Stories My Mother Never Told: My Bat Mitzvah Speech

“Stories My Mother Never Told” is a three-part blog series dedicated to re-envisioning what it can mean for parents and children to engage in Torah and ritual together as a family. These stories are ones that many of our own mothers did not have the opportunity to experience and share with us growing up. By sharing them here, we hope to inspire others to consider how we can use sacred traditions in new ways to create meaningful Jewish homes.

Note from the author: My bat mitzvah took place on Rosh Chodesh so I decided to speak about Rosh Chodesh and its connection to women. The following is the dvar Torah I gave.

Rosh Chodesh is known as a women’s holiday. To understand why it became a women’s holiday, we need to look back to early times in the Torah. After bnei yisrael (the Jewish people) left Egypt, they arrived at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) to receive the Torah. Moshe (Moses) went up the mountain and the nation was left on the bottom. The nation was very scared because Moshe said he would be on the mountain for forty days and forty nights but the nation miscounted and thought he and Hashem (god) abandoned them. The men then went to Aharon (Aaron) to ask to build them a new god because, Moshe wasn’t coming back. Surprisingly, Aharon agreed to their plan. He told the men:

.פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי

“Break off the golden rings which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons and of your daughters and bring them to me.”

Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer explains that Aharon thought that if he told the men to bring their wives’ jewelry, the wives would say no, and he wouldn’t have to build an idol for bnei yisrael. He was right. Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer continues:

.שמעו הנשים ולא רצו ולא קבלו עליהן ליתן נזמיהן לבעליהן. אלא אמרו להם: לעשות עגל ותועבה שאין בו כח להציל לא נשמע לכם

“[the women] refused to agree to the demand that they hand over their rings to their husbands. They said to their husbands, “We will not listen to you to make an abominable calf that is powerless to save.”

Because of what the women did, Hashem gave them the reward of a greater celebration of Rosh Chodesh than men. He also gave them a reward for the world to come: that they would be renewed like the moon is renewed every month.

So, what does it mean that women have the reward of greater celebration of Rosh Chodesh?

The Shulchan Aruch says:

.ראש חודש מותר בעשיית מלאכה, והנשים שנוהגות שלא לעשות בו מלאכה הוא מנהג טוב

“It is permissible to work on Rosh Chodesh. Women however are accustomed not to work, and this is a praiseworthy custom.”

The Remah, the Ashkenazi rabbi who wrote glosses on the Shulchan Aruch added:

.ואם המנהג לעשות מקצת מלאכות ולא לעשות קצתן— אזלינן בתר המנהג

“If the custom is to do certain kinds of work and not others, we should follow the accepted custom.”

So, according to the Remah, you could do whatever work you feel is necessary and appropriate – but you don’t have to do everything.

The Biur Halacha, which was written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, otherwise known as the Chafetz Chayim, held that even if you choose what work to refrain from, you still have to refrain from something. He wrote:

.כל בת ישראל מחויבת לנהוג לפרוש על כל פנים ממקצת מלאכות ושיהא הבדל בין יום זה לשאר ימות החול

“Every Jewish daughter is obligated to refrain from some kind of work on Rosh Chodesh so that there is a difference between that day and other weekdays.”

Indeed, Rav Kagan says that it is not even a woman’s choice whether to refrain from work on Rosh Chodesh or not. He says:

.יש מצווה על הנשים למנוע בראש חודש ממלאכה

“It is an established mitzvah for women to refrain from work on Rosh Chodesh.”

Today, in more yeshivish (right-wing Orthodox) communities, women still refrain from sewing and laundry on Rosh Chodesh. I don’t understand why this custom is not observed anymore in Modern Orthodox communities. All the poskim (leaders who make legal decisions) agree that it is not only praiseworthy, but practically an obligation for women not to work on Rosh Chodesh! (Actually, I have an idea: How about no school for girls on Rosh Chodesh???)

But what about men? Should they be refraining from work too?

The Pri Chadash, Rabbi Chizkiya da Silva of Livorno, Italy, wrote:

לאנשים ראש חודש כשאר ימות החול ואם נהגו לא לעשות בו מלאכה הוי מנהג בורות ולא צריך התרה, וזו היא המעלה שניתנה לנשים, שאם ירצו שלא לעשות מלאכה בראש חודש הוא מנהג טוב ואין לבטלו

“As for men, Rosh Chodesh is like any other weekday, and for them to refrain from work is a custom based on ignorance… In this regard, women are superior to men. Their custom to not work on Rosh Chodesh is praiseworthy and should therefore not be abandoned.”

So, don’t get any ideas boys! You still have to go to school! This is just for the girls!

But seriously, even if we don’t actually get to stay home from school, women should be doing something special on Rosh Chodesh to mark that it is a special day for us.

Maybe we should daven (pray) three times that day, even if we don’t usually daven three times a day. Maybe we should take it upon ourselves to learn some Torah that day even if you usually don’t learn Torah every day. But we should try especially to take thirty minutes to do something we enjoy that we don’t usually have time to do on a regular day, like swimming, or playing sports or even just reading a nice book.

After all, the women did something good for our nation – we deserve to do something nice for ourselves! And by doing that, we actually remember how our foremothers refused to give their jewelry to build an idol in the midbar (desert) and that can give us strength to keep doing what’s right.

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