even when it entails going against or changing his own nature. Such was the deed of the women of Israel. It is the Torah’s demand of every Jew.