In the portion we read this week, we have one of the finest examples of the creativity of the rabbinic mind. Amongst all the invention involved in the construction of the Mishkan the tabernacle to house the Ark of the Covenant and the ten commandments, comes a linguistic peculiarity that spawned a festival.
It occurs in chapter 35: verse 22 and is usually translated
‘They came, both men and women, all whose hearts moved them, and brought brooches and earrings and rings and bracelets all jewels of gold, and every man who offered, offered gold to the Lord.’
But the Hebrew has the strange phrase vayavo’u ha-anashim al ha-nashim - an unusual phrase which means literally and ‘the men came upon the women’.
We have a problem anyway. In the last portion, the Israelites took all their gold and melted it and made a golden calf. Moses in his anger forced the people the grind down the gold of the calf and drink it. So where did all this gold come from? Again the answer is found in a little language detail. Aaron commands them, (Exodus 32:2)
‘Take off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters and bring them to me.’ But in the next verse the people ‘took off the gold earrings which were in their ears.’
In Hebrew ‘in their ears’ be-ozneihem- can be translated as masculine, or as both masculine and feminine. The Rabbis choose to understand it as masculine only and suggest that when the men went to their wives asking for their jewellery for the golden calf, the women refused. They were not going to get involved in idolatry. So the men brought only the gold in their own ears for the calf.
However, when asked for a voluntary offering to decorate the Mishkan the women were the first to offer up their gold. They rushed to Aaron, with the men following them, thus they came, according to our verse ha-anashim al ha-nashim - the men upon the heels of the women.
For this devotion, the Midrash Rabbah tells us, the women were rewarded with their own festival. Rosh Hodesh – the New Moon. On that day, the women were to dress in their best clothes and to do no work – just like a Sabbath. Women would meet and enjoy themselves on that day and leave all household chores till the next. It is one of many rabbinic innovations aimed at aiding, and protecting women. Women were not like men, they had no legislative power, and so the Rabbis‘corrected’ biblical law to ensure that women were not abused. Rosh Hodesh was a way to recognise their rights. Sounds a great system, and hard pressed women today should ask why we not longer observe this. The answer is complex. Rabbis in Pagan times were uncomfortable with too much observance of the sun and moon’s cycles. Watching the moon was akin to worshipping it and they did not want women to be too devoted to it. Then, of course men objected. Who was to cook them food if the women were ‘resting’ all day? Mediaeval Rabbis argued that women should not do laundry on Rosh Hodesh, but should cook and clean as usual – a clear erosion of the principle – but one that would keep the men happy. Then again, the Rabbis were worried about what the women were doing with their free time. Gossiping – of course – itself a sin – and apparently women in the middles ages engaged in quite a bit of gambling on Rosh Hodesh. They felt that for the moral welfare of the community they must put a stop to it.
Some Sephardi women still light a lamp on Rosh Hodesh, but any ritual that was associated with the festival has long been lost. For the last twenty five years, Rosh Hodesh groups have been reviving the Festival through study and women being together in a Jewish context where they make the decisions. But the question I have is, did it really decline because of the decisions of the men? I doubt it. Generations of women have shown the devotion that the Rabbis gleaned from these two verses of Torah. They would not have given it up if it had had a sufficient theological basis for them. But Rosh Hodesh was just a holiday. There was no mythology, no stories, no history to pin on the date. That is what makes for a Festival. So it is as we approach Rosh Hodesh Nisan next week, Jewish women around the world will be less inclined to take the day off but rather get on with their Pesach cleaning!